Thursday, July 20, 2006

Team by Team Analysis, Divisional Breakdowns and Predictions

AFC East

1. NEW ENGLAND: As long as Bill Belichik and Tom Brady are running the show, the Pats will always be competitive. However, they aren’t the powerhouse they were a few years ago, with age and free agent defections bringing them back towards the pack. Brady had his best regular season to date in 2005, showing that he could carry the offense by himself, but he did not perform up to his high standards in a playoff loss to Denver.

Laurence Maroney was a good pick, and should bring some life to a lackluster ground game. Corey Dillon looks to have lost a step; expect Maroney to contribute early and often. Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass provide diversity and pass catching ability.

New England may have the deepest and most diverse group of young TEs in the league, and they will need them considering the questions at WR. The Pats desperately need to get Deion Branch into camp as he is their only proven threat at the position. Troy Brown is aging, and Reche Caldwell is a journeyman at best. Rookie Chad Jackson has nice long-term potential, but is not very polished coming out of college, and it may be asking too much to expect him to contribute much this year.

The offensive line is the other question mark on this side of the ball. The return of steady veteran Matt Light at OLT should help, but rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur took their lumps last year, and a re-shuffled line will have to protect their franchise quarterback better than they did a season ago. Combine the Pats lack of options at WR with their depth at TE and FB, and you should expect to see far more two TE formations this year; Belichik won’t hesitate to use max protect schemes if necessary to keep Brady upright.

Other than Brady, the strength of this team lies in their defensive front seven. Former first rounders Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren combine to form one of the best defensive lines in football; Jarvis Green, Dan Klecko and Marquise Hill add depth. The Pats’ linebacker corps has been the heart and soul of their tough 3-4 defense during their recent run, but they lack the depth here that they’ve had in previous years. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are heady vets, and Rosevelt Colvin brings great speed on the outside, but Monty Beisel hasn’t shown that he can stop the run, and there are no proven performers behind the starters. An injury here could be devastating, and would most likely force the Pats to play a 4-3 base as they did early last year, sacrificing some of the ability to run multiple fronts that has made Belichik’s defense so effective in New England.

The secondary is the weak link of the defense. If aging veteran Rodney Harrison can return from injury it will give them a boost, but the options behind Harrison are unspectacular at best. Unless youngster Ellis Hobbs can emerge, New England lacks a top cover corner: Asante Samuel is solid but nothing special, and the Pats could be in trouble if either Eric Warfield or Chad Scott has to start for any extended period. New England’s nickel and dime packages will struggle to match up with teams that can spread the field with multiple receiving threats.

As the Pats have become comfortable with relying on defense and winning close games over the years, the loss of Adam Vinatieri could be huge down the stretch. It will be difficult for rookie Stephen Gostkowski to replace the team’s confidence in the ultra-reliable Vinatieri, and the Pats’ special teams in general are very average.

Overall, this team still has the talent to be a contender, but they lack the depth to withstand injuries as they have in previous seasons. The front seven will have to be at the top of their game to mask deficiencies in the secondary, and the pressure will be on Tom Brady and the offense to produce points and not rely on the D to win games. The Pats will be counting more heavily on first and second year players than they have in the past.

2. MIAMI: Acquiring Daunte Culpepper may have been one of the biggest moves made by any team this off-season. If Culpepper can return to his pre-2005 form, he gives Miami their first legitimate star QB since Dan Marino retired. The overall talent level on this team is comparable to New England, and if Culpepper improves their quarterback play as expected, the Dolphins in their second year under Nick Saban can challenge the Patriots for the division crown.

With Ricky Williams gone to Canada, Ronnie Brown will get every opportunity this year to be “the man.” Brown, with his excellent combination of size, speed, and versatility, has all the tools to dominate as an every-down back. The only question Brown has to answer is whether he can handle the grind of 20+ carries per game over a span of sixteen weeks or more. With little depth behind him, the Dolphins have to find a balance and take advantage of Brown’s skills without overworking him.

Chris Chambers is a vertical threat who will take pressure off the running game, and give Culpepper a dynamic playmaker. Chambers showed last year that he has the ability to take over a game, and he should be even more dangerous with a strong-armed QB. Randy McMichael is a fast, athletic tight end who can create mismatches and make plays down the field, and he should find plenty of single coverage to exploit with Chambers drawing extra attention over the top. Marty Booker is a solid complement as a possession receiver, but Miami needs to find another competent receiver to round out their offense; Derek Hagan could be that guy if he can hold onto the ball.

The play of the offensive line will ultimately determine just how good this offense can be. Renowned coach Hudson Houck did an impressive job last year of getting a decent performance out of a group that was terrible the year before. This year, the Dolphins return largely the same group with the addition of journeyman L. J. Shelton, who is likely to start at OLT. This unit isn’t ultra-talented, but if they can step up, Miami has enough ability at the skill positions to be one of the better offenses in the league.

With the implementation of Nick Saban’s 3-4 schemes, Miami’s defense is definitely in a transitional phase. The Dolphins still have enough quality veterans to be effective on that side of the ball, but they would love for some young talent to emerge as well. Jason Taylor is still one of the best pass rushers in the league, and guys like Jeff Zgonina, Kevin Carter and David Bowens provide experience and versatility on the D-line, but Miami needs to develop a young nosetackle behind the aging Keith Traylor. The coaching staff would love to get more from youngster Matt Roth this year.

Zach Thomas continues to be the heart and soul of the defense, and rookie Channing Crowder was a pleasant surprise last year. Crowder provides speed and athleticism on the weak side, but his future may lie at MLB when Thomas retires. Donnie Spragan plays hard and gets a lot out of average talent, and may be slated to replace Junior Seau on the strong side. The LB group behind these three is pretty pedestrian, and Miami could use more depth and talent at the position for a team that runs a lot of 3-4 looks.

The secondary may be the biggest question mark for this team entering the season. Free agent addition Will Allen brings good speed and coverage ability, but has very poor ball skills. Second year man Travis Daniels has dependable instincts and technique, but lacks top speed to stay with faster receivers. These two project as a solid pair of starters, but they won’t scare opposing quarterbacks. If Will Poole is healthy, he may have the first shot at the nickel back spot. The candidates for the safety positions are basically an interchangeable group of journeymen. Rookie Jason Allen is the wild card in the deck. He has the size/speed combo to play either corner or safety, but he has to prove he can stay healthy to justify the number sixteen overall pick in this year’s draft.

This team definitely has enough talent to take the division away from New England. Most likely, Daunte Culpepper’s health will determine how far Miami can go this year. The potential is there for a dynamic offense, and if the patchwork O-line and defensive backfield can hold together, this could be a dangerous team.

3. NEW YORK: First time head coach Eric Mangini has his work cut out for him, and the most pressing issue will be determining his starting quarterback. Chad Pennington is one of the league’s smartest QBs, but he faces major questions about his arm after two surgeries to his throwing shoulder. Patrick Ramsey has a big arm, but he tends to make poor decisions, and hasn’t shown that he can be a quality starter. Rookie Kellen Clemens has good tools, but no experience. If his arm is healthy enough to play, Pennington should have the edge as the only proven starter of the bunch, but he’s certainly not penciled in as the long-term answer.

The running back position is another problem, as Curtis Martin looks to be winding down a Hall of Fame career. The Jets are hoping Martin can rebound from an injury-marred 2005 to give them another productive season, but it may be too much to ask. Cedric Houston ran hard last year, but he’s an average RB at best, and Derrick Blaylock is a career backup. Rookie Leon Washington should be in the mix as well, and a running back by committee situation may be the most likely scenario.

The Jets are in slightly better shape at wide receiver. Laveranues Coles isn’t a true number one receiver, but the excellent chemistry he has with Pennington may help improve the numbers he’s put up the past few years. Justin McCareins is a decent deep threat who’s adequate in the two spot, and Jericho Cotchery has the requisite abilities to be an excellent slot receiver. The depth behind these three is questionable, and the Jets’ tight ends are nothing special.

