Projecting Every Team's Starting Lineup for 2013 Post Draft

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2013

Projecting Every Team's Starting Lineup for 2013 Post Draft

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    The 2013 NFL draft is going to alter the starting lineup for some teams in dramatic ways. This includes two AFC East team likely to field rookie quarterbacks.

    There will also be an overhaul in the secondary for last season's NFC East champions. Speaking of champions, the reigning Super Bowl title holders are likely to look a lot different on defense.

    Here's a projection for what every team's starting lineup could look like after this year's draft. The list begins with a look at the two East divisions, starting in the NFC.

1. NFC East: Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins got what they wanted from the 2013 draft in terms of help for a weak secondary. One of their top three picks will make the starting lineup as a rookie.


    The safety position will see the most change for the Redskins. Fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas will partner with a fresh-from-injury Brandon Meriweather in the middle of Washington's secondary.

    At cornerback, veterans Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall will remain in place. Second-round pick David Amerson will see plenty of action in the nickel. He'll line up on the outside when Hall covers the slot.

    At linebacker, the Redskins will welcome back top pass-rusher Brian Orakpo. He'll continue forming a promising bookend tandem with Ryan Kerrigan on the outside.

    The inside will be patrolled by the mixture of age and youth, offered by London Fletcher and Perry Riley.

    Up front, Jarvis Jenkins will keep a starting role ahead of the recovering Adam Carriker. Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen will continue to quietly excel at the other two spots.

    DE: Stephen Bowen, Jarvis Jenkins  NT: Barry Cofield

    OLB: Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan  ILB: Perry Riley, London Fletcher

    CB: Josh Wilson, DeAngelo Hall, David Amerson  S: Phillip Thomas, Brandon Meriweather


    While there will be an element of change on defense, expect things to look largely the same as 2012 on offense. The Redskins will start by relying on the same five offensive line starters as last season.

    Pro Bowler Trent Williams is unchallenged at left tackle. Next to him, guard Kory Lichtensteiger remains a key blocker for the running game.

    Center Will Montgomery and right guard Chris Chester round out a solid interior. At right tackle, things are little more sketchy.

    However, Tyler Polumbus should stay ahead of veteran retreads Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood.

    Quarterback unquestionably belongs to Robert Griffin III. His rehab from knee surgery will prove crucial, but expect Griffin to be under center sooner rather than later.

    Things are just as clear at running back, at least for the starter. Last season's late-round sensation, Alfred Morris, will continue carrying the load.

    Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan need to stay injury-free as the team's leading receivers. Expect Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss to feature heavily as well.

    Fred Davis should have a lock on the primary tight end job, provided he recovers well from his Achilles tendon injury. However, Davis will face strong competition from third-round rookie Jordan Reed.

    QB: Robert Griffin III  RB: Alfred Morris  FB: Darrel Young  TE: Fred Davis/Jordan Reed

    OL: Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, Will Montgomery, Chris Chester, Tyler Polumbus

    WR: Josh Morgan, Pierre Garcon, Leonard Hankerson

    The Redskins have stronger competition everywhere across the roster and appear a little stronger than the team that owned this division in 2012.

2. NFC East: New York Giants

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    The New York Giants were smart to fortify their offensive and defensive lines in this draft. Like the Redskins, one of Big Blue's top three picks will start as a rookie.


    That starter won't be on defense, although second- and third-round picks Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore will certainly contribute.

    The Giants will keep Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck at defensive end. Moore will join Mathias Kiwanuka as a key member of the rotation.

    Linval Joseph will be the nose tackle, and Cullen Jenkins will provide a pass rush along the interior. Mike Patterson and Hankins give the Giants enviable depth.

    Linebacker has been a suspect position group for a while for Big Blue. Not much is different heading into the 2013 season.

    Dan Connor should win the job in the middle. Jacquian Williams has the speed and coverage skills to take over from the departed Michael Boley on the weak side. Veteran Keith Rivers will be the other outside linebacker.

    Last season's surprise package, Stevie Brown will start at safety, alongside the underrated Antrel Rolle. Expect Ryan Mundy to see plenty of action in coordinator Perry Fewell's three safety packages.

    Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara will continue at cornerback. Aaron Ross will man the nickel position.

    DE: Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck/Mathias Kiwanuka  DT: Linval Jospeh, Cullen Jenkins

    LB: Jacquian Williams, Dan Connor, Keith Rivers

    S: Stevie Brown, Antrel Rolle/Ryan Mundy 

    CB: Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara, Aaron Ross


    First-round draft pick Justin Pugh will be given a chance to start at right tackle. However, he may be best suited to a role inside as time goes on.

    Initially, Pugh will fight to man the right side, according to The New York Times. Will Beatty remains at left tackle. Kevin Boothe and Chris Snee will be at guard, and David Baas will continue at center.

    Brandon Myers was a smart free-agency signing, and he'll make an impact at tight end. Myers will prove to be a very useful outlet for standout quarterback Eli Manning.

    Tom Coughlin will trust 2012's first-rounder David Wilson to be his main running back. Wilson's breakaway speed is something the Giants have rarely had at the position.

    Andre Brown will need to stay healthy to provide a power-based complement to Wilson's quickness.

    If there's one doubt about Big Blue's offense it comes at wide receiver. Hakeem Nicks will obviously start at one spot.

    He remains as talented as any outside receiver in the NFL. However, the other position remains uncertain the longer Victor Cruz goes without signing a new deal.

    Nobody has been tempted to trade for his services yet, but Cruz's unclear status has to rate as a worry. Louis Murphy should give the Giants a credible third wideout and a deep threat.

    QB: Eli Manning  RB: David Wilson  FB: Henry Hynoski  TE: Brandon Myers

    OL: Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe, David Baas, Chris Snee, Justin Pugh

    WR: Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Louis Murphy

    The Giants look stronger up front on both sides of the ball after the draft. If Cruz remains in the fold, this roster is powerful enough to reclaim the NFC East crown.

3. NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys' draft haul was one of the most contentious in the league. Their decision to focus on offense and ignore the defensive line raised a few eyebrows.


    The Cowboys are wisely making the switch to a 4-3 front after hiring Monte Kiffin to run the defense. That switch puts DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer back to their collegiate positions at end.

    Inside, things are a little more tricky. The Cowboys have a fine nose tackle in Jay Ratliff, yet he seems better suited to the 3-technique role in Kiffin's scheme.

    However, that position will probably go to Jason Hatcher. That will leave Ratliff, for now at least, over the center.

    At linebacker the Cowboys are very strong, provided Bruce Carter and Sean Lee stay healthy. Lee will man the middle and become the unit's chief playmaker.

    Carter is made for the weak-side role in Kiffin's defense. Justin Durant knows the system well and should win the right to play strongside 'backer.

    Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will be better in Kiffin's version of the Cover 2. Fourth-round pick B.W. Webb will see action in nickel and dime packages.

    Safety is a spot where the Cowboys still look suspect. That's not great news in a system designed to funnel everything toward the safeties.

    Will Allen should take one spot. The 10-year pro will probably be joined by third-round choice J.J. Wilcox.

    The ex-Georgia Southern star has the frame to step up in run support and the agility to cover the deep zones. Kiffin's tutelage will be key in helping Wilcox cope as a rookie starter.

    DE: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer  DT: Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff

    LB: Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Justin Durant  S: Will Allen, J.J. Wilcox

    CB: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, B.W. Webb


    There will be some change up front, with top pick Travis Frederick immediately stepping in to anchor the offensive line. Left tackle seems set with last year's first-rounder, Tyron Smith.

    Nate Livings should keep his place at one guard spot, and Phil Costa will occupy the other. Right tackle is the one position along the line in a state of flux.

    According to CBSDFW, 2012 starter Doug Free doesn't expect to still be on the team this season.

    Their O-line might not be entirely settled, but the Cowboys can still rely on Tony Romo at quarterback. He'll again be aided by dependable tight end Jason Witten.

    The veteran will get some help for a change, in the form of second-round pick Gavin Escobar. Dez Bryant and Miles Austin should continue being a maddeningly inconsistent pair of wide receivers.

    The Cowboys were smart to add Terrance Williams in Round 3 to help keep both Austin and Bryant on their toes.

    The big questions are at running back. DeMarco Murray remains the de facto starter, although that's not necessarily good news.

    At least the Cowboys were smart enough to dump Felix Jones. They'll need fifth-rounder Joseph Randle to take some carries away from Murray.

    He's got good straight-line speed and is a quick-cutter in the open field. He should give the Cowboys a true third-down back.

    QB: Tony Romo  RB: DeMarco Murray  FB: Lawrence Vickers  TE: Jason Witten

    OL: Tyron Smith, Nate Livings Travis Frederick, Phil Costa, Doug Free

    WR: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams

    It's become a fashionable thing to bash the Cowboys. However, their starting lineup is stronger than it looks at first glance.

    If Kiffin is given free reign to run the defense and Jason Garrett doesn't botch the play-calling on offense too much, the Cowboys might surprise a few people.

4. NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Philadelphia Eagles are undergoing a complete remake under Chip Kelly. Significant schematic shifts on both sides of the ball and a host of new faces do impact the starting lineup.


    Kelly's shift to a hybrid 3-4 scheme dramatically alters Philly's defensive personnel. The change is most evident up front and will probably condemn former star Trent Cole to the bench.

    Connor Barwin, a 3-4 rush linebacker, will play the joker end position. Brandon Graham will likely take the other edge position.

    Isaac Sopoaga was brought over from the San Francisco 49ers to anchor the defensive line at nose tackle. Fletcher Cox should keep his place and play an under-tackle role in the ostensible three-man front.

    The other position is up for grabs. Former undrafted free agent Cedric Thornton showed some promise last season.

    However, he may find it difficult to fend off third-round pick Bennie Logan. Things are more clear at inside linebacker.

    DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will form a punishing combination. The major changes are found in the secondary.

    Free agents Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips will start at safety. The same scenario exists at cornerback, where Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams should get the nod.

    DE: Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan  NT: Isaac Sopoaga

    OLB: Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham  ILB: Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans

    S: Patrick Chung, Kennt Phillips  CB: Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin


    The line will be strong if left tackle Jason Peters stays on the field. Top rookie Lane Johnson should own the right tackle spot and allow Todd Herremans to shift inside to guard.

    Evan Mathis will play the other guard spot. Jason Kelce should win the job at center and complete a group crucial to Kelly's offensive schemes.

    The bigger question than who plays up front, is who the O-line will be protecting. The choice is between brittle veteran Michael Vick and fourth-round pick Matt Barkley.

    It's probably safe to assume Vick will be given the early chance. However, he won't have much room for error.

    Whoever plays quarterback in Kelly's first year will at least be aided by a strong running game. It is a ground attack led by the explosive, big-play talents of LeSean McCoy.

    He will split time with dynamic speedster Bryce Brown. Kelly won't be shy about leaning on the run during his first year in Philadelphia.

    Things will stay the same at wide receiver with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin still capable of stretching defenses vertically.

    Second-round pick Zach Ertz should win the starting tight end job, where Brent Celek suffers with drops. Free agent James Casey will likely line up as H-Back and can also play tight end.

