Now that training camps are open, it is time to begin making predictions for the 2011 NFL season.
With a week of the craziest NFL free agency under the league's belt, teams are starting to take shape. These projections are quite preliminary, as there is still a strong crop of free agents available and several teams that need to sign talent.
Predicting the outcome of the 2011 NFL season is particularly challenging. Young teams and franchises with new coaching staffs will be challenged, as they were not able to build their team during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) or mini-camps.
The battle for the AFC West looks like it will be back to being a skirmish again.
San Diego Chargers: 9-7 (9-7)
San Diego will face a difficult schedule, but they should not have a hard time taking back the top spot in the AFC West. Depending on how a few of their additions stack up, they could win 11 games.
Oakland Raiders: 7-9 (8-8)
The Raiders have taken a step back in the draft and free agency. Losses on the offensive line and in the coaching staff will impact their ground game, exposing the deficiency at the QB position. Their defense will also struggle with the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha.
It will show on the field, but not as much in the standings. A more favorable schedule than the rest of the division will help keep their record respectable.
Kansas City Chiefs: 6-10 (10-6)
The Chiefs have a very difficult start to the season and will struggle to stay above .500. Matt Cassel has been exposed as a mediocre QB, and losing OG Brian Waters will not help an offensive line already struggling at the tackle positions.
Denver Broncos: 3-13 (4-12)
Denver is in the first year of a major overhaul under John Fox and his coaching staff. It will likely be a few years until they can be considered a contender in the AFC West again.
The AFC South is the Colts' division to lose. Their biggest obstacle will likely be themselves, and more notably Peyton Manning's health.
It has been suggested that the Colts needed to find a better reserve QB, and a player like Matt Moore could have stepped in to keep the Colts in the running.
Indianapolis Colts: 9-7 (10-6)
Peyton Manning's status is still uncertain with his neck injury, and the Colts may be leaning on a rookie at the DT position.
Houston Texans: 7-9 (6-10)
The defense got better during free agency, but the offense took a step back with the loss of Vonta Leach.
Tennessee Titans: 7-9 (6-10)
The addition of Matt Hasselbeck will be overshadowed by losses on the offensive line and at middle linebacker. The Titans should still improve but not likely enough to get Hasselbeck back into the playoffs unless Manning's injury is worse than anticipated.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-10 (8-8)
The Jaguars added some talent on defense, but their offense will still struggle this season. The temptation to put Blaine Gabbert in the lineup could make matters even worse.
The AFC North should be another great battle between the Steelers and Ravens. The Browns are making improvements, but are well short of the talent of the two eastern teams.
Baltimore Ravens: 14-2 (12-4)
The Ravens will benefit from a favorable schedule, with most of their more challenging games at home. Squaring off against the NFC West will not hurt, not to mention adding Vonta Leach.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 13-3 (12-4)
The Steelers have made a few small improvements this offseason, notably in their secondary. While I have them with 13 wins, the two games with Baltimore and a home game against the Patriots look to be their most difficult matchups.
This division will be a dog-fight.
Cleveland Browns: 6-10 (5-11)
This year will be important for Mike Holmgren, as he'll need to evaluate talent at several key positions. A healthy Colt McCoy will offer insight on the teams future at the QB position.
The team added one reciving target, Greg Little, in the draft. McCoy could use a little more help.
Cincinnati Bengals: 1-15 (4-12)
The Bengals are shedding talent but somehow will still need to meet their salary cap figure. They host the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively. If they are not able to grab a win there, Detroit may have company in the futility ranks.
It will be an interesting season in Cincinnati, who may have to figure out what to do with Andy Dalton.
There is also a lingering question that if/when the Bengals "earn" the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will Andrew Luck opt to go back to Stanford for his last year of eligibility?
No team in the AFC East has finished with a better record than the New England Patriots since realignment in 2002. The New York Jets are working hard to change that.
New England Patriots: 14-2 (14-2)
The Patriots play most of their difficult games at Gillette Stadium. A Week 8 game at Heinz Field will prove to be a challenge, though.
Week 12 in Philadelphia will also be a challenge and could be a Super Bowl preview.
New York Jets: 13-3 (11-5)
The J-E-T-S came up short in their pursuits of upgrading their CB position, but they did keep Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie. They still need to work on a contract for Brodney Pool and possibly Shaun Ellis.
Miami Dolphins: 6-10 (7-9)
A rough schedule and deficiencies at QB will cost the Dolphins in their record.
Buffalo Bills: 4-12 (4-12)
The Bills will likely find themselves in a position to scoop up one of the top QBs next season.
The Jets and Steelers could be the best tandem ever seen as wild-card teams. Look for them to knock off the Colts and the Chargers.
By virtue of better conference records, this scenario has the Patriots as the 1-seed hosting the Steelers and the Jets visiting the Ravens.
These would both prove to be hard-fought matchups. In the end, the two home teams will come out on top.
The Seahawks have won five of the prior seven divisional titles. This accomplishment is somewhat lacking prowess, though, particularly on the heels of their 7-9 title last season.
Seattle Seahawks: 9-7 (7-9)
Seattle is in year two of a major roster overhaul under Pete Carroll and John Schneider. They have revamped their offense under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and offensive line coach Tom Cable.
There are concerns about their QB position, but if their offensive line can miraculously gel during training camp they could surprise a few teams in 2011.