New York may have taken the two best offensive linemen in the draft with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, but the question is how soon they’ll be ready to contribute. With a lack of quality talent on the line, Ferguson will probably start at OLT, and Mangold could challenge as well. Free agent pickup Trey Teague brings great versatility, and Pete Kendall can play guard or center. The rest of the Jets’ linemen are essentially warm bodies, and it’s hard to imagine this line being particularly good, especially early in the year.

The overall talent level is higher on the defensive side of the ball, but still far from stellar. Dewayne Robertson can be extremely disruptive at times, but he’s inconsistent and hasn’t reached his full potential. The problem is that Robertson is undersized for the 3-4 that Mangini prefers to play, and the team lacks a true nose tackle to stuff the run, unless Sione Pouha develops. Shaun Ellis is an excellent talent at defensive end, and veteran Kimo Von Oelhoeffen will help on the other side.

Jonathon Vilma is a rising star, but he needs some bigger bodies up front to keep him clean. The speedy Eric Barton’s return from injury should help the linebacker corps, and DE Bryant Thomas may get some snaps at OLB in a pass rushing role. The depth is solid, but lacking in playmakers.

The Jets don’t have a true number one cornerback, and Justin Miller is the only candidate on the team who possesses the physical skills to fill that role. David Barrett and Andre Dyson may start, but both are average players who would be better suited in a nickel back role. Derrick Straight lacks top speed. Kerry Rhodes and Erik Coleman are adequate but hardly special as the safeties. Overall, this is a workmanlike group that won’t make many big plays. More will be expected of kicker Mike Nugent in his second year, and Miller may get another chance to show off his skills as a return man.

Overall, the Jets aren’t a terrible team, but they face very long odds this year. For them to be competitive, a quarterback will have to emerge, Coles and Martin will have to rebound, and a young offensive line will have to click early. The defense should be better than last year, when a woeful offense kept them on the field far too much, but the lack of a quality run stuffer in the middle and a top cover corner will likely keep them from realizing their potential. Another losing season seems likely.

4. BUFFALO: If a quarterback doesn’t emerge for the Bills, they will most likely be one of the worst teams in the league this year. Buffalo traded back into the first round of the 2003 draft to grab J.P. Losman, thinking that he had the potential to become their franchise quarterback; Losman still has potential, but he has done very little to realize it, and he may be running out of chances. Kelly Holcombe and Craig Nall are career backups who shouldn’t be starting.

Without a legitimate passing game, the pressure will once again be on Willis McGahee to carry the Bills’ offense, a task at which he had no great success last year. McGahee topped a thousand yards, but scored only five times, and behind a suspect O-line he will probably struggle against eight man fronts again this year. He reportedly lost some weight over the off-season to help become more explosive, but it may not help if the holes aren’t there. Anthony Thomas is a grinder who won’t intimidate anyone, but he at least provides a decent option behind McGahee.

At receiver, Lee Evans could be a star if the Bills could get him the ball more effectively. With the departure of Eric Moulds, Evans will face a lot of double teams this year unless another receiving threat can emerge to take some pressure off of the talented youngster. Peerless Price returns after disappointing stints elsewhere, and second year man Roscoe Parrish will get a shot. Josh Reed is still around, but has never been able to contribute consistently. Free agent tight end Robert Royal may be a small upgrade from last year’s group, but the Bill’s weak WR corps would really benefit if TE Kevin Everett could develop into a pass catching threat after missing his rookie season due to injury.

Buffalo is hoping that free agents Melvin Fowler, Wayne Gandy, and Tutan Reyes can help improve on the woeful performance of the offensive line last year, but that may be overly optimistic. This is one of the most talent-poor lines in the game, and it will be a big surprise if they can play at a high level this season. They will most likely struggle to protect the QB or open lanes for McGahee.

The talent level is better on the other side of the ball, but that may not be entirely reflected in their play this year if the offense can’t sustain drives to help keep the defense fresh. After losing Pat Williams to free agency and Takeo Spikes to injury, the Bills’ D was one of the worst in the league in 2005, just a season removed from being one of the best in 2004. The front office brought in ex-Colt Larry Tripplett and rookie first rounder John McCargo to shore up a porous interior on the defensive line. Aaron Schobel, Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney aren’t a flashy rotation at defensive end, but they get the job done.

If he’s fully recovered from a torn Achilles’ tendon, Takeo Spikes may be the best OLB in the league, and he brings great intensity and the ability to make game-changing plays with his explosive speed and nose for the ball. London Fletcher is still solid in the middle, but Jeff Posey may be slowing down, and could possibly be challenged for playing time by Angelo Crowell, who impressed the coaching staff while filling in for Spikes last year. Mario Haggan also has some ability.

Buffalo invested early and often in their secondary on draft day, an indication that Nate Clements may follow Lawyer Milloy out the door after this season. For the meantime, Clements pairs with rising talent Terrence McGee to form an effective cornerback duo. Ashton Youboty has the physical skills to grab the nickel back spot if he is focused. Donte Whitner will be under pressure to justify his high draft status, but has the talent to surprise some people; Whitner has playmaking ability, and may start right out of the gate. Troy Vincent is one of the most cerebral DBs around, but may not have much left in the tank. Matt Bowen and Coy Wire provide experienced backups. Terrence McGee is a dangerous kick returner.

With the return of Spikes and an infusion of young talent, the defense should be better than the unit that got ran all over a year ago, but they will need to play out of their minds for this team to win many games. With a severely limited offense, the Bills will need to manufacture points and easy scoring opportunities on defense and special teams to remain competitive. If J. P. Losman has a breakout year this team could surprise, but most likely they will be a bottom feeder and a contender in the Brady Quinn sweepstakes.

SUMMARY: From here, the AFC Easy looks like a two-horse race. New England gets the early nod as the reigning champs, but they essentially won the division by default last year, and that won’t be the case again with Miami improving rapidly. The Dolphins have comparable talent to the Pats, and may overtake them if Daunte Culpepper plays well from the get-go. With serious uncertainty at the quarterback position, New York and Buffalo appear to lack the balance to be competitive in 2005, and both face an uphill battle to improve much over their poor showings of a year ago.

AFC North:

1. PITTSBURGH: The Super Bowl champs get the nod, but nothing is guaranteed. This team showed some definite holes last year before going on a tear in the playoffs, but they could have had a better regular season if Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t missed four games. The Steelers’ off-season left some holes to fill, but overall they are still the deepest and most well-rounded team in the division.

Despite a poor performance in the Super Bowl, Big Ben showed that he’s capable of being more than a game manager with great performances against Indianapolis and Denver. With some question marks regarding their trademark running game, the champs might need Roethlisberger to be more of a playmaker this year, and hope that he can avoid the nagging injuries that have slowed him in his first two seasons, although Charlie Batch is a capable backup who can win some games if necessary.

The big question for Pittsburgh is how the loss of Jerome Bettis will affect their running game. Though Bettis wasn’t the starter last year, he was a valuable role player who excelled in short yardage situations and provided leadership and toughness. Willie Parker is talented but inconsistent, and he appeared to wear down towards the end of the season. Parker hasn’t proven that he can handle three-hundred plus carries or convert in the red zone (only four career rushing TDs), and top backup Duce Staley doesn’t look appear to have much left in the tank. Verron Haynes is a valuable third down option who may have a bigger role this year, but some observers were surprised that the Steelers didn’t draft a RB before taking Cedric Humes in the seventh round. Pitt will most likely keep Parker fresh with a running back by committee approach, and rely on fullback Dan Kreider and their excellent offensive line to open holes for whoever is carrying the rock.

The Steelers lost a valuable weapon in the versatile Antwaan Randle El, but his production is certainly replaceable just by the numbers. First rounder Santonio Holmes needs to get his head on straight and improve his focus if he wants to take the number two spot that Randle El vacated: if he doesn’t, Cedric Wilson and Quincy Morgan have the talent to fill the role, though they also lack consistency. One the other end of the spectrum is the ever-reliable Hines Ward, who should continue to produce solid numbers as the top option for a run-first team, and provide leadership with his fantastic work ethic. Heath Miller showed last year that he’s a dangerous red zone target, and should be a bigger part of the passing game this year; the depth behind him is suspect.