    QB: Michael Vick  RB: LeSean McCoy/Bryce Brown  HB: James Casey  TE: Zach Ertz

    OL: Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, Lane Johnson

    WR: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant

    No team has changed more than the Eagles this offseason. Kelly's got the right weapons on offense to light up scoreboards. However, his chances for success will hinge on the revamped defense.

1. AFC East: New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots have gotten younger and more dynamic at key positions. The wide receiver group has been overhauled, but the defense may have received the most immediate help.


    Bill Belichick chose well when he selected Jamie Collins with his first draft pick. Collins has the hybrid skills to be the elephant-style rusher Belichick loves to use. 

    With Collins on one side and Chandler Jones on the other, the Pats will be able to neatly switch between a variety of defensive fronts.

    Both edge-rushers will be helped by the interior dominance of mammoth duo Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. Former Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly should also see the field and offers more of a pass-rush threat than Love.

    Things are very clear at linebacker. Thumper Brandon Spikes is flanked by two equally big bruisers in Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower.

    New England fans will hope the secondary is better this season. The key to that will be an end-of-career flourish from the aging Adrian Wilson.

    He should start at strong safety and give the Patriots defensive backfield the savvy it needs. Devin McCourty ought to continue at free safety, a role he is improving in all the time.

    The cornerback spots look solid with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. Their press skills are crucial to the Patriots' pressure schemes.

    Expect third-round pick Logan Ryan to play a big role in sub-packages. He'll be joined by veteran Kyle Arrington.

    DE: Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins  DT: Kyle Love/Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork

    LB: Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo  S: Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson

    CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib, Logan Ryan


    The line is set with giants Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer at tackle. Logan Mankins will continue to scrap on the inside, along with center Ryan Wendell and fellow veteran Dan Connolly.

    Tom Brady will return to again dominate defenses with poise and a ruthless instinct for the big play. The big question is: Who will he throw to?

    Of course there's no such question at tight end. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will continue to be the best one-two punch at their position in the NFL.

    The picture is less clear at wide receiver. Danny Amendola will replace the outgoing Wes Welker and start from day one.

    As to who will join him, rookie Aaron Dobson will vie for time on the outside. He'll be challenged by free-agent addition Donald Jones.

    As things stand, expect the Patriots to err on the side of caution and begin the season with Jones as a starter. Dobson's fellow rookie Josh Boyce will back up Amendola.

    The Patriots have a crowded rotation at running back, but Stevan Ridley should still lead it. Despite some fumbling and injury concerns, Ridley is the most intelligent, talented runner on the roster.

    Trade acquisition LeGarrette Blount will offer a power-based complement. Leon Washington should see time on third downs.

    Youngsters Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden could be forced out.

    QB: Tom Brady  RB: Stevan Ridley/LeGarrette Blount  TE: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez

    OL: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer

    WR: Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Aaron Dobson

    It's ironic that now they look a little weaker on offense, the Patriots' usually suspect defense now looks stronger. Belichick has patiently assembled the right players for his hybrid schemes.

    If Collins and Jones star on the outside, the Patriots defense could approach the level of the team's glory years.

2. AFC East: New York Jets

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    The New York Jets haven't been short of a few surprises this offseason. Their eyebrow-raising draft selections will help reshape the starting lineup.


    Sheldon Richardson will start as a rookie and be ostensibly listed as the tackle of choice alongside Muhammad Wilkerson. They'll be joined by hulking veteran Antonio Garay on the rare occasions the Jets field their base 3-4 look.

    In that set, Antwan Barnes and Quinton Coples will be the hybrid rush ends on the outside. Inside, the superb David Harris will join forces with DeMario Davis to man the middle.

    Dee Milliner will begin life in the pros tasked with replacing Darrelle Revis. However, Antonio Cromartie will be the leader of the secondary. The disappointing Kyle Wilson will see time at third corner.

    Dawan Landry will be a useful performer at one safety spot. He'll be joined by Josh Bush, who should man the free safety position.

    DE: Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson  NT: Antonio Garay

    OLB: Antwan Barnes, Quinton Coples  ILB: DeMario Davis, David Harris

    S: Josh Bush, Dawan Landry  CB: Antonio Cromartie, Dee Milliner, Kyle Wilson


    The big question mark on offense is at quarterback. This author is predicting Geno Smith will snatch the starting job from Mark Sanchez.

    Coaching in a contract year, Rex Ryan needs a bold move. It doesn't get much bolder than naming the controversial second-round pick as his starting quarterback.

    Not to mention the fact the Jets need a major boost on offense. Sanchez has been well-below par in recent seasons.

    The Jets were keen to acquire Smith, and there has to be a reason. It seems unlikely they were tripping over themselves to select a bench warmer.

    Smith will throw to Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill on the outside. He'll no doubt regret the fact Dustin Keller bolted to the Miami Dolphins.

    Jeff Cumberland will replace Keller at tight end but won't be as prolific. Smith should enjoy throwing to third-down running back Mike Goodson, who will be invaluable.

    He won't start, though, as that distinction will belong to trade pickup Chris Ivory. His power between the tackles will lead the running game.

    Setting the table for this offense will be a remade offensive line. The overrated D'Brickashaw Ferguson will continue to fool many at left tackle.

    Youngster Austin Howard will work on the right. Inside is where the Jets will be strong up front. Willie Colon will prove to be an inspired signing at left guard. He's a real force as a run-blocker. Center Nick Mangold will continue to dominate, but the right guard spot could see another rookie earn a starting berth.

    Third-round pick Brian Winters is good enough to join the lineup and should win the starting right guard job.

    QB: Geno Smith  RB: Chris Ivory/Mike Goodson  FB: Lex Hilliard  TE: Jeff Cumberland

    OL: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Willie Colon, Nick Mangold, Brian Winters, Austin Howard

    WR: Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley

    It's dangerous to write the Jets off as easily as many have. Ryan again has the makings of a fearsome defense, particularly along the line.

    How he handles the quarterback situation will prove crucial. The Jets can't afford to let the Sanchez-Smith debate drag on. Yet, they also can't be afraid to take a gamble.

3. AFC East: Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins were the big spenders of the offseason. Their starting lineups for 2013 will be littered with those purchases.

    However, it is the player the Dolphins traded up to draft third overall who highlights this revamped team.


    Dion Jordan will join a powerful defensive line to help produce a potentially devastating pass rush. The former Oregon ace will initially operate at weak-side defensive end in base 4-3 looks. The other side will be manned by the dominant Cameron Wake. These two rush-ends should savage quarterbacks this season.

    They'll be helped by imposing tackle duo Paul Soliai and Randy Starks. Soliai's position will come under threat from former defensive end and 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick.

    The picture has also changed at linebacker. Landing Dannell Ellerbe from the Baltimore Ravens was a free-agency coup. He should occupy the middle linebacker position and become the focal point of this defense. Ellerbe will be flanked by newcomer Philip Wheeler and holdover Koa Misi.

    Things will also look different at cornerback. Brent Grimes will take over a starting role after missing 15 games for the Falcons with an ACL injury in 2012.

    Grimes will be partnered with Richard Marshall. Dimitri Patterson will be a sub-package cover man and also push for additional playing time.

    The same is true for promising draftee Jamar Taylor. He should make things uncomfortable for Grimes and Marshall. Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones return at safety.

    DE: Dion Jordan, Cameron Wake  DT: Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, Jared Odrick

    LB: Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi  S: Reshad Jones, Chris Clemons

    CB: Richard Marshall, Brent Grimes, Dimitri Patterson


    Ryan Tannehill will get the chance to iron out his inconsistencies as a second-year starter at quarterback. He'll be helped by improved targets in the passing game.

    Mike Wallace offers the game's best deep threat on the outside. Brian Hartline is the ideal underneath complement on the other.

    Brandon Gibson possesses big-play capability and will receive plenty of chances. Tannehill's most dependable option should be newly arrived tight end Dustin Keller. Fourth-round pick Dion Sims could also contribute. He has the potential to surprise and split time with Keller.

    Things are unclear at running back. However, the brave move would be to feature Lamar Miller's versatility ahead of the more steady Daniel Thomas.

    There may be bigger questions along the offensive line. Questions like: Who will play left tackle? At the moment it appears to be a battle between 2012 rookie Jonathan Martin and this year's third-rounder Dallas Thomas.

    Martin should have the early edge, despite struggling through his debut pro season. Things are becoming more clear at right tackle.

    The Dolphins will move Martin to left tackle to accommodate Tyson Clabo on the right. That's according to

    The interior positions are at least set. Mike Pouncey will play center, while Richie Incognito and newcomer Lance Louis will line up at guard.

    QB: Ryan Tannehill  RB: Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas  FB: Jorvorskie Lane  TE: Dustin Keller

    OL: Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, Lance Louis, Tyson Clabo

    WR: Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson

    The Dolphins made all the noise in free agency, and there's plenty of substance to what they've done. Wallace will be a key figure on the offense and help make Tannehill better.

    However, it's adding Jordan to an intimidating defensive front seven that makes the Dolphins seem dangerous.

4. AFC East: Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills have certainly been more low-key than the Dolphins. However, there's still been a lot to like about the way they've been rebuilding.

    The key to a quick revival will be the success of the choices they've made at quarterback. Those choices will involve starting a rookie.


    It's not easy predicting the makeup of the Bills defense in 2013. New coordinator Mike Pettine has arrived from the Jets and already promised a multiple-front scheme.

    What is clear is that imposing tackle tandem Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will be heavily involved. If Pettine shows some three-man or 46-style looks, they'll be joined by stout nose tackle Alan Branch.

    Mario Williams and Mark Anderson can produce a more than credible pressure from the outside, while outside linebacker Manny Lawson gives the Bills a solid pass-rusher at the second level.

    The inside linebacker role should be filled by second-round pick Kiko Alonso. He'll step in after the Bills traded Kelvin Sheppard to the Indianapolis Colts.

    Nigel Bradham will take the other outside linebacker position. This gives the Bills a stronger-looking front seven.

    Stephon Gilmore impressed as a rookie last season and will be Buffalo's premier cornerback. Leodis McKelvin should take the other spot.

    Jairus Byrd will continue to be a prolific ball hawk at free safety. Da'Norris Searcy will be the safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

    DE: Mario Williams, Mark Anderson  DT: Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch

    LB: Nigel Bradham, Kiko Alonso, Manny Lawson S: Jairus Byrd, Da'Norris Searcy

    CB: Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Jonathan Meeks


    The Bills stunned the league when they drafted EJ Manuel 16th overall. They'll now go one better and start the ex-Florida State star ahead of veteran Kevin Kolb. Manuel's rookie year will be made easier by the dual-rushing threat of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller will get the starting nod because of his game-stretching speed.

    New head coach Doug Marrone craves a faster team, according to Jerry Sullivan of The Buffalo News. Spiller's certainly fits that mold.

    However, he'll share carries with Jackson in what will likely be a running back-by-committee approach. The same could be true at wide receiver.

    Stevie Johnson often flatters to deceive, but remains this team's only marquee wideout. Second-round choice Robert Woods should win the other starting job. He's an intelligent route-runner and technically refined pass-catcher. Just the kind of dependable weapon a rookie passer will need.

    T.J. Graham will be a fast-breaking slot receiver, as will third-round pick and one-time Olympian Marquise Goodwin.

