15 Surprise Predictions That Will Shake Up the 2011 NFL Season
Expect the unexpected. That is something we have come to know and love with the NFL.
Whether it was the emergence of running backs like Arian Foster and Peyton Hillis, the out of nowhere dominance by Cameron Wake, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks winning a playoff game or the unbelievable comeback by Michael Vick, 2010 surely didn't disappoint in terms of surprises and shockers.
The question is, where will we find these surprises this year? What teams and players will shock us all, and which will sorely disappoint us? One thing that is for sure is by the Super Bowl, we'll be talking about a host of new stars, while complaining that some veterans need to hang them up.
Here now are 15 predictions that will shake up the 2011 season.
15) Mike Wallace Will Become the Newest Superstar Wide Receiver
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There might not be a more underrated player in the NFL right now than Mike Wallace.
While much of the talk about new star receivers centers around players like Brandon Lloyd, DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace had a stellar 2010 season and all signs are he'll be even better in 2011.
Many people don't realize just how impressive he was. He was fifth in the NFL last year with 1,257 receiving yards, was tied for seventh with 10 touchdowns and had the second best average per reception with 21.0 yards, trailing only the aforementioned DeSean Jackson.
Entering his third year and with the Steelers relying less on Hines Ward, it's set up perfectly for Wallace to cement himself as one of the best receivers in football.
14) The Chicago Bears Will Miss The Playoffs
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From NFC North champions and hosting the NFC Championship to playing golf on the second weekend in January—that is the likely outcome for these 2011 Chicago Bears.
Despite having the worst offensive line in football in 2010, the Bears have managed to regress at this position. Their drafting of left tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round was offset by the inexplicable disagreement they had with long time center Olin Kreutz over relative chump change by NFL standards. The Bears let Kreutz walk while they brought in former Seahawk Center Chris Spencer, one of the worst rated centers in the league.
This move, plus not signing any substantial free agents will hurt the Bears as many other teams in the NFC, including their division rivals the Lions improved their rosters.
Additionally, the Bears lucked out last year by being one of the least injured teams in football. That luck usually doesn't last very long.
Perhaps the Bears will actually take the offensive line seriously in the 2012 offseason when they are forced to watch the playoffs from home.
13) Ryan Mathews Will Have a Breakout Season
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San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Matthews was one of the more hyped rookies in 2010. Perhaps it was unfair since many saw him as the heir apparent to NFL great LaDainian Tomlinson. While Mathews did run for 678 yards, it was far below expectations.
Part of the reason was certainly due to the fact he missed four games due to injury. In fact, he was hindered by them throughout the season. Nevertheless, the Chargers were hoping for more than approximately 700 yards from Mathews.
The good news for San Diego is Mathews will do better than last year...much better. Matthews has the type of speed few possess in the NFL. Combine that with a strong offensive line and a prolific passing offense, Mathews has all the pieces around him in place to succeed.
Provided Mathews can stay healthy, he is primed to have a top 10 season and turn into a star in this league.
12) Two AFC West Teams Will Make the Playoffs
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With the help of Ryan Mathews, I believe the Chargers will not only make the playoffs, but will compete for home-field advantage.
The question is where does that leave the defending AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs? For many, they believe the Chiefs are a one-and-done team that will fall back to the rest of the pack of AFC wannabe's. I happen to disagree totally.
With an offense that improved even more signing the likes of Steve Breaston in the offseason, the Chiefs have a team that is young, hungry and should have many of their star players continuing to blossom.
The Chiefs rushed for over 2,300 yards last year, which allowed Matt Cassel to manage an offense instead of having to lead it. He was one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league last year, throwing 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Kansas City is a very balanced team that could easily win 11 games this year and could be a threat against some of the perennial AFC powers in the postseason.
Speaking of supposed AFC powers...
11) The New York Jets Will Miss The Playoffs
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Everyone is talking about how great the Jets are going to be this year, and for the life of me, I don't understand why. I can't find a more overrated team in the NFL than the Jets, and I suppose we should all thank jovial coach Rex Ryan for that.
