NFL 2011: 15 Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season
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Every NFL season has its share of twists and turns and crazy surprises. Who would've predicted the Seattle Seahawks would win the NFC West in 2010 with a 7-9 record? Who thought Michael Vick was going to be such a monster last year?
This offseason, combined with the lockout, has been one of the craziest in terms of draft moves, cuts, trades and free agent signings. This will be one of the more interesting NFL seasons we have seen in years. In the spirit of this insanity I am making 15 bold predictions for what I believe will happen this year. After the Super Bowl, you all can say "I told you so!"
The Colts Will Not Win More Than 8 Games
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Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted late Wednesday night that it looks like Manning will be out for a while. There are reports that Manning is now getting a second neck surgery and will miss a significant number of games. The nerve damage in Manning's neck seems like an injury that could be lingering and is likely to flare up through the season. It could possibly even bring an abrupt halt to an amazing career. I could be overestimating how bad it is.
The breaking news is that Manning will not be starting in Week 1. Greybeard Kerry Collins will get the nod and, despite his valiant efforts with the Titans in the past, I do not believe that Collins can get it done in this system.
Reggie Wayne is on the decline, Pierre Garcon is good but not great, Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez are never healthy which makes Dallas Clark the only reliable receiving option. With Manning under center this is not a huge issue; with Collins under center it's going to get ugly.
It sounds unholy to say but don't be completely surprised if the Colts finish under .500, are out of the playoffs and are looking at Manning's heir apparent in either Landry Jones or Matthew Barkley (they won't be bad enough for Luck).
Chris Johnson Is Going to Have a Big Drop off in Production
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Running backs who holdout for bigger contracts typically have an awful year right after signing their fat new deal—Look at Shaun Alexander in 2006 and Larry Johnson in 2007.
While the word on the street is that CJ2K is in tip top shape, he was not in camp at all under a new head coach (although Mike Munchak was the offensive line coach last year). I wish injury on no player at all but I do think Johnson is a lot more prone to injury than in previous years. Trying to come in Week 1 and make football cuts and jukes could quickly lead to a high ankle sprain or even a ligament tear!
My guess is that CJ will be more productive than Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander were following their large contracts. However, I believe he will not post more than 1100 yards and will probably score nine touchdowns, which is not great compared to his incredible production over the past two years.
The Jets Will Not Only Not Be in the Super Bowl, They Won't Be in the Playoffs
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The New York Jets have been everyone's favorite pick this year and last year. Rex Ryan is a charismatic loudmouth who somehow successfully coaches up this motley crew. Don't get me wrong—The Jets are a good team, they're just not great right now.
The Jets have made a lot of head-scratching moves, like letting Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery walk and replacing them with aging Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress. They let Shaun Ellis go to the rival New England Patriots. While Ellis has been known to have a lackluster practice attitude and is up there in age, the Jets are now relying on rookie Muhammad Wilkerson to perform immediately
The Jets did absolutely nothing to improve their pass rush, besides the somewhat interesting signing of Bills cast off Aaron Maybin, and will get exposed. Darelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are great corners and Kyle Wilson is getting better but they will get eaten alive on four and five wide receiver sets.
I expect the Jets to have a drop off this year and post an 8-8 or 9-7 record.
The Dolphins Will Be in the Running for a Wild Card Spot
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Jets fans are going to kill me for this one. I believe the Dolphins are the No. 2 team behind the New England Patriots in the AFC East. Their defense looks incredibly good and will only improve in their second year under Mike Nolan. Their front seven will terrorize offenses!
If the Dolphins can establish the run game at all then Chad Henne will be able to make things happen. I think this is going to be a breakout year for Henne as he utilizes all his weapons in Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, Anthony Fasano and Reggie Bush. His protection should improve with the addition of Mike Pouncey at center. This should reduce the ridiculous pressure that was being allowed up the middle last year
The Philadelphia Eagles "Dream Team" Will Be Disappointing
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No team has gotten more hype in the offseason than the Philadelphia Eagles whose backup quarterback Vince Young dubbed "the Dream Team." Count me as one of the few non believers. Supposed All-Star teams never seem to work out very well.
Michael Vick had an incredible career resurgence last year. But starting at the end of last year and throughout the preseason he started to look a lot more like the Michael Vick from the Falcons—an explosive athlete who is more prone to bad decisions and is quick to run. As the quarterback goes, so goes the team. Vick's style of play and size coupled with poor offensive line play means it is doubtful that he will be healthy enough to start in more than 10-12 games.
Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and of course Nnamdi Asomugha were incredible defensive additions but their linebacking corps is undersized, under talented and it looks like teams will easily run up the middle on them. The offensive addition of a seemingly healthy Ronnie Brown could help but I do not believe the receiving corps will be as good as last year since Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson both missed valuable training camp time.