    There's undoubtedly a lot of youth and uncertainty at wide receiver. However, Manuel will at least be able to rely on competent tight end Scott Chandler. He's one of the most underrated players at his position in the NFL. At 6'7", Chandler will offer Manuel an easy target to aim for.

    Keeping the rookie upright might be the toughest challenge the Bills face in 2013. Cordy Glenn is a massive left tackle with considerable skills, but the rest of the line looks dubious.

    In the last two seasons the Bills have lost Demetress Bell, Andy Levitre and Chad Rinehart. What's left appears shaky.

    Chris Hairston is likely to start on the right side. Eric Wood is a more than capable center, but there is some question about who starts either side of him. Converted center David Snow played guard briefly last year. However, Zebrie Sanders seems more skilled, if he can make the transition from tackle.

    That would leave Snow to compete with Kraig Urbik for the right guard spot. Urbik would have the edge in that battle, as he will be vital in the running game.

    QB: EJ Manuel  RB: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson TE: Scott Chandler

    OL: Cordy Glenn, Zebrie Sanders, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, Chris Hairston

    WR: Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, T.J. Graham/Marquise Goodwin

    Like the Eagles, it's all change for the Bills on both sides of the ball. Pettine's defense may have to emerge as strong enough to carry the team if Manuel struggles and given the inexperience at receiver.

1. NFC North: Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers' 2013 draft class will play a major role in shaping their starting lineups. Most of the impact will be felt on offense, with a new running back added to the mix.

    However, the best new addition could be found on the defensive line.


    Top pick Datone Jones has the potential to be a steal for the Packers. Coordinator Dom Capers has already talked up what Jones will bring to his defense, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

     He's athletic and he's long, so he moves with ease. I think that he'll be able to give us  rush inside.

     In our 3-4, he can play out at defensive end, and he can be an inside player and do a  good  job against both the run and the pass inside.

    Jones should start straight away at one defensive end position. Jerel Worthy should occupy the other. He was making a positive impression as a rookie in 2012 before sustaining an ACL injury. Jones and Worthy will flank one of the league's best nose tackles, B.J. Raji. This is a fearsome-looking defensive front.

    Things still look strong at the linebacker level, thanks to the smart decision to re-sign Brad Jones. He'll partner with A.J. Hawk, whose reputation exceeds his ability, but the Packers don't seem to care.

    Clay Matthews will continue to cause havoc on the outside. Last year's first-round pick Nick Perry should get another chance to prove he can offer a pass rush from the other side.

    The cornerback positions look set with 2012's surprise Casey Hayward seemingly set for a starting role after snaring six interceptions as a rookie.

    Tramon Williams will start on the other side. Sam Shields will see time in nickel and dime looks. Things don't seem quite as solid at safety, since the release of Charles Woodson.

    Morgan Burnett will take one spot, and Jerron McMillian should beat M.D. Jennings to the other.

    DE: Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy  NT: B.J. Raji

    OLB: Nick Perry, Clay Matthews  ILB: Brad Jones, A.J. Hawk

    S: Morgan Burnett, Jerron McMillian  CB: Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Sam Shields


    There's no danger of Aaron Rodgers not being under center in Green Bay. Now that he's armed with a bumper new contract, expect Rodgers to again push the Packers into the playoffs.

    For the first time in a long while, Rodgers may even receive some help from his running game. The Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the second round, and the former Crimson Tide ace should start.

    He'll be pushed by fifth-round pick Johnathan Franklin. Rodgers now has credible options in the backfield. He has no shortage of those options at wide receiver, despite parting ways with Greg Jennings. Jordy Nelson and the fast-improving James Jones are two dangerous targets.

    Randall Cobb can create big plays anywhere on the field and will be a bigger feature of 2013's offense.

    Rodgers should also be pleased the Packers opted to retain tight end Jermichael Finley. Yes, he has drops and concentration issues, but Finley is as physically dynamic as any tight end in the NFL.

    The offensive line in front of Rodgers has been dramatically altered. Reports in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggest Bryan Bulaga will switch from the right side to play left tackle.

    Guard Josh Sitton will also shift to the left, while T.J. Lang will swap over and play right guard. Fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari will vie with Don Barclay, Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod to play right tackle, according to

    This author believes Bakhtiari will win that battle. Evan Dietrich-Smith will plug in at center.

    QB: Aaron Rodgers  RB: Eddie Lacy/Johnathan Franklin  FB: John Kuhn  TE: Jermichael Finley

    OL: Bryan Bulaga, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, David Bakhtiari

    WR: Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb

    The Packers boast a formidable-looking roster heading into the 2013 season. If Lacy and Jones are instant playmakers, this team could dominate the NFC.

2. NFC North: Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings went all out in the draft to bridge the gap between themselves and the Packers. Each of their three first-round picks will be day one starters.


    Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd never should have fallen as far as the 23rd pick. Selecting him was probably one of the easier decisions the Vikings have ever made.

    Floyd will start immediately alongside the aging but still effective Kevin Williams. They'll create trouble in the middle, to allow ends Jared Allen and Everson Griffen to flourish on the outside.

    Chad Greenway will stand out at the linebacker level. He'll be joined by Erin Henderson and Audie Cole. Though rookies Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges will push Cole for playing time.

    The second of those three first-rounders, Xavier Rhodes, will replace the departed Antoine Winfield at cornerback. Josh Robinson will start on the other side, and the brittle Chris Cook should move to third corner.

    Harrison Smith could be set for a monster season at safety. Smith will be the playmaker of the secondary. Jamarca Sanford will take the other safety spot.

    DE: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen  DT: Kevin Williams, Sharrif Floyd

    LB: Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Chad Greenway  S: Jamarca Sanford, Harrison Smith

    CB: Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, Chris Cook


    The last of Minnesota's trio of first-round selections, Cordarrelle Patterson will step in at wide receiver and fill the void left by Percy Harvin.

    Patterson will be helped along by stylish veteran Greg Jennings. Tight end Kyle Rudolph completes a promising group of primary receivers.

    The pressure is now on young quarterback Christian Ponder to prove he's capable enough not to waste these weapons. The Vikings don't want to have to turn to Matt Cassel.

    Of course Ponder's life will be made significantly easier by Adrian Peterson. The dominant running back won't be quite as prolific as last season, but he'll still terrify defenses. Peterson will again be aided by the brutal blocking of stout fullback Jerome Felton. He'll supplement the efforts of a solid front five.

    That group will be led by combative left tackle Matt Kalil. On the right side Phil Loadholt isn't that far behind Kalil.

    In the middle, center John Sullivan is the dominant force. Guard Charles Johnson and Brandon Fusco boast size and are solid interior pluggers.

    QB: Christian Ponder  RB: Adrian Peterson  FB: Jerome Felton  TE: Kyle Rudolph

    OL: Matt Kalil, Charles Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt

    WR: Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson

    The Vikings will count a lot on rookie talent to make them better than the team that surprised the league in 2012. The crucial part of that plan is Floyd.

    If he can quickly establish himself as a disruptive force, the Vikings defense will be more than just solid. On offense, Jennings should make everyone's job easier in the passing game.

3. NFC North: Chicago Bears

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    Keeping pace with the Packers and Vikings won't be easy for new Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman. However, the new regime in the Windy City has made several smart moves this offseason, especially improving the starting options along the offensive line.


    The Bears can still rely on a powerful front four. However, veteran end Julius Peppers is no longer the star of the group.

    That distinction instead belongs to nimble-footed tackle Henry Melton. His quickness and versatility allow the Bears the flexibility to run a variety of stunts and games up front.

    Stephen Paea should take the other tackle spot and be a force against the run. Shea McClellin needs to rebound from a poor rookie season to fend off Corey Wootton at the final end position.

    Things look a lot different at linebacker without Brian Urlacher. D.J. Williams will be a thumper in the middle, but can expect strong competition from second-round pick Jon Bostic.

    James Anderson was an excellent signing to play outside linebacker. He gives the Bears more blitz skills than they've had at the position for a long time.

    Lance Briggs should continue on the other side. He's still smart enough to mask his diminishing physical skills.

    Cornerback is one of the easiest positions to predict on the Bears roster. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman will start and continue to force turnovers at an alarming rate.

    Big hitters Major Wright and Chris Conte will form a steady safety partnership.

    DE: Julius Peppers, Shea McClellin  DT: Henry Melton, Stephen Paea

    LB: Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, James Anderson  S: Chris Conte, Major Wright

    CB: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden


    Jay Cutler will likely be grateful for how much attention the Bears have given to fixing a truly dreadful offensive line. Top draft choice Kyle Long should be pencilled in immediately at left guard.

    He can line up alongside free-agent addition Jermon Bushrod, who is a significant upgrade at left tackle. Fellow free-agent newcomer Matt Slauson should win the right guard job.

    Edwin Williams can win the right to start at center ,and James Brown should be plugged in at right tackle. Former first-rounder Gabe Carimi will miss out altogether.

    The new-look front five will be supplemented by the blocking skills of new tight end Martellus Bennett. He'll also be a useful outlet in the passing game.

    Cutler can rely on Bennett and on the big-play talents of tall wideouts Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Earl Bennett will continue to be a dependable underneath target.

    In the backfield, the Bears still boast the dual-threat talents of Matt Forte. Blocking for Forte will be converted tight end Evan Rodriguez. Michael Bush can again expect short-yardage work.

    QB: Jay Cutler  RB: Matt Forte  FB: Evan Rodriguez, TE: Martellus Bennett

    OL: Jermon Bushrod, Kyle Long, Edwin Williams, Matt Slauson, James Brown

    WR: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett

    The Bears have the talent to compete in the NFC North but have remade themselves at several key positions. They are also still reliant on veterans like Peppers, Briggs and Forte proving they have one or two productive years left.

4. NFC North: Detroit Lions

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    Despite some big-name talent on both sides of the ball, the Lions may struggle to compete in the North. They will hope a pair of promising draft picks and two marquee free agents can all make instant impacts.


    The Lions are dominant at tackle, provided they can keep Nick Fairley healthy and Ndamukong Suh free from suspension. Fairley could exceed Suh's talents if he avoids injury.

    Fifth overall pick Ezekiel Ansah will be counted on to make Lions fans forget about Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Lions certainly need the raw prospect to provide plenty of pressure off the edge.

    The other end position might go to free-agent signing Jason Jones. He's talented but is better suited to tackle. Jones has struggled at end for both the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks.

    It might be smarter to let Willie Young man the other end position. He's a more natural fit for the outside, particularly as a pass-rusher.

    The Lions need all their strength up front, because the linebackers still look abysmal. Stephen Tulloch will continue in the middle but makes too many stops only after positive gains.

    DeAndre Levy still hasn't fulfilled his potential on the outside. At the other spot, Tahir Whitehead or Travis Lewis must step in for Ashlee Palmer.

    In fairness to the Lions, they have at least worked hard to make things look better in the secondary. Glover Quin was one of the best signings of free agency. He immediately upgrades the safety position. In fact, the Lions will actually now look strong there if Louis Delmas can stay off the treatment table.

    Chris Houston is reasonably solid at one cornerback spot. If second-round pick Darius Slay makes a quick transition to the pro game, the Lions' coverage will be a lot better than in recent seasons.

