October292013

Great Expectations

Derrick Rose has returned. He dominated the preseason and was able to answer a lot of question with regards to health. It looks like the 14-month soap opera surrounding Derrick Rose’s left knee has finally, mercifully come to a close and now is the time to get back to business with an eye toward bringing home a title. Expectations are high as they should be but I would expect a different approach to this season than the Bulls have had in the past.

For the first time since Derrick Rose arrived in Chicago the Bulls have legitimate title aspirations. In 2010, the Bulls were still too young, Rose inexperienced and Joakim Noah still a work in progress while the big three were all playing at a high level and proved to be too much for the young Bulls to handle. 2011 ended when Derrick went down clutching his left knee and last year served as a valuable developmental year for guys like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. The Bulls enter 2013 as the consensus #1 contender for a shot at Miami this year and as one of the league’s best team but those kind of expectations are going to force Tom Thibodeau to handle his team different than he has in years past.

The Bulls turned in the league’s best record in both 2010 and 2011, which was an excellent feat for those teams, but the NBA regular season doesn’t carry the same importance as other sports. Unlike the NFL, where the reigning Super Bowl champs are scuffling to stay at .500 and the MLB where a last place team from a year ago is two games from a World Series title, the parity of the NBA just doesn’t exist like it does in other sports. Take a look at the NBA landscape and before the season even starts, you could probably peg at least 12 of the 16 playoff teams. With that in mind the Bulls need to adjust the way they handle the regular season.

They’re going to be in the playoffs in some capacity barring a massive collapse (or an injury to a certain point guard, but I’m not even going to go there) so they have to play the regular season smarter than they have in the past. There are going to be games where Derrick Rose needs to rest, the Heat do it with Wade and James, they see the Bobcats or the Suns on the schedule and decide that they’ll have more than enough to win (copyright, Thibs) even without their big guys. The Bulls need to play the same way. If a team jumps out to a fast start and the Bulls go into halftime down 25 points, pack it in. Live to fight another day and let Erik Murphy (tell Sloane I said what up) and Marquis Teague mop up and move on. That line of thinking flies in the face of the way Tom Thibodeau does his job and it’s one of the reasons for the friction between Thibs and the front office. Thibodeau is there to win every game but he has to see the big picture, for the first time in his tenure, this team has the chance to make some noise in the playoffs rather than just get there. Getting to the playoffs healthy and relatively fresh means 1000% more to the Bulls than having the league’s best record. They’re going to get the Heat or the Pacers or both regardless, so embrace it and make sure that you’re ready to go when those matchups inevitably come.

So what do the 2013-2014 Chicago Bulls look like? Where is the scoring going to come from? How does the Bench Mob look? What can we expect from the three new guys?

The Starters

-Derrick Rose

            Had a great preseason, looks healthy and that’s the most important thing. As far as his game goes, his three point shooting looks to be improved as he looks like he has more confidence in the shot. Rather than stopping at the arc and double checking if there is any way he can get to the hoop or dish the ball off like he would in years past, he’s locked and loaded ready to fire.

-Jimmy Butler

            Expectations are high for Jimmy Buckets as he enters his first season as a full-time starter. He showed high-level skill on each end of the floor last year and excellent durability while the rest of his team was crumbling around him. The only word of caution on Butler would be that he’s not sneaking up on anyone this year, he’s in everyone’s scouting report and won’t have the benefit of flying under the radar like he did most of last year.

-Luol Deng

            Deng is a premiere defender and the second option on offense for the Bulls. The glue that holds this team together and he is one of the league’s best LeBron stoppers. Luol is in a contract year so his name will be associated with various rumors throughout the year but the Bulls know what they have in Deng, and I would be shocked to see him moved during the season. The offseason might be another story.

-Carlos Boozer

            Boozer is a known commodity at this point; you know what you’re going to get from Boozer game in and game out. He is going to shoot a lot, he is going to yell a lot and he’s going to defend a little. I’ve spent most of Boozer’s time here begging the Bulls to move on but Boozer’s season last year swayed me. He played tough, he isn’t a star but he played like a very good NBA player and most importantly he played. Boozer, along with Jimmy Butler kept this team afloat. He’s far from a perfect basketball player but he’ll be able to carry the scoring load on nights where Derrick Rose doesn’t have it and his subpar defense can be hidden for stretches by his more than capable backup Taj Gibson.

-Joakim Noah

            Noah truly blossomed into a great player last year. He played through injury most of the year but he provided everything you could want from an NBA center. He always brings toughness and he’s willing to do the dirty work inside while his pure basketball skills also took a huge step forward last year.  He finished around the rim better than he ever had in his career and he’s probably the best passing big man in basketball not named Kevin Love.

The Bench Mob

-Taj Gibson

-Mike Dunleavy

-Kirk Hinrich

-Nazr Mohammed

-Tony Snell

Not exactly a flashy bunch but everyone has a skill that should help this team. Gibson might have been the Bulls MVP in preseason as he looks like he is in for a huge year. Gibson may be listed on the depth chart as Carlos Boozer’s backup but they play about the same amount of minutes. Gibson’s defense and rebounding is nice to have on the second unit and he’s talented enough to be an NBA starter on pretty much every team in the league.

Dunleavy is one of the new faces this year for the Bulls, he brings some experience, outside shooting and versatility as he can play the 2 or 3 spot and even the 4 in a pinch. Kirk Hinrich struggled with injuries last year and he’s already suffered a concussion this year so durability is concern for Captain Kirk but when he’s healthy he provides a solid backup for Derrick Rose who is capable of running the offense. Also, the Bulls look like they’re going to use Rose as an off guard more often which means Hinrich will be playing alongside Rose at times as well as backing him up.

One of the holes that I see on the Bulls bench is their lack of a true backup center. Nazr Mohammed played admirably last season but at some point he just isn’t going to have anything left in the tank. The Bulls like Nazr for his toughness but due to his limited skillset and advanced age he can’t be counted on to spell Joakim Noah for more than a few minutes per game.

Tony Snell did some nice things in preseason and looks like he might be able to contribute right away in a limited role. He was drafted to be a shooter and he showed that he definitely has an eye from deep. The coaches praise his defensive instincts and indicate that his technique is coming around. The most likely scenario for Snell is that he starts slowly, getting worked into games where the Bulls have a big lead and just gets his feet wet. When Snell starts gets more comfortable with the Bulls system and the NBA game itself, he’ll start to poach some of Mike Dunleavy’s minutes as the backup swingman. Dunleavy has a better understanding of the game at the moment but Snell has an undeniably better set of skills than Dunleavy does at this point in his career.

The End of the Bench

-Mike James

-Erik Murphy

-Marquis Teague

James will serve as the emergency point guard, which could mean that he plays a lot with Hinrich banged up or he could spend the season without taking his warm up off. The less you see of Mike James, the better.

Erik Murphy is a unique case because teams that are contenders like the Bulls don’t usually use a roster spot on a second round pick. That is usually the point in the draft where the top tier of NBA teams will use the pick to draft and stash a foreign prospect or trade out of the second round all together. The Bulls stood pat and took Murphy so they obviously saw something that liked. It seems like a long shot but Murphy has some skills as a stretch four that no other player on the Bulls roster has so I wouldn’t count out Murphy cracking the rotation. And if he does, we all get the gift of gratuitous Entourage quotes.

The Bulls have drafted very well since John Paxson and Gar Forman took over the front office. They made the right choice in the Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley draft, managed to grab Joakim Noah much later than he should have lasted, found value in the late first round with Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler and they even look like they have found some talent with Tony Snell this year. The one smudge on their draft resume is Marquis Teague. Teague was going to be a project coming out of Kentucky after just one year but he just simply hasn’t panned out. He struggles handling the ball against defensive pressure, he’s not much of a threat offensively and he is a liability defensively against even the most pedestrian point guards. The Bulls are actively shopping Teague but his play in the preseason has torpedoed his value. The team would love to deal Teague at some point this season but if they can’t, expect Teague to be the last man on the bench and nothing more.

September112013

Football on the Move

All future football content can be found at http://theoptionread.com thanks for your support.

-Tim

September62013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 7: The Super Bowl Contenders (Part 2)

4. Denver Broncos

Head Coach – John Fox

Full Disclosure: This was written after Peyton Manning made the Ravens look like a bunch of high schoolers. I saw what everyone else saw, a dominant performance but these rankings were put together before all that so I’ll stick with what I thought beforehand. Also, the Ravens had seven new defensive starters and Peyton Manning is famous for taking advantage of unprepared defenses, and Baltimore was certainly that last night. However, the offense is extremely impressive but they’re going to need to be without some key parts from last year’s defense.

 Why the Broncos Will Win the Super Bowl

To start this section with anything other than Peyton Manning would be foolish. At 37, Manning doesn’t seem to be human anymore and the way he has a hold on every aspect of this offense should concern every other team in the NFL. He has three top-notch receivers in Welker, Thomas and Decker, all of whom could break out for 200 yards on any given night. Very few teams in the NFL have the personnel to match up with the receivers that the Broncos put out in every offensive set. Also, Manning should be well protected by one of the best offensive lines in football. Left tackle Ryan Clady is one of the best in the business and he anchors an experienced and tough unit.

The defense isn’t quite as potent as it was last year but there are still some pieces that will make this an extremely tough defense again this year. Von Miller’s suspension will hurt them early on but the Broncos are in no danger of losing their division to anyone else. It looks like the regular season is simply a formality this year. Miller will have more than enough time to reinsert himself in the lineup and should be fully prepared for the playoffs. Champ Bailey is still one of the best in the game despite being 35 years old. Despite the loss of Miller the rest of the defense seems to have enough pieces to hold down the fort until his return and should be a top 10 defense yet again.

Why the Broncos Won’t Win the Super Bowl

It’s nothing new for a Peyton Manning to have a questionable running game. At the tail end of his career in Indianapolis, the run game was basically non-existent and he won a Super Bowl with Dominic Rhodes as his leading rusher. But that was when the Colts played in a dome and didn’t have to worry about the elements. Denver in December is a whole different animal which makes having a solid run game much more important. The Broncos used a draft pick on Montee Ball hoping he could come in and be their #1 back but he hasn’t done very much to separate himself from Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman. The running back committee won’t hurt early but as the season drags on, Peyton starts taking more hits and the weather gets colder, the Broncos are going to need a running attack and at this point they don’t seem to have one to get excited about.

The other reason why the Broncos could miss out on the Lombardi Trophy is father time. Yes, Peyton Manning didn’t look human last night against the Ravens but the fact remains that he is still 37 years old with a spine that is fused together. He has missed very few games in his career but it is far from a sure thing that Peyton Manning plays every game this year. If he were to go down, a real possibility for a 37 year old, the Broncos may not be able to recover. Also in the father time category is Champ Bailey, he’s 35 and on the downside of his career. The Broncos’ best player on each side of the ball is either in their final year or close to it. Counting on them to make 32 starts between them is a tough sell.

Where the Broncos End Up

 

They breeze through the AFC West, might even have the division clinched by week 10. The regular season is not what this team is built for they are built to win a championship and they have a real chance to do it. If everything falls into place we might be looking at an AFC Championship Game between the AFC’s best offense (Denver) and the AFC’s best defense (Houston) in what will go down as a classic.

2013 Record

13-3, AFC West Champions

 

3. Seattle Seahawks

Head Coach – Pete Carroll

After last year’s electric run the Seahawks are one of the hottest picks in the NFL, their defense is one of the best in the NFL and the offense looks to be the model of consistency. The health of Percy Harvin could be the X-factor for this team going forward. If Harvin is able to come back healthy and give the Seahawks a lift this team could definitely hoist the Lombardi at the end of the season.

Why the Seahawks Will Win the Super Bowl

 

The defense was excellent last year and they might even be better this year. The Seahawks had trouble getting to the passer so they went out and added pass rush specialist Cliff Avril and interior rusher Michael Bennett to try to get more pressure on the QB. The Seahawks primary pass rusher last year was Chris Clemons and he’s still working his way back from a torn ACL, but with Avril, Clemons should be able to take his time. Bobby Wagner turned out to be the steal of last years draft by leading the team in tackles from the middle linebacker spot and he’s well on his way to being and elite middle linebacker for Seattle. But the pride of the Seahawks defense is their secondary, the Seattle secondary contends with the 49ers linebackers, the Broncos receivers and the Bengals defensive line as the best unit of any position group in the NFL. Richard Sherman might be the best cover corner in the NFL, he has the speed and the size to shut down any receiver in the league. Opposite of Sherman is Brandon Browner who at 6 foot 4 is the biggest corner in football and creates matchup problems all over the field. The safeties are also top notch, Earl Thomas is great as a centerfield safety and Kam Chancellor is one of the most punishing hitters in football. Teams will struggle all year to pass on the Seahawks.