The line continues to be the heart and soul of this offense, but an injury here could be bad news. The pass protection struggled last year when LT Marvel Smith was out. Health will always be a concern for LG Kendall Simmons, and center Jeff Hartings is aging. None of the backup OL are particularly impressive.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex schemes really rattled opposing units in the playoffs, and he has the talent to make it work again this year. It starts up front with mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton, and Chris Hoke is a quality backup. The loss of veteran Kimo Von Oelhoffen to free agency leaves a hole, but Brett Keisel and Travis Kirschke are capable 3-4 ends, and Aaron Smith is an under-rated performer on the other side. The return of Rodney Bailey and the drafting of Orien Harris add depth along the D-line.

Good linebackers are essential for success in the 3-4 defense, and Pittsburgh has them. Clark Haggans and Joey Porter are aggressive blitzers who can stop the run as well, and the team wouldn’t lose much if backup James Harrison had to start. James Farrior is a force on the inside, and Larry Foote is solid, but the depth here isn’t spectacular.

If the Steelers D has a wekness it’s the secondary, but LeBeau’s blitzburgh style exerts great pressure that generally covers mistakes in the defensive backfield. Safety Troy Polamalu is one of the league’s most disruptive defenders with his incredible burst and nose for the ball, and LeBeau moves him all over to make offenses account for him on every play. The Steelers lost FS Chris Hope, but ex-Redskin Ryan Clark should be an adequate replacement, and third rounder Anthony Smith has the tools to eventually be a better player than Hope. Ike Taylor may not be an elite corner, but he’s fast and tough, and isn’t afraid to challenge top receivers. Veteran Deshea Townsend will have a tough time holding off speedy youngsters Bryant McFadden and Ricardo Colclough. This secondary isn’t flashy, but they have enough speed and talent to get the job done. The Steelers’ special teams are quite respectable.

The key for this team will most likely be whether they can continue to grind out games on the ground without the Bus in the backfield. If they can’t, the pressure will be on Roethlisberger and a fairly pedestrian receiving corps to provide balance. It will be interesting to see if the offense can execute explosive gadget plays as well without Randle El in the lineup. Regardless, the supremely aggressive defense will provide the O with a margin for error, and the Steelers should be a contender again this year.

2. CINCINNATI: Two of the key words for the Bengals this year will be “Carson” and “character.” This team basically lives or dies depending on the health of Carson Palmer’s surgically repaired left knee. Also, many observers have questioned when the group of thugs and troublemakers that Cincinnati has acquired will reach critical mass. Coach Marvin Lewis has to prove that he can keep his players out of trouble and under control.

With a tough early schedule, the Bengals will need Palmer to hit the ground running; if he is healthy enough to start from the beginning of the season, and can quickly regain his 2005 form, they can be contenders. If Palmer misses time, talented but erratic backup Anthony Wright will have to step up, or Cincinnati could rapidly fall out of contention in a murderous division. When healthy, Palmer is one of the best in the business, and he gives the Bengals’ balanced attack enough explosiveness to put up points against any defense.

Rudi Johnson is a quality running back, and Chris Perry provides the perfect complement to Johnson’s grinding style with more speed and better receiving skills. The two make an excellent tandem, although Perry is coming off an injury, and the depth behind them isn’t great. Jeremi Johnson is a hammer of a lead blocker who doesn’t do much else.

Chad Johnson is one of the top wideouts in the NFL, and can run any route. T. J. Houshmanzadeh is an excellent complement, and second year WR Chris Henry has great speed and skill from the slot, if he can keep clean and focus on football. The Bengals’ offense will lose something if Henry isn’t on the field, but Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman provide decent options. Tight end is the one weakness of this offense.

The offensive line really came together for Cincinnati last season, and they return all five starters for at least one more year. Levi Jones is an under-rated LT, and massive Willie Anderson may be the best RT in the league. Eric Steinbach anchors the interior OL, and Eric Ghiaciuc may challenge for the starting spot at center. The depth is mostly untested youngsters.

If Cincinnati’s defense could catch up to their offense, they would be one of the premier teams in the league, but they may need to invest some more talent into their defensive line before that can happen. The Bengals were soft as butter up the middle last year, and are counting on veteran run-stopper Sam Adams to shore up that aspect, but he wasn’t very effective in Buffalo last year, and may not have much left. Justin Smith and Robert Geathers are solid at the ends, and David Pollack may see some time at DE as well to bolster the pass rush. However, this group needs to stop the run better.

The Bengals have plenty of talent at linebacker, but need more consistency from a largely inexperienced group. MLB Odell Thurman showed he could be a difference-maker as a rookie, but he will start the season on a four game suspension, forcing the team to shuffle the unit around. Landon Johson is a competent fill-in, and reports have him playing on the weak side while aging veteran Brian Simmons slides inside. The defense will really benefit if Pollack can utilize his talent more effectively in his second year playing LB. Rookies Ahmad Brooks and A. J. Nicholson need to prove that they can play hard and stay out of trouble before the team counts on them for much.

Cincinnati’s secondary is rich with ball-hawks but poor in tacklers. Deltha O’Neal regained his form last year, but Tory James is slowing down. Keiwan Ratliff lacks speed and is better suited as the nickel back, and the coaching staff would love to see talented rookie Jonathon Joseph challenge James sooner rather than later. The return of Madieu Williams should help the secondary. Dexter Jackson is nothing special, but he’s still an upgrade from the other options at SS, and an injury here would place one of the same players on the field who were liabilities last year.

This team has the talent to be dangerous, but they folded down the stretch last year and will need some leadership to emerge with all the character questions they’re facing. With a healthy Palmer, the offense will once again rank near the top of the league, but the team won’t go far if the defense can’t hold up its’ end of the bargain. The unit has plenty of talent, but needs to prove that it can stop the run before it realizes its’ true potential. Otherwise, the Bengals will be a pure shoot-out team like the Colts and Chiefs of recent years.

3. CLEVELAND: The Browns are a team on the rise. Last year, they were surprisingly competitive under first year head coach Romeo Crennel, though their record didn’t show it. This year the talent level is much higher after a free agent spending spree and a solid draft.

With Trent Dilfer in San Francisco, Charlie Frye is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, and what he lacks in experience he will make up in talent and toughness; he may struggle with some inconsistency, but he should provide an upgrade over Dilfer’s weak play from last year. The depth behind Frye is non-existent, and if he gets hurt this team will be in very deep trouble.

Reuben Droughns finally brought a thousand yard rusher back to Cleveland, but he wore down as the season went on, and was ineffective in the red zone. Droughns isn’t flashy, but the tough grinder fits well with the Browns’ blue collar mentality. If Lee Suggs can’t stay healthy this year, rookie Jerome Harrison may push to spell Droughns and work as the third down back. William Green will probably get one last shot. Fullback Terrelle Smith is a powerful lead blocker, and rookie Lawrence Vickers brings depth and great versatility. Vickers catches the ball well, and may get some looks in short yardage and goal line situations if Droughns can’t show a better nose for the end zone.

The Browns are crossing their fingers that young talents Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards can stay on the field and out of the training room this year; if they do, they promise to add an explosive element that the Browns’ passing game lacked last year. If Edwards can emerge as a legitimate number one receiver, Dennis Northcutt can play from the slot, where he would be more effective. Free agent addition Joe Jurevicius is an excellent possession receiver who is a threat in the red zone. Rookie Travis Wilson is the most intriguing of the backup WRs, and Steve Heiden is a quality second tight end.

The loss of new center LeCharles Bentley in training camp was a big blow to a team that has had more than it’s share of injury woes recently. Bentley was expected to vastly improve the running game, especially against some of the big DTs the Browns will face this year. Veteran Bob Hallen will have some big shoes to fill. Joe Andruzzi, Ryan Tucker and Cosey Coleman need to play up to their potential this year. Kevin Shaffer is an under-rated LT who should improve the play at that position. Depth on the O-line is poor after the starters.

