Ranked 1st: Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are the real deal, and the fans know it, and most importantly the players know it. The talent level on the team is outstanding, with potential to dominate teams if they come together as a unit. What's happened in Chicago is simply this. The players and coaching staff are focused and determined to not just win games, but to win all of their games. It’s not unthinkable, especially when factoring they have the lightest schedule in the NFL, that this team could win all 16 games. They have heart, confidence, and vision to win. They see it, think it, hear it and most of all, they believe it. “They are who we thought they were.” They are a Super Bowl caliber team.
Bears pro bowl QB, Jay Cutler will lead this highly improved and explosive offense, to new possibilities. Cutler has tremendous accuracy and traits that will make Chicago’s unproven receivers better than they are. His mobility makes him effective on rollouts and bootlegs with different launch points that will increase more options for Ron Turner and the play calling. His arm strength allows wider splits on an inside route creating open seams in the coverage, thus allowing the receivers to run away from man coverage. His quick feet allow 7 step drop backs, giving him and the receivers more time to read coverage schemes. The offensive line versatility and depth has greatly improved from 2008. The acquired seven time Pro Bowl left tackle, Orlando Pace will improve the pass protection and open doors for highly talented running back Matt Forte. Forte is a work horse back with excellent field vision. He has good burst speed and gets to the second level quickly. Forte is the complete package. He can run inside and out, catch and block. He celebrated 1238 rushing yards and 63 receptions for 477 yards. Cutler's passing abilities will spread out opposing defenses, and will open the play action pass for better results. Receivers Devin Hester and Earl Bennett will lead the receiving corps in improving production from last year. Hester has drastically improved his route responsibilities and reads. His explosive play making talents and blazing speed make him and Cutler an unstoppable tandem. Tight ends Greg Olson and Desmond Clark will be very productive, and could be the best tightened combo in the league. Olson is 6'5 255 pound end has great hands and agility. His great speed allows Chicago to run him deep to stretch the field, and could run him in the slot. Olson has played 16 games with 54 catches, 574 yards and 5 TD's, and most importantly he seems to improve every week.
The Chicago Bears are still defined by its defense, primarily at linebacker and with stopping the run. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Pisa Tinoisamoa are the best 4-3 line backing corps in the NFL. Former starter Hunter Hillenmayer, Nick Roach and speedy Jamar Williams may also help on the outside to give the Bears great depth. The Bears focused defensively to infuse the defense with some young talent, General manager Jerry Angelo did that with draft picks, defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert in Round 3. The Bears will use Gilbert at defensive tackle behind starter Tommie Harris, who has battled an assortment of injuries the past three seasons. The Bears also drafted good players late with, defensive end Henry Melton, cornerback D.J. Moore, linebacker Marcus Freeman, and safety Al Afalava. The Bears new D-line coach Rod Marinelli will bring the best out of a group that includes Pro Bowl caliber players Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown, and Mark Anderson. The Bears secondary is the glaring weakness to opposing teams. It’s an average secondary at best. It’s a play it safe scheme and will not give up the big play. If the defensive line produces to projected levels, this defense will dominate again.
Ranked 2nd: New York Giants
After a great start in 2008 (11-1) the Giants receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, and missed the rest of the season. The Giants seemed to have lost something more than just Plexico, they lost the passing game with him. Fortunately, Eli Manning can carry this team through anything with his ice veined talent. His cannon arm and escape ability makes him an unstoppable threat to any defense in the league. Manning doesn’t need a Pro Bowl caliber receiver to win games. Truth be told, they don't have number one receiver. Steve Smith, with top draft picks Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden, and Mario Manningham will all compete for that role in camp, and most likely thought the season. The Giant's running game “earth, wind , & fire" lost the wind with the departure of Derrick Ward to Tampa. The fire still burns in New York as Ahmad Bradshaw seems poised to take on a bigger role, and most say he's more explosive than Ward. Mr. Earth himself, is back and will use his amazing speed, size, and power to bulldoze strait to the Pro Bowl, provided he stays healthy for the season.