The Seahawks have an offensive identity that is very well defined. The big name is Russell Wilson who absolutely burst onto the scene last year and is already getting MVP buzz this year, but the offense is run through Marshawn Lynch. Lynch carried the ball 315 times last year and average five yards a touch. The game plan this year wont change, Lynch will get the ball and he will get it a lot.

Why the Seahawks Won’t Win the Super Bowl

 

The injury bug. It’s already hit them by taking away what was supposed to be their #1 offensive weapon. Percy Harvin was going to be the guy that opened up the Seahawks offense but he’s already injured. Harvin is trying to say that he’ll be back sooner rather than later but I’ll believe that when I see it. Also, even if Harvin is back earlier than anticipated it’s still a question mark as to how effective he will be. The team’s best pass rusher from a year ago is still working his way back from a torn ACL and the other primary pass rusher Bruce Irvin will start the season suspended for four games. Without Harvin, the Seahawks #1 option in the passing game will be Sidney Rice and he has had well documented injury problems throughout his career. The Seahawks first team is excellent and might be the best pound for pound team in football, but they lack the depth that other elite teams have. If they can’t stay healthy they won’t be able to keep up with the rest of the NFL’s royalty.

Where the Seahawks End Up

 

The Seahawks are elite in multiple aspects of the game. Their defense and especially secondary is absolutely stellar, teams will struggle to score points against them all season long. The question is if Russell Wilson can duplicate his success from a year ago and if the entire team can stay healthy to keep the offense churning. The Seahawks have to survive the NFC West and the rival 49ers who will be vying for the division crown and the Super Bowl along with the Seahawks. The Seahawks have the early edge over the 49ers but those teams are so closely matched that it will be an ever-changing situation. If the Seahawks can get by San Fran, they’ll have to go through Atlanta who might have the most potent offense in football. Just like in the AFC at matchup of Seattle and Atlanta for the conference would pit the conference’s best defense against the best offense.

2013 Record

13-3 NFC West Champions

1PM

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 7: The Super Bowl Contenders (Part 1)

 Welcome to the final installment of the Big, Fat NFL Preview this turned out to be a lot more work than I had anticipated but if you ask any of my former lovers they’ll tell you that I always finish what I start. The final six teams are the Super Bowl contenders, the six best teams in the league, and the odds are overwhelmingly high that one of these six teams will be the one that raises the Lombardi Trophy.

Part 1

6. San Francisco 49ers

Head Coach - Jim Harbaugh

The Niners were a whisper away from a title last year, but much like the team that beat them they’ve experienced some roster turnover as well. They didn’t lose as many key parts as the Ravens did but this is still a different team than the one that went to the Super Bowl last year. The 49ers are still one of the NFL’s elite but they don’t look quite as good as they did last year.

Why the 49ers Will Win the Super Bowl

 

It obviously starts with the defense, they lost a couple key parts most notably safety Dashon Goldson. While Goldson was a nice piece to have this defense is anchored by the linebackers and as long as Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are there, this defense will be one of the league’s best. Willis and Bowman may be the two best linebackers in football and they play right next to each other, along with Smith who has emerged as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. Rookie Eric Reed will replace Goldson alongside veteran Dante Whitner. The cornerbacks got a boost by adding Nnamdi Asomugha to serve as the nickel behind starters Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown. If Asomugha can even come close to regaining his form of a few years ago when he was considered the best cover corner in football, the Niners secondary will be tough as nails.

The 49ers run the ball and are committed to the run unlike any other team in football. The league has been playing a waiting game with Frank Gore, declaring at the start of each season that this will be the one when he breaks down. Well, until he proves otherwise it’s a safe to pencil in Gore for at least 200 carries and 1,000 yards. Since becoming the full time starter in 2006, Gore has never carried less than 203 times and only missed rushing for 1,000 yards once. He is the model of consistency and an absolute rock for the 49ers offense. Along with Gore they also have the best running quarterback in football. Robert Griffin, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are all good runners, but Kaepernick is the only one who is great as a runner. He averaged 6.5 yards a tote last year and provides a completely unique weapon to the offense. Just as icing on the cake the 49ers have the league’s best offensive line and they return all five starters from last year’s Super Bowl team.

Why the 49ers Won’t Win the Super Bowl

 

The loss of weapons on the offensive side is very concerning. Colin Kaepernick is going to need to make a star of someone because there is a definite lack of firepower in the passing game. The Niners brought in Anquan Boldin right after the Super Bowl hoping that he would be the possession receiver to compliment Michael Crabtree. Then Crabtree went and tore his Achilles and that plan went by the wayside. Now the offense is looking for direction without their best receiver. Vernon Davis was basically forgotten by Kaepernick, logging only 12 catches in the regular season after he took over, he can’t be overlooked again this year. Behind Boldin there aren’t any accomplished NFL receivers to speak of, barring a massive year from Boldin or Davis, this offense could struggle throwing the ball.

Now this is where things get tricky. I just spent a paragraph praising Colin Kaepernick but now I’m going to explain why I don’t totally believe in him this year. He burst onto the scene last year in week 9 to eviscerate the Bears and then the rest of the league on his way to the Super Bowl but of all the first year QBs who made a name for themselves last year, Kaepernick has the most regression potential. Kaepernick came into week 9 having never taken a meaningful snap in the NFL; there wasn’t any kind of game tape on him so the NFL had to adjust to this completely unique quarterback on the fly. He had the element of surprise on the rest of the NFL last year. He doesn’t have that this year. There is tape on him now and NFL defensive coordinators have had a summer to develop a game plan to contain him and force him to be more of a presence in the pocket. That’s where the problem lies. Of the new guard of quarterbacks (RG3, Russell Wilson, Luck, Kaepernick, Newton) Kaep is probably the least gifted passer of the group. Couple that with lack of weapons mentioned above, and there is definitely sophomore slump potential for Kaepernick.

Where the 49ers End Up

 

With a defense like that there is no question that this team will be in the Super Bowl conversation until the bitter end but this isn’t the same team that it was last year and it certainly isn’t the same offense. They are stuck in a division with another Super Bowl contender so their road to get there won’t be easy and it looks like they might fall just a little bit short this year.

2013 Record

12-4, NFC Wildcard #1

 

5. Cincinnati Bengals

Head Coach – Marvin Lewis

The Bengals have become this year’s trendy Super Bowl pick. They get the Hard Knocks boost and they actually look to be a legitimate contender. They’ve been to the playoffs three of the last four years and have plugged some of the holes that slowed them down in years past. As is the case with most young teams looking to break into the NFL’s elite, it all comes down to their quarterback and how far Andy Dalton will take them in his third season.

Why the Bengals Will Win the Super Bowl

 

Their offense is incredibly flexible with multiple weapons in multiple facets. Andy Dalton isn’t spectacular but he is a pretty good quarterback and guys that can make him look even better surround him. It starts with AJ Green who is one of the receivers in the NFL and is coming off his second Pro Bowl in two years. Green is Dalton’s favorite target but the Bengals passing game will also feature Mohammed Sanu, who looked ready for a breakout year last year before getting hurt. Brandon Tate and Marvin Jones are two of the better slot receivers in the NFL. The Bengals brought in tight end Tyler Eifert to play with incumbent Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals are looking to use the two tight end set that the Patriots have made famous. The running game also looks to be solid, BenJarvis Green-Ellis ran for 1,200 yards last year and is an excellent short yardage back. The Bengals added more strength to the ground game by adding the speedy Giovanni Bernard in the second round. The hype around Bernard is growing but he will be used as a compliment for Green-Ellis at least to start. Nevertheless, the Bengals have one of the better 1-2 punches out of the backfield in the NFL.

The defense is also one of the best in the league. Anchored by Geno Atkins the defensive line recorded a franchise record 51 sacks last year with Atkins and Michael Johnson leading the way. The Bengals found a diamond in the rough last year in Vontaze Burfict whose character issues led to him going undrafted despite having first round talent. All Burfict did last year was stay out of trouble and lead the Bengals in tackles, he has a nasty streak and is well on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Alongside Burfict is exactly the role model that he needs in veteran/Baddest Man in Football James Harrison. Harrison probably isn’t the same player that he was in Pittsburgh but he’s still a very good linebacker who makes this defense even better and brings some much needed attitude. Leon Hall is one of the best cover corners in the league and he will be able to constantly shut down opposing team’s #1. The depth at corner is a strength, after Hall, the Bengals have veterans Terrance Newman and Adam Jones along with Dre Kirkpatrick, all capable of covering high quality NFL receivers.

Why the Bengals Won’t Win the Super Bowl

It’s pretty easy to see why this team has become a trendy pick, there’s a lot to like, but they’re not without their flaws. The biggest question mark remains with Andy Dalton, Dalton had a very respectable year last year by throwing for over 3,600 yards and 27 TDs. The problem is his performance in the post season, in two games he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass and has thrown four interceptions. The Bengals will go as far as Dalton wants to take them, they have all the pieces in place but they need their quarterback to make the year three leap.

Where the Bengals End Up

It’s a really important year for Andy Dalton, the AFC North seems there for the taking and it would be a pretty big surprise to see anyone other than the Bengals win it. That doesn’t look like it is going to be the major hurdle, the problem will be that the road to the Super Bowl looks like it will definitely go through Houston or Denver or both and Dalton has to prove that he can win the big game against the best teams. Maybe the best thing that the Bengals have going for them is that their schedule looks fairly soft, if they can secure home field advantage they definitely could make a run at the AFC Championship. I believe in everything the Bengals have but I’m not sure Dalton is ready to beat the best.

2013 Record

13-3, NFC North Champions

 

September52013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 6: The Playoff Contenders

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 6: The Playoff Contenders

This Chapter will be dedicated to the teams that have playoff aspirations but may not quite be well equipped enough to make a Super Bowl run. Some of these teams will make it, some will fall just short but bottom line, these are some of the NFL’s better teams. I’m going to use a different format also, there are six playoff contenders and six Super Bowl contenders so I’m going to split them into two different chapters. Each team’s section will give reasons why they will make the playoffs, reasons why they won’t and ultimately their fate after the final horn sounds in week 17.

 

12. Green Bay Packers

Head Coach – Mike McCarthy

I made my feelings somewhat clear about the Packers in my Bears section but I pride myself on having an unbiased opinion on every team in the NFL. The Packers stayed relatively quiet in the free agent market after having their season unceremoniously ended by Colin Kaepernick with a record setting performance. They added a few pieces in the draft to plug some holes.

Why The Packers Make the Playoffs

In today’s NFL teams have to do two things well to be competitive. There are very few exceptions to the rule and you won’t find any championship caliber team that doesn’t do both well. First of all, you have to be able to pass the ball and the Packers have the best quarterback in the business. As long as number 12 stays healthy and under center this team will be competitive. Secondly, you have to be able to rush the passer. The Packers were 4th in the NFL in sacks last year and have one of the best edge rushers in all of football in Clay Matthews. Casey Hayward had a nice year in their secondary last year and they hope he can take another step forward. By adding Eddie Lacy the Packers hope to finally have an answer for the revolving door in their backfield. Lacy brings championship pedigree and looks to be the type of running back that can both protect Rodgers and get the tough yards.

Why The Packers Won’t Make the Playoffs

 

Here are some facts. Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league high 51 times last year. The fact that he was able to drag that offensive line to a playoff appearance is fairly remarkable. This year Rodgers returns with the same cast of characters protecting him minus his left tackle Bryan Bulaga who torn his ACL in camp. Bulaga, along with Josh Sitton is the Packers best lineman so that means Aaron Rodgers who was the most sacked quarterback in football last year will be protected by essentially the same line except without his blindside protector. Rodgers will be on his back a lot. I don’t like to project injuries, because you can’t but if Rodgers were to go down this year, the Packers would be absolutely cooked.