    DE: Ezekiel Ansah, Willie Young/Jason Jones  DT: Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh

    LB: DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, Travis Lewis S: Glover Quin, Louis Delmas

    CB: Chris Houston, Darius Slay, Amari Spievey


    Matthew Stafford continues to post gaudy numbers but also remains inconsistent. Granted, he hasn't exactly been helped by a feeble running game and a dodgy offensive line.

    The first issue could be solved by Reggie Bush. The former Miami Dolphins starter is aging and has only posted a single 1,000-yard season in his career.

    However, that came just two years ago, and he was a mere 14 yards short of the mark in 2012. Bush has proved he can be a feature back.

    The key to his success will be improvement from the offensive line. Former first-rounder Riley Reiff will line up at left tackle. Things look better at guard, where third-rounder Larry Warford should join Rob Sims as a starter.

    Dominic Raiola just never ages at center. Right tackle is anybody's guess. This author will speculate that Jason Fox wins the job. The Detroit Free Press reported Fox intends to compete for a starting berth.

    Thankfully, things are a lot more clear at wide receiver. Calvin Johnson is the one playmaker no defense seems to be able to cover.

    Ryan Broyles is the best option to take some catches away from Johnson, provided he avoids injury. Nate Burleson is still around and will see plenty of playing time.

    At tight end Brandon Pettigrew will again likely get the nod. However, like many on the Lions roster, Pettigrew is never as good as he should be.

    QB: Matthew Stafford  RB: Reggie Bush TE: Brandon Pettigrew

    OL: Riley Reiff, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, Jason Fox

    WR: Calvin Johnson, Ryan Broyles, Nate Burleson

    The Lions have talent in key areas but also inconsistency at those same positions. Their talent is also undermined by significant weakness at certain position groups, especially linebacker.

1. AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

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    The Super Bowl champions have worked hard to retool their defense after losing some key personnel. They will look to a pair of rookies to replace two all-time greats.


    The Ravens have a plethora of options up front. Their best combination could involve Haloti Ngata at nose tackle with dynamic youngster Arthur Jones at one end and free-agent pickup Chris Canty at the other.

    Canty is stout against the run, and the Ravens defense slipped to 20th against the rush in 2012.

    Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil give the Ravens a potentially devastating pass-rush tandem at outside linebacker. It's on the inside where things are more interesting.

    Expect second-round pick Arthur Brown to take one spot. Jameel McClain should occupy the other. He's had his injuries, but McClain might still be a safer choice than Rolando McClain.

    Safety will look a lot different without Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed. First-round draftee Matt Elam can be the thumper in the box that Pollard was.

    However, hybrid cornerback Michael Huff will find it tough to replace Reed as the free safety.

    At cornerback, Lardarius Webb's return from knee injury will be a massive boost. Jimmy Smith can build on a strong postseason showing by entering his second pro season as a starter.

    DE: Chris Canty, Arthur Jones  NT: Haloti Ngata

    OLB: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil  ILB: Jameel McClain, Arthur Brown

    S: Matt Elam, Michael Huff  CB: Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Corey Graham


    Joe Flacco silenced most of his critics, this author included, with his flourish in the playoffs. He'll likely miss Anquan Boldin but still has Torrey Smith as a deep threat on the outside.

    Tandon Doss is more of a possession receiver and offers the right complement to Smith. Flacco will also be able to rely on tight end Dennis Pitta. Ed Dickson will also see the field in two-tight end looks.

    The offense might be strongest in the running game. Vonta Leach is perhaps the best lead-blocker in the NFL. He'll knock open holes for the dynamic Ray Rice to exploit. Bernard Pierce offers a great second option and shares the load with Rice.

    The offensive line has been boosted by the return of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. McKinnie dipped his toes in the free-agency waters, according to The Baltimore Sun.

    The Ravens need him on the left and Michael Oher over on the right. Kelechi Osemele was one of a number of Ravens who came on strong in the playoffs.

    He should start at left guard, with Marshal Yanda remaining a powerhouse on the right. Gino Gradkowski completes the line at center.

    QB: Joe Flacco  RB: Ray Rice  FB: Vonta Leach  TE: Dennis Pitta

    OL: Bryant McKinnie, Kelechi Osemel, Gino Gradkowski, Marshal Yanda, Michael Oher

    WR: Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Tommy Streeter

    The Ravens have lost a lot, but they've also made some subtle additions that increase the flexibility of their schemes. Dumervil and Suggs give them two hybrid rush ends, enabling them to better disguise their fronts.

    At lot will depend on the performances of Brown and Elam. If they quickly make the grade, the Ravens will still be as strong as any team in the AFC.

2. AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals used the draft to get more dynamic on offense. Although their starting lineups won't alter dramatically, the Bengals' top picks will play prominent roles in 2013.


    Cincinnati's stellar defense is led by a marauding front line that remains intact. That means Michael Johnson will continue causing havoc at one end spot and Carlos Dunlap will offer support from the other.

    As good as those two are, it's inside at tackle where the Bengals are strongest. Geno Atkins is the most dominant interior pass-rusher in the league.

    Domata Peko remains a scrappy, intelligent nose tackle. Wallace Gilberry can provide excellent cover at both end or tackle, and third-round pick Margus Hunt also boosts depth.

    Things are very intriguing at the linebacker level. Former annual antagonist James Harrison should start on the outside. Even at 35, Harrison is still technically sound, smart and an explosive pass-rusher. Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict are two bruisers. They will continue punishing running backs and receivers over the middle.

    Leon Hall will start at one cornerback position. Graybeard Terence Newman will continue at the other spot until Dre Kirkpatrick proves his fitness and skill for the pros.

    Adam Jones will play third corner. Reggie Nelson is the best safety on the roster but don't be surprised to see former Georgia star Shawn Williams paired with him.

    He is a tough hitter and a good zone safety.

    DE: Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson  DT: Geno Atkins, Domata Peko

    LB: James Harrison, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict  S: Shawn Williams, Reggie Nelson

    CB: Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Adam Jones


    Andy Dalton may have room to develop, but few can complain about his record of taking the Bengals to two straight playoff appearances.

    The youthful quarterback will continue to fire passes to A.J. Green. Marvin Jones will partner with Green and labor to take some attention away from him. Andrew Hawkins is a natural fit for the slot.

    Things don't look stronger at receiver, but Dalton will have better options at tight end. Top pick Tyler Eifert will form a dangerous tandem with Jermaine Gresham. If Eifert lives up to his billing, the Bengals' multiple-tight end sets could be among the best in the league.

    The running chores should still primarily fall to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He's a heady player and reliable between the tackles.

    However, Green-Ellis should expect to lose some carries to second-round pick Giovani Bernard. The diminutive speedster is the classic change-of-pace back.

    Both runners will benefit from the ferocious blocking form of fullback Chris Pressley. The blocking up front will also be strong with left tackle Andrew Whitworth the driving force for a capable line.

    Andre Smith and Kevin Zeitler are a physical duo on the right side. Former Indianapolis Colts starter Mike Pollak should step in ahead of the disappointing Clint Boling at left guard.

    Kyle Cook needs to improve at center. Staying healthy would help.

    QB: Andy Dalton  RB: Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Giovani Bernard  FB: Chris Pressley

    OL: Andrew Whitworth, Mike Pollak, Kyle Cook, Kevin Zeitler, Andre Smith

    WR: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins  TE: Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert

    The Bengals have given themselves more interesting options on offense and still boast a powerful defense. If the two-tight end sets take some pressure off Green, the Bengals will be playoff contenders again in 2013.

3. AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers will count on their top rookie to keep a crucial area of their defense strong. However, there will be more pressure on a second-round pick to help create major change at running back.


    The Steelers need more consistency from Ziggy Hood to match the talent that is obviously there. Brett Keisel is still reliable at the other end position. Cameron Heyward will push for playing time as well.

    Steve McLendon will occupy the full-time role at nose tackle. He won't be as physically dominant as Casey Hampton. However, McLendon knows how to use his quickness and leverage to make plays.

    LaMarr Woodley will continue to threaten offenses on the outside. The Steelers can also rely on savvy veteran Larry Foote and the versatile Lawrence Timmons to make plays in the middle.

    The other outside position is a question mark. Jason Worilds has shown promise, but it's significant the team used a first-round pick on Jarvis Jones,

    He'll take the starting job and is in the right scheme to flourish as a rookie.

    Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are still a fearsome pair of safeties. At cornerback, Ike Taylor is as capable as most, and Cortez Allen and William Gay know the scheme well.

    DE: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward  NT: Steve McLendon

    OLB: Jarvis Jones, LaMarr Woodley  ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote

    S: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark  CB: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay


    Ben Roethlisberger's knack for manufacturing big plays keeps the Steelers in contention. He might miss Mike Wallace somewhat, but Roethlisberger can still count on Antonio Brown.

    A superb young wideout, Brown should become the Steelers' primary target in 2013. The team was also smart to keep Emmanuel Sanders out of the clutches of the Patriots.

    Expect rookie Markus Wheaton to win the third receiver job ahead of Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery.

    The biggest change in the Steelers offense will come in the running game. Second-rounder Le'Veon Bell has a great chance to be an immediate starter.

    The Steelers ditched Rashard Mendenhall and could trade Jonathan Dwyer, according to Bell should win the starting job ahead of LaRod Stephens-Howling despite the latter's familiarity with coordinator Todd Haley.

    Will Johnson will consistently block open rushing lanes for Bell. Unfortunately, though, the running game may miss the blocking prowess of tight end Heath Miller.

    He had ACL surgery in the offseason. General manager Kevin Colbert appeared to set a year as a time frame for his return, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That could thrust David Paulsen into a starting role.

    At least the offensive line should be strong, if only along the interior. Maurkice Pouncey is one of the league's best centers. David DeCastro proved a success as a rookie starter at guard.

    Ramon Foster is a good run-blocker at the other guard spot. Tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams are weak, but the Steelers haven't been in a rush to upgrade them.

    QB: Ben Roethlisberger  RB: Le'Veon Bell  FB: Will Johnson  TE: David Paulsen/Heath Miller

    OL: Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Mike Adams

    WR: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton

    The Steelers are getting younger across the roster. It will prove the skill of their drafting if they still manage to stay talented and competitive with a more youthful roster.

4. AFC North: Cleveland Browns

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    A new regime has completely remade the Cleveland Browns defense. Those changes are crucial to creating a fast turnaround for a team that was 5-11 last season.


    The decision to switch to a 3-4 base will be keyed by mammoth duo Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. Taylor should take the nose tackle spot, with Rubin at one end.

    The other end position will be manned by free-agent arrival Desmond Bryant. This is a powerful-looking front three that already gives Cleveland's defense an intimidating appearance.

    There are big changes at linebacker. Mega-bucks signing Paul Kruger will take one outside spot and be the unit's primary pass-rusher.

    Sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo will beat out 2011 second-rounder Jabaal Sheard for the other job. Sheard is more of a natural defensive end and doesn't fit well on the weak side.

    On the inside, D'Qwell Jackson will be a leader and tackle everything that moves. It's the position next to him that will be contentious.

    Craig Robertson could be a favorite. However, this author believes James-Michael Johnson is the better choice. Johnson is more of a big-bodied thumper, and that suits the requirements for a base 3-4 look.