Defensively, they can bring the heat. Steve Spagnuolo, the master mind behind the Giants defense, left for the head coaching position in St Luis. His replacement Sheridan will still run the legendary blitz happy scheme, with some slight adjustment's in the package to streamline the play. The Giants beefed up the pass rushing talent with line backer Michael Boley, defensive tackles Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard, and let’s not forget about Osi Umenyiora, who is healthy after season killer knee injury.
Ranked 3rd: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles made big changes, from the offensive line to the secondary to retool the team as a Super Bowl contender. Head coach Andy Reid is looking to improve the offensive consistency, as last year the team scored nearly half of the total points in just five games. With no 1000 yard rusher or receiver, McNabb and company will utilize his new offensive line to improve production on rushing and receiving totals. Big is an understatement for this line; however they will have to play together as a unit to be effective. Rookie sensation Desean Jackson is poised to have a break out year, with his game braking abilities and getting more opportunities to make plays. The running game is solid if Westbrook can stay healthy, which has been a concern in the past. The departure of Correll Bulkhaulter could have a negative impact if Westbrook goes down, and the Eagles entire offense would misfire.
On the other side of the ball, the blitz style defense was ranked 3rd in total defense for 2008. The Eagles secondary lost a talented main stay, however the pickup of Ellis Hobbs will be a key replacement. The talented defensive coordinator Jim Johnson leads by mixing scheme's that maximizes player production at each respected position. It’s important to note that Johnson is fighting cancer, and is still slated to coach. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. Jim is a fighter, and if anyone can beat it, believe me it’s Jim.
Ranked 4th: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals high flying air attack is back, with the signing of Kurt Warner, and retaining MVP talented receivers Larry Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald best in the league) and the skilled Boldin. Although he is not happy with his contract, his production has not been effected. He is a gritty receiver that loves to go over the middle, and bulldoze his way to the end zone. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has accepted the head coaching position in Kansas City. His position has not been replaced, as Whisenhunt choose to shuffle some things around, and start calling most of the plays himself. The running attack has been historically bad, however rookie Chris "Beanie" Wells, could change that with his size and speed. Hightower still remains as the second back that will see some playing time. However, he does have some durability concerns.
The defense is a concern coming in to 2009. They lack effective pass rushing, and have been hopeless against the run at times. They need intensity and emotion to be effective. Darnell Dockett must step up and lead with emotion and intensity on the front line, and the rest will follow. The linebackers also need to improve pass rushing, and have the ability to get off of blocks. The secondary unit has tremendous talent, and could be the better groups in the league. With the addition of free agent Bryant McFadden, the secondary looks to lead the way with shut down corners like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Ranked 5th: Carolina Panthers
Carolina has one of the league's best two rushing combo's in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Carolina ranked 3rd in the league in rushing, with Williams marching off for 1,515 yards and 18 TD's; and Stewart stacked up 836 yards and 10 TD's. Carolina's success offensively can be contributed from the immensely sized offensive line consisting of LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, C Ryan Kalil, RG Keydrick Vincent, and RT Jeff Otah (Carolina's 2008 1st round pick #19 overall.) Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson has the ability that few teams have. He can center his entire offensive package using a running attack. The running attack is just as explosive and high powered as passing attack. QB Jake Delhomme has good intangibles, size, and plenty of arm power. The passing attack is effective with pass protection and receiver production. QB Jake Delhomme has good arm strength and overall size, which makes him an effective QB. However, he can be exploited from good secondaries. Steve Smith leads the group, and is still a huge deep threat on the field. Muhsin Muhammad is a solid receiver that commands great coverage. The two will line up opposite sides this season, and should increase the production from last season by all indications. The well groomed receiver Dwayne Jarrett, is slated to be the third starter this year, and looks to be yet another solid receiver, with Smith and Muhammad.