I still think the Eagles have a decent shot at the NFC East title but they are by no means a lock for the Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots Defense Will Be Ugly
There is almost no question that the Patriots offense will be stellar with Tom Brady under center. However, despite some key additions I think their defense is going to be awful with a few bright spots.
The Pats seemingly switched to a 4-3 front (from a 3-4) due to their inability to generate a decent pass rush from their outside linebackers. This switch will allow monster nose tackle Vince Wilfork to highlight even more of his penetrating abilities and improve Jermaine Cunningham even more as a pass rusher with his hand on the ground, but it will detract from other players. Jerod Mayo will likely still be a beast in the middle but the talented second year middle linebacker will have trouble even getting on the field in this scheme
I'm also not buying Albert Haynesworth making a huge impact because he is lazy and almost always out of shape. Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter will help generate a decent pass rush on the edges but these two are not spring chickens and may have trouble staying healthy throughout the year.
The Pats have a good chance of being in the AFC Championship Game but All Pro quarterback Tom Brady will be in a lot of shootouts.
The Washington Redskins Will Surprise This Year
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The Washington Redskins have been in the dumps for a while now and while I was initially skeptical of the Mike Shanahan hiring I see the needle pointing up for this franchise.
The offense is somewhat in flux still with Rex Grossman starting tentatively and John Beck waiting in the wings. However, Shanahan has coached up the zone blocking scheme and the run game very well. Tim Hightower could have a beastly season if he can control his fumbling. The receivers look OK but not stellar.
The defense is going to be the highlight of this team. Brian Orakpo has been phenomenal in his first two seasons and might even be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. The biggest issue will be the secondary after losing cornerback Carlos Rogers; DeAngelo Hall is overrated despite being good for around five or six interceptions.
While poor quarterback play is likely, if either Grossman or Beck can keep the turnovers to a minimum the Redskins could have a legitimate shot at an NFC Wild Card spot or even the NFC East title.
The Houston Texans Will Have a Fantastic Defense
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Wade Phillips was never better than a mediocre head coach—but he is a great defensive coordinator. He was coordinator for the Chargers defense when Shawne Merriman had his best years and he helped Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills thrive in his defense.
This defense can not be any worse than last year but I think it will be a whole lot better. Phillips will take the potential of athletic freak Mario Williams, rookie J.J. Watt, tackling machine Brian Cushing and rookie pass rusher Brooks Reid and turn them into a defensive monster. Jonathan Joseph fills a major gap in the secondary since Dunta Robinson left for bigger money with the Atlanta Falcons.
The offense for Houston has been stellar for the last several years, expect more of the same. But with the improvement of the defense there is a solid chance of the Texans making a deep playoff run. It's now or never for Gary Kubiak and company.
The Seattle Seahawks Will Be the Worst Team in the NFL
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The Seahawks were extremely lucky to get into the 2010 playoffs with a 7-9 record last year and that was with former Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, whose best days are behind him. Now they have Tarvaris Jackson under center and it looks to be a very long season.
I, along with many others, believe that Tarvaris Jackson is possibly the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. He routinely makes poor decisions and does not even use his athleticism effectively. He struggled to get anything done with a formerly great Vikings offensive line, so what does that mean for him this year with a below average offensive line in flux?
The Seahawks defense will be no better than mediocre, with the exception of Earl Thomas looking like a future Pro Bowler. The running game will be decent but not spectacular with Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett and the passing game will have new weapons in tight end Zach Miller and receiver Sidney Rice. However, Rice has trouble staying healthy.
Don't be surprised to see the Seahawks, who dominated the NFC West for years, in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
The Cleveland Browns Offense Will Be a Surprise
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Count me as a former Colt McCoy non-believer. This is not to say that McCoy will become Tom Brady and the Browns offense will have New England's explosiveness. However, I believe Colt McCoy will prove himself to be a capable starter in the league and a great fit in Pat Shurmur's west coast offense. He will take full advantage of weapons Greg Little, Evan Moore, Ben Watson and Brian Robiskie.
McCoy looked phenomenal and efficient during the preseason but I'm not sure he's going to be a Pro Bowler this year. However, his more proficient passing coupled with a running combination of Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty is going to make this year's offense exponentially better than last year.
The Detroit Lions Will Miss out on the Playoffs Again, Barely!
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Jim Schwartz has to be commended for taking a winless and largely under talented Lions team and turning them in to playoff contenders in two years. Matt Millen and Steve Mariucci, and then Millen and Rod Marinelli, wasted numerous high draft picks on players like Charles Rogers and the gutless Joey Harrington. On the flip side of that coin, current general manager Martin Mayhew and Coach Schwartz have completely flipped the roster and brought in quality talent.
If Matt Stafford stays healthy the sky is the limit for this team. He has a cannon for an arm, pin point accuracy and makes better decisions than Jay Cutler. He is easily a top 10 talent when he is healthy. With a bevy of weapons he will shred secondaries.