    Cornerback is a strong position as long as Joe Haden is on the roster. The Browns might have improved their options next to him after taking Leon McFadden in the third round.

    He should win the job on the outside, with Buster Skrine moving into the slot in nickel situations.

    T.J. Ward is a smart safety, but who occupies the other spot is anybody's guess. The lack of talent and options make sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter as smart a bet as any to start.

    DE: Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin  NT: Phil Taylor

    OLB: Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger  ILB: James-Michael Johnson, D'Qwell Jackson

    S: T.J. Ward, Jamoris Slaughter  CB: Joe Haden, Leon McFadden, Buster Skrine


    Brandon Weeden should keep his starting job at quarterback. That's the feeling in Cleveland, according to a report from's Chris Wesseling, citing thoughts from Ian Rapoport.

    It's a risk worth taking. Weeden could suit new coordinator Norv Turner's vertical-based passing game.

    Weeden will fire any deep strikes toward Josh Gordon and Greg Little. They're both big speedsters. The trade for Davone Bess was a superb move.

    It gives Weeden a dependable underneath option for when most of the coverage has been taken deep. Similarly, Jordan Cameron is built like a Turner-type tight end and should start ahead of blocker Kellen Davis.

    Running back Trent Richardson can post big numbers in Turner's system. He'll be helped by a solid-looking offensive line.

    Alex Mack anchors the front five as a skilled center. Joe Thomas is the star of the group as a physically punishing left tackle.

    Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao are two bruising guards who boast the size Tuner loves his lines to possess. Youngster Mitchell Schwartz completes a front five that should open plenty of holes for Richardson and keep Weeden clean.

    QB: Brandon Weeden  RB: Trent Richardson  TE: Jordan Cameron/Kellen Davis

    OL: Joe Thomas, Jaosn Pinkston, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Mitchell Schwartz

    WR: Josh Gordon, Greg Little, Davone Bess

    The Browns are undergoing yet another revamp. However, there's been no half-measures during the rebuilding process.

    They've quickly assembled the right pieces for a 3-4 switch and bringing Turner in to run the offense will make a positive difference.

1. NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons weren't shy about upgrading their defense in the draft. They used all but one of their eight picks on that side of the ball.


    Osi Umenyiora will seamlessly replace John Abraham. He'll offer the same level of pass rush, although he doesn't quite possess Abraham's timing for the big play.

    Kroy Biermann's versatility is crucial in the kind of multiple-front defense the Falcons run. Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux complete the front four as solid tackles.

    Sean Weatherspoon is the all-action playmaker among the linebackers. He's joined again by veteran Stephen Nicholas and youngster Akeem Dent.

    Thomas DeCoud is a capable safety, but keeping the dynamic William Moore was the real coup of the Falcons' offseason.

    Asante Samuel will start at cornerback, but he'll be joined by a rookie. First-round pick Desmond Trufant will be counted on to upgrade a defensive backfield that faltered in the playoffs.

    Second-rounder Robert Alford should play his way into the nickel cornerback role.

    DE: Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann  DT: Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux

    LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas. S: Thomas DeCoud, William Moore

    CB: Desmond Trufant, Asante Samuel, Robert Alford


    Matt Ryan is fast becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Few passers can match his accuracy and touch.

    Ryan is blessed with arguably the best set of receivers in the league. Julio Jones is the deep burner who stretches coverage vertically.

    Roddy White works the intermediate routes outside and across the middle. Classy veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez is the ideal foil underneath. Third wideout Harry Douglas is perfect for the slot.

    What makes this offense truly scary heading into 2013 is the addition of Steven Jackson at running back. He's a major upgrade over Michael Turner, offering more big-play potential and greater receiving skills.

    Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes are competent at both ends of the offensive line. Youngster Peter Konz can develop into a quality center, while Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds are solid guards.

    QB: Matt Ryan  RB: Steven Jackson  TE: Tony Gonzalez

    OL: Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Peter Konz Garrett Reynolds, Lamar Holmes

    WR: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas

    There are still, rightfully, doubts about Mike Nolan's defense, in terms of both personnel and play-calling. However, this offense is strong enough to make the Falcons major players in the Super Bowl race.

2. NFC South: Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers didn't waste another opportunity to fix their biggest weakness in the draft. The team is much stronger defensively.


    The Panthers got it right when they made the best pick of the first round, selecting Star Lotulelei. He'll start at defensive tackle alongside Dwan Edwards.

    The superb Charles Johnson will man one end and Greg Hardy the other. Youngsters Kawann Short and Frank Alexander will also get playing time.

    Luke Kuechly is the dominant force at linebacker. He'll operate from the middle but make plays everywhere.

    Thomas Davis and Jon Beason will operate on the outside, and the Panthers will hope they can finally stay healthy.

    Drayton Florence was a smart veteran pickup to start at cornerback. Josh Norman will take the other spot. Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura will start at safety.

    DE: Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy  DT: Dwan Edwards, Star Lotulelei

    LB: Jon Beason, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis  S: Charles Godfrey, Haruki Nakamura

    CB: Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, D.J. Moore


    Cam Newton wasn't at his rookie level in 2012 but still remains a prominent playmaker. He'll still throw to Steve Smith, and that can't be a bad thing.

    Domenik Hixon will compete with Brandon LaFell for a starting berth. Hixon has a good shot to win that job.

    Greg Olsen is another target for Newton to aim for. Newton could also benefit from more clarity in the running game.

    The fullback position is set with Mike Tolbert, who is a capable blocker, receiver and runner. It's the running back position that remains unclear. DeAngelo Williams' return to the team is still far from certain, according to CBS Charlotte. That could leave Jonathan Stewart as the starter.

    The offensive line is led by left tackle Jordan Gross. Amini Silatolu is a solid left guard, and Ryan Kalil is capable at center.

    Geoff Hangartner fills in at right guard, while Byron Bell could be upgraded at right tackle.

    QB: Cam Newton  RB: Jonathan Stewart  FB: Mike Tolbert  TE: Greg Olsen

    OL: Jordan Gross, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner, Byron Bell

    WR: Steve Smith. Domenik Hixon, Brandon LaFell

    The Panthers defense looks like it could be ready to join the league's best. However, the offense will suffer without clarity in the running game and a credible second receiver.

3. NFC South: New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints will be counting on key picks from their draft class to help out right away. The most important additions will be on a defense transitioning to a 3-4 scheme.


    Third-round pick John Jenkins is a good bet to win the starting nose tackle job in coordinator Rob Ryan's new 3-4 front. Ryan still plays with a lot of two-gap principles and likes size up front.

    Jenkins offers that and is a more natural fit than 4-3 nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks should take the defensive end spots, with Ryan-favorite Kenyon Coleman in reserve.

    Hicks is definitely one to watch in this scheme.

    Victor Butler played for Ryan in Dallas and offers above-average pass-rush skills at outside linebacker. Martez Wilson should be the other outside linebacker. However, don't rule out rookie free agent and ex-Stanford star Chase Thomas.

    Inside linebacker is well-stocked with Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma. The latter has played in a 3-4 in the past with the Jets and his schematic experience will prove invaluable.

    The safety position was strengthened by the Saints' decision to select Kenny Vaccaro with their first pick. He'll join Roman Harper, to give Ryan two interchangeable blitzers and box defenders.

    The Saints made another smart move when they signed Keenan Lewis to start at cornerback. The former Steeler will be partnered with Patrick Robinson on the outside.

    DE: Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks  NT: John Jenkins

    OLB: Victor Butler, Martez Wilson  ILB: Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton

    S: Kenny Vaccaro, Roman Harper  CB: Keenan Lewis, Patrick Robinson, Corey White


    With Drew Brees throwing the passes, the Saints will never be too far from contention. The record-setting quarterback will again have the luxury of throwing to a versatile group of receivers.

    The group is led by Lance Moore, the pint-sized marvel who can exploit every level of a defense. Marques Colston continues to be reliable from anywhere across the formation.

    Tight end Jimmy Graham is one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in football. Brees never tires of looking his way.

    Things may look a little different at running back, where Mark Ingram appears ready to play a bigger role. Yet that still won't stop Darren Sproles from featuring a lot in the passing game.

    It's up front where the Saints don't look as strong as usual. If they're smart, they'll plug in third-round choice Terron Armstead at left tackle ahead of Charles Brown. Armstead may be raw, but he's more physically gifted than Brown, who might fit better on the right as a viable alternative to former St. Louis Rams disaster Jason Smith.

    The Saints can actually afford to risk an untested tackle due to their strength along the interior. This line has been built to reduce and hold the middle and allow Brees to see over a pass rush and down the field.

    There are few better guard tandems than Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. Brian de la Puente is the kind of crafty technician every center should be.

    QB: Drew Brees  RB: Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles  FB: Jed Collins  TE: Jimmy Graham

    OL: Terron Armstead, Ben Grubbs, Brian de la Punete, Jahri Evans, Charles Brown

    WR: Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Nick Toon

    The Saints offense is still good enough to produce a return to the playoffs. Making that scenario a reality will depend on the success of the defense.

    The right personnel has been acquired for the 3-4. Only Ryan's often overly complex play-calling can doom the unit from here.

4. NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made themselves contenders in the NFC South by fixing the worst-ranked pass defense from 2012.


    That process was started by sending a first-round pick to the Jets for Darrelle Revis. The dominant cover ace will be expected to shut down his side of the field. By itself, trading for Revis was a good enough move. However, the Buccaneers made it a great offseason when they selected Johnthan Banks in the second round.

    Banks will start at corner, but he has experience playing at safety and could eventually move there, following the same career path as franchise-great Ronde Barber.

    Brutal hitter Mark Barron will continue intimidating unlucky receivers at strong safety. The Buccaneers aggressively pursued Dashon Goldson to play free safety.

    They should hope the former San Francisco 49ers starter's struggles in the playoffs were just a blip.

    At linebacker Tampa Bay has speed on the outside in the form of Jonathan Casillas and the excellent Lavonte David. Mason Foster is an underrated and productive middle 'backer.

    The defensive line is strong as long as tackle Gerald McCoy stays healthy. Putting a plugger like Derek Landri next to him at nose tackle should free McCoy to create more plays in the backfield.

    Health worries exist at defensive end. Young pass-rushers Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers have potential but must stay on the field to develop it.

    DE: Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers  DT: Gerald McCoy, Derek Landri

    LB: Jonathan Casillas, Mason Foster, Lavonte David  S: Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron

    CB: Darrelle Revis, Johnthan Banks, Eric Wright


    Josh Freeman will stay at quarterback for the time being at least. It won't have escaped his attention that the Buccaneers felt the need to select Mike Glennon in the third round.

    Freeman must make better use of the weapons around him, including wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. They are both tall burners on the outside capable of producing big play after big play.

    The third receiver role should go to Steve Smith. He's never recaptured the form he showed for the Giants in 2009, but Smith still runs good routes underneath.

    At tight end, former Packers rotation player Tom Crabtree will replace Luke Stocker as a starter. He's a solid blocker and a capable receiver.

    Doug Martin won't let up after a strong rookie campaign at running back. Brian Leonard will block and also earn some carries.

    The offensive line remains the strength of the team. Donald Penn and Demar Dotson are reliable tackles, but guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks can dominate.