The Panthers have legitimate defense with talented players. The question is can they play under new coordinator Ron Meeks. The former Dungy prodigy runs a play it safe cover 2 package, very close to Lovie Smith in Chicago. Built on speed and fundamental tackling, gives the players mobility without amazing strength and size. More importantly, it requires front 4 pressure that allow the back 7 to keep the ball in front of them at all times. They will use the safety to plug the run, because they won't blitz much. They produced a solid draft, adding players that will provide immediate value in 2009. Florida State DE Everette Brown is a premier pass rusher who will be able to provide pressure opposite Julius Peppers. SS Sherrod Martin, RB Mike Goodson, FB Tony Fiammetta, and G Duke Robinson all were outstanding selections for Carolina in the Draft. The defense is very athletic, and under the new command of Meeks, I look for it to get even better. Carolina has a brutal schedule featuring 13 teams that finish .500 or better in our projections. They play seven games against 2008 playoff teams and nine games against teams in our 2009 playoffs. There are minor deficiencies about every team in the NFL. When playing this schedule even the little things will be exploited throughout the season.
Ranked 6th: Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta 2008 performance was nothing short of outstanding. They had no true leading rusher, no playoff proven QB, no tandem top level receivers, no experienced head coach and no experienced General Manager, and yet still managed to make the playoffs. The Falcons are a longevity built team that has real talent, and is hungry to win. With all that being said, it’s fair to say that Atlanta offensive production is questionable for the start of the 2009 season. Atlanta's smash mouth offensive attack, led by the talented Matt Ryan is very unpredictable. They will use trickery and raw talent. Defensively Atlanta's pass rush is not where it should be, and some question the off season moves. To further the problem the linebacker's and DB's have seen big and unpredictable changes. The 4-3 zone scheme will fail if the linebackers aren't aggressive enough. This defense ranked 24th overall and 25th against the run and will be the key factor again this year.
Ranked 7th: Green Bay Packers
Packers signed WR Jennings to a long-term contract extension that was well deserved. Jennings is one of the best wide receivers in the league, averaging 59 catches for 949 yards (16.0 yards-per-reception) in his first three years in the league. Aaron Rodgers is an effective quarterback who has some great weapons within the west coast offense. Donald Driver is coming off of his fifth straight 1,000 yard season. Expect a drop in his production, due to the progression of the talented receivers around him. Tight end Donald Lee is effective in the red zone, and is a trusted target for Rodgers. The other's in this talented group, include second-year players WR Jordy Nelson and TE Jermichael Finley, third-year WR James Jones and third-down back Brandon Jackson, and can produce breakout performances. The Packers have an effective system with talented receivers. They have great break and stride speed after the catch, thus capable of breaking a game-changing play. Their rushing offense is questionable, at best. Production dropped to 3.9 yards-per-carry and disrupted the west coast attack. Grant's true target should be somewhere around at 4 1/2 yards-per-carry. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the team, there are some serious concerns on the offensive line. Rodgers may be able to scramble and make plays in the passing game, but Grant will struggle without guys in front opening holes. The “one back” formation is a common offensive set in the Packers playbook. If the offensive line fails, Grant will struggle for positive yards, and his durability against injury will eventually catch up.
Switching to a 3-4 defense may be the "in thing" to do right now, but it's not an easy transition for the Packers and probably will be more of a liability to the production of this unit. The Packers ranked 26th, against the run and allowed over 131 yards per game in 2008. Coach McCarthy and new defensive coordinator, Don Capers feel confident about the 3-4, and the progress made with player adjustments. The defensive line will benefit with the draft pick of B.J. Raji, who is vital to the future of the Packers as a nose tackle in the team's new 3-4 scheme. With Raji, they hope it will help inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett improve their play, and also free outside linebackers Aaron Kampman and Clay Matthews to attack the quarterback. The secondary unit led by pro bowl players, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins show good coverage technique, and tackling skills.