No one can deny the Jets have a good defense, as it's helped lead the Jets to two consecutive AFC Championships. The problem is, as other teams in the AFC seemed to have strengthened themselves, the Jets have stayed at the same level. In fact, they may have taken steps back.
People are expecting Mark Sanchez to take a step forward and turn into a true franchise quarterback in his third year, but I question where exactly he'll throw the ball to. Santonio Holmes has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver, but he's only had more than 60 receptions once in his career.
Plaxico Burress, while he showed flashes of his former self in his first preseason game, is 34, been out of the league for two years, and already has ankle issues. Derrick Mason was once a great receiver, but is now entering his 15th season and is clearly past his prime.
Is this group better than the departed Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery? Let's not forget the Jets also lost Brad Smith, who, while not a prototypical receiver, was able to bring some versatility to their offense as he could operate the wildcat offense.
For all of the accolades, Shonn Greene has not showed he's capable of becoming a franchise back and LaDainian Tomlinson is another year older. Will the run game really be as good as last year, especially if Sanchez actually does worse this year with fewer weapons?
The Jets could fight to get another wild card berth this year for sure. But eventually, if you keep playing with fire and keep flirting with a sixth seed in the AFC, you're eventually going to get burned. I believe a team like Kansas City is better than the Jets and will take that spot away from gang green.
10) Donovan McNabb Will Continue To Struggle
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After playing his way out of Washington, Donovan McNabb was traded to the Minnesota Vikings during the offseason. Minnesota is hoping he can replace Brett Favre, as McNabb is well versed in the Minnesota offense.
However, the Vikings front office did McNabb no favors, failing to not only retain receiver Sidney Rice, but not bringing in anyone to replace him. The Vikings receiving corps is now going to be led by Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian, Greg Camarillo, Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu.
What's the problem with that group? How can I count the ways.
Harvin is best suited as a slot receiver and has a long history of migraine issues. Relying on him to be your top receiver is a very risky proposition. Berrian, meanwhile, has been a huge disappointment since coming over from Chicago, and had Sidney Rice stayed, would likely have been cut.
Camarillo and Jenkins have been fourth receivers on their former teams, and Aromashodu is a project who's shown flashes of brilliance, but also a stubborn refusal to play any type of slot receiver role.
Combine the questions at receiver with McNabb's age and accuracy struggles, and you wonder how well he'll do, despite the fact they have Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Many analysts believe having "AP" back there will do wonders for McNabb, but I would like to know how Favre did last year with Adrian Peterson.
Despite having arguably the best running back in the league, Favre still literally and figuratively threw the season away for the Vikings. What's to say McNabb, who was plagued with accuracy issues in 2010, won't repeat that pattern?
9) Sam Bradford Will Become A Star
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Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns even though he had arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the entire league. He did throw 15 interceptions, but for a rookie with little to no receiving depth, that wasn't unexpected.
The Rams front office addressed these issues drafting tight end Lance Kendricks in the second round, and many people feel he can become one of the best receiving tight ends in the game. They also signed former Jacksonville Jaguars stand out Mike Sims-Walker, and he should become the Rams new top receiver.
Donnie Avery will be returning from injury, and they still have Danny Amendola who had a breakout season if his own last year. The team also added Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood as backups to Steven Jackson to help in the running game.
With all of these additions, Bradford is poised to break out in 2011 and become a legitimate superstar in this league. He showed all the tools necessary to be a great quarterback in this league, and the sky is the limit from the former Oklahoma University star.
8) The Rams Will Win The NFC West (And Win At Least 10 Games)
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From one win in 2009 to a division title in 2011. That is the trajectory we will see with the St. Louis Rams.
Last year, the Rams nearly won the NFC West, losing to the Seattle Seahawks on Week 17, finishing 7-9 overall. The 2010 season was a great building year for the Rams as Sam Bradford learned the NFL ropes, while the defense saw players like Chris Long and James Laurinaitis develop into stars.