    Center Jeremy Zuttah completes a powerful front five that lets the Tampa Bay offense execute any kind of play.

    QB: Josh Freeman  RB: Doug Martin  FB: Brian Leonard  TE: Tom Crabtree

    OL: Donald Penn, Carl Nicks, Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph, Demar Dotson

    WR: Mike Williams, Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith

    The Buccaneers could surprise many, particularly thanks to their defense. Nobody ran the ball on them in 2012, but everyone had success through the air.

    Revis and Banks will make the pass rush better and the whole unit potentially dangerous. Everything is in place around the quarterback, and this team can only be held back if Freeman falters.

1. AFC South: Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans will be hoping they have gotten better on offense, specifically in the passing game. They could also be boosted on a defense from an unlikely source—a defensive tackle taken in the sixth round.


    J.J. Watt will continue being the most destructive defensive end in football. Antonio Smith will take the other end position and create his own share of problems for offenses.

    Those positions are set, but nose tackle is far from certain. Holdover Earl Mitchell seems like an obvious choice to claim the starting job.

    However, sixth-rounder Chris Jones is a viable dark-horse candidate to upset the odds. He's light for a nose tackle, but that suits what coordinator Wade Phillips likes at the position.

    Jones is also a good pass-rusher. He posted 12 sacks last season for Bowling Green, according to A nose tackle who can rush the passer is something else Phillips likes.

    Remember, it was Phillips who started Jay Ratliff at nose tackle in Dallas. Ratliff was an undersized defensive tackle taken in the seventh round by the Cowboys.

    Brooks Reed will man one outside linebacker spot. Whitney Mercilus should take the other and live up his 2012 first-round-pick status.

    Brian Cushing's return improves things at inside linebacker. Vicious hitter Tim Dobbins will probably win the job next to him.

    The safety positions will be stronger with Ed Reed on the field. The veteran has recently undergone hip surgery, according to The Houston Chronicle.

    Bank on Reed being ready and able to start the season. The same report in The Chronicle also names Danieal Manning as the probable starter alongside Reed.

    Jonathan Joseph is still one of the league's best proponents of man coverage. The other starter at cornerback will be Kareem Jackson.

    Expect second-round pick D.J. Swearinger to occupy the hybrid-dime linebacker role Glover Quin played last season.

    DE: Antonio Smith, J.J. Watt  NT: Chris Jones

    OLB: Whitney Mercilus, Brooks Reed  ILB: Tim Dobbins, Brian Cushing

    S: Danieal Manning, Ed Reed  CB: Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph, Brice McCain


    Matt Schaub will stick at quarterback. He knows head coach Gary Kubiak's system well, but must prove he can deliver in the games that matter most.

    Schaub could be helped by the arrival of a new playmaking receiver. The Texans were smart to use the 27th overall pick on DeAndre Hopkins.

    They need a big-play threat on the outside to take the pressure off main wideout Andre Johnson. Hopkins' arrival means Keshawn Martin should move to the slot.

    Owen Daniels is still as reliable as any tight end in the game. He's a key part of every aspect of the Texans offense.

    That offense is keyed by the running of Arian Foster. The savvy zone-rusher will again lead a potent ground game ahead of able deputy Ben Tate. Garrett Graham will replace James Casey as the de facto fullback. The Texans will still rely on a stable, excellent offensive line, brimming with Pro Bowl talent.

    Tackles Duane Brown and Ryan Harris are perfectly suited to Kubiak's zone-based blocking system. Chris Myers is an intelligent, resourceful center.

    Ben Jones and Wade Smith keep things moving inside.

    QB: Matt Schaub  RB: Arian Foster  FB: Garrett Graham  TE: Owen Daniels

    OL: Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Ben Jones, Ryan Harris

    WR: Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Keshawn Martin

    The Texans have to hope Hopkins will provide an extra spark for their offense. They also need Phillips' defense to get back to its 2011 level. That'll happen only if Mercilus emerges as a prolific pass-rusher.

2. AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

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    The Indianapolis Cots played their way to a remarkable turnaround in 2012. However, their starting lineups for 2013 will look a lot different after a number of contentious offseason moves.


    Brilliant veteran Cory Redding will continue to occupy the under-tackle role in the Colts' hybrid 3-4. Former San Francisco 49er Ricky Jean-Francois will slide out to the other end after rugged old pro Aubrayo Franklin was added to play nose tackle.

    At outside linebacker, Robert Mathis proved he can be every bit as effective in a 3-4 as he was in a 4-3. He's an exceptional player, and top draftee Bjoern Werner will benefit from learning behind Mathis in a situational role.

    The other outside linebacker position will belong to Erik Walden. The Colts parted with a small fortune to sign Walden from the Packers, even though he was never special in Green Bay.

    Walden at least gives the Colts a more versatile fit for the demands of a 3-4 scheme. The linebackers are strong inside with tackling machines Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman.

    LaRon Landry must avoid injury and be the dynamic box safety the Colts need. Antoine Bethea will play the other safety role.

    Greg Toler and Vontae Davis will man the cornerback positions. Darius Butler is an opportunistic third corner.

    DE: Cory Redding, Ricky Jean-Francois  NT: Aubrayo Franklin

    OLB: Erik Walden, Robert Mathis/Bjoern Werner  ILB: Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer

    S: Antoine Bethea, LaRon Landry  CB: Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler


    Andrew Luck could be dominant in his second season. The young quarterback will learn from his mistakes and reduce his number of interceptions.

    The Colts will still rely on Vick Ballard to give him help in the running game. Stanley Havili's lead blocking could boost that running game.

    Dwayne Allen should continue to outshine Coby Fleener as a more complete tight end. However, Fleener will still see the field in two-tight end looks.

    It was a real privilege to watch Reggie Wayne make Luck's job easier last season. The aging receiver will be back to make all the catches again as the Colts' primary receiver.

    Darrius Heyward-Bey has never lived up to his billing, but he does at least give the Colts size and legitimate deep speed on the other side. T.Y. Hilton will create his own share of big plays from the slot.

    The offensive line still rates as a concern. Anthony Castonzo isn't the most agile or powerful left tackle. He could be helped by the arrival of Donald Thomas to play left guard.

    Thomas is the best of the Colts' offseason acquisitions. He's a brutal force in the running game and stout in pass-protection.

    Center Samson Satele needs to be pushed by fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes. Another rookie, Hugh Thornton, should supplant Mike McGlynn at right guard.

    At least right tackle looks a little better thanks to free-agent signing Gosder Cherilus. However, this line poses more questions than assurance at the moment.

    QB: Andrew Luck  RB: Vick Ballard  FB: Stanley Havili  TE: Dwayne Allen/Coby Fleener

    OL: Anthony Castonzo, Donald Thomas, Samson Satele, Hugh Thornton, Gosder Cherilus

    WR: Reggie Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton

    The Colts are counting on a revamped defense to support Luck in 2013. The question is: Have they actually got stronger?

    Yes, along the defensive line, but doubt has to be raised by the secondary.

3. AFC South: Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans got serious about rebuilding their offensive line this offseason. However, they haven't done enough to bolster a feeble pass rush.


    The Titans are fine at defensive tackle with new arrival Sammie Lee Hill joining Jurrell Casey. The problems start at end.

    Kamerion Wimbley is a serviceable pass-rusher but not a prolific one. Derrick Morgan suffers with inconsistency.

    The Titans should do all they can to add John Abraham to the mix. The team has met with the veteran, according to The Tennessean.

    Linebacker Akeem Ayers will supplement whatever pass rush there is up front. He's the star of a group rounded out by Colin McCarthy and Zach Brown.

    Jason McCourty is a quality young cornerback who is ably supported by Alterraun Verner. Expect third-round pick Blidi Wreh-Wilson to be the nickel corner. He's got the physical attributes to play in the slot.

    Former Raven Bernard Pollard will dole out punishment at strong safety, with Michael Griffin acting as the ball hawk behind him.

    DE: Kamerion Wimbley, Derrick Morgan  DT: Sammie Lee Hill, Jurrell Casey

    LB: Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy, Akeem Ayers  S: Bernard Pollard, Michael Griffin

    CB: Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Blidi Wreh-Wilson


    Jake Locker needs to reward the Titans' faith in him this season. He's got good targets on the outside in Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter.

    Tight end Delanie Walker will also be a useful outlet. Yet, his true value might be blocking for the running game. That's good news for Chris Johnson. The graceful, dynamic runner has everything he needs in front of him to get back to his best.

    That includes an offensive line reinforced by two powerful new guards. Andy Levitre arrived in free agency, and Chance Warmack was Tennessee's first draft pick.

    Both are dominant blocking for the run. Michael Roos is a standout left tackle, while David Stewart is developing well on the right. Fernando Velasco will continue at center.

    QB: Jake Locker  RB: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene  TE: Delanie Walker

    OL: Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco, Chance Warmack, David Stewart

    WR: Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter

    The Titans have molded a promising, power-based offense. They've also created real competition for Johnson and Locker.

    Shonn Greene is a bruiser who can take carries away from Johnson if the latter underachieves. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be waiting in the wings if Locker can't handle the pressure.

4. AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars have taken some positive first steps toward rebounding from 2012's 2-14 finish. Three members of this year's draft class should make the starting lineup.


    The pieces for new head coach Gus Bradley's hybrid defensive fronts are in place. Former Buccanneer Roy Miller will be vital to the run defense at nose tackle.

    Ex-Titans starter Sen'Derrick Marks will man the 3-technique position next to Miller. One-time tackle Tyson Alualu has the size to play the 5-technique role.

    The crucial position is the Leo hybrid defensive end/linebacker role. Jason Babin should be the front-runner ahead of Jeremy Mincey. Bradley has suggested Babin fits best at Leo, due to his linebacker experience, according to John Oehser of

    Paul Posluszny and Geno Hayes will work as an inside linebacker tandem while Russell Allen plays on the outside.

    Bradley has overhauled his secondary. Second-round choice Jonathan Cyprien has already impressed, according to's Chris Wesseling.

    Cyprien should win the free safety job, while Dwight Lowery plays the other safety spot. There will be even more change at cornerback.

    Former Cowboy Alan Ball has the height Bradley covets at the position. So does third-rounder Dwayne Gratz. Antwaun Molden returns to play third corner.

    DE: Jason Babin, Tyson Alualu  DT: Sen'Derrick Marks, Roy Miller

    LB: Geno Hayes, Paul Posluszny, Russell Allen  S: Jonathan Cyprien, Dwight Lowery

    CB: Alan Ball, Dwayne Gratz, Antwaun Molden


    Blaine Gabbert is fast running out of opportunities to prove he is a credible NFL starter. He'll probably get one more shot at it, but patience will be at a premium.

    At least Gabbert will have second overall pick Luke Joeckel helping to protect him. He probably will switch to right tackle, according to USA Today.

    It makes sense ,given Eugene Monroe's strong performances on the left. The guard positions look strong with Will Rackley and Uche Nwaneri as the starters.

    Brad Meester will resume his duties at center. Aside from protecting Gabbert, this line should help Maurice Jones-Drew get back on track.

    He'll have good support from Justin Forsett. Things should be clear at wide receiver, but Justin Blackmon's recent suspension creates some doubt.