Cleveland looks to be vastly improved on defense this year. Ted Washington is getting old, but he should still be a big boost to last year’s weak run defense. Rookie Babatunde Oshinowo has the ability to contribute as a backup nose tackle, and Orpheus Roye is a solid performer at end. Depth on the D-line is not great.

The linebacker corps really improved over the off-season, adding both young talent and veteran leadership. Willie McGinest brings toughness, badly needed pass rush ability, and great knowledge of Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense. Kamerion Wimbley has the speed and athleticism to become a playmaker under McGinest’s tutelage, and D’Qwell Jackson should challenge for the starting spot next to Cleveland’s defensive MVP, Andra Davis. Matt Stewart and Chaun Thompson round out a solid unit.

The Browns found a competent young corner in Leigh Bodden, who along with Gary Baxter and Dayleon McCutcheon will form a quality trio at cornerback, regardless of who starts. Antonio Perkins needs to step up in his second year. Rookie DeMario Minter brings good size and physicality. Brian Russell is a solid veteran at free safety, while Sean Jones and Brodney Pool are long on potential but short on experience. Phil Dawson is a very reliable kicker, and Joshua Cribbs flashed some return ability as a rookie.

This is a talented young team, but depth is a big question mark, and they’ll have problems if another star player is injured. If they can avoid the injury bug though, Cleveland could have a breakout year. The quality of their division may prevent them from realizing their potential this season, but this team is improving rapidly, and could be a dangerous spoiler down the stretch if they stay healthy.

4. BALTIMORE: The Ravens finally found a star quarterback, but it just may be too little too late. In a best case scenario, Steve McNair could make this team into a contender, but first he needs to stay healthy behind a porous O-line, and show that he can regain his co-MVP form of a few years ago after struggling on a sub-par offense in Tennessee a year ago. If McNair misses time, the pressure will really be on Kyle Boller to step up his game, and it’s widely speculated that both he and head coach Brian Billick could be under the gun this year. For the Ravens to be competitive, they will need rebound seasons from several of their established stars as well as McNair.

Jamal Lewis is at the forefront of this group. He still has talent and is in his prime physically, but he must run with more authority than he did last year if the Ravens’ running game is to improve. Mike Anderson is a quality backup who has great heart, but his legs can’t handle a full load any more. Neither Musa Smith nor any of Baltimore’s fullbacks are particularly impressive.

Derrick Mason isn’t imposing physically, but he’s an effective receiver who had great chemistry with McNair in Tennessee. Mark Clayton is a tough youngster with the tools to be a quality number two. Clarence Moore has great size, and Devard Darling has great speed, but neither has proven anything. This group will benefit greatly if rookie Demetrius Williams can become a legitimate threat. Todd Heap is one of the most well-rounded tight ends in the league when healthy, but that’s been a persistent problem for him. The depth at TE is nothing special.

The line has been a major weakness that has hindered the offense’s effectiveness the past few years. All-world LT Jonathon Ogden is clearly past his prime, and despite a Pro Bowl berth last year, he doesn’t dominate the way he did in the past. Keydrick Vincent was a disappointment, adding little spark to a lackluster interior OL. Tony Pashos will get a chance to start full time in the place of RT Orlando Brown, unless the athletic but unproven Adam Terry can take the spot from him. Second rounder Chris Chester may challenge for playing time at some point; the rest of the backups are pedestrian at best.

The Ravens’ D still has some intimidating playmakers, but this is a unit in transition. They are counting heavily on rookie DT Haloti Ngata to stuff the run and keep blockers off of MLB Ray Lewis. Kelly Gregg is a hard worker, but free agent addition Trevor Pryce has a reputation for laziness, and the depth on the D-line doesn’t impress. Terrell Suggs’ numbers declined playing defensive end last year, and Baltimore needs him to rebound to give this DL some juice.

Some may consider it blasphemy, but the truth is that Ray Lewis is in decline. He is still a fierce hitter with great instincts, and an emotional leader, but he has lost some of the explosive burst that made him so disruptive. He is still an excellent LB, but he struggles getting off blocks, and hasn't come up with the same big plays recently that made him a legend. Adalius Thomas is solid on the strong side, and Bart Scott made some plays last year, but the depth of this unit is questionable if Lewis suffers another injury.

Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle form an excellent CB tandem, and the Ravens are hoping that FS Ed Reed can regain his defensive MVP form after an injury-shortened 2005 campaign. Despite this star power at the top, the rest of the secondary is a gigantic question mark, with the SS and nickel back spots potentially manned by players who are no better than street free agents. An injury to any of their big three in the defensive backfield would be devastating, and as it is this unit will struggle against teams that can spread the field with multiple talented WRs.

Baltimore is one of the toughest teams in the league to predict this year. If Steve McNair and Ray Lewis stay healthy, and Jonathon Ogden and Jamal Lewis regain their form, this team could contend for the Super Bowl. However, with the injury history of key players, and problems on the offensive line and in the secondary, the Ravens need all the cards to fall perfectly for them to contend, and they may have missed their window.

SUMMARY: The Steelers are the deepest, most experienced, most balanced team in this division, as well as the defending Super Bowl champions, and as such they deserve to be ranked at the top. However, this is one of the toughest divisions in football, and it won’t be any cakewalk for Pittsburgh. If Cincinnati develops a run defense, they could make the leap to elite status quickly, and Cleveland and Baltimore both have enough talent to be tough and competitive. These should be nasty, physical teams, and established rivalries will add even more spice. Given how quickly injuries can change the complexion of the game, any of these teams could end up being strong enough to win the division, and the North is likely to produce one of the conference’s wild card teams, unless they are exhausted by the intense competition within the division.

AFC South

1. INDIANAPOLIS: After San Diego and Pittsburgh gave the rest of the league a blueprint of how to give Indy’s offense fits, the Colts won’t challenge for a perfect regular season again, but they are certainly the prohibitive favorites to win their division. Most of the opponents on their weak schedule won’t have the talent to duplicate the Chargers’ and Steelers’ success against Indy’s high-flying offense, and Peyton Manning has shown that he can dominate the regular season. This year, the undersized Colts team needs to save something for the playoffs.

The loss of Edgerrin James will definitely be felt, but Manning has more than enough weapons to take up the slack. After utilizing a patient offense with a heavy dose of the running game to attack defensive fronts geared to stop Manning, expect the Colts to use more three-wide sets again this year, and put the ball in the hands of their MVP rather than the ground game. As long as the O-line holds up decently in pass protection, Manning should exceed thirty TD passes again this year.

Pass protection may be where James is missed the most, as he is one of the best RBs in the game in that area, and his knowledge of Indy’s complicated offense was deeply ingrained. Dominic Rhodes is a solid backup who lacks James’ star power, but along with first round pick Joseph Addai he should be able to adequately, if not entirely, replace James’ rushing yardage. Addai has more raw talent, as well as versatility, and should win the starting job by mid-season as long as he works hard on the playbook. The depth is very average, but anyone carrying the ball for Indy has the considerable advantage of being a distant second on the defense’s list of concerns.

The receiver corps is quite simply the best in the league when you add speedy tight end Dallas Clark to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley. This group has a great blend of skill and savvy, and benefit from years of established chemistry with Manning. The team has several promising young TEs, and if one of the top three receivers were injured, they would most likely go with more two TE formations.

The usually steady offensive line let the Colts down in the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how they respond after Manning publicly threw them under the bus. Center Jeff Saturday is one of the best in the business, and Tarik Glenn is generally an effective protector for Manning’s blind side, but rest of the line has not played up to the standards of previous years recently. The depth is not good, and this team really needs to develop some young talent on this unit.