The losses of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver put the receiving core in unfamiliar territory. Randall Cobb led the Packers in receiving last year and will be the #1 option this year. Cobb was utilized as a gimmick type slot receiver and was the benefactor of soft coverage for most of last year. With defenses keying on the Packers other weapons Cobb was able to thrive. Now this year he will be the focus of the defensive game plan and he doesn’t have the ideal makeup to be a #1 option. Jordy Nelson is already struggling with an injury and James Jones can’t be counted on to reproduce his numbers from last year’s career year. Defensively outside of Matthews the Packers have steady veterans like BJ Raji, AJ Hawk and Morgan Burnett but they will have to account for the loss of their best secondary player and future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

Where The Packers End Up

 

With Rodgers they always have a chance but the lack of protection, the turnover in the receiving core make this team very vulnerable. If they had a great defense, those flaws would be easier to overlook but their defense is decidedly average and trying to replace one of its most productive players. The Packers will compete for the division title but with the depth of the NFC, they’ll find themselves on the outside looking in at the wildcard. The North race will be tight but the Bears look to have fewer holes especially defensively than the Packers, the Pack finish one game short.

2013 Record

9-7 and miss the playoffs

 

11. New York Giants

Head Coach – Tom Coughlin

The second half of last year was a mess for the G-Men, they squandered a 6-2 start by finishing 3-5 down the stretch and missing the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl. Eli Manning was dreadful down the stretch and his receiving core couldn’t stay healthy. The Giants pass rush is the main reason they have a Lombardi Trophy from 2011 but last year they ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks. The things the Giants usually do so well, were not very good last year so this is a very important year for Eli and the rest of the Giants. They can prove last year was a hiccup by putting together a nice run or they can regress even further, which will probably signal an end to the Tom Coughlin era.

Why the Giants Will Make the Playoffs

 

Eli Manning had one of the best eight game stretches of his career to start the 2012 campaign but then fell off a cliff to turn in his worse season as a pro. This year Manning will have all of his weapons back and healthy. Hakeem Nicks was nagged by injuries all year and wasn’t the same receiver. He’s back and when he’s paired with Victor Cruz it creates one of the best 1-2 punches in the NFL. David Wilson is the full time running back for the first time in his career and as long as he can hold on to the football he gives the Giants a weapon out of the backfield they haven’t had before. The offensive line is consistent and solid. Prince Amukamara established himself as a #1 cornerback last year and safety Stevie Brown finished towards the top of the league with eight interceptions.

Why the Giants Won’t Make the Playoffs

 

Their defense last year was atrocious and there has been some turnover but it looks equally underwhelming this year. It all starts with the pass rush and their big three up front. Justin Tuck recorded just four sacks last season and he looks like his best years are behind him. Jason Pierre-Paul followed his 2011 breakout season with a dud last year recording only six sacks as he battled injury. The Giants hope he can come back strong but he’s already questionable for week 1. Mathias Kiwanuka was much better suited to spell Osi Umenyiora and proved ineffective in a full time role last year. If the Giants aren’t getting to the passer the rest of the defense isn’t good enough to make up for that. The Giants are going to get scored on a whole bunch this year. Finally, for factors out of their control the NFC is good and the NFC East is deep with three teams that have the potential to win the division, if one team doesn’t clearly rise above the rest the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins will all beat up on each other, diminishing each other’s wildcard prospects.

Where the Giants End Up

 

As was the case with the Packers, the Giants will definitely contend this year even in the tough NFC East. They need to sweep either the Cowboys or Redskins to give themselves an edge but the Cowboys look to match up pretty well with the Giants and the Redskins look even a little better than both. The Giants come close maybe even taking it to week 17 against the Redskins but they fall a little bit short.

2013 Record

9-7 and miss the playoffs

 

10. Baltimore Ravens

Head Coach – John Harbaugh

The Super Bowl champs dealt with a ton of roster turnover after their win. They were extremely active in the free agent market and added some pieces in the draft that should help. After his run to the Super Bowl last year the Ravens were going to give the keys to the offense to Joe Flacco and turn him loose, unfortunately due to injuries the offense may be grounded a little bit more than the Ravens had planned. Replacing two Hall of Famers on defense can’t be done but Baltimore is hoping that depth and youth can provide an adequate replacement.

Why the Ravens Will Make the Playoffs

 

They’re well coached and have been there before is the “rah-rah” answer. The real answer is that the AFC stinks and as long as they don’t completely fall apart after last year, they should secure at least wildcard spot fairly easily. They have a great backfield tandem in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce both of whom they will rely on heavily throughout the year. With the additions of Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty to compliment Terrell Suggs the pass rush is going to be vicious. As a corollary of teams focusing so much energy on the top flight pass rush, nose guards Haloti Ngata and Terrance Cody should be free to work the middle.

Why the Ravens Won’t Make the Playoffs

 

It’s worth remembering the despite his remarkable playoff performance, Joe Flacco was one misplayed Hail Mary away from probably being someone else’s quarterback this year. There is very little evidence to suggest that the guy we saw in the playoffs will be the guy that takes the field this year for the Ravens. A contributing factor to a potential Flacco regression is that they lost some weapons from last year’s team and they’ve had to adjust the offense on the fly. Trading away Anquan Boldin made financial sense but it left the Ravens without a real physical possession receiver and it can’t be understated how much Dennis Pitta’s injury killed the Ravens. They were counting on him to be one of their main pass catchers and now a lot of that burden is put on Torrey Smith who has always been better as a secondary deep threat rather than a primary option. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can’t be replaced but the Ravens are counting on two rookies Arthur Brown and Matt Elam to fill their shoes, surrounded by a lot of other uncertainty this defense may not settle in right away.

Where the Ravens End Up

 

Despite their many holes the Ravens still have one of the six most talented teams in the AFC. Barring a massive meltdown the Ravens will make the playoffs in some way, shape or form. As it looks right now Cincinnati is the favorite to win the North but the Ravens look good enough to play the Bengals tight twice. There will be some growing pains on offense and defense as these units get used to all the new pieces but the Ravens will be there Wildcard Weekend.

2013 Record

10-6, Wildcard #1

 

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Head Coach – Greg Schiano

I’m really high on the Bucs, like really high, like pass-me-in-the-circle too high on them… ok this metaphor has fallen apart but you get my point. The Buccaneers were a top ten offense last year that put points up in bunches, the problem was that they couldn’t stop anybody. With a defense that ranked dead last against the pass despite being the number ranked defense agains the run. The Bucs were forced to shoot it out with opponents, which led to their disappointing 7-9 record. They’ve retooled the secondary, which was the glaring hole, and now they head into 2013 with a squad that looks ready to make a whole lot of noise.

Why the Buccaneers Make the Playoffs

There is a ton to like about the Bucs on both sides of the ball but let’s start with what most experts consider to be a weakness, the guy they have under center, Josh Freeman. Freeman finished last year with 27 touchdowns but a dismal 55% completion rate. That led most to doubt that Josh Freeman was the answer at QB but I’m a glass half full kind of guy. Freeman is only 25, he is in a contract year and already has thrown 78 touchdown passes in four years including 2010 when at age 22 he threw for 25 TDs and only six picks. Josh Freeman has proven that he can be a high end NFL quarterback it’s just about getting the pieces together and I think this is the year. Doug Martin had one of the best rookie seasons ever, so expecting a step back isn’t crazy but last year he proved to be an elite back and capable of carrying the ball 25-30 times. Vincent Jackson gives Freeman a legitimate #1 option to pair with Mike Williams who is one of the best second options in the league. The Bucs interior line is one of the best in football with Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks anchoring a solid unit.

Defensively, Gerald McCoy made his first Pro Bowl last year and is one of the league’s premier run stoppers. Lavonte David is the best player you’ve never heard of, led the Bucs in tackles and 8th in the league with 139 and was a big part of the Bucs #1 ranked rush defense last year. As far as the secondary, the worst unit in football looks like it could be one of the best this year. The Bucs made the move of the offseason by trading for former defensive player of the year, Darrelle Revis, Revis is coming off a torn ACL but all reports indicate that he’s good to go. Revis immediately improves the secondary by giving them a true #1 cover corner. The Bucs weren’t done with their secondary; they also brought in Dashon Goldson from San Francisco who is coming off back to back Pro Bowls to play strong safety. Goldson is one of the best cover safeties in football and he will allow his partner and former first round pick Mark Barron to do what he does best which is blitz and play in run support.

Why the Buccaneers Won’t Make the Playoffs

 

It’s hard for me to turn off my man crush to pick out the flaws but the Bucs do have some. Their pass rush is a huge question mark, their top two rushers Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn were hurt for most of the year and they need to return to form to take some pressure of Gerald McCoy. The passing game lacks a true threat from the tight end spot, which is a pretty significant weakness for teams that want to be prolific in the passing game in today’s NFL. They also play in the toughest division in the league and will have some stiff competition for a division title in a division where it looks like Atlanta is the favorite. However, the most significant weakness the Bucs have is on their sideline. Greg Schiano has done absolutely nothing that has impressed me as an NFL coach and honestly with the diving while the Giants took a knee last year and his moronic defense of it you just hope that this doofus stays out of the way.

Where the Buccaneers End Up

 

There is too much talent on this team to be ignored. If Darrelle Revis is fully recovered and Josh Freeman is good, this team looks ready for the big time. They may not take down Atlanta but I fully expect them to make the playoffs and make some noise when they get there.

 

2013 Record

11-5 and Wildcard #2

 

8. Washington Redskins

Head Coach – Mike Shanahan

The Redskins were one of the stories of the year last year when their second half surge pushed them into the playoffs after years of mediocrity. Consistency and growth of young players will be key to this team making a return trip to the postseason, but as it sits, the ‘Skins are the favorite to win the NFC East.

Why the Redskins Will Make the Playoffs

Some rapper said it best so I’ll just repeat it, “women lie, men lie, numbers don’t lie.” Due to cap restrictions the Redskins were forced to stay quiet in free agency but they took care of their own, losing only one contributor from last year’s team. The Redskins return all 22 starters (although some won’t be starters anymore) and 48 of the 53 players on the roster at the time of the playoffs last year. That is some solid consistency. Essentially this is the same team taking the field as last year’s division champs except with another year of growth for their electric quarterback. Robert Griffin III might have been the best quarterback in football last year not named Peyton Manning until he hurt his knee and as long as he shows no ill effects he should pick up right where he left off. Lost in the commotion of the RG3 situation is that the Redskins are getting back their best defensive player two time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo who missed last season with an Achilles tear. He should help improve the Redskins 23rd ranked pass rush from a year ago. So basically the same team from last year plus a Pro Bowl pass rusher. This team will be dangerous again.

Why the Redskins Won’t Make the Playoffs

 

There is a combination of three things that could slow the Redskins. First of all, it’s been mentioned before that the NFC East is solid and not even the Eagles are a push over. The Redskins need to take care of business within the division otherwise they could let a division title slip away with one or two missteps in Dallas or New York. Secondly, the young talent doesn’t take the next step like they had hoped. Robert Griffin doesn’t look like the same guy with a knee brace slowing him down and Alfred Morris brings about new doubts about his ability to be a full time NFL running back. Finally, the injury bug could bite them. Despite all the reports it sort of seems like Robert Griffin isn’t necessarily 100% yet. One of the main reasons the Redskins were successful last year was that they stayed remarkably healthy for the majority of the year. But Orakpo, Pierre Garcon and London Fletcher are all key cogs with injury or age issues that could flair up to derail a promising season.

Where the Redskins End Up

 

It’s hard to argue with a successful team that returns every main piece from a division champion. If Robert Griffin comes back healthy this team is the favorite in the East, the defense looks to be a little improved and Mike Shanahan is one of the best in the business. As long as the Redskins don’t slip up and lose a division game they shouldn’t, they should take the East.

2013 Record

11-5 NFC East Champions

 

7. New England Patriots

Head Coach – Bill Belichick

I for one am ready for the Patriots run to be over, I don’t think I’m the only one either. Luckily this looks to be New England’s last gasp at a Super Bowl but it looks like that particular window closed when the Pats failed to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl for the second time. The Patriots should win the AFC East fairly easy because it’s not a very good division and Miami still looks to be a year away. This is the thinnest Patriots team that Tom Brady has dealt with but it’s still his show, and they shouldn’t have any trouble dispatching with the overmatched East.