    Normally he'd be the obvious starter alongside Cecil Shorts III, with Jordan Shipley and Mohamed Massaquoi in reserve. Blackmon's issues put more pressure on fourth-rounder Ace Sanders to contribute right away.

    At least the Jaguars can rely on Marcedes Lewis to be a force at tight end.

    QB: Blaine Gabbert  RB: Maurice Jones-Drew  TE: Marcedes Lewis

    OL: Eugene Monroe, Uche Nwaneri, Brad Meester, Will Rackley, Luke Joeckel

    WR: Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts III, Ace Sanders

    The Jaguars still have talent in key areas, particularly along both lines. They'll need the defense to be strong and carry a still-shaky-looking offense.

1. NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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    Last season's runner-up still looks as powerful as any team in the league. Their top draft pick will start, but continuity will be the key elsewhere.


    The defense is still an intimidating group that practically picks itself. However, the 49ers lack of rotation could be blamed for the unit's struggles in last season's playoffs.

    Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are the best 3-4 ends in football. Glenn Dorsey will play nose tackle and attack both A-gaps.

    The linebackers are arguably the most talented quartet in the league. Aldon Smith is the primary pass-rusher on the edge, while fellow outside 'backer Ahmad Brooks can do it all.

    Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the heart of this exceptional defense in the middle.

    Top pick Eric Reid will replace Dashon Goldson at free safety while Donte Whitner will continue at strong. The only big shakeup should come at cornerback.

    This author believes Nnamdi Asomugha will make a strong enough impression in camp to start alongside Carlos Rogers. The 49ers were burned by the Falcons and Ravens in the postseason, so a change is needed in the defensive backfield.

    DE: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald  NT: Glenn Dorsey

    OLB: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks  ILB: NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis

    S: Donte Whitner, Eric Reid  CB: Nnamdi Asomugha, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown


    Colin Kaepernick enters his first season as the unquestioned starting quarterback. He'll benefit from having Anquan Boldin to throw to.

    The other starting receiver will be Michael Crabtree, whom Kaepernick developed a nice rapport with last season. If Mario Manningham makes a quick recovery from a torn ACL, he'll be the third receiver.

    Vernon Davis will remain major part of the passing game at tight end. Rookie Vance McDonald will also feature.

    Frank Gore will still be the driving force in the running game, with Bruce Miller leading the way as a blocker.

    Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone and Jonathan Goodwin form one of the most skilled lines in the game.

    QB: Colin Kaepernick  RB: Frank Gore  FB: Bruce Miller  TE: Vernon Davis

    OL: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis

    WR: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham

    The 49ers are easily as strong as last season. If Asomugha and Boldin can still produce, they may be even more dominant in the NFC.

2. NFC West: Seattle Seahawks

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    The best thing the Seattle Seahawks did this offseason was improve their starting options in the pass-rush department. They added a host of fresh talent along their defensive front.


    That new talent begins with the signing of Cliff Avril. He's a good fit for the Leo end in head coach Pete Carroll's blend of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts.

    Chris Clemons tore his ACL in the playoffs, and John Boyle of The Herald claims he might not be fit for the start of the new season.

    Avril is the best fit on the outside. On the inside, the Seahawks will likely continue with three hulking tackles.

    That means Brandon Mebane on the nose and Red Bryant at the 5-technique. Fifth-round pick Jesse Williams will challenge Mebane for playing time, but it's third-rounder Jordan Hill who could start first.

    Hill can play the 3-technique role and offer an inside pass rush. The Seahawks linebackers are all punishing hitters. The trio is led by Bobby Wagner, but K.J. Wright is almost as effective. Seattle's ability to create more pressure could improve thanks to a change at linebacker.

    Boyle also suggests Bruce Irvin could see time at strong-side linebacker. That would give the Seahawks a good blitzer at the second level.

    Towering cornerback tandem Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman will continue to be the scourge of receivers everywhere. Now-seasoned veteran Antoine Winfield brings his bruising brand of coverage to the mix. He's tailor-made for the slot. Just when you thought Seattle's secondary couldn't get any bigger or more ferocious.

    And don't forget merciless safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who complete a punishing defense.

    DE: Cliff Avril/Chris Clemons  DT: Brandon Mebane, Jordan Hill, Red Bryant

    LB: K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin  S: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor

    CB: Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Antoine Winfield


    Russell Wilson rightly shamed all those teams who couldn't get past his lack of prototype height. The star in the making at quarterback will have even better weapons in 2013.

    That's thanks to the arrival of Percy Harvin. He'll give Wilson a true No.1 target to aim for. Sidney Rice will start on the other side, with Doug Baldwin also seeing plenty of time.

    Marshawn Lynch returns to lead the running game and batter his way through defenses. Michael Robinson will knock open any holes Lynch doesn't create for himself.

    Zach Miller should lead the way at tight end. He's a better receiver than Anthony McCoy.

    Russell Okung and James Carpenter key the strength of the blocking on the left of the O-line. Paul McQuistan is a competent zone-blocker at right guard.

    The Seahawks still haven't upgraded right tackle Breno Giacomini. That should be near the top of the to-do list. No such problem exists with center Max Unger.

    QB: Russell Wilson  RB: Marshawn Lynch  FB: Michael Robinson  TE: Zach Miller

    OL: Russell Okung, James Carpenter, Max Unger, Paul McQuistan, Breon Giacomini

    WR: Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin

    The Seahawks actually appear stronger than last season. The defensive-line rotation should be the envy of the rest of the league, and Harvin will make the whole offense better.

    Those games with the 49ers are going to brutal.

3. NFC West: St. Louis Rams

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    The St. Louis Rams didn't waste their two first-round picks. They'll expect both players to significantly upgrade key positions.


    The front four is already in great shape. Ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are a commanding pass-rush combination. Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford are tough inside. 

    The linebacking trio will improve with the arrival of Alec Ogletree. He and Jo-Lonn Dunbar will flank James Laurinaitis.

    Janoris Jenkins is a threat to snatch any errant pass. He partners with the more aggressive Cortland Finnegan at cornerback. Fifth-rounder Brandon McGee should beat out the troubled Trumaine Johnson for the nickel corner job.

    Third-round choice T.J. McDonald will upgrade the free safety position. Darian Stewart will stay at strong safety.

    DE: Robert Quinn, Chris Long  DT: Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford

    LB: Jo-Lonn Dunbar, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree  S: T.J. McDonald, Darian Stewart

    CB: Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Brandon McGee


    Sam Bradford needs to becoming a winning quarterback in his third year. He has the talent and now should have better weapons.

    That's because the Rams smartly added Jared Cook in free agency. He offers greater downfield potential at tight end.

    However, the real boost comes at wide receiver after the Rams drafted Tavon Austin eighth overall. The diminutive speedster is an endless source of big plays.

    He'll give Bradford a more explosive version of Danny Amendola. Chris Givens should start on the outside, where more will be expected from Brian Quick.

    Daryl Richardson was a more than pleasant surprise as a seventh-rounder in 2012. He'll vie for carries with this year's late-rounder Zac Stacy.

    Things also look better for Bradford along the offensive line, especially with Jake Long plugged in at left tackle. That lets Rodger Saffold move back to the right, where he has to stay healthy.

    Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells are tough along the interior. Barrett Jones could prove to be a steal as a fourth-rounder and looks like the best option for left guard.

    QB: Sam Bradford  RB: Daryl Richardson, Zac Stacy  TE: Jared Cook

    OL: Jake Long, Barrett Jones, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Rodger Saffold

    WR: Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Brian Quick

    The Rams will lean heavily on their draft class just as they did in 2012. If the key picks turn out well, this young squad could be back in playoff contention sooner than expected.

4. NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals caused a stir when they drafted Tyrann Mathieu in the third round. However, there's far more to how they've adjusted their lineups under new head coach Bruce Arians.


    The defense will continue to look ostensibly like a 3-4. That means Dan Williams at nose tackle, and Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett at end.

    Daryl Washington will be the main playmaker on the inside. Alongside him, Jasper Brinkley will add more size at linebacker. On the outside, Sam Acho will be charged with providing the bulk of the pass rush. Fortunately, he's perfectly qualified for the task.

    Still, it would help if fourth-round pick Alex Okafor can send O'Brien Schofield to the bench and share the load with Acho.

    Things will look a lot different at safety for two reasons. First, there will be no Adrian Wilson creeping up from deep to blitz.

    Second, Rashad Johnson won't offer the same kind of dynamism. Any dynamism at safety will have to come from Mathieu.

    He's got the perfect ball-hawking skills for robber coverage and man-free looks. Freeing Mathieu to make plays will depend on Patrick Peterson and Antoine Cason locking things down on the outside.

    Recently acquired Javier Arenas will feature a lot in nickel and multiple-defensive back looks.

    DE: Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett  NT: Dan Williams

    OLB: Sam Acho, Alex Okafor  ILB: Daryl Washington, Jasper Brinkley

    S: Rashad Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu  CB: Antoine Cason, Patrick Peterson, Javier Arenas


    Carson Palmer still has the arm strength to flourish in Arians' vertical passing schemes. Palmer will certainly enjoy firing strikes to a trio of receivers as talented as Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts.

    Rob Housler has to offer more at tight end. Palmer won't be shy about looking his way on underneath routes.

    When the ball isn't in the air, former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall will be required to lead a power-based ground game.

    He knows Arians' offense well and is certainly capable of pounding out yards between the tackles. He'll start, but rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington will offer a serious challenge. Ellington will certainly feature on third downs. He's got the quickness and receiving skills for the job.

    Of course, the success of any plans the Cardinals make in their schemes will depend on how well the line holds up. Arians certainly has faith in left tackle Levi Brown, according to

    On the other side, Bobby Massie will have to put the nightmares of his rookie season to the back of his mind. That might take some time.

    However, the Cardinals will be better inside. Selecting Jonathan Cooper with their top pick was a superb move.

    Cooper was the best guard in this year's draft class. He's mobile enough to pull around the corner to lead on the power plays Arians loves.

    Daryn Colledge may stick at the other guard spot, but Cooper's presence will compensate for that. Lyle Sendlein injured his knee and tore his MCL in Week 12 last season.

    The Cardinals need their center ready to play to start the new season.

    QB: Carson Palmer  RB: Rashard Mendenhall, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington

    OL: Levi Brown, Jonathan Cooper, Lyle Sendlein, Daryn Colledge, Bobby Massie

    TE: Rob Housler  WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts

    Palmer and Mendenhall will make the offense better. With Brown and Sendlein healthy and Cooper in the mix, the line should no longer be a weak link.

    The big questions are on defense. The Cardinals are sticking with a 3-4 but lack a true pass-rusher aside from Acho. The secondary will sink or swim based on the new safety pairing.

1. AFC West: Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos made their boldest moves in free agency and their smartest choices in the draft. They look stronger on both sides of the ball than the team that led the way in the AFC for most of 2012.


    The first major change will involve starting 28th overall pick Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle. Denver's defense needs a more disruptive force at the position, and Williams can be that player.

    He'll be joined by more natural run-stuffer Terrance Knighton. The Broncos appear significantly stronger at tackle.

    Unfortunately the same is not true at defensive end. The team has so far neglected to replace Elvis Dumervil.