The defense took a long-awaited step forward last year, and the pressure will be on them to duplicate that success this season. The addition of Corey Simon helped the interior D-line, and he will need to play well again to help cover the departure of Larry Tripplett. Former defensive end Raheem Brock is moving inside to DT, and along with undersized Montae Reagor will give the Colts possibly the smallest DT rotation in football. Pint-sized Robert Mathis is slated to start at end full time this year, and while he has been a force as a situational pass rusher, he looks like a liability against the run. Dwight Freeney is a superstar who must be accounted for on every play because of his athleticism and explosive first step, but with three small players this line seriously lacks beef, and will get pushed around when they don’t win battles with speed.

The Colt’s linebacker corps is similarly smallish, relying like the line on speed rather than power. Second year starters Gary Brackett and Cato June have nice instincts, and June in particular showed impressive playmaking skills, but neither is a great tackler. The strong side LB position will be open to competition from several inexperienced players after the departure of David Thornton. This is a young group that hasn’t logged much playing time other than holdover Rob Morris.

The secondary is also pretty green, and the Colts don’t have a true number one cornerback, unless Marlin Jackson can develop into that role. The team would like to get more from Kelvim Hayden, and also drafted Tim Jennings from Georgia in the second round this year. SS Bob Sanders is a rising star who makes up for his lack of size with great quickness and intensity. Mike Doss has yet to live up to his draft status at the other safety spot, and if he continues to struggle the Colts may give Marlin Jackson a look there. Adam Vinatieiri has the ice in his veins come clutch time that Mike Vanderjagt lacked, but it remains to be seen if Vinatieri brought any championship magic with him from New England.

Indy’s talent level is impressive, but Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy have earned a reputation for choking in the playoffs, which they will continue to suffer until they prove it wrong. This team is very quick and athletic, but their size makes them vulnerable to being pushed around by more physical teams. The Colts thought they had laid that stigma to rest with thorough defeats of New England and Pittsburgh last year, only to have the demon return in a late season loss to San Diego, and the playoff meltdown in the rematch against the Steelers. They will be under the gun once again to display enough physical and mental toughness to be a factor in December and January.

2. JACKSONVILLE: The Jaguars have plenty of talent, but they’re probably not as good as their 12-4 record last year would suggest. After cruising through a cupcake schedule, they were exposed in the playoffs. The defense is very good, but the offense lacks an identity, and has struggled to achieve consistency with repeated injuries to its’ top players. Byron Leftwich is a tough leader with a decent skill set, but his development has been hampered by missing time, and by the lack of quality weapons around him. Backup David Garrard is a fine athlete who lacks polish as a passer.

Top running back Fred Taylor has suffered a litany of injuries throughout his career, which have prevented him from realizing his enormous potential. This isn’t likely to change as Taylor gets older, but he is still the most complete back on the roster, and the Jags would really benefit if he could play a full sixteen games this year. Fullback Greg Jones is a converted tailback who runs hard in short yardage situations, but lacks the burst and top-end speed to excel as an every down runner. Shifty rookie Maurice Drew brings great quickness, but isn’t built to be a full time starter. LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman are adequate backups, but the offense would suffer if either were asked to start.

Wide receiver is a dilemma for Jacksonville after the sudden retirement of top option Jimmy Smith, the reliable vet who has been Leftwich’s go-to guy. Leftwich’s targets will include three first round picks, but they have only three years of combined experience. Reggie Williams has been a bust so far, and will have to improve his ability to separate to show the improvement the Jags are looking for this year. Matt Jones is a fantastic athlete, but is still extremely raw after converting from quarterback during his rookie season. Marcedes Lewis brings great height and athleticism, but will have to prove himself as a blocker to win the starting job at tight end. Earnest Wilford may be the Jag’s most reliable receiver, but he doesn’t have the speed to be a number one receiver.

Jacksonville’s offensive line needs to get better for this offense to improve. Khalif Barnes looked like a second round steal at the all-important LT spot, and veterans Brad Meester and Chris Naole make up for average talent with toughness and hustle, but Maurice Williams is nothing special at RT, and OG Vince Manuwai needs to play with more consistency and attitude. Quality depth is non-existent.

The defensive side of the ball is where the Jags make their hay, and it all starts up front with one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Anchors Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are hands down the league’s premier tandem at DT, stuffing running lanes and collapsing the pocket. DE Reggie Hayward brought much-needed pass rush ability off the edge last year, and Paul Spicer is a solid veteran. Depth is a bit of a question mark, but as long as the starters stay healthy the Jags have an excellent foundation for their D.

Another quality linebacker would make the defense into a truly elite unit. The speedy Mike Peterson is an under-rated performer at MLB, but the rest of the linebackers are average. The coaching staff is waiting for Daryl Smith to fully utilize his talent. Journeyman Nick Greisen and rookie Clint Ingram were brought in to compete for the spot vacated by the disappointing Akin Ayodele. The LB corps is pretty thin behind these four, but they are good enough to get the job done. The Jags would love for a young star to emerge and put this unit over the top.

Rashean Mathis is quickly becoming one of the best cover corners in the NFL, and the defensive backfield will greatly benefit from the addition of a second quality corner with the signing of free agent Brian Williams. Youngster Scott Starks heads up a no-name group that completes the depth chart at CB. Headhunter Donovin Darius brings toughness and attitude to the secondary, and Deon Grant’s deep range and coverage skills complement Darius well at FS. The drop-off is steep after the starters, and the defense could suffer greatly if one of them were to miss any significant time. Maurice Drew will most likely get a chance to make an immediate impact returning punts and kicks.

Jacksonville’s defense is good enough to keep them in games, but for this team to be a true contender they really need to develop some consistency on offense. The running game needs to become a more dependable weapon, and one of the young receivers need to develop into a legitimate threat. If the line and the skill position players allow him a comfort zone, Leftwich is capable of finding a rhythm, but until that happens the offense will hold this team back. With an easy schedule the Jags should compete for a wild card berth, but they won’t be a serious threat to go deep into the playoffs unless some young players show a marked improvement this year.

3. TENNESSEE: It’s difficult to choose between Tennessee and Houston for the third spot, but the Titans will most likely have a better running game, and they have a few more pieces on defense. This is yet another rebuilding year in Nashville, but they at least seem to have gotten the last of the heavy lifting out of the way with the release of longtime star Steve McNair; the franchise should now be free of the burden of old contracts, and was able to spend a little money in free agency for the first time in years, so things are at last looking up, though there’s a long way to go.

Billy Volek is the man charged with being the bridge to electric rookie Vince Young, a raw talent who will need time to develop. Volek has a solid arm, and has had some decent outing backing up the injury prone McNair the past few years, so the Titians are hoping that he can win some games for them while Young develops. Young has the physical tools to be a big star, but it will be best for this franchise if he isn’t forced into action prematurely. The organization has denied rumors that they are interested in washed up Kerry Collins.

Tennessee has plenty of options in the backfield, so the pre-season will have to determine who’s going to handle the bulk of the carries for an offense that should lean heavily on its’ ground game. Both Chris Brown and Travis Henry missed time last year, and neither was able to get into a consistent rhythm. Brown has great quickness, while Henry runs tougher, but rookie Lendale White may have more upside and durability than either of them if he wants the job badly enough. White has the size and power to play the Eddie George role for this O, but many question his determination. It’s still possible that the Titans may trade Brown before the start of the season.

Drew Bennett will get a shot to be the number one receiver this year, and he has shown good chemistry with Volek in the past. David Givens should provide a reliable if not intimidating number two. Youngsters Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby and Roydell Williams will compete with Bobby Wade for playing time: keep an eye on Jones, who flashed some ability as a rookie before being injured. Erron Kinney and the athletic Ben Troupe make an excellent pair of tight ends, and Bo Scaife has some potential also.

The interior O-line will be bolstered by the signing of Kevin Mawae, a veteran with a nasty attitude. Zach Pillar and Benji Olson are solid at the guard spots, but the tackles are big question marks with the departure of long-tenured Brad Hopkins at LT. Second year player Michael Roos will be moved to LT, and youngsters Jacob Bell, Daniel Loper, and David Stewart will compete for RT, with the losers providing depth along with Eugene Amano. This line looks to be solid inside but soft on the edges; the Titans should be able to pound it up the gut, but pass protection could be a real problem unless the young tackles really step up their game.