Why the Patriots Make the Playoffs

 

Well the main reason is that there isn’t a team worthy of dethroning them yet, so the Patriots should bank one more division crown before seriously looking towards the end of the Brady/Belichick Patriots. They still have Tom Brady who can still really play, he will make stars out of no-names like he does every year and march into the playoffs fairly easily like he has so many times before. Outside of Brady there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about. The offensive line is solid and consistent. Defensive end Chandler Jones looks ready to make the leap and become one of the league’s premier pass rushers but outside of Jones the defense is fairly pedestrian.

Why the Patriots Don’t Make the Playoffs

 

Two scenarios: One, a Tom Brady injury and if that happens the East immediately becomes one of the most unpredictable division races in recent memory. Two, the Dolphins are way better than anyone could predict and they upset the Patriots. Neither is likely with the former being way more likely than the ladder.

Where the Patriots End Up

 

Tom Brady will make Danny Amendola a star, Kenbrell Thompkins will be a household name and the offense will rank in the top ten the way it does every year. The problem with the Patriots the last few years is that their defense has been average and their secondary has been dreadful. That appears to be the case again this year. They’ll make their way to the playoffs fairly easily but as it’s happened the last few years they’ll run across a really good passing team and their secondary will get shredded. The Patriots are still a playoff team and they deserve to go because they are the best team in their division, but barring a massive turnaround on the defensive side of the ball, this team will bow out pretty quietly in the early rounds.

2013 Record

10-6 AFC East Champions

September42013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 5: The Kinda-Contenders

Chapter five looks at three teams that represent the middle of the road in the NFL, not quite good enough to challenge for a Super Bowl or Conference Championship but teams that will compete every week. The Kinda-Contenders could slip into a Wildcard spot because of a combination of soft schedule, poor division or crappy conference. They’re the teams that will probably find themselves either on the outside looking in or playing for the last playoff spot in week 17, but all four of the teams have a chance at the playoffs if things fall right.

16. Miami Dolphins: Laces Out, Dan

Head Coach – Joe Philbin

The Dolphins have been one of the league’s most average team over the last five years, posting a record of 38-42 and haven’t challenged for an AFC East title in that period. They haven’t been able to secure the East partly because they weren’t good enough but mostly because they’ve shared a division with the best and most consistent franchise of the decade. Due to a combination of improvement on the Miami side and aging on the New England side, the Dolphins will push the Pats this year, despite still being a year away from really threatening to dethrone the Patriots, the Dolphins will make sure that New England doesn’t roll through the East like they have in years past.

As is the case with most teams attempting to vault themselves into the upper echelon of the NFL, it starts with the quarterback. Ryan Tannehill was decent for a rookie quarterback who was thrown into the fire. He threw 12 touchdown passes and almost 3,300 yards but he also threw 13 interceptions and completed less than 60% of his passes. In order for the Dolphins to compete this year they need Tannehill to better, not necessarily great but he needs to reassure the Dolphins and the league that he is indeed the Dolphins’ guy.

The Dolphins were the biggest spenders in the offseason and there wasn’t a bigger free agent addition in football than Mike Wallace coming to Miami. Wallace has game breaking speed and gives Tannehill a legitimate number threat. The Wallace addition had a ripple effect throughout the offense, it allowed last year’s leading receiver Brian Hartline to move back to where he’s more comfortable as the #2 wideout. Hartline is also more of a possession receiver who is willing to make the tough catches over the middle. If there is a knock on Wallace it’s that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing the dirty work, with Hartline, Wallace will be able to take the top off the defense frequently. The Dolphins also brought in tight end Dustin Keller, but lost him to a torn ACL this preseason, leaving a huge void at the position.

The backfield is another question mark, Miami was content to let Reggie Bush walk this offseason because they liked Lamar Miller enough to be the #1 back. Miller struggled in the preseason to shed his competition Daniel Thomas, Thomas has proven that he’s nothing more than a spell back in the NFL and the fact that Miller took so long to separate himself is cause for concern. Miller only carried the ball 51 times last year, casting serious doubt on if he can carry a full load. The offensive line lost former #1 pick Jake Long in free agency and replaced him with Atlanta castoff Tyson Clabo, leaving a void in leadership that needs to be filled by Mike Pouncey in the middle.

The spending wasn’t limited to the offensive side of the ball, the Dolphins also brought in high priced talent to solidify their defense. On the defensive line the Dolphins have found their diamond in the rough in end, Cameron Wake. Wake posted 15 sacks last year and is still entrenched in his prime; he’s one of the pass rushers in the NFL. The Dolphins traded up in the draft to grab Dion Jordan who was considered to be the best pure pass rusher in the draft. Jordan is raw so his role will probably be as a specialty rusher this year but he should make some noise opposite of Wake.

The linebacking core is where the Dolphins made another splash in the free agent market. They brought in one of the most underrated players in football, Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe who was the Ravens best linebacker last year (yes, including Ray Lewis) Ellerbe adds some beef in the middle to help the run game and his main strength is as a cover linebacker. Phillip Wheeler escaped Oakland to sign with the Dolphins to be their primary run stuffer; Wheeler was Oakland’s leading tackler last year. With the front seven relatively solid the problem lies in the secondary where the Dolphins were 27th in the league in interceptions last year. Veteran Brent Grimes will be the #1 corner along with Dimitri Patterson on the other side. Paired with two inexperienced safeties the secondary looks suspect again this year. The wildcard here is if the ‘Fins second and third round picks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis can make an impact in the secondary, if they can this defense could be tough.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Tannehill makes a nice leap and becomes a more accurate passer with his improved receiving core. Lamar Miller proves that the flashes he showed last year were the real deal and he becomes the three down back they were looking for. The defense is much improved from last year and the secondary’s depth becomes a strength despite the lack of one true playmaker. They challenge the aging Patriots for the division and get themselves a wildcard to return to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Tannehill shows flashes but remains turnover prone, the lack of a tight end threat or consistent running game puts too much pressure on him. Lamar Miller just isn’t ready to be a go-to back and the Dolphins are forced to use a platoon of Miller and Thomas all year. The defense isn’t quite there yet, especially the secondary which gets picked on a lot. They’re still easily the second best team in the East, but they hardly cause the Patriots to sweat it out. Probably still in the WC race but on the outside looking in.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: I like Ryan Tannehill, he’s mobile and has a good arm but I would like to see him perform for one more year before I pick the Dolphins to overtake the Patriots. The Dolphins definitely improve especially on defense, their defense will be one of the surprises of the year if they can find some stability on the back end. The Dolphins are in a soft division and an even softer conference, outside of the four division favorites there looks to be only three or four other teams that will challenge for the playoffs. The Dolphins are will have every chance to lockdown a wildcard spot.

2013 Record

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 8-8

 

15. Dallas Cowboys: Big O in Big D

Head Coach – Jason Garrett

What is there to say about the Cowboys that Jerry Jones hasn’t already blurted out? Well a lot. Despite Jones’ hyperbolic claims, the Cowboys look to be a contender for the first time in a few years. Tony Romo signed a huge contract extension this offseason, which was very questionable, but there’s something to be admired about a franchise having so much confidence in a guy that really hasn’t done much to earn it. Romo aside, the Cowboys have a lot of weapons and find themselves in a division with three good teams that aren’t separated by very much. An NFC East title isn’t out of the question.

The Cowboys offense ranked sixth in total offense last year despite having the second worst rushing attack in the NFL, which for all the criticism says a lot about Tony Romo and the Cowboys third ranked pass attack. Romo threw for 4,900 yards last year with 28 touchdowns while completing 66% of his passes making him one of the most effective passers in football last year. The Cowboys passing attack was held back by a combination of a putrid offensive line and a banged up backfield. DeMarco Murray returns as the lead back this year but he needs to stay healthy, something that has been a challenge since he entered the league. If Murray can’t stay healthy then it will fall to fifth round pick Julius Randle to carry the load who projects very similarly to Murray.

The receiving core is one of the best in football. Dez Bryant is the best receiver in football not named Johnson and Miles Austin has handled his demotion to #2 just fine as he nearly tallied 1,000 yards himself last season. The X-factor in this group is rookie Terrance Williams, Williams led the NCAA in receiving yards last year and looks to be the ideal slot in this offense. Just for good measure the Cowboys also have one of the league’s best tight ends and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten who set career highs in receptions and yardage last year. The Achilles Heel of the Cowboys offense was their offensive line, which was one of the worst units in the NFL last year, Tony Romo was sacked 36 times which would have been higher if not for his ability to scramble. Tyron Smith was the one bright spot who has developed into one of the best left tackles in football, they also added Travis Frederick with their first round pick to be their center. If the line can improve this offense has a chance to be absolutely electric.

Defensively the Cowboys are scrapping their plans for a 3-4 and going back to a more conventional 4-3 set which seems to fit this team much better. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are two of the better pass rushers in the NFL despite being miscast as rush linebackers last year. This year they return to being purely defensive ends, relieved of coverage duties to simply rush the passer, the Cowboys pass rush looks to be very good this year. Middle linebacker Sean Lee just signed an extension and remains the anchor of this defense, Bruce Carter seems to have arrived as a major contributor in his third year and free agent addition Justin Durant will help in the run game. The linebackers appear to be very strong. The cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are both strong man-to-man cover guys and will benefit from the new Tampa 2 scheme. Will Allen comes over from Pittsburgh to be the free safety, although not spectacular Allen is an upgrade.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The offensive line is the key to this whole team. If they can come together to protect Romo and open holes for the backs the Cowboys offense is going to be excellent. Tony Romo shakes some of his critics by having a career year while Dez Bryant cements himself as one of the league’s best. The defense is very strong especially in the pass rush where Spencer and Ware terrorize opposing corners. They’ll be in a dogfight with Washington and New York for the division but they get a few key wins down the stretch and win the East.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: The offensive line doesn’t do it’s job and Romo is running for his life, the passing game suffers and the running game is left impotent. The defensive scheme switch doesn’t work as the Cowboys had planned and the Cowboys find themselves third in a three horse race.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offensive firepower can’t be ignored. Of the three teams competing for the division the offensive edge goes to the Cowboys. The offensive line doesn’t need to be great, but just average to protect Romo and keep DeMarco Murray upright. The offense lights up the scoreboard and the defense is solid. The Cowboys travel to Washington in week 16 which could be a de-facto division championship game.

2013 Record

Best Case: 11-5

Worst Case: 8-8

 

14. Kansas City Chiefs: Worst to… Not Bad

Head Coach – Andy Reid

The Chiefs have become such a trendy “sleeper” pick that they’re not even really considered a sleeper anymore. They play in the worst division in football, and they get the benefit of a last place schedule. Along with the new regime under Andy Reid it would honestly be a surprise to not see the Chiefs as one of the wildcards this year. After last year’s debacle there really is nowhere to go but up, and the Chiefs look ready to do that with a retooled offense and a quietly good defense.

Alex Smith is far from being Peyton Manning but he might look like Peyton to some Chiefs fans who have spent the last few season watching terrible quarterback after terrible quarterback take their turn under center. Alex Smith isn’t a terrible quarterback, he’s an OK quarterback and at least that’s a step in the right direction. Smith is an accurate passer and he will fit in nicely into the short read, West Coast system that the Chiefs have installed. The big guy on offense this year is Jamaal Charles who is just a step below Adrian Peterson in the hierarchy of NFL running backs. No back has better home run potential than Charles and he is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Charles carried the ball 285 times last year which was a career high by a wide margin so durability questions are out there, he carried 285 times coming off a torn ACL, he should only be stronger this year.

Dwayne Bowe is the #1 option and should do just fine in the new West Coast system. Bowe is a punishing after the catch runner with strong hands, Smith will look his way frequently. The deep threat is newly acquired Donnie Avery who will split out opposite of Bowe. Andy Reid’s offenses tend to favor tight ends which is why they brought in Anthony Fasano from the Dolphins. First overall pick Eric Fisher will be the right tackle while incumbent Brandon Albert remains as the left tackle. The interior is young but talented with college teammates Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah at each guard position. It would be difficult for this offense to be worse than it was last year, if not for Charles they would have ranked last in every major offensive category. With improvements all over the field this Chiefs offense won’t set the world on fire but they will definitely have enough talent to compete.