Ranked 8th: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys cleaned house! Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, and that guy whose initials are T and O. are no longer on the team. Veterans Roy Williams (the safety) and Greg Ellis have left the Cowboys also. Wade Philips stays for know, and again get a chance to coach on the hot seat. The team was disappointed with the offensive production in 2008 with only a 22 point per game average (18th in the league) and just over 107 yards rushing 21st in the league. The Cowboy's have arguably the deepest running back corps in league with Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. The Cowboy running game will improve in 2009, which will result in a more productive passing game. QB, Tony Romo has unanswered questions at the wide receiver position, and if remains unanswered, it will impact the productivity of the offence. One of the best offensive lines in the league resides he in Dallas, with Jason Witten at TE, newcomer John Phillips, also at TE. Solid sure handed, blocking is the key attribute to offensive side of the ball in Dallas.
With the loss of Greg Ellis, they have a secondary unit that’s very inexperienced. Cowboys gave up both good talent in dealing away both Pacman Jones and veteran Anthony Henry. CB Terrance Newman returns as the only defender in the secondary with significant experience. Dallas replaced mostly-ineffective safeties Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin with Gerald Sensabaugh, who is a slight upgrade. Anthony Henry packed up and went to Detroit, leaving Dallas with five players with only one year of experience. All of them however will compete to take Henry's place. Sensabaugh is a definite starter and it’s a good chance that at least one of the five will get a shot as an NFL-caliber starting cornerback.
Ranked 9th: Minnesota Vikings
The drama is brewing and headlines are flying out of Minnesota. Tarvaris Jackson publicly stated his unhappiness, about Brett Favre’s likely arrival to the Vikings for this season. This could possibly start disrupting the team, and the entire offense. The offensive unit is dead in the water until all this gets worked out. Disruptions like this have been known to cause meltdowns in production on both sides of the ball. Jackson has been inconsistent with his play, and his decision making has been an issue. If Brett Farve makes the move, he will have to adapt to the new system quickly, and efficiently. Favre has been criticized on his accuracy, and his high interception percentages, is nothing new for Brett, and yes he is a gun slinging QB, however a damn good one. Receiver Bernard Berrian gives them the deep ball threat, and draft pick Percy Harvin is dynamic in the slot or the outside receiver role. With all of that, the Vikings have arguably the best back field in the league with MVP potential Adrian Peterson, and the talented Chester Taylor. They create opportunities for this west coast scheme by creating the play action very successful against opposing defenses. If they get production from the QB position, this unit will be tough to stop. My gut tells me Favre will get the starting job, and could bring significant improvement. On the other hand, he could come in and throw 3 interceptions a game. Chicago fans are excited about that possibility.
This defensive line is one of the best in the league, lead by Jared Allen and tackles Pat and Kevin Williams. All three were pro bowl players last season, and have tremendous play making abilities. Relentless pass rushing allows middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to maximize his fierce hitting and excellent coverage skills. The Tampa 2 package led by Coach Frazier, will blitz from every direction and boosts hard hitting corners and solid tackling from every position. The defensive backfield has been prone to the big plays. The concerns for Minnesota are getting free safety Madieu Williams as healthy as possible, hoping second-year strong safety Tyrell Johnson takes a step up, and becomes a solid player. If not, it will be exploited quickly.
Ranked 10th: New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees continues his success over some of the best secondary’s in the league. His offense is a top ranked unit in the in the NFL. Head coach Sean Payton and Brees are tuned to the same drum that beats to one of most explosive offensive attacks in the league. Look for Jeremy Shockey to have a solid season, as Brees' looks to increase passing attempts to him. This offense has tremendous balance and depth. Both the air attack and the running assault are fundamentally sound. With Pierre Thomas, they have a solid rusher, and with Reggie Bush they have a top level speedster. Bush however has some durability concerns and keeping him healthy is a must. New Orleans is brimming with weapons through the air and on the ground. The offensive scheme will have variations in the formation designed to mismatch receivers. The Saints use creative plays designed around Brees' and his ability to find and deliver to open receivers.