If the defense can gel, it will help to take some pressure off an inexperienced offense. Albert Haynseworth can dominate inside when he’s motivated, and Randy Starks has a great deal of physical ability if he can put it together consistently. Rein Long is a decent interior pass rusher. The Titans were delighted to lock up Kyle Vanden Bosch after a breakout year, and they hope that Bo Schobel, Antwan Odom, or Travis LaBoy can emerge as the other end. Rookie Jesse Mahelona adds depth to a young D-line that has more talent than consistency at this point.

The linebacker corps should be the strength of the defense, with speedy David Thornton added to Keith Bullock, one of the league’s top OLBs, to form an excellent starting tandem. The return of Peter Sirmon from injury strengthens the middle and adds another playmaker to the D. The depth is very green with rookies Terna Nande and Stephen Tulloch joining Rob Reynolds. If the starters stay healthy they will be the best LB corps in the division.

The secondary is the weak link of this defense, and they will need the pass rush to take pressure off young corners Ryenaldo Hill and Pacman Jones. Jones was essentially a bust last year, as he got used consistently; the coaching staff is definitely hoping he can show some of the skills he displayed in college this time around. The Titans continue to wait for holdovers Andre Woolfolk, Michael Waddell and Rich Gardner to develop. Don’t be surprised if Tennessee picks up a veteran CB off the waiver wire before the start of the season. Lamont Thompson is adequate but nothing more at SS, but free agent addition Chris Hope brings some speed and range to the FS position. Donnie Nickey is probably the best of a poor group of backups. This unit will be a major weakness against good receivers like those on the Colts and Texans.

Ultimately, Tennessee should be more competitive than last season, with a defense that has some potential and plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions, but this team can only go as far as Billy Volek can take them, and the Titans are realistically treading water until Vince Young is ready to start. They should be able to run the ball and stop the run effectively, but a poor secondary and a pair of green tackles on offense will keep this team from contending, although they may surprise a few teams by gutting out tough wins.

4. HOUSTON: Gary Kubiak was a sound choice to be the head coach of this team, as he understands the value of an effective offensive line, something the Texans have lacked so far in their short existence. While Kubiak is obviously making improvement in this area a priority, the question is how quickly this goal can be accomplished, and the Texans’ season is probably riding on the answer. Kubiak will also attempt to resurrect the career of embattled quarterback David Carr as he did last year for veteran Jake Plummer. Carr has talent, and has shown his toughness while taking a beating behind sub-par O-lines. Now he must prove that he can become a quality starter as the coaching staff continues to put weapons around him. The options behind Carr aren’t pretty.

The second factor that will have a huge impact on this season in Houston is the precarious health of starting running back Domanick Davis, who continues to have knee problems. If Davis is healthy enough to play, he has the skill to take advantage of the zone blocking schemes that Kubiak is bringing from Denver, and is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. If Davis can’t go, the team will have to make do with some combination of aging journeyman Antowain Smith, unproven Vernand Morency, and rookie Wali Lundy.

Receiver Andre Johnson is a blazer with great size, and has the talent to be one of the best receivers in the league if Houston can get him the ball more frequently. Eric Moulds was a great pickup; the savvy vet will help to move the chains and take pressure off of Johnson, possibly freeing him from some of the near-constant double teams he has faced without a legitimate threat on the other side of the field. Kevin Walter is a solid possession receiver, and Jerome Mathis will be a nice deep threat when he returns from injury. Mark Breuner is a quality blocker, and Jeb Putzier was brought in to add some receiving skills at the tight end position.

Clearly, the development of the line will determine whether this offense can be successful. If center Mike Flanagan can rebound from a down year, it will help to solidify the interior of the line. Rookies Charles Spencer and Eric Winston were brought in to improve the talent level, and both will most likely get a chance to compete for playing time right away. Don’t be surprised to see Spencer, who has the makings of a future star, take over the crucial OLT job from disappointing Seth Wand and Chester Pitts at some point. Most teams hesitate to have a rookie protecting the QB’s blindside, but the pass protection can’t get much worse than what Carr has had so far in his short career.

The Texans’ defense is switching over to a 4-3 base alignment, which would seem to fit their personnel better. Mario Williams will be under serious pressure to produce as the top pick in this year’s draft, and last year’s first round pick Travis Johnson needs to improve now that he’s back at his natural DT position. Robaire Smith is solid at the other DT spot, but the depth is nothing special. Anthony Weaver will help against the run at LE, but the Texans will really need either former first round bust Jason Babin or free agent addition N. D. Kalu to provide some pass rush opposite Williams. This line does have some ability, but the former high picks need to play like it.

Veteran Sam Cowart was brought in as a stop-gap to shore up a weak linebacker corps, but it remains to be seen how much he has left. Kailee Wong and Morlon Greenwood have flashed some ability, but need to play with more toughness and consistency. Instinctive rookie DeMeco Ryans is likely to win a starting job early in his career, and he should help against the run. The depth is average at best.

Cornerback Dunta Robinson has great physical ability, and looks like a rising star. Phillip Buchanon has similar tools, but seems to lack the mental makeup and focus to put them to their proper use. If Demarcus Faggins misses extended time due to injury, Buchanon will most likely continue to struggle, as teams will throw at him rather than challenge Robinson. The prospect of any of the backup corners seeing much playing time is a scary one. C. C. Brown showed some potential as a rookie, but he and Glenn Earl aren’t great options at safety, and the Texans are a candidate to bring in some veteran help at the position as the other options on the team are less than exciting. Jerome Mathis is a dynamic return man who can change a game with his explosive speed.

This organization has quietly amassed some very nice pieces with Andre Johnson, Dunta Robinson, Mathis, and now a good looking draft class headlined by Williams and Ryans, but it most likely will take a year or two before they are ready to contend. Coach Kubiak will probably need a year to install his system, and add some more talent to the roster. If they can build a solid O-line and continue to develop David Carr, the Texans may make some noise, but the franchise’s first winning season should be considered a reasonable goal for this year.

SUMMARY: Essentially, the South looks like a two-team race this year unless serious injuries change the dynamics of the division. Houston and Tennessee lack depth and experience; neither has a proven quarterback, and both are in a rebuilding mode. As of right now, this is Indy’s division to win, and Jacksonville will have to have some young players really step up if they are to mount a serious challenge to the Colts’ supremacy. More likely, they will be chasing a wild card, and the Colts could easily win five or six games in the division, once again giving them an inside track on a first round bye. Whether they can take advantage this year remains to be seen.


1. DENVER: After a good off-season, the Broncos are poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. This is one of the deepest teams in the league, and they have surrounded quarterback Jake Plummer with some nice new weapons for what may be his last chance to lead them to the promised land. Plummer dramatically reduced his interceptions last year in more of a game manager role, and with the Broncos running game and an improved receiving corps, he won’t necessarily have to be spectacular to win games, but if he can’t get it done in the playoffs this year, it seems likely that talented rookie Jay Cutler will be given every chance to win the starting job in 2007.

Surprising rookie free agent Mike Bell has vaulted to the top of the depth chart at running back, and reports from training camp say that he has the combination of vision and burst to potentially be the next unknown to become a star in Denver’s backfield. Speedster Tatum Bell will continue to push the rookie, but may be more effective as a second option that can change a game with his explosive quickness. Ron Dayne is still in the mix as well, and even if he doesn’t win an expanded role in the offense, he showed last year that he could be effective in spot duty. Cecil Sapp provides depth, and he may beat out Kyle Johnson for the starting fullback position; both are quality options, and Johnson is a nice weapon out of the backfield near the goal line.