Defensively there are some pieces that could make this unit surprisingly good. The problem will lie with the front three who desperately need to produce this year. Former first round pick Tyson Jackson needs to prove he was worth the pick the Chiefs invested in him, but with only five career sacks it looks like this will be Jackson’s last season with KC. Last year’s first rounder Dontari Poe was serviceable but needs to make the next step to solve Kansas City’s revolving door at nose tackle. The linebackers are another story, 3 of the 4 starters went to the Pro Bowl last year and are all in their primes. Derrick Johnson was the leading tackler in the middle. The duo on the outside makes up for the lack of pass rush produced by the line. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combined for 19 sacks and both went to their first Pro Bowl along with Johnson. Along with the linebackers, the secondary has one of the best safeties in the NFL in Eric Berry who also went to the Pro Bowl last year. The secondary struggled to create turnovers despite having a legitimate #1 corner in Brandon Flowers. The Chiefs brought in veterans Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson who add depth, experience and talent to an already good defensive secondary.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Charles has the year that everyone is predicting and is a legitimate MVP candidate. Alex Smith manages this offense with nothing spectacular but serviceable to win games. The defense looks as good as advertised and they even get contributions from the much-maligned defensive line. They use their weak schedule to make a play for one of the AFC’s wildcard spots and they get it.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: It can’t go worse than last year. It’s impossible. As long as everyone on the active roster is alive by the end of the season, it will have been a better year than last.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: Alex Smith is OK and runs the West Coast offense the way he needs to for the Chiefs to be successful. They lean on Jamaal Charles and Charles delivers. But I think the story will be the resurgent defense of the Chiefs that have a secondary and linebacking core that is loaded with playmakers. The Chiefs might be looking at a top 10 defense, couple that with a great rushing attack and this is a playoff team.

2013 Record

Best Case: 11-5

Worst Case: 7-9

 

13. Chicago Bears: The King of the North

Head Coach – Marc Trestman

DISCLAIMER: The Bears are a legitimate contender and my pick to win the NFC North, the Bears are the most complete team in the division, they have the best defense and a retooled offense but I’m trying to avoid any accusations of bias. If I were to rank them above the Packers, everything I would say about the Bears would be compromised. They have the widest spectrum of expectations for any team I’ve looked at. They could go 5-11 or 13-3 and neither would surprise me. I think they’re the best team in their division so screw it I’m sick of hearing “well, they have Aaron Rodgers so they’re the best team in the North.” Wrong. But I’ll get there. So here are the semi-new look Bears without Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher for the first time in a decade.

This is Jay Cutler’s team now and it’s still unknown if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Cutler gets a lot of criticism for not being a leader, some justified some not but this is the year he has to prove that he is the Bears guy. They brought in an accomplished quarterback coach to run the team, added more weapons and retooled their offensive line. Cutler is out of excuses. If he can’t do it this year, he can’t do it. Cutler didn’t even complete 60% of his passes last year and needs to limit his interceptions. Most importantly for the Bears is that their offensive line looks to be 40 times better than it was last year. They spent big money to bring in Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod who had been protecting Drew Brees’ blindside for five years. They used their first round draft pick on Kyle Long who has impressed early and will start the season at right guard, and veteran Matt Slauson is a huge upgrade at left guard. Only one starter is left over from last year’s garbage unit and that’s center Roberto Garza.

The skill positions have a very similar look but the hope is that Marc Trestman will be able to use them more effectively. Matt Forte remains one of the ten best running backs in football but has been underused in the passing game since his breakout rookie year, his workload on the ground and as a receiver looks to go up substantially. Brandon Marshall had a great season and is one of the best receivers the Bears have ever had, he remains Jay Cutler’s favorite target and looks to replicate his 118 catch season from a year ago. The concern lies in the depth of the receiving core where the organization is counting on Alshon Jeffrey to be the second receiver and he hasn’t shown a ton of promise in that role yet. The Bears offense also lacks a true deep threat to open up intermediate routes. They added tight end Martellus Bennett in the offseason to give the Bears their first legitimate weapon at tight end since Greg Olsen was inexplicably traded.

On the defensive side a lot will be made about the loss of Brian Urlacher but it’s very telling that no other team picked him up after he was let go from the Bears. The truth is that Brian Urlacher was a shell of his former self and the Bears were more than content to move on without him. One of the best defenses in the NFL last year returns most of its key pieces. The defensive line is anchored by Julius Peppers who at 33 remains one of the best pass rushers in football leading the team with 11.5 sacks last year. Opposite him will be pass rush specialist Corey Wootton who split time last year but has seized the job in training camp. Defensive tackle Henry Melton went to his first Pro Bowl last year. The linebackers will definitely have a different look this year but different isn’t always a bad thing. Lance Briggs has been the Bears’ best linebacker for five years at this point and he will take over Urlacher’s duties of calling the defense. Veteran DJ Williams will start in the middle but expect to see a lot of rookie Jon Bostic who has impressed in the preseason. The Bears return both of their Pro Bowl cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, the ladder led the league in interceptions last year. The safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright are solid in that they don’t make many mistakes. The Bears will keep a style of the cover 2 that they play under Lovie Smith, which benefits their safeties by allowing them to play the middle of the field, trusting their cover corners.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Cutler likes the offense and thrives, using Matt Forte a whole lot more and making use of a variety of red zone weapons. The defense manages to fight off father time for another year and keep creating turnovers at a historic rate. The Bears take advantage of a division that is having a down year and turn it into a division title.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Jay Cutler decides in week 8 that he doesn’t like Marc Trestman and completely phones in the rest of the season. The defense starts to show it’s age and doesn’t look the same without #54. They scuffle with a fairly difficult schedule and watch the Packers celebrate a division title at Solider Field in week 17.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: It has to be this year. Jay Cutler is not a stupid guy, he is in a contract year and on his fourth offensive coordinator in five years. If he can’t deliver this year, he will be looking for work elsewhere at a pay cut. If he succeeds he’s Chicago’s savior again and back for a big contract. I’ll wager that he succeeds because he’s out of chances and excuses. He’s surrounded by the weapons he needs and his offensive line is no longer an excuse. The defense boasts three elite players, one at each level and they know how to win. The North is down this year and the Packers are having all kinds of problems all over the field. The Bears win the North.

2013 Record

Best Case: 12-4

Worst Case: 8-8

September32013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 4: The Sleepers

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 4: The Sleepers

 I don’t usually like the term sleepers, especially in the NFL. There is so much parity in the NFL that the turnover in talent is pretty significant each year. These are two teams that have been in the cellar for the last few years but look to be climbing their way out of it. They each have some weapons and favorable schedules that could allow them to sneak into a wildcard spot.

 

18. Tennessee Titans: The Hopefully Not-Hurt Locker

 

The Titans were one of the NFL’s invisible teams last year, going 6-10, they weren’t terribly bad but they weren’t terribly interesting either. Chris Johnson had a resurgent year to silence talk that he was finished, and Jake Locker got his first crack at the starting job. This year, hopes are a little higher in Locker and in the money they invested in free agency.

Offensively it starts with Locker and it starts with him staying healthy. The knock on him his entire career has been that he can’t stay on the field and as he enters his third season he has to prove that he can. It’s a huge swing year for Locker because if he can’t prove that he is the long-term answer this year, the Titans probably start looking around for other options. Luckily for him he still has Chris Johnson who remains one of the most electric backs in football, and they brought in another 1,000-yard rusher in Shonn Greene to spell Johnson. Greene is a hard-nosed between the tackle runner that will compliment Johnson’s bounce outside style well.

The receiving core is surprisingly deep with weapons all over the place. Kenny Britt was whispered about as being one of the best receivers in the NFL only a couple years ago, he will be complimented by veteran Nate Washington who led the team in yards last year. Second year man Kendall Wright is coming off a terrific rookie year where he thrived as the Titans jack-of-all trades slot receiver, leading the team in receptions. Rookie Justin Hunter also figures to contribute. Delanie Walker was brought over from San Francisco to serve as a tight end, H-back combo and will most likely the most consistent tight end target. The offensive line was maligned last year so the Titans set out to rebuild it and it looks like they did a very good job. They brought in the best lineman on the market in guard Andy Levitre and drafted Alabama stud Chance Warmack. Veterans Michael Roos and David Stewart on the edge make this unit very talented and deep.

Along with the big additions on the offensive side of the ball the Titans made a curious one on defense as well but this one was on the coaching staff. They brought in Gregg Williams, infamous for his role in the Bounty Scandal to be a defensive consultant for one of the league’s worst units last year. The line is still in a pretty bad state with the exception of Derrick Morgan who looks like a budding playmaker. Outside of Morgan they desperately need Kamerion Wimbley to play up to his contract or this line will get beat. The linebackers are young and full of promise, Colin McCarthy is the unit’s captain, Zach Brown is solid in the middle coming off a good rookie year. The X-Factor is Akeem Ayers who is used all over the field and led the team in tackles and sacks last year. Michael Griffin is the elder statesman in the secondary but the addition of Super Bowl champ Bernard Pollard provides a huge boost to this secondary. Pollard is great in run support, allowing Griffin to do what he does best which is play centerfield and create turnovers. The corners are Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner who are experienced but neither possesses the skill set to be a shutdown corner.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: This could be a sleeper playoff team in a weak AFC. Jake Locker stays healthy and proves his worth as an NFL QB as he utilizes his full stable of weapons. Johnson and Greene provide one of the best 1-2 punches in football and the line looks as good as advertised. The defense continues to grow and becomes a sneaky good unit by getting to the QB and causing turnovers on the backend.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Locker gets hurt immediately. The season is essentially shot if Locker goes down. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the backup and not even Ryan Fitzpatrick wants Ryan Fitzpatrick on see the field this year.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: I’m a big believer in Jake Locker, he’s mobile and has a good arm, so I’ll buy him this year. Locker stays healthy and the Titans offense is dangerous. They lose some games because their defense isn’t great but they definitely bounce back from a forgettable season last year and contend for that second wildcard in a piss poor AFC.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 7-9

 

17. Carolina Panthers: Cam’s World

Head Coach – Ron Rivera

The Panthers have to win this year, it’s really that simple. Ron Rivera is in his third year as the head coach of the Panthers and without a successful season this year, he’s probably back to coaching defense somewhere. Cam Newton is entering the all-important third year for young quarterbacks. The Panthers finished 5-1 last year and won their last four. Had they gotten off to a better start they probably would have been in the playoff race.

Cam Newton has got better last year but his turnovers were still an issue. He threw for almost 4,000 yards with 19 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 700 yards and added eight rushing touchdowns. He’s the definition of a dual threat and looks ready to make the leap into the NFL’s elite. Jonathan Stewart went on the PUP list last week making him ineligible for the first six weeks of the season leaving DeAngelo Williams as the unquestioned number one back for the first time in his Panthers career. Williams still has breakaway speed and is a threat in the passing game along with fullback Mike Tolbert. Steve Smith is the primary target for Newton again and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Greg Olsen is pressing Smith for the #1 role finishing only four receptions behind Smith last year. They should provide an excellent 1-2 punch. The line is average but if Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil can stay healthy at center, the line should hold together just fine.

A top ten defense from a year ago returns with a similar collection of players that they had a year ago. The tandem of defensive ends was one of the best in football last year. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for the third most sacks between teammates in the NFL. Dwan Edwards is the starting nose tackle but he looks like he might be overtaken by first round pick Star Lotulelei who has dazzled in camp. The best player on the defense is undoubtedly defending rookie of the year Luke Kuechly, who led the league in tackles last year and is a front runner for Defensive Player of the Year this year. Jon Beason is the X-factor, if the former Pro Bowler can return to keep up with Kuechly the linebacking core becomes one of the best in football. The secondary is looking for answers after longtime corner Chris Gamble retired this offseason. Veteran Captain Munnerlyn will take over the role as the #1 but look for second year corner Josh Norman to get every chance to seize the job. The secondary isn’t great but the front seven in front of them should be able to cover up some of the imperfections.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Newton makes a big time leap and might even contend for an MVP. The defense looks great led by Kuechly and the defensive ends. The key is a solid start and Newton limiting his turnovers while the defense creates more. The Panthers become the surprise of the NFL.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Cam Newton reverts to the sulking loser he was when the Panthers were struggling last year. Ron Rivera proves that he can’t be a head coach in the NFL and the secondary doesn’t prove to be up to the task of stopping big time offenses in the NFC.