The improvement of the defense thus far has been decent; however it's still their most visible weakness, that opposing teams will key in on. The starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant should improve, because Bill Johnson utilizes more aggressive and exotic attack scheme. The cover 2 scheme will use a ton of different looks, and blitzing packages to confuse opposing offenses. Jonathan Vilma will lead the linebacker production in the 4-3 defense effectively, however some question his size and bulk may catch up to him with injuries, and or physically outmatched.
Ranked 11th: Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks head coach Jim Mora has started to pick up the pieces of the clipped wing Seahawks. After a dismal season last year plagued by injuries, horrible player production and bad coaching. The Seahawks look to make a turnaround for 2009 with new coaching and talented players. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will keep the core scheme of their "west coast" offense. Seattle will have a balanced offensive attack, with heavy doses of Julius Jones, who has not broke the 1000 yard rushing mark sense 2006. With an aging and questionable Matt Hasselbeck behind center, Seattle will attempt to exploit opposing secondary units with the pickup of TJ. Houshmandzadeh. Teamed up with Branch and Burleson this talented receiver corps does out-match most secondary units, however if Hasselbeck can't get them the ball, it will prove yet another disappointing year.
Defensively Seattle has improved speed and production with the acquisition of outside linebacker Aaron Curry. New coordinator Casey Bradley will find himself with his hands full against talented offensive attack's in the NFC however. This defensive unit has lost all respectability after last year, and has changed its scheme, to a Tampa 2 Zone defense. The new package should be more effective, because of the speed this defensive unit produces.
Ranked 12th: Washington Redskins
Owner Daniel Snyder went on a spending escapade, giving defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth a $100+ million and DeAngelo Hall a $45 million. The crazy thing is, for the most part, with the draft pick Brian Orakpo it all looks to work out defensively. On the offensive side or things, upgrades were drastically needed, and not really addressed. Washington is not effective in downfield passing, which can lead to big plays that can instantly shift games and hide other problem areas. Washington was 24th in the NFL in yards-per-pass-attempt in the 2008. Quarterback Jason Campbell is very smart and even has most of the physical tools needed, but lacks big weapons that can get yards after the catch. Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El will lead the way with Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly, if hopes to make the playoffs. The rushing attack has been poor, because of the offensive line production. They rely on Portis to much, and the receivers are in a new system.
Washington may just have a top 5 defense in the league. Haynesworth is impossible to block with one player and almost impossible to stop with two or more. Watch for the sack numbers of ends Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter to increase significantly and for opponents to avoid running up the middle. The offense and the strength of the rest of the division keep Washington from making the playoffs in 2009.
Ranked 13th: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers just cleaned house after the end last season. Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired. Veterans Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn, Cato June, and Ike Hilliard were all released. The Bucs new regime of GM Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris watch a young team battle all year. The Bucs traditionally have anchored the offense on running the ball. Jeff jagodzinski, new offensive coordinator will take a more aggressive approach. The rushing attack, led by Earnest Graham and Derek Ward, could be unproductive because of the questionable line. Byron Leftwich, does not have a guaranteed starting position, however it’s safe to assume he'll ultimately win the battle over Josh McCown, Josh Freeman and others. Leftwich will be considered a temp, until Freeman, the team's 2009 first round pick takes over in the future, yet he could be a great asset to this team.
New head coach Raheem Morris has a strong defensive background and knowledge of the schemes. Ronde Barber and 2nd-year player Aqib Talib will be the starting corners. Talib is poised to break out after sitting behind departing free agent Phillip Buchanon. The Buccaneers finished at an impressive third in the NFL with 22 interceptions and 11th in fewest yards-per-attempt allowed. The secondary is one of the few things intact from last season, which is a good thing if you’re a Bucs fan.