The defense is incredibly good and there may not be a defender in the NFL feared more than Ndamukong Suh. He is a monster in the middle and can tackle, eat up space and penetrate like no other. Don't be surprised when they end up as a top five defense.
The Lions are good enough to be a playoff team; their biggest limitation is the level of quality teams in the NFC this year. They will have a hard time winning the NFC North with the elite Packers in the same division. In addition, they have to battle the Saints, Falcons, Bears, Redskins, Cowboys, Buccaneers and possibly even the Philadelphia Eagles for a wild card spot
The Carolina Panthers Will Go 8-8
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The Carolina Panthers are everyone's favorite team to pick as a team that's going to be picking in the top five again next year. However, this team is better than everyone thinks. If Cam Newton can get on track to even become a decent starter, don't be surprised if the Panthers win the NFC South or at least a wild card spot next year. This year they are still a work in progress.
Cam Newton is in a similar situation as to what Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez were in their rookie years. He is on a run-oriented team with a good (albeit not great) defense and will not be asked to carry the team on his shoulders. The Panthers have one of the most underrated offensive lines in the league starring Jonathan Gross, Jeff Otah and Ryan Kalil. These guys know how to run block and efficiently pass protect. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will carry the offense while Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey serve as the safety blankets for the rookie quarterback.
Carolina's defense will be good with stars like Charles Johnson and Jon Beason, as well as underrated players like James Anderson, Thomas Davis and Charles Godfrey. Chris Gamble is going to be a liability in the secondary as will the inexperience of their rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain.
Ron Rivera is going to be an excellent head coach and while I don't expect the playoffs for this team this year, I do think they will finish 8-8.
The Dallas Cowboys Will Have a Rough Road to the Playoffs
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It's hard to predict whether or not the Cowboys will make it to the playoffs. But if they do they can expect to face a similar set of trials and tribulations that the Packers went through last year. While Jason Garrett is still the head coach they have installed a different style of 3-4 defense with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The offense should be about the same with a few areas of concern.
The defense will be good as per usual but somewhat different in their look. However, DeMarcus Ware is an absolute punisher on the field and is a definite candidate for Defensive Player of the Year again. He can tackle, he can rush the passer and he can drop in to coverage. There is hardly a more complete linebacker besides maybe LaMarr Woodley. The secondary is going to struggle big time and is already struggling to stay healthy. The defensive line is in flux after cutting defensive end Igor Olshansky.
The offense will be good if the offensive line, another work in progress, can protect Tony Romo. They will be good if Felix Jones can stay healthy and if they don't lose Dez Bryant or Miles Austin; they are paper thin at wide receiver behind those two. That's a lot of if's in a league like this. The Cowboys shot at a playoff appearance is really a coin toss: 50-50.
The Steelers Will Be in the AFC Championship Again
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With the exception of the Green Bay Packers and possibly the New England Patriots there is no team that survived the NFL lockout better than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers could've even benefited from the lockout due to the extra rest given to an older defense. There are few Steelers rookies that are expected to start in their first year, so there is no need to hurriedly acclimate them to offensive and defensive systems.
Pittsburgh's offense looks incredibly explosive with Big Ben at the helm and veterans Hines Ward and Heath Miller combined with exciting young receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
While the defense is aging they know the in's and out's of Dick LeBeau's complex 3-4 fire zone defense. What a lot of people forget is that the Steelers have a lot of young talent on defense that could be starters on other teams but have a hard time usurping the talented veteran starters on the Steelers D. Ziggy Hood and rookie Cam Heyward look like the 3-4 ends of the future while outside linebacker Jason Worilds and interior linebacker Stevenson Sylvester are on special teams chomping at the bit.
If Big Ben, Maurkice Pouncey and Troy Polamalu can stay healthy, this team is looking at another deep playoff run and a likely spot in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth time in eight years.
The Packers Will Be in the NFC Championship Again
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It might be unbelievable but the 2011 Green Bay Packers are even better on paper than the Super Bowl Champion Packers.
The Packers are getting a number of players back that were injured last year, most importantly Jermichael Finley. They had a great draft and the drafting of Randall Cobb makes this already phenomenal offense even more explosive. With weapons like Cobb, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley, Aaron Rodgers will spread even elite defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore and shred their secondaries.
The defense in their third year under Dom Capers will only get better, especially with a fully healthy Clay Matthews. Their secondary is spectacular with stars like Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Nick Collins. The only thing that hurt them was losing Cullen Jenkins to free agency.
The Packers looked sharp and incredibly good against a talented Saints team on Thursday night. Is Aaron Rodgers a machine? Who has stats like that and can put the ball in places like he does?
The sky is the limit for this team and they are one of the few teams in recent years that has a really good shot at being able to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.