St. Louis Rams: 8-8 (7-9)
The Rams had an amazing recovery in 2010 and were just short of making the playoffs. They had very few upgrades on defense, but the unit showed significant growth.
If Sam Bradford's weapons can stay healthy this season they could get back into the postseason for the first time since 2004.
A brutal schedule to start the season will undermine the Rams' efforts in 2011.
Arizona Cardinals: 5-11 (5-11)
The Cardinals are banking on an unproven QB to find success behind a currently underwhelming offensive line. Their running backs are even more questionable, and their receiving corps took yet another hit with the loss of Steve Breaston.
Their defense will be relying on rookie Patrick Peterson, and the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be felt.
San Francisco 49ers: 5-11 (6-10)
The 49ers have been considered under-performers for several seasons. The good news for 2011 is the complete breakdown of the front office in free agency will take the pressure off of the players.
The team could be hard-pressed to meet their salary cap obligations with the dwindling talent available in free agency.
I've been critical of Jed York and Trent Baalke. They lack experience in running an NFL franchise, and draft-day jitters have led to surrendering important draft picks.
The NFC South promises to offer an exciting divisional race. The Buccaneers would like to be a part of it, and they figure to be an improved team in 2011.
However, they don't have the horsepower to compete with the Falcons or the Saints.
Atlanta Falcons: 13-3 (13-3)
Atlanta added more offensive weapons and surrendered several draft picks to bank on Julio Jones becoming an elite weapon. They also added Ray Edwards on defense.
New Orleans Saints: 12-4 (11-5)
The Saints plugged a few holes and will be an improved team in 2011. Good news for Saints fans, bad news for the rest of the NFC. It won't be enough to overtake the Falcons, though.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9-7 (10-6)
The Bucs will be a better team in '11, but their record won't reflect it. They weren't as good as their record last season, as it was bolstered by wins over the NFC West.
Carolina Panthers: 1-15 (2-14)
The Panthers will be in an enviable position of getting to surrender a top pick in the 2012 NFL draft in exchange for a slew of draft picks. They will challenge the Bengals in the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes.
All bets could be off for the NFC North this season.
The Packers appear to be the clear favorites, but the Detroit Lions continue their roster overhaul. The Bears could be an improved team, and the Vikings roster changes leave them a wild card.
Green Bay Packers: 11-5 (10-6)
The Packers have re-signed most of their key free agents and look to field a similar team in 2011. Considering they are the defending Super Bowl Champions, that is likely enough said.
Chicago Bears: 10-6 (11-5)
The Bears may be relying too much on cast-offs from the Dallas Cowboys in 2011 (Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Sam Hurd).
Their offensive line has made some upgrades, including first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi but not reaching an agreement with Olin Kreutz could prove costly.
Detroit Lions: 7-9 (6-10)
If all the Lions did was add their talented draft picks, their defense would be a force to consider. Adding Stephen Tulloch could make this unit scary-good. Now if only they would improve their offensive line and protect Matthew Stafford.
Granted, many Lions fans feel their offensive line is adequate, but they need a true left tackle and an upgrade at center. Options were available but overlooked.
Minnesota Vikings: 7-9 (6-10)
The Vikings have lost too many key players to maintain their playoff hopes. Unless them make some additional roster moves over the next week, they will miss the playoffs again in 2011.
The NFC East has been one of the more competitive divisions in the league. That is about to change.
The Eagles had a solid stable of talent and salary cap room to add several key players. The Giants and Cowboys had to scramble to clear cap room to round out their rosters.
Philadelphia Eagles: 14-2 (10-6)
While some teams are content to build through the draft, the Eagles mixed in some amazing free-agent signings and a trade or two to make sure their Super Bowl window doesn't close before they can jump through it.
New York Giants: 10-6 (10-6)
Salary cap issues have led to some difficult adjustments and parting with important players. Still, the Giants had a good draft and have kept some important pieces of their team in tact.
They will be in the mix for a wild-card berth.
Dallas Cowboys: 7-9 (6-10)
The Cowboys had to scramble to find salary cap room and still have issues in their secondary and on their offensive line.
Washington Redskins: 3-13 (6-10)
The Redskins are working on their offensive line issues, but are ignoring their biggest area of need...a starting quarterback. It almost seems as though they have a plan on how to acquire a quarterback for next season. Their defense could get better, but yet again they are gambling on a 4-3 player (Barry Cofield, who is best at the three-technique) transitioning to their 3-4 system. I'm not sure why they didn't pursue Aubrayo Franklin.
The Saints will again travel to Seattle for a playoff game, looking for some revenge from last season's playoff loss. It won't happen.
Green Bay will make one more step in its defense of the Lombardi Trophy, leading them to a rematch with Atlanta. Their first round opponent would be the New York Giants, winning a tie-breaker with the Bears based on a better conference record.
Atlanta won't make an early exit at the hands of the Packers this season. The Eagles will make short work of Seattle, setting up a story-book matchup.
Michael Vick and his new team will host his former franchise in the NFC Championship game.
There are several elite teams in each conference, which should lead to an amazing Super Bowl.
Despite all the moves the Eagles have made, it still might not be enough to bring a title to Philadelphia.
MVP: Michael Vick
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Patrick Peterson, CB Arizona Cardinals
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Ingram, RB New Orleans Saints