    That means relying on Robert Ayers and Derek Wolfe to create pressure off the edge. That should mean fifth-round pick Quanterus Smith can become a valued member of the rotation. He has the outside quickness and rush skills Ayers and Wolfe lack. Of course, the Broncos' pass rush stems mostly from outside linebacker Von Miller.

    The game's most complete defensive playmaker will continue to terrorize quarterbacks from a variety of alignments. Signing Shaun Phillips was also a great move and he should win a starting job.

    Having Phillips line up at outside linebacker might let Miller see more time at defensive end. In the middle, Stewart Bradley will benefit from a return to a 4-3 after struggling in Arizona's 3-4 base.

    The Broncos now boast a big, veteran front seven, and that's just what coordinator Jack Del Rio wants.

    Experienced players are also found in the secondary. The great Champ Bailey and newly acquired Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be the starting corners.

    Rahim Moore and Mike Adams complete a group sometimes lacking in speed but never in smarts.

    DE: Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe  DT: Sylvester Williams, Terrance Knighton

    LB: Von Miller, Stewart Bradley, Shaun Phillips  S: Mike Adams, Rahim Moore

    CB: Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kayvon Webster


    Peyton Manning proved that he still has enough left to dominate the league. Expect Manning to yet again be among the game's most productive passers.

    Protecting Manning is a stellar line led by technically sound left tackle Ryan Clady. New right guard Louis Vasquez will make the group even more impressive.

    Manning has great options to throw to at tight end in carbon copies Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen.

    What Manning will love the most, though, is the fact the Broncos captured Tom Brady's favorite wide receiver, Wes Welker. The intelligent slot ace gives Manning a much-needed safety valve in his declining playing years.

    Fortunately, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker can take care of making the big plays on the outside. Both have speed to go deep and produce big gains after the catch.

    Montee Ball was a smart pick in Round 2 and should start at running back. He's a more than capable pass-catcher, which will suit Manning.

    However, Ball is also more consistent as an inside runner than Ronnie Hillman and more dynamic than Willis McGahee.

    Jacob Hester offers the perfect combination of skills to play fullback in a Manning-led offense.

    QB: Peyton Manning  RB: Montee Ball  FB: Jacob Hester  TE: Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen

    OL: Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Louis Vasquez, Orlando Franklin

    WR: Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker

    The Broncos will rarely have a better chance to win their third Super Bowl title. This roster is fully loaded on both sides of the ball.

    The defense is a physically imposing, savvy group, offering plenty of scheme flexibility, particularly if Miller and Phillips are used right.

    On offense, Manning has every weapon he needs to top the passing charts and make Denver the class of the AFC.

2. AFC West: San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers will hope each of their three top draftees become first-year starters. They've also worked hard to alter things on the offensive line.


    Although Manti Te'o may grab the headlines, the strength of this defense is up front. Corey Liuget is already one of the best defensive linemen in the league.

    Liuget and fellow youth Kendall Reyes will team up at end. Their performances will have to match their considerable talent level, because Cam Thomas is unproven at nose tackle.

    Te'o will start next to Donald Butler at inside linebacker despite Butler's initial reservations. Despite the furor Te'o's selection might have caused for some, he's an excellent 3-4 linebacker.

    He directed the system at Notre Dame and will be surrounded by a host of front-seven talent in the pros. That talent includes Melvin Ingram on the outside. He has to become this unit's featured pass-rusher.

    At safety, the Chargers are keen on using former cornerback Marcus Gilchrist at one spot, according to Having Eric Weddle at the other position will help that transition go smoothly.

    Former Jaguars starter Derek Cox will replace Antoine Cason at one cornerback spot. Shareece Wright should win the job on the other side, unless fifth-round pick Steve Williams shines in camp.

    This position looks more than a little suspect on an otherwise stout defense.

    DE: Corey Liuget, Kendall Reyes  NT: Cam Thomas

    OLB: Melvin Ingram Jarret Johnson  ILB: Manti Te'o, Donald Butler

    S: Marcus Gilchrist Eric Weddle  CB: Derek Cox, Shareece Wright, Steve Williams


    Philip Rivers should finally eradicate his penchant for mishaps under the tutelage of new head coach Mike McCoy. Yet, it won't just be McCoy who makes a difference.

    Rivers will be thankful for a completely revamped offensive line. King Dunlap will feature at left tackle, with Rich Ohrnberger at guard.

    Chad Rinehart will play at right guard next to first-round choice D.J. Fluker. That's four new faces around center Nick Hardwick.

    Antonio Gates will continue to be a prominent part of the pass offense at tight end. John Phillips will see the field only as a blocker.

    Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander are the kind of big-bodied speedsters the Chargers have collected at wide receiver. Third-round pick Keenan Allen also fits that mold and will contribute early and often as a rookie.

    Ryan Mathews has to take better care of the ball and avoid injuries. If he does, he's a 1,000-yard running back.

    Danny Woodhead is the best third-down option the Chargers have had since Darren Sproles. Le'Ron McClain is a powerful blocker and decent runner at fullback.

    QB: Philip Rivers  RB: Ryan Mathews  FB: Le'Ron McClain  TE: Antonio Gates

    OL: King Dunlap, Rich Ohrnberger, Nick Hardwick, Chad Rinehart, D.J. Fluker

    WR: Malcom Floyd, Danario Alexander, Keenan Allen

    The Chargers could push the Broncos all the way in the AFC West. Yet, there are too many questions at key positions.

    Will the lack of talent at cornerback seriously undermine the defense? Will Mathews finally be consistent in the running game?

    However those questions are answered will determine the Chargers' success.

3. AFC West: Oakland Raiders

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    The Oakland Raiders continue to stitch together a patchwork roster the best way they can as they emerge from the salary cap abyss.


    General manager Reggie McKenzie refuted the common pre-draft consensus when he opted against taking a defensive tackle in Round 1.

    McKenzie instead chose fleet-footed cornerback D.J. Hayden. That wasn't the worst move, given how the Raiders have overhauled their secondary this offseason.

    Hayden will likely play third corner initially, while Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter (who knows head coach Dennis Allen's defensive scheme well) start.

    Tyvon Branch is the only holdover at safety, and that's a good thing. He'll be joined by big hitter Usama Young.

    It's also all change at linebacker. Free agents Kevin Burnett, Nick Roach and Kaluka Maiava will all start in their first seasons in Oakland.

    Third-rounder Sio Moore should also see the field as a pass-rusher in sub-packages. The Raiders need help applying pressure because their line has been remade as well.

    Lamarr Houston remains at one end but is more of a force against the run. Veteran Andre Carter needs to keep Jason Hunter off the field.

    There's a new tackle tandem in the form of Vance Walker and Pat Sims. Walker has the potential to apply pressure through the middle.

    If Sims could ever stay healthy he would be a highly effective nose tackle and the focal point for a run defense.

    DE: Andre Carter, Lamarr Houston  DT: Vance Walker, Pat Sims

    LB: Kevin Burnett, Nick Roach, Kaluka Maiava  S: Usama Young, Tyvon Branch

    CB: Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter, D.J. Hayden


    The strength of the offense will be determined by how well Matt Flynn performs at quarterback. McKenzie knows Flynn from Green Bay, but he has not exactly surrounded him with stellar weapons.

    Denarius Moore has 1,000-yard ability at wide receiver,but frustrates with his inconsistency. Jacoby Ford has speed but is far from a well-rounded route-runner and pass-catcher.

    Juron Criner and Rod Streater complete an uninspiring wide receiver rotation. Things are even less certain at tight end.

    Late-round rookies Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera should compete for the job. Kasa is the more natural blocker, but given the paucity of pass-catching talent, Rivera's receiving skills should give him the edge.

    What would help Flyyn the most is a full and productive season from Darren McFadden. He will lead the running game but also give some carries to Rashad Jennings.

    Stefan Wisniewski and Mike Brisiel are capable interior offensive linemen. However, Brisiel's experience is in zone-blocking, something the Raiders will avoid in 2013.

    QB: Matt Flynn  RB: Darren McFadden  FB: Jon Hoese  TE: Mychal Rivera

    OL: Jared Veldheer, Stefan Wisniewski, Jason Foster, Mike Brisiel, Menelik Watson

    WR: Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, Juron Criner

    The Raiders continue to rebuild on the fly. The results this year have produced an interesting-looking defense that must play like the strength of the team.

4. AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs

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    Andy Reid's arrival has put a stamp of authority on the Kansas City Chiefs. That's been obvious in the series of decisive moves they've made this offseason to get better.


    Dontari Poe failed as a rookie in 2012 but will still be expected to anchor a base 3-4 defense as its nose tackle. Being flanked by former Jets defensive end Mike DeVito will help improve Poe.

    DeVito is stout against the run and can hold double-teams. Tyson Jackson will continue at the other end. He's developed well in the 3-4.

    The Chiefs boast a pair of quality starters at outside linebacker. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are both dangerous pass-rushers.

    Derrick Johnson secures one inside linebacker spot. The competition next to him will feature Zac Diles, Akeem Jordan and fourth-round pick Nico Johnson.

    Jordan played for Reid in Philadelphia, but Johnson seems a better fit for the system. He played some 3-4 at Alabama and has the frame to take on blockers inside.

    Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis are a pair of dynamic, young safeties. They will benefit from playing in a more attack-minded style of defense.

    Brandon Flowers is still a classy cornerback, and the arrivals of Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith improve the options for the second and third corner slots.

    DE: Tyson Jackson, Mike DeVito  NT: Dontari Poe

    OLB: Tamba Hali, Justin Houston  ILB: Derrick Johnson, Nico Johnson

    S: Kendrick Lewis, Eric Berry  CB: Dunta Robinson, Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith


    Alex Smith isn't a dynamic quarterback, but he does fit Reid's efficient brand of West Coast-style offense. Smith will have the luxury of throwing to two good tight ends.

    Tony Moeaki and new signing Anthony Fasano give the Chiefs a lot of options at the position. Third-round pick Travis Kelce will also contribute.

    Smith liked utilizing tight ends in San Francisco, and he'll do the same with the Chiefs. Smith will also find it easy to use wide receiver Dwayne Bowe on routes across the middle.

    The big question is the other position. Can Jonathan Baldwin play like the wideout the Chiefs thought they were getting in the first round of the 2011 draft?

    If not, Donnie Avery will soon start ahead of him. He's got excellent vertical speed but has been brittle throughout his career.

    At least Smith won't have any doubt about the skills of running back Jamaal Charles. He can break a big gain on any carry and is also a more than useful receiver.

    Reid's schemes will be set up by an offensive line that received a major infusion of talent with the arrival of No.1 overall pick Eric Fisher.

    He's scheduled to move to right tackle, according to That's good because it will allow Branden Albert to remain on the left side.

    That one move already makes this line better than a year ago.

    QB: Alex Smith  RB: Jamaal Charles  FB: Anthony Sherman

    OL: Branden Albert, Jeff Allen, Eric Kush, Jon Asamoah, Eric Fisher

    WR: Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin, Donnie Avery  TE: Tony Moeaki, Anthony Fasano

    Reid and new general manager John Dorsey have given the Chiefs a bold facelift this offseason. In doing so they've already added greater credibility to a franchise that was 2-14 in 2012.