As the Rams see their team progress, their division has remained very winnable. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers don't have a real No. 1 starting quarterback, and the Arizona Cardinals still have many holes even though Kevin Kolb should help their passing game.
With great free agent additions, and Sam Bradford continuing to develop, it could be a great year for the Rams. Don't be surprised if this team makes noise in the playoffs as well.
7) Maurice Jones-Drew Will Have His Worst Season
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Maurice Jones-Drew has been a fantasy player's dream since he came into the league in 2006. He's been a consistent runner despite his 5'7'' frame and has been a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield.
However, the end of 2010 started a trend that had to scare a lot of Jaguars fans. He started to develop nagging injuries. Heck, the guy played with a torn meniscus for the entire season.
At 26, Jones is still at an age where he should still be in his prime. But he has already touched the ball 1,376 times in his career, not counting the hundreds of times he's had to block.
With the small frame Jones has, it's only a matter of time before he slows down. And 2011 will be the year it starts to happen.
6) Blaine Gabbert Will Be The Best Rookie Quarterback This Year
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Most of the talk about rookie quarterbacks this year has centered around Cam Newton in Carolina and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. You also have seen a highlight reel throw by rookie Jake Locker in Tennessee.
The one guy being talked about least it seems is the one most ready to step into a huddle come regular season...Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert is coming arguably the "best" team for all the rookies, though Jacksonville will have struggles of their own this year. He's played in an offense at Missouri that should suit him well for the NFL, and he does have a host of good weapons around him.
The thing stopping him from playing is David Garrard, who still is a sufficient starting quarterback. Should the team struggle, though, Gabbert will get his chance to shine. Sure he will struggle just like any rookie does, but he should be able to perform much better than any other rookie this year.
5) Ryan Fitzpatrick Will Solidify Himself As A True Starting Quarterback
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One of the surprises of 2010 was the emergence of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Despite not starting the season and missing the last game due to injury, Fitzpatrick still managed to finish tied for 13th in the NFL with 23 touchdown passes.
The team and head coach Chan Gailey were so impressed with his performance that they chose to give Fitzpatrick the reigns and passed up a chance to draft for any of the rookie quarterbacks after Cam Newton was taken by the Panthers with the first overall pick.
Fitzpatrick will reward their confidence by continuing to take strides forward into becoming a very competent quarterback in this league. No one is saying that Fitzpatrick is the second coming of Tom Brady, but Fitzpatrick does have the talent to be a quarterback in the area of 10th-15th.
He deserved a better record than he had as he put his team in a position to win against some of the NFL's best of last year including overtime losses to Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh and a three-point loss to the Chicago Bears.
Too many times his teammates let him down with dropped catches (the drop by Johnson against Pittsburgh is still shown in highlight reels) and missed kicks.
His stats for much of 2010 had him placed in the top 12-14 until a poor showing against the Patriots on Week 16, in which he threw three interceptions.
While the Bills will most likely struggle again this season, they do have a lot of play makers on offense even without the now departed Lee Evans. Fitzpatrick at quarterback will help Buffalo compete rather than bog them down.
Thanks to a good draft, Buffalo should improve upon their four wins. If they can spend the next one to two years shoring up both their offensive and defensive lines, Fitzpatrick may well be in command of a team that is fighting for a playoff spot in the future.
4) Peyton Manning Will Not Be a Top Five Quarterback
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Not since his rookie year in 1998 has Peyton Manning NOT been considered one of the most prolific passers in the league. The numbers speak for themselves, and it's quite clear that Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Year in and year out, Manning has led his teams to Super Bowl contention, winning it all in 2006 and coming up just short three years later.
Yet this year may mark the year that Manning takes a few steps backwards and joins the pack as one of the best quarterbacks, but not the quarterback.
There is more and more news everyday regarding how serious of an injury Manning's surgically repaired neck is. It's very possible Manning will miss the first games of his career as the season starts.