Ranked 14th: Detroit Lions
Just as the car industry in Detroit has collapsed, so has its football club. The good news for Detroit is it can’t get any worse. After a 0-16 season, the Lions were in more need of a federal bailout than, GM and Chrysler. Changes have been made from the top to the bottom including a new face at QB, rookie Matthew Stanford. The only dangerous aspect of Detroit is they will try anything. They have nothing to lose, so predicting what this team might do could back fire against opposing teams.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Detroit just needs to win one game to improve from last year. That win will not come against Chicago, and unfortunately may not come at all again this year. This team is rebuilding, and outside of a few good players like Calvin Johnson and break out D-end Cliff Avril, Detroit will be looking for play makers to fill the starting roles as they struggle through the season.
Ranked 15th: San Francisco 49ers
After finishing the 2008 season 5-2 under new head coach Iron Mike Singletary, San Francisco showed good improvement. The 49ers are better than they have been in a long time, but a tough schedule means they are still a few wins away from the post-season. The problem here is now seventh offensive coordinator in about 7 years, is causing inability for players like Frank Gore, to get adapted to coach's play calling style. That causes confusion and they lose the ability to move the ball. Twice during those seven years, San Francisco has had the league's least productive offense. New coordinator Jimmy Ray will need to pick his starting players, including his QB. The 49ers are reviewing five pivots in camp, though the real battle will boil down to Shaun Hill vs. Alex Smith. The wide receiver position is up in the air and four receivers: Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, Arnaz Battle and Jason Hill are holdovers that could step up and claim the job. The team also acquired Brandon Jones from Tennessee, and then selected Michael Crabtree when he fell into their laps at the tenth spot in the draft. At this point only TE Vernon Davis and RB Frank Gore are assured their starting jobs. The situation with the rest of the roster might not sort itself out until midseason. One of the biggest concerns is turnovers. The 49ers tied Denver for the worst turnover margin in the league at -17 in 2008. The team had a particular issue with fumbles, losing the ball a league-high 16 times. Shaun Hill is the expected starting quarterback for the majority of the season. He looks to be an effective player, yet had eight interceptions and four fumbles in just nine games.
San Francisco's run defense only allowed 3.8 yards-per-carry last year, ranking the team eighth overall. The 49ers held the NFL's best , the New York Giants, to 3.5 yards-per-carry and the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, Clinton Portis, to just 2.8 yards-per-carry. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is an outstanding linebacker with good ability to read offensive tendencies. With games against Minnesota, Atlanta, Tennessee and Jacksonville, San Francisco will need its run defense to be at its best to compete out of the division. 49ers have a tuff schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Ranked 16th: St. Louis Rams
The greatest show on turf is gone. It’s been a long five years since the Rams posted a winning record. After starting their season 0-4, the St. Louis Rams fired Coach Scott Linnehan and replaced him with Jim Haslett. The Rams have made changes to the on-field, including the release of WR Torry Holt, OT Orlando Pace and LB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Holt leaves behind a corps of young WRs that will need a few years before I can say good, while Pace leaves an offensive line that looks ok at best. Tinoisamoa became expendable after the team drafted James Laurinaitis to play in the middle and moved Will Witherspoon from the middle to the weak side. They have battled injury-riddled and inconsistent offensive line. This offseason, they focused on finishing the rebuilding project to help Bulger and Jackson. C Jason Brown comes from Baltimore to help the middle of the line while second overall pick Jason Smith expects to make an impact at tackle. This upgrade in the offensive line, along with a West Coast Offense implemented by Shurmur, should help Bulger and Jackson improve offensive production. (Whatever that’s worth.)
Defensively the defensive line is chronically a weak spot, and still is. The run defense is one of the worst in the league and the pass defense is not any better. That will not change until someone in that organization wakes up. The team plans to stay with the 4-3 scheme without the players it needs to be successful. The bottom line is this. If you’re a Rams fan your season is over already.
Wrote by: Andrew Maisonneuve-NFL Sports Writer