HOW THINGS PROBABLY WILL GO: I have a lot of confidence in Newton, he seems to know what he’s doing and he has the talent to be one of the best in the league. The consistency in the backfield should do the Panthers some good. Pair that with the weapons on the outside and the Panthers have a pretty formidable offense. Their defense is able to get to the passer and has one of the league’s best players stopping the run, if they can do those two things consistently, they’ll be a top ten defense again. What’s working against the Panthers is that they play in the NFC South, which might just be the best division in the NFL, and the NFC looks to be loaded with playoff contenders this year. In a thinner year, this is a playoff team, and they still might be this year.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 7-9

September22013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 3: Big Names with Small Games

This section is dedicated to four of the most recognizable franchises in the NFL. Whether it’s because of past success, recent success or both, all four of these teams have become well known around the NFL. Their success in the past is what might cause some of these teams to be overrated, but this isn’t last year or the last ten years. This is the 2013 NFL season and this season, these four teams look ready to take a step back, some ready to consider a rebuilding effort, others not ready to duplicate last year’s success. So here is Chapter 3, The Big Names with Small Games.

 

22. Pittsburgh Steelers: Steel Here, but Barely.

Head Coach – Mike Tomlin

The 2008 Super Bowl champs remain entrenched as one of the NFL’s signature teams. Going 53-27 over the last five years with three division titles, a conference championship and a Super Bowl, the Steelers have earned every bit of that praise. However, this year looks to be the backside of those successful years and the first step towards a rebuilding process.

Obviously you have to start with Ben Roethlisberger, as long as he is under center the Steelers can’t be counted out. Roethlisberger lost some of his trademark schoolyard scrambling after an injury forced him to refine his game to take fewer risks. That’s all well and good but that’s what has made Roethlisberger the quarterback he’s been his whole career. Not to mention that just about every time that he has taken a snap for the last five years, he’s been playing with some kind of injury. It’s just a matter of time before the 31 year old breaks down. Roethlisberger morphing into more of a game manager than playmaker would be more believable if the weapons to accommodate that kind of switch surrounded him.

However, his offense is definitely in a transition year with the loss of their leading rusher and receiver. Le’Veon Bell was brought in in the draft to be the #1 tailback but he’s already hit the injured list, and the Steelers recently just cut their leading rusher from last year Jonathan Dwyer. In Bell’s absence the rushing duties will be shared between Isaac Redman who lost the job early last year to Dwyer, LaRod Stephens-Howling who is more effective as a special teamer and recently acquired Felix Jones. Nothing to get excited about, and even when Bell returns it’s no guarantee that he can do the job either. The receiving core is also in transition as they look to replace their best playmaker in Mike Wallace who bolted for Miami this offseason. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be the 1 and 2 options, but they have been guys that have thrived in slot roles and it’s unclear whether or not they can be legitimate go-to guys. Heath Miller is still around which should help Roethlisberger as Miller has been the one mainstay in Pittsburgh his whole career. On the line they have Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey in the middle and David DeCastro which should stabilize the middle but after losing anchor Max Starks, this line finds itself looking for answer like the rest of the offense.

The Pittsburgh defense was quietly the #1 ranked defense in football last year, further exposing the flaws of the offense for a team that was only able to finish 8-8. The famous Steelers defense still has some of the faces that made them feared throughout the league but they also lost some big names and depth. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are both solid defensive ends in the 3-4 but the defense will struggle to replace five time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. The linebackers still have some familiar faces in Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodely but they will miss former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Looking to replace Harrison with two pass rush specialists, second year linebacker Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones look to fill the void left by Harrison.

The secondary was dealt a huge blow when corner Keenan Lewis unexpectedly signed with the Saints this summer. Lewis had developed into the Steelers best corner and was just entering his prime at age 27. The Steelers like Cortez Allen as a corner but he’s not Lewis, a combination of Allen and veteran Ike Taylor will serve as the team’s #1 corner. If this were three years ago the Steelers would have had the most feared safety tandem in football but time has caught up to the Steelers pair. Ryan Clark has been a very good NFL safety throughout his career, but he is 33 and his skills look to be on the decline. Troy Polamalu was considered to be one of the best players in football just a few short years ago, but he can’t seem to stay healthy. He missed nine games last year and 22 since 2009, barring a vintage Polamalu season; this will be his last one in a Steelers uniform.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The offense is able to find a suitable running back, whether it be Le’Veon Bell or someone else which helps. Big Ben still has a lot left in the tank and manages to carry the passing game despite the lack of a true #1. The defense misses their departed veterans but their replacements come on strong. Specifically Jarvis Jones who was the best pass rusher in NCAA football last year and could be the next in the long line of great Steelers edge rushers.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Ben gets hurt almost immediately but plays through it, despite the fact that it hinders his play. The running game doesn’t really exist adding more pressure to Roethlisberger, which causes the entire offense to be a mess for most of the season. The defense takes a big step back and can’t cover up the imperfections of the offense like they managed to do last year. The Steelers fight with the Browns to stay out of the cellar rather than with the Bengals and Ravens for a division title.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The Steelers aren’t finished yet, Ben Roethlisberger will make sure of that barring a major injury. The run game looks very suspect and the backfield will probably be a revolving door all year. Roethlisberger keeps the passing game humming and the offense manages to survive despite the lack of a running game. The defense isn’t as good as it was last year, really missing Casey Hampton, Keenan Lewis and James Harrison but guys like Jarvis Jones and Cortez Allen are able to help. The Steelers aren’t a bad team by any stretch, but they’re probably the least talented Steelers team that Mike Tomlin has ever had. They share a division with the defending Super Bowl champs and a Bengals team that really looks like the real deal this year. Another middling year, avoiding the cellar but not really ever in the conversation for a playoff spot.

2013 Record:

Worst Case: 6-10

Best Case: 8-8

 

21. Minnesota Vikings: Lots to Ponder

Head Coach – Leslie Frazier

The Vikings were one of the biggest stories in the league last year. Obviously Adrian Peterson is the best in the game at any position. Their run to the playoffs on the back of Peterson’s super human season was one of the more unforgettable things we’ve seen in the NFL in quite some time. Peterson isn’t the question mark, everything else is. Without Peterson putting together the best 10-game stretch of any running back ever, the Vikings miss the playoffs and miss them pretty easily. There are some new names on the squad but a similar set of problems. The defense is still just average and below average against the pass, the linebackers look thin and the secondary has to replace its #1 corner from a year ago. Oh, and Christian Ponder is still the quarterback. A legendary performance was able to cover up those holes last year, but can you really count on another transcendent season from Peterson?

It wasn’t that Christian Ponder was bad last season, because he wasn’t bad. He threw for 18 TDs and only 12 INTs but he wasn’t anywhere near good enough to beat defenses that took away Peterson and that remains the problem. Look, AP is going to have another great year, but last year is one of those seasons that happen once in a career. That’s why they’re called career years. Peterson probably runs for another 1,500 yards this year but that’s not the 2,100 he had last year. Is Christian Ponder going to be able to replace that 600 yards? It’s a huge question mark. The Vikings lost their #1 receiver Percy Harvin, but Harvin could hardly be counted on week in and week out so that’s not as big of a loss as it’s looks on paper. They spent big on Greg Jennings to bring him over from the Packers and Jennings has massive boom or bust potential. Jennings has spent his entire career catching passes from two of the best quarterbacks ever (Favre and Rodgers) and this will be the first year of his career where he isn’t receiving passes from a Hall of Famer. We’ve seen what happens when supposedly good receivers leave the comfort of their elite quarterback for another system, the success rate isn’t exactly high. Kyle Rudolph is a good pass catcher at tight end and the offensive line is one of the better ones in the conference. But it’s all on Ponder, that’s the long and short of it.

The defense was average last year, the definition of it actually finishing 16th overall in total defense. The defensive line’s biggest name is Jared Allen who tallied 12 sacks last year to add to his impressive resume but he posted a career low 36 tackles. Kevin Williams remains in the middle as a good run stopper and he should get some help with the addition of rookie Sharif Floyd in the first round. Everson Griffen works as a jack-of-all-trades pass rusher and could be the X-factor in the pass rush. The line is the strength of the unit because the linebacking core and secondary have some pretty big holes. Chad Greenway is the steadying presence but outside of him the Vikings don’t have any linebackers to get excited about, Erin Henderson enters his fourth year and needs to prove that he can be an NFL linebacker and the third slot will be filled by journeyman Marvin Mitchell. The Vikings used their other first round pick on Xavier Rhodes a cornerback from Florida State in the hopes that he could come in and boosts a secondary that lost it’s best cover corner and best overall player in Antoine Winfield. Rhodes isn’t ready to be the #1 guy immediately so he’ll be part of a platoon with Josh Robinson and Chris Cook. Harrison Smith is a pretty good free safety but his partner Jamarca Sanford doesn’t inspire much confidence in a secondary that looks to have taken a step back from the unit that ranked 24th against the pass and 27th in interceptions last year.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Adrian Peterson proves he isn’t human and dominates again. Ponder is able to manage the game without making a bunch of mistakes and does his main job well, hand the ball to Peterson. The defense remains average but Peterson is able to keep them off the field for long enough stretches that they can provide some resistance especially in the pass rush.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Ponder takes a step back, Peterson is still great but a far cry from last year. The offense really sputters and never really gets going. The defense starts to show it’s age up front and the young secondary proves it’s not ready and the Vikings get run out of the building a few times this year.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The Vikings will win some games on the back of Peterson. Ponder hasn’t really shown anything that would inspire confidence that he can take the next step to be anything better than what he is. Defenses really key on Peterson and he can’t replicate the success of last year so the entire offense really struggles. The defense is aging but their pass rush can’t be ignored, they’ll need to get to the passer a lot to take some pressure off the vulnerable secondary. This is just an average unit. This team played a soft schedule last year and had a running back vault his way into NFL history in the process. Their schedule is tough this year with a stretch from week 6-14 where they will play a playoff contender each week. Neither of those things are going to happen this year, which makes this year look like a big time regression for the Vikes.

2013 Record:
Best Case: 7-9

Worst Case: 5-11

 

20. New Orleans Saints: The Defense is Offensive

Head Coach – Sean Payton

Getting back a Super Bowl winning football coach is obviously a lift to a team that was extremely underwhelming last year. The offense was typical Drew Brees, high powered and high scoring. The real problem with the Saints last year was one that Payton probably couldn’t have been able to fix. The Saints were statistically the worst defense in the history of football last year. Yes. The worst. In history. So yeah, Drew Brees threw for over 5,000 yards again but the defense was the worst in the league in total defense, the worst against the run, 31st against the pass and 31st in points allowed. This team is starting to look more like Dan Marino’s Dolphins, just focused on the eye popping offensive numbers, rather than the Super Bowl winning team from a few years ago.

Drew Brees obviously makes this offense go but he is starting to lose weapons each year, which will eventually hurt his productivity. Marques Colston has been his mainstay and he will remain the #1 option at the receiver position. Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football and Brees loves to use him. Lance Moore steps in as the #2 WR after the injury to Joe Morgan and departure of long-time Brees deep threat, Devery Henderson. Moore has been best used as a slot receiver making his move to a more primary option concerning. After Moore the receiving core is thin with a combination of inexperienced young guys and ineffective veterans vying for roles in the pass heavy offense.

The Saints have their own kind of twisted sense of stability in the backfield with a committee of three who all have their own roles. Darren Sproles is the best pass catcher out of the backfield and is used primarily as a check down and safety valve receiver, rarely runs the ball. Mark Ingram hasn’t given the Saints what they were expecting when they drafted him. The former Heisman winner has proven to be a plodding back best suited for short yardage situations. Pierre Thomas can do a little bit of both but isn’t as good of pass catcher as Sproles is, nor is he as good in tight spaces as Ingram. All three will see a lot of snaps but the Saints lack any kind of conventional run game. The offensive line has been one of the strengths for this team for a long time, but for the second year in a row one of the Saints All-Pro linemen left via free agency. Last year it was guard Carl Nicks to the Bucs this year it was left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Bears. The lone holdover is Jahri Evans who remains one of the best guards in football. They added Ben Grubbs from Baltimore to go along with Brian de la Puente at center, so the interior of the line looks solid. However, both tackle spots are question marks especially filling the void left by Bushrod. Third year tackle Charles Brown will be tasked with protecting Drew Brees’ blindside in his first year in a starting role.