He claims his recovery was hindered by the lockout, which as a total side story is very hypocritical, given he was one of 10 players to lead the charge of the NFLPA against the league. Nevertheless, Manning will not be starting this year at 100 percent and it's possible he never will be this year.
Even without his injury issues, Indianapolis enters this year with maybe its weakest team since Manning's early years in the 1990s.The running game is in shambles, the offensive line is not what it once was and there are no new receiving options.
With all of these issues, while other younger quarterbacks continue to improve, this could be the first year in a very long time that Manning is not one of the five best passers in football.
3) The Dallas Cowboys Will Make The Playoffs
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The Dallas Cowboys are in a very unfamiliar position as they enter the 2011 season....they're being overlooked.
Despite being "America's Team," there are precious few people talking about the Dallas Cowboys this year, and a lot of people are going to be sorry for sleeping on this team.
Thanks to the train wreck that was their 2010 season, not many people are considering the Cowboys as a contender. That's why people need to look at some stats.
Though Tony Romo missed most of the year, the team still had one of the better offenses in football. The biggest issues were on defense, where their sack totals were down and they were extremely susceptible to the pass. The team gave up the second most points in the NFL last year with 436, or 27.3 per game.
The Cowboys addressed this by bringing in Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. If he can improve the defense even slightly, the boys in blue should be able to compete for the NFC East and at the least will earn a Wild Card berth into the postseason.
2) The Houston Texans Will Win The AFC South
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It's put-up-or-shut-up time in Houston.
There may never be a time in the Peyton Manning era that is more ripe for Houston to swoop in claim the division for themselves.
Simply put, the Houston Texans will be putting the most talented team on the field in the team's history. We all know how good their offense is. They ranked third in the league in points scored and had the best running back in the league in Arian Foster and have arguably the best wide receiver, Andre Johnson.
The problem is the team gave up the fourth-most points in the league with 427. The Texans, however, were proactive in addressing a defensive issue that has plagued them for years...pass defense. They brought in free agents Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning to finally bring some respectability to the defensive backfield.
Additionally, they brought in Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator. Say what you will about him as a head coach, but there's a reason why he's given so many opportunities. He's always been an excellent defensive coordinator.
Beyond the fact, Houston boasts an impressive team, and Indianapolis is more vulnerable than they've been in perhaps more than a decade.
1) The Indianapolis Colts Will Miss The Playoffs
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There hasn't been a more consistent team in the NFL over the past decade than the Indianapolis Colts. Even teams like the Patriots, Eagles, Steelers and Chargers have stumbled here or there, but the Colts? They've managed to get into the playoffs virtually every year Peyton Manning has been in the league.
Part of that can be attributed to the fact they've never consistently faced major competition in their division. Sure, the Titans and Jaguars have had a decent year every now and then, but no one has really been able to dethrone the kings of the AFC South with any sort of consistency.
The changing of the guard, though, will start to take place in 2011 because the Colts will be doing an unfamiliar thing in January—watching the playoffs from home.
The obvious reason will be due to the injury to Manning. The uncertainty of his neck creates a ton of doubt to the Colts season. Will he start the season? If not, how many games will he miss? Will he never be 100 percent?
Peyton Manning aside, the Colts are fielding arguably the weakest team since the 1990s. With no new additions at receiver, a shoddy running game, an aging offensive line and no real playmakers on defense beyond their defensive line, this is not a Super Bowl-worthy roster.
Combine that with Manning and you have a team that could very well toil around the .500 mark. Let's not forget, the Colts weren't gang busters in 2010, struggling to win the AFC South and losing their first-round game to the New York Jets.
Waiting to take over as champions will be the Houston Texans, who unlike Indianapolis, have added playmakers to improve their defense.
The team already has an offense that rivals Indianapolis and now their defense may be better as well.
The Colts have enjoyed an incredibly impressive run, but all good things must come to an end.