Rod Smith is reliable as always, a consummate pro that compensates for decreased speed with precise route running and veteran savvy. The Broncos added playmaking receiver Javon Walker in a draft day trade, and they hope he is the missing piece needed to take the passing game to the next level. Rookie Brandon Marshall brings a physical presence that this WR corps hasn’t had in a while; Marshall may win the number three receiver spot outright, and even if he doesn’t he should be a big threat in the red zone. If Darius Watts can improve his consistency catching the ball, he has the separation ability to be a contributor. David Terrell, Todd Devoe and David Kirkus will most likely be competing for the remaining roster spots if disgruntled Ashley Lelie isn’t on the team in September. Steven Alexander is a solid blocker at tight end. Rookie Tony Scheffler should see significant playing time as the second TE, and has the speed and athleticism to improve on the production of Jeb Putzier.

The line is still the foundation of this offense, and the team made a big investment by re-signing Tom Nalen and Matt Lepsis in the off-season. Together with OLG Ben Hamilton, these guys are the heart of Denver’s vaunted running game. The coaching staff would love to see George Foster realize the expectations of a first round pick after being slowed by injuries last year. Cooper Carlisle is solid but unspectacular at ORG. Adam Meadows and Cornell Green provide solid depth at OT, and Chris Meyers joins rookies Chris Kuper and Greg Eslinger as the backups inside.

The defensive line relies on quantity over quality, and is probably the weak link of this team. They are asked to occupy blockers more than to make plays, and the personnel is adequate for this task, but the front four struggles to get pressure on the QB without blitzing. Courtney Brown and Michael Meyers are stout against the run, and Gerard Warren commands a lot of double teams. The Broncos are hoping that rookie Elvis Dumervil and former practice squad player Corey Jackson can add some pass rush ability to a DE rotation of Brown, Ebenezer Ekuban and John Engelberger. Former linebacker Patrick Chukwurah will get a chance to rush the passer as a DE, and Dumervil may get some time inside in nickel packages. The depth at DT behind Demetrin Veal is a question mark.

The linebacker corps is a huge strength for this team. Al Wilson is an all-pro caliber MLB, and the emotional leader of the defense. Ian Gold makes up for lack of size with great quickness and sure instincts, and D. J. Williams will look to maximize his wealth of physical talent in his second year on the strong side. Backup Nate Webster could start for some teams, and his addition greatly improves the depth of this unit. Denver’s LBs use their speed to stuff the run and nullify mismatches in the passing game. Louis Green and Keith Burns provide depth and quality special teams play.

Champ Bailey is the best cornerback in the NFL, and he brings dangerous playmaking ability to the secondary. Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth surprised as rookies, and should be even better this year. The depth will benefit greatly if Karl Paymah can put it together and get more out of his physical ability this year. John Lynch has lost a step, but still plays with great intelligence and toughness, and Nick Ferguson is a tough run stopper who also contributed five interceptions last year. Sam Brandon and Curome Cox provide depth at safety as well as CB, and Brandon plays in a lot of passing situations because of his superior coverage skills. Jason Elam is still a reliable kicker, but Denver needs to get more from their return units.

With nineteen of twenty-two starters returning, the Broncos have the most proven team in a tough division. The running game should continue to be one of the best, and they are hoping that the new weapons can improve the production of the passing game, bringing better balance to an already effective offense. The defense forced a lot of takeaways last year, and will be a formidable unit if they can generate a pass rush. This is a deep team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and young talent. They run the ball well, and stop the run. Mike Shanahan looks to have the pieces in place to be a contender.

2. SAN DIEGO: The football world is waiting to see what Phillip Rivers can do. Rivers is a veteran by years, but a rookie by experience, and his play will have a huge role in determining the success of this franchise. If Rivers is strong out of the gate the Chargers will be a dangerous team this year, but if he struggles early, they may drop out of contention in a tough division. He has the requisite physical skills and should have the playbook down, but he must prove that he can replace Drew Brees’ poise and leadership on the field. Charlie Whitehurst has the talent to develop into a quality long-term backup, and A. J. Feeley provides an experienced stop-gap.

LaDainian Tomlinson is quite simply the best running back in football, a complete package who can do it all and carry an offense. The Chargers will lean heavily on Tomlinson early in the season, and he will most likely face lots of eight man fronts until Rivers proves that he can beat pro defenses. Michael Turner showed last year that he can make some plays in relief of Tomlinson, but depth is a question mark with Darren Sproles spraining an ankle in pre-season action. Fullback Lorenzo Neal is a headbanger.

Antonio Gates is a great weapon, and a good tight end can be a young QB’s best friend. Gates can split out wide and stretch the field, and is an awesome target in the red zone; he will often draw the opponent’s best cornerback in coverage, as he is clearly San Diego best receiving option. Keenan McCardell is the top receiver, and is still competent, but he isn’t a game-changer that forces defenses to adjust to him. The Chargers are really hoping that Vincent Jackson can be more of a factor in his second season, as Eric Parker is an average player at best, and the depth behind him consists strictly of no-names whose NFL experience is virtually non-existent. An injury to Gates or McCardell could be devastating to this offense.

The offensive line is a workmanlike group that plays hard, but won’t wow anyone. Nick Hardwick and Chris Dielman bring some attitude to the interior of the line, and Mike Goff is an established vet. Shane Olivea is an inconsistent player who is probably better suited on the right side. The Chargers are hoping that veteran Roman Oben is healthy enough to play this year; if he’s not, massive rookie Marcus McNeil may get a chance to protect Rivers’ blindside. The depth on the line is very pedestrian to say the least.

San Diego’s defensive front seven is as good as any in the league; they stuff the run, and provide a solid pass rush. It all starts with monster nose tackle Jamal Williams, who is nearly immovable and always occupies two blockers. Tough youngsters Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo give the Chargers a pair of former first rounders at defensive end, and together with Williams they dominate the line of scrimmage. The talent drops off sharply behind the starters.

The linebacker corps is a nice blend of experience with young talent. Randall Godfrey and Donnie Edwards provide a solid veteran presence in the middle, with Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper adding solid depth. Steve Foley is still a force off the edge, and Shaun Phillips should push for more playing time this year at OLB. Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Shawne Merriman is an absolute beast who will terrify QBs for years to come, and may well prove to be the best player from his draft class.

The secondary is the one big weakness of this defense. Quentin Jammer has never lived up to his high draft status, but he is probably the best the Chargers have to offer. Drayton Florence is a fluid athlete who has flashed some coverage skills, but he’s still a work in progress. San Diego drafted Antonio Cromartie in the first round, and while he is a phenomenal athlete, he is still extremely raw, and may not contribute much this year. The team lacks quality options behind these three. Marlon McCree was brought in to man the FS position, leaving Bawoe Jue and Terrence Kiel to battle it out at SS. Clinton Hart and Hank Milligan provide depth, but are more comfortable on special teams. San Diego will most likely struggle in coverage again this year, and will rely on their front seven to make teams one dimensional by stopping the run. Thre pass rush from Merriman and Foley should help to ease the pressure on an inexperienced secondary somewhat.

With All-Pros at RB and TE, and a nasty defensive front seven, Phillip Rivers won’t have to win many shootouts, but he will have to limit his mistakes, and will be challenged to provide a spark to the passing game when necessary without a top WR. The Chargers also need some leadership to emerge, as different teams tended to show up from week to week last year. If these things happen they can be a real contender, but if not all the talent in the world won’t help, and they will fall short once again.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Making a Mess in Minnesota

Wow, what happened in Minnesota? The Vikings organization seems to be in a state of chaos. When new owner Ziggy Wilf took over the team, they were faced with some serious questions; instead of answers, more questions are all they seem to have found. This is a team that's seriously lacking in identity or direction, and it remains to be seen whether Wilf and new head coach Brad Childress can right the ship.

One of Wilf's first actions was to sign off on the trade that sent controversial but ultra-talented wide receiver Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Moss, already saddled with a history of behavioral problems, was fresh off the infamous "mooning" incident at Lambeau Field, and perhaps worse, had walked off the field during the final seconds of a game at the end of the regular season. Tired of Moss' continual antics, the Vikings front office finally decided it was time to cut the cord with the embattled wideout, in hopes that the loss of his gamebreaking talent would be offset by an improvement in locker room chemistry. After an MVP caliber season, the Vikes were also confident that quarterback Daunte Culpepper was capable of producing offensive fireworks without his top playmaker, and with an eye towards procuring a new stadium deal, the Vikes chose to clean up their image by trading the troubled star. After all, their offense had found success under Culpepper's guidance even with Moss hobbled by injuries for a portion of the 2003 campaign, and lacked neither depth nor diversity. After several years of having possibly the most explosive offense in the league, the Vikes believed it was time to shore up the defensive side of the ball.