The defensive rebuilding process is going to take some time, so don’t expect last year’s terrible unit to suddenly morph into this year’s good unit. The defense is still undergoing a complete overhaul and there will be some growing pains this year. Cameron Jordan is the best defensive lineman the Saints have to offer, he excels against the run but needs to improve as a pass rusher because the Saints lack a true #1 rusher.

Curtis Lofton adds some stability at middle linebacker as he is this defense’s best player, who plays next to him is where the questions begin. The other middle linebacker spot will be filled by Jonathan Vilma who could be replaced quickly if he remains as ineffective and injury prone as he has in years past. Will Smith moves from the line to linebacker as he tries to reinvent his career and Martez Wilson could be the dark horse as a pass rusher from the outside. The secondary was boosted by the addition of the aforementioned Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro who was the Saints’ first round pick. Despite the new look, this secondary was terrible last year and if they want to get out of the cellar they need veteran safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins to have big bounce back years, otherwise this unit will be near the bottom of the league again.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Brees has another monster year, making stars out of guys like Nick Toon and Lance Moore. The running back situation remains fluid but all three guys settle into roles that can help the team. The defense’s scheme switch really takes hold early and they get some contributions from newcomers like Keenan Lewis, Martez Wilson and Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints shoot it out with most teams and win some high scoring affairs.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Drew Brees starts showing his age at 34, his protection isn’t nearly as good as it was in years past and his receiving core just isn’t as good as it used to be. The defense is as bad as advertised and they continue to get torched forcing Brees to play from behind almost every game.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offense with Sean Payton back at the helm will still be dangerous despite the attrition at WR and uncertainty at tailback. They win some games and Brees provides 4 or 5 eye popping statistical games. Unfortunately the defense still isn’t where it needs to be and they stay near the bottom of the NFL. The running game struggles all year and despite the passing attack, the Saints spend most of the season looking up at the rest of the NFC South, which has quietly become the best division in football. Left with a lot of questions after the season.

2013 Record:
Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 6-10

 

19. Indianapolis Colts: Chuckstrong 2: Upchuck

Head Coach – Chuck Pagano

Wasn’t last year fun? A team that came out of nowhere to support its coach and ride its rookie quarterback all the way to the playoffs. It was like a Hollywood movie. But here’s what happens in Hollywood, once a movie is successful, they decide to make a sequel and the sequel is undoubtedly a letdown (Looking your way Hangover 2.) The pieces don’t fit as well as they did last time, there isn’t the same kind of chemistry and everything just falls flat. Well, prepare for the letdown sequel of a season for the Indianapolis Colts. This team finished 11-5 against a last place schedule that included two games against doormats Jacksonville and Tennessee, and games against Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland and Buffalo. They also had to rely on seven fourth quarter comebacks to cement that 11-5 record, so realistically they could have finished 4-12. The point is that while it was a great story and fun to watch, it was also statistically the luckiest 11-5 season in the history of the NFL.

Offensive coordinator and interim coach from a year ago, Bruce Arians left to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, taking over is former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Hamilton has said that he wants to take some of the pressure off of Luck by implementing a much heavier run based offense. It makes sense on some level, Luck threw the 7th most passes of any quarterback in history last year, and they need to be more balanced. The run first offense is a good idea in theory but a glimpse at the Colts personnel tells a different story. The lead running back will be second year man Vick Ballard who averaged only 3.9 yards a carry last season, along with Donald Brown who shared that average. The Colts brought in Ahmad Bradshaw from New York but after posting 1,000-yard season the Giants were more than happy to let Bradshaw walk, leading to questions about how much he has left in the tank.

The strength of the offense remains with Luck and his receivers. Hopefully this run-first philosophy is just bluster and the offense is given to Luck even more than it was last year. Luck led all quarterbacks in turnovers last year, so he needs to cut down on his interceptions but he has all the makings of a stellar NFL quarterback. Reggie Wayne appears to be the ageless wonder on the outside, with 1,300 yards last season. Wayne is complimented by TY Hilton who burst onto the scene last year and looks to build on a terrific rookie season. The wildcard in the receiving core is Darrius Heyward-Bey who is hoping that a change of scenery can help revive his career. The Colts added tackle Gosder Cherilus to protect Luck along with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but the interior of the Colts line is a huge question mark.

The dirty little secret about Indy’s great run last year was that they were doing it with a defense that was one of the worst in football. They struggled in almost every facet, not ranking in the top-20 in any significant defensive category. They were very active in the free agent market hoping to plug some of the holes from last year. The defensive line was one of the worst in the NFL last year and they have pretty much the same cast of characters this year. The one addition is defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois from San Francisco, but like I said early, be wary of defensive guys cashing in on career years in San Francisco. The Colts decided it was finally time to let Dwight Freeney walk putting most of the pressure on Robert Mathis to be the primary pass rusher. Mathis is a five time Pro Bowler and no slouch by any means, but this will be the first season that he plays without Freeney. Pat Angerer is the middle linebacker but Angerer is coming off a foot injury that caused him to miss most of last year and he is only average as an NFL linebacker. The Colts are hoping first round pick Bjoern Werner help fill the hole left by Freeney.

The big time addition was in the secondary when the Colts inked Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry who is coming off a career year for the Jets. If he’s healthy Landry is a huge asset in run support and a physical presence at the backend of the defense. The question with Landry has always been his durability. He’s played a full 16 game season in just three of his six NFL seasons. Antoine Bethea is a two time Pro Bowler and will be able to settle at his natural position of free safety with the addition of Landry. The corners are solid also, Vontae Davis has grown into a #1 corner and Greg Toler and Cassius Vaughan provide good support at the other corner spots. The secondary is much improved but this team still looks like it will struggle to get to the passer and to stop the run.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The Legend of Luck grows, Reggie Wayne stays healthy and effective, the rest of the receivers compliment him and it’s a high-powered machine. The running back situation takes a backseat for a team that knows it’s better served throwing the ball. The defense pulls itself out of the cellar on the back of a very strong secondary that is able to bail out a below average front seven. They contend for the playoffs in a soft AFC.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Andrew Luck takes a step backwards as the Colts do try to implement a run heavy offense. The defensive front looks as bad as advertised and teams are able to run at will against them. The offense isn’t what it was last year and the entire season is a letdown.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offense is still effective, despite the promise to run the ball more. It’s more than likely that that plan gets scrapped pretty quickly. Luck continues to develop and cut down on his turnovers but the tougher schedule slows him down considerably. The defense is just not very good and they are going to get beat, even with an improved secondary there doesn’t seem to be anyone that can consistently stop the run or get to the passer. The Colts probably stay in the conversation for the playoffs because the AFC is no good, but this isn’t a playoff team this year.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 9-7

Worst Case: 6-10

August302013

Big, Fat NFL Preview Chapter 2: The So What’s?

 These teams are a step above the garbage of the NFL, they’ll beat all the teams listed below them, but they still are a ways away from legitimately competing. Whether it’s because they lack something that is keeping them from a being a contender. These teams will put up some good fights this year and will win a few games but won’t figure into the playoff picture. These teams will be picking in the 7-13 range next year, looking for an impact player to vault themselves into the next tier.

 

26. Cleveland Browns: Garden of Weeden

Head Coach – Rob Chudzinski

Another year, another forgettable season for the Cleveland Browns but there actually might be a light at the end of the tunnel for this team that has been in a perpetual rebuilding process. They brought in Rob Chudzinski to be their new head coach, Chudz, responsible for designing the Cam Newton offense in Carolina comes in and looks to open the playbook up. With the hiring of Norv Turner as the Offensive Coordinator along with a few weapons, the offense might surprise this year.

Brandon Weeden had a terrible rookie year, but he was also woefully mismatched in a system that didn’t fit his strengths. He is a big-armed quarterback that needs to be able to open the field up, and that’s exactly what he will be asked to do with Chudzinski and Turner this year. But the heart of the Cleveland offense is Trent Richardson who had a solid rookie of the year, finishing with 11 touchdowns and just shy of 1,000 yards for the year. He will be given a heavy workload and expected to carry the offense. On the outside the Browns have a few weapons that they haven’t had in the past. Josh Gordon was the number one option for Weeden last year but he is suspended for the first four games of the year, so the role is pushed on Greg Little who led the team in catches last year. Also, expect Richardson to be heavily featured out of the backfield. Norv Turner is famous for making stars out of tight ends and Jordan Cameron is getting buzz as Turner’s next project, he could be the dark horse.

The strength of the offense however is their offensive line. Joe Thomas has been to the Pro Bowl all six years that he has been in the NFL, Alex Mack is one of the best centers in football and Mitchell Schwartz was able to contribute immediately as a rookie last year. With Thomas and Schwartz as the tackles and Mack in the middle, the protection for Weeden should be solid and the running lanes should be there for Trent Richardson.

The defense doesn’t provide as much optimism. In the midst of a scheme switch from 4-3 to 3-4, the Browns will probably experience some growing pains this year. The line was hoping to get a boost from #6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo, but he has been hampered by an injury that will cause him to miss at least the season’s first week and probably longer. Other than Mingo the line will be hit and miss with guys learning the new system. The linebackers have D’Qwell Jackson who has been the tackles leader and unquestioned leader of the defense since his arrival in Cleveland. Outside of Jackson will be high priced free agent signee Paul Kruger who will have to deal with being a team’s primary pass rusher for the first time in his career. Joe Haden who is one of the league’s best corners anchors the secondary; Buster Skrine supplies an adequate compliment to Haden. The safety spots are a weakness with career special teamer TJ Ward will get the nod at strong safety and 23-year-old Tashaun Gibson at free safety.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The offense does surprise and puts up points, making Cleveland a tough team to play every week. The defense adjusts to their new scheme quick than anticipated and are able to compliment the offense and keep the team competitive.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Barkevious Mingo retires to search for the origin of his name. Norv Turner retires to star in ProActiv ads. Brandon Weeden retires because he’s a 30 year old, 2nd year player. Trent Richardson demands a trade back to Alabama.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offense will be OK, Weeden will be better than last year but hardly Joe Montana. Trent Richardson adjusts well to heavy workload and has a great year. The Browns stay in some games but ultimately don’t have the weapons or the defense to compete with the top two teams in their division and still wind up near the bottom of the North.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 6-10

Worst Case: 4-12

 

25. Philadelphia Eagles: Always Running in Philadelphia

Head Coach – Chip Kelly

I loved the Chip Kelly hire. I think they found a coach who matches perfectly with the changing NFL. The smash mouth, come off the bus running, style of football is dead and gone. Kelly is going to implement a fast paced system that relies on mobile quarterbacks that can run the no huddle with backs and receivers that can open up the field. Optimism is justified. He comes from a solid pedigree and he basically invented the style of play at the college level. The Eagles will score some points this year, but here is where the problems start… they’re going to give up A LOT also.

Michael Vick isn’t Atlanta Falcons Mike Vick anymore, he’s post-prison Vick, but don’t make any mistake, he’s still a pretty solid quarterback. Kelly tabbed Vick the starter and he fits the style that Kelly wants to run. The running backs are dynamic if they’re healthy. LeSean McCoy is coming off an injury riddled campaign after establishing himself as one of the elite backs in the NFL, there’s no reason to think that he can’t find that form again. His backup is Bryce Brown who burst on to the scene as a total speed back in McCoy’s absence. Teams figured Brown out pretty quick, but a guy that can move like him has a place in a Chip Kelly offense. The Jeremy Maclin injury really hurt the receiving core. Desean Jackson is the #1 guy but the second receiving option is going to be shared between Riley Cooper and Jason Avant. The dark horse here is the tight end slot. The Eagles brought in former Texan James Casey in free agency and Zach Ertz through the draft. While in Houston Casey did all the dirty work, which freed up Owen Daniels to become one of the best pass catching tight ends in football. Look for much of the same this year between Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. The offensive line was poor last year but they’ve started to retool and reload. Jason Peters is coming off an Achilles tear but first round pick Lane Johnston should immediately add some stability to the much-improved unit.

The defense switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 so they don’t necessarily have the personnel to play the way they want to immediately. The line is suspect with Isaac Sopoaga coming over from San Francisco to be the primary run stopper. I’m wary of every role player coming out of San Fran because it’s not hard to have career years when you’re playing next to Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, et al. The linebackers are the strength of the defense. Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are two good run stoppers to compliment two former defensive ends making the adjustment to rush linebacker. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham have been good pass rushers for the Eagles before, but it’s all about how they adjust to their new role. The secondary has their share of veterans but they’re mostly veterans who other teams didn’t want anything to do with. The Eagles are going to get passed on a lot this year.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: This team shoots it out with everybody, staying in a lot of games. They play fast and they score a lot of points. Vick looks vintage with McCoy reestablishing himself as elite. The defense is able to bend but not break on the strength of their interior linebackers and outside pass rush. They end up near the bottom of the NFC but play almost every team tough.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Michael Vick walks past the window of a pet store and just can’t resist. Riley Cooper sees a young black family on the street and just can’t resist. Chip Kelly gets offered the USC job and just can’t resist.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The Eagles score a lot of points, but the also let up a lot of points. They lose a bunch of games because Vick isn’t a great passer and when they’re down by 20, Vick will throw a number of game-crippling picks. This isn’t going to be a bad team but in today’s NFL not having a defense that can stop the pass is essentially a death sentence.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 7-9

Worst Case: 5-11

 

 

24. Detroit Lions: Schwartz’s Last Stand

Head Coach – Jim Schwartz

Fake Tough Guy, Jim Schwartz enters his last stand as head coach of the Detroit Lions, after a playoff appearance in 2011, 2012 was a disaster despite Calvin Johnson’s transcendent year. The Lions look good on paper because they have the big names and the big guns. Stafford, Bush and Johnson on offense along with Suh on defense, the Lions have the big names of a big time team. Unfortunately all those big names just make the Lions equivalent to a 1984 Chevy Caprice with a really nice paint job. It looks good on the outside but the parts that really make the machine go are incredibly flawed.

Offensively the weapons are definitely there. It starts with the best receiver in football, his workload will probably be very similar to the 122 catches he had last year. He’s Matt Stafford’s favorite target and Stafford looks for him on every drop back. The passing game is helped by the addition of Reggie Bush who, if he can stay healthy will be a huge boost catching passes out of the backfield. It’s been a few years since the Reggie Bush hysteria and he has slowed down a little bit but he’s still electric in space. Matt Stafford is only 26 so he is just now entering his prime as a quarterback, and with a guy like Johnson the sky is the limit. That’s the good, the rest is bad.

Behind Johnson the receiving core is weak. Titus Young is on his way to prison and Nate Burleson is a career journeyman. There is hope that second year man Ryan Broyles can emerge as a second option for Stafford but with only 22 catches last year that’s a pretty big leap to expect. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are serviceable targets but nothing special enough to draw any attention away from Johnson. The offensive line is where the root of the problem lies. Stafford and Johnson are electric but it’s a matter of whether or not Stafford can get the time to make his throws. The Lions let their best edge protector in Gosder Cherilus walk in free agency, not to mention their Ironman Jeff Backus retired, leaving the left tackle spot for second year man Riley Reiff. Reiff played sparingly last year despite being a first round pick. Dominic Riola is aging but still anchors the line, with Rob Sims as the other holdover. The rest of the line is up for grabs. A bad combination of old age and inexperience could make this line one of the worst in the NFL.

Defensively it starts up front with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly who have emerged as one of the best defensive tandems in football when Fairly is healthy. Entering his third year, Fairly has already missed nine games in his career. The defense took heavy losses with the departure of Cliff Avril who led the team in sacks the last three years. The Lions will attempt to replace Avril with Jason Jones who has never had more than five sacks in a season and first round pick Ziggy Ansah who is entering his fourth year of organized football.

They also lost outside linebacker Justin Durant who was by far the team’s best run stopper and had a career year with 103 tackles trailing only Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch remains the mainstay in the middle but his play looks to have leveled off after a career year in 2010. The secondary was one of the worst in football last year; they added safety Glover Quin to give the unit more flexibility alongside incumbent Louis Delmas. Neither is a high caliber safety but can do the job adequately. The corners are suspect, the top two are veterans Chris Houston and Ron Bartell who have experience but are both better suited as a #2 corner or a nickel back. The secondary lacks a true shutdown corner. Trying to replace big time contributors leaves this defense with major question marks in the pass rush and run stop. The secondary is just average so they’ll need a lot of help up front.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: This is a team with a ton of question marks, which is better than having a ton of holes. If the offensive line manages to come together to protect Stafford, his value goes through the roof. Calvin Johnson is as close to a sure thing as there is in the NFL, Ryan Broyles steps in as a #2 option to take some of the pressure of Megatron. Fairly stays healthy and the interior line makes up for the lack of pass rush on the outside. The corners hold their own the Lions win some shootouts.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Calvin Johnson gets hurt, Matt Stafford is inconsolable and stops coming to work. Reggie Bush breaks a fingernail in week 2 causing him to miss the rest of the season. Ndamukong Suh kicks a child at a “Play 60” event and is suspended for the season and Jim Schwartz loses a fistfight to the same child.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: This team has some weapons, and they play a style that will frustrate and beat some NFL teams. Stafford and Johnson will have another terrific year but Bush won’t be as effective as they hoped when he was brought in because he doesn’t fill the void of needing a pure running back, not just a pass catching gimmick. The line is a problem throughout the year with multiple shuffles. Despite the offense’s inconsistency the Lions will win some games just by shear force of will on offense. The defense will really miss Avril and Durant as the both the pass rush and rush defense suffer. Coupled with a bad secondary the defense struggles all year.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 7-9

Worst Case: 5-11

 

23. St Louis Rams: Mad Sam’s Empty Backfield

The Rams have been the NFL’s most non-descript and lackluster franchise since The Greatest Show on Turf left the stage. There really hasn’t been anything to get excited about in St. Louis for a while, and it looks like this year will be more of the same. Jeff Fisher obviously knows what he’s doing as a head coach but his problem is deeper, it’s that the Rams just don’t have very much talent. There is some skill on defense but in an absolutely pivotal season for Sam Bradford, he doesn’t have very much to work with.

Sam Bradford has had a run of bad luck since he got into the NFL but his toughest break may have been right when he entered the league. Bradford entered the league right as it was entering its transition from balanced attack offense to pass-heavy with a dash of read option. Mobile quarterbacks started becoming all the rage and a basic necessity if you wanted to be successful in the new NFL. Obviously there were exceptions for pocket QBs but only two very specific types. A pocket passer either had to be a transcendent talent who makes all his receivers look like stars (Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Brady) or very good quarterback surrounded by top notch weapons (Ryan, Flacco.) Unfortunately as a pocket passer Bradford finds himself in between those two groups. He’s a good quarterback but not great, and his supporting cast is below average.

The Rams traded up to get Tavon Austin to be Bradford’s #1 target, which was a great move. Austin projects as a Steve Smith type and will be Bradford’s go-to guy from the start. Outside of Austin, the Rams let their two most effective offensive players walk this offseason, Danny Amendola signed with the Patriots and Steven Jackson fled to Atlanta, leaving the cupboard bare. The running backs will serve as a committee of Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy. Those three will be looked to to replace the production of the Rams’ best player in a decade. Outside of Austin there isn’t much to get excited about, Jared Cook should be OK but the rest of the core is filled with retreads and young guys who haven’t shown very much promise.

The defense is a pretty solid unit all the way around. Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers are all above average pass rushers who combined for 26 sacks last year. The pressure up front will help the rest of the defense. Leading tackler James Laurinaitis anchors the linebackers. The Rams other first round pick was used on Georgia’s Alex Ogletree who was revered at the scouting combine as an outside linebacker but has struggled so far in the preseason. The cornerbacks provide the Rams with one of the best corner duos in football. Cortland Finnegan is one of the best in the business and Janoris Jenkins had a great rookie year. If Jenkins can manage to keep his nose clean these guys will be hard to pass on.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Tavon Austin turns into a Pro Bowler out of the gate, Daryl Richardson provides a competent running game and the offense manages to keep pace with other teams. The defense looks as good as advertised and they become one of the best units in football.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: The entire team realizes they live in St. Louis and decides to pursue other career options in other cities.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The defense is going to be solid, Finnegan and Jenkins are tough along with the line. The defense will carry the Rams to some victories this year but the offense just has very little to get excited about. The most likely scenario for this Rams season is that they win some games 13-6, 10-3 but any team that can break their defense will cruise to victory. The biggest thing working against the Rams is that they share a division with two of the best teams in football; so even cracking the wildcard discussion seems unlikely.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 6-10

August292013

Big, Fat NFL Preview - Tuel Time!

27. Buffalo Bills

Head Coach: Doug Marrone

I would like to offer an apology to the Arizona Cardinals. If this entry had waited until the dust settled on Buffalo’s QB situation, the Cardinals would be in this spot and Buffalo would be near the backend with Oakland and Jacksonville. But this is an ever-changing process and the rankings were made when Kevin Kolb still knew his name and EJ Manuel looked ready to play. But now here we are, Kolb is concussed and may never play football again and EJ Manuel is hurt with an unknown timetable towards his return. So it’s up to undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. Tuel posted a 4-22 record at Washington State before going undrafted this year. The Patriots worked him out but ultimately passed on him in favor of Tim Tebow. Tuel Time in Buffalo means some rough times ahead for a team that actually showed some promise early on.

Head Coach Doug Marrone was brought in from Syracuse University in a headscratching coaching hire, in an offseason that was full of them. He was brought in to watch over the Bills’ rebuilding effort despite a pedestrian record at a college that can hardly be considered a powerhouse. His first draft pick he used on EJ Manuel who was considered to be a reach at #16, but he was probably the most promising quarterback prospect in the draft.

If everything had fallen into place, Kevin Kolb was going to keep the starting spot warm until EJ Manuel was ready. He’s not NFL ready yet and now with Kolb out, he looks like he’ll be thrown to the wolves as soon as he’s healthy, barring a Kurt Warner-esq run from Tuel. It’s unfortunate because the Bills’ offense isn’t completely void of weapons. CJ Spiller is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and looks ready to have a huge year with a full workload. Fred Jackson is solid as a backup in case any health issues crop up with Spiller. Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler remain solid pass catching options. The offensive line isn’t very good and they lost their most effective blocker (Andy Levitre) this offseason in free agency. Despite the line’s shortcomings this offense has the potential to be better than some of it’s contemporaries, but now with the QB spot in flux, the offense looks like the mess that Buffalo fans are used to seeing.

On defense, the Bills spent lavishly for Mario Williams an offseason ago but didn’t get the production they were expecting from the former #1 overall pick. Coming off an injury it’s imperative that Williams returns to Pro Bowl form. The linebackers are extremely young and inexperienced despite the addition of veteran Manny Lawson. To add insult to injury, the linebacker that the Bills were expecting the most out of this year was second year man Nigel Bradham and Bradham was arrested last week for marijuana possesion, leaving his status in jeopardy. The secondary could be this defense’s saving grace. All-Pro Jarius Byrd is one of the league’s best free safeties, Leodis McKelvin is an athletic playmaker at corner and second year corner Stephon Gilmore looks ready to cement himself as a legit #1 corner.

IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Spiller explodes and takes a ton of pressure off Tuel and eventually Manuel, allowing them to keep their heads above water by simply managing the game. The defense is able to shut down some teams air attack with Gilmore making a huge step forward.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Spiller breaks down from too heavy of a workload, Tuel is a disaster and Manuel isn’t ready. The rest of the offense is recruited from local high schools. Coach Doug Marrone quits midway through the year, desiring to go back to toiling away for a football program at a basketball school where nobody seemed to care.

HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: Poorly. Barring a Russell Wilson-type season from EJ Manuel (HIGHLY unlikely) this team is in a lot of trouble. Manuel was a reach in the draft but he isn’t lacking talent. If he had fallen into a system where he could have held a clipboard for a year and develop, he would have been much better served. They have inexperienced quarterbacks and an inexperienced (and likely overmatched) coach. CJ Spiller is going to need to have a historic year to keep this team competitive.

2013 Record:

Best Case: 5-11

Worst Case: 2-14

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