They did so by adding expensive free agents in cornerback Fred Smoot, safety Darren Sharper, and defensive tackle Pat Williams. The seventh overall pick received in the Moss trade was used to draft his potential replacement, speed burner Troy Williamson from South Carolina. After ranking near the top of the league in most important offensive categories for the past several years, the Vikings thought they had finally found the balance neccesary to become a true championship contender, and most sports analysts agreed; after questioning the mental toughness of the team following playoff collapses in previous seasons, many had the Vikings as Super Bowl favorites during the 2005 pre-season. Things had never looked better.

But it wasn't to last. Reality crashed the party when Pro Bowl center Matt Birk went down with an injury before the beginning of the season. Optimism quickly turned to despair as the Vikes lost four of their first five games, including blowout losses in Cincinnati, Chicago and Atlanta. Worse, something was clearly wrong with Daunte Culpepper; instead of the dynamic passer of the previous season, the team's signal caller looked lost and confused, turning the ball over at an alarming pace and completely failing to spark the once-explosive offense. Unfortunately, Culpepper quickly became a scapegoat for pundits, who conveniently ignored the constant pressure he faced behind a suddenly porous offensive line which obviously missed Birk, their best player. The brainy Harvard grad was responsible for calling out the protection schemes, and without him the patch-work line was overwhelmed by blitzes, giving Culpepper little to no time to set his feet or read the defense. Minnesota, and Culpepper in particular, also seemed to miss previous offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the mind behind the Vikes' vertical passing game, who had been allowed to leave for Miami during the off-season. While Linehan was turning wide reciever Chris Chambers into a star, the Vikes struggled mightily in his absence.

And then, as if embarrassing themselves on the field wasn't enough, the Vikings organization was humiliated by the now-infamous "sex boat" scandal, a sleazy episode which left multiple players facing charges related to engaging in a mass orgy on a rented boat on Lake Minnetonka. So much for cleaning up their image. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse for the team, they did. Culpepper completely blew out his knee in a devastating loss to the Carolina Panthers in week seven, and it seemed as though the season which had started with such promise was over before reaching the halfway mark. Then the Vikings engineered a surprising turnaround with steady but unspectacular veteran quarterback Brad Johnson at the helm, managing a six game winning streak. Despite this impressive feat, the team lost two of it's last three games, and finished out of the playoffs.

At this point, it seemed that maybe the season hadn't been a total loss; the new-look defense had made strides, and bolstered by the top play of Pat Williams and Darren Sharper, had managed to ascend to the middle of the pack statistically, a big improvement from the previous year. Also, the team showed some mental toughness and fortitude not seen before from coach Mike Tice's teams. However, it wasn't enough to save Tice, who had been on the proverbial hot seat for several years, as well as embarrassing the team when reports came to light that he had scalped tickets before the 2004 Super Bowl. Tice was fired mere hours after the end of the season.

Still, there was optimism in Minnesota after the hiring of long-time Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress as the new head coach. The Vikes lost wideout Nate Burleson to the Seattle Seahawks, but only after they had pried a much more valuable commodity from the Seahawks, highly sought-after guard Steve Hutchinson, generally regarded as one of the best in the league. Wilf also hired San Diego's head of scouting, Fran Foley, to be the Viking's vice president of player personnel, and announced that Foley, along with Childress and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, would form the "triangle of authority" charged with righting the ship in Minnesota.

Unfortunately for the Vikings, the off-season went bad from the start when Daunte Culpepper, the supposed face of the franchise, let it be known that he wanted to be traded out of Minnesota. The organization granted his wish in March, sending him to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a second round pick in the 2006 draft. Coach Childress raised some questions about his people skills when he continued to take shots at Culpepper through the media even after the trade. Then, things got worse when it came to light that Fran Foley had lied on his resume; the Vikings quickly cut their losses by firing Foley after the draft, but the two incidents left the triangle of authority looking about as welcoming as the Bermuda Triangle.

Then there was the draft itself. Although many experts lauded the pick of Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway in the first round, most were heavily critical of the rest of the Vikings' selections. In particular, the pick of quarterback Tavaris Jackson from division 1-AA Alabama State left some scratching their heads. Jackson was viewed as a solid prospect with the skill set to potentially become a decent starting quarterback in the NFL, but was considered a serious reach in the second round. In general, analysts gave Minnesota's draft very poor marks from top to bottom.

All in all, it's a tale of a rather stunning fall from grace. In two short years, this team has lost more offensive firepower than the Bears, winners of the NFC North and favorites again this year, have on their entire roster. Just a year ago, pundits were picking the Vikings to win the Super Bowl; now it's tough to find anyone ouside of the twin cities brave enough to predict that the team will make the playoffs. Although optimism flourishes in every training camp this time of year, the Vikings franchise appears to be a rudderless boat, lacking direction. The once-potent offense is now in the hands of the venerable Johnson and former first round bust Koren Robinson, a wideout that shares Moss' penchant for trouble but lacks his impressive ability. Although the defense does have some unproven young talent that may develop, as of now it's most consistent performers are several veterans on the wrong side of thirty. It appears that when the franchise shipped Culpepper to South Beach, their Super Bowl hopes may have sailed with him.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Changing of the Guard: Fresh Faces on the Sidelines

As Dylan once said, the times they are a'changin'. This is a transitional period for our beloved NFL, and with a new CBA in hand, the future looks bright. One of the most exciting developments is the emergence of new talent in the coaching ranks. The transfer of power has already begun, and should continue over the next few years.

Althought their return has reinvigorated the traditional powers in the NFC East, legendary old schoolers Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells can't coach forever. Dick Vermeil will weep on the sidelines no more. The Big Show, Mike Holmgren, just signed a two year extension in Seattle, but his future beyond that is unclear, and now Bill Cowher, the league's longest tenured head coach, is hinting that he may hang 'em up in a year or two (though this may be nothing more than posturing in hopes of landing a fat new contract). Marty Schottenheimer may be on the outs in San Diego.

New England's Bill Belichik and Denver's Mike Shanahan are at the top of the current coaching elite; Tampa Bay's John Gruden is a bright young coach who already has a ring, and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher can still turn things around if Vince Young and Lendale White can fill the big shoes of Steve McNair and Eddie George. John Fox and Andy Reid seem firmly entrenched in Carolina and Philadelphia, respectively, and are poised to ascend to the penthouse if either can secure a Super Bowl ring, so the league won't lack for established coaches even if an exodus of big names occurs over the next few years. Still, it's reassuring to see a promising group of young guns ready to step into the void.

At the head of the class are Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Chicago's Lovie Smith, both of whom have made immediate impacts on their franchises. Lewis has engineered a particularly impressive turnaround of one of the worst teams in the league, and if Carson Palmer can return at full strength, the Bengals have a nice array of weapons that will give them a chance to defend their AFC North crown. Lewis won a ring with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 as the coordinator of their dominant defense, and if he can mesh the young talent he has on that side of the ball in Cincinnati into a cohesive unit, he may have a chance to earn another in the coming years, as the Bengals boast a wealth of young talent that is under contract for the next few years and should continue to improve. In Chicago, Lovie Smith has restored some luster to the once-proud Bears franchise by building the best defense in the league; if he can find a playmaker in the passing game to compliment his powerful rushing attack, the Bears have the tools to dominate the NFC North for years to come. Both coaches are still a little rough around the edges, and have much to learn-- but both won their divisions last year, and if they can find the balance they need they'll have their teams in the hunt for a championship in the next few years.

In Miami, first year head coach Nick Saban brought a welcome breath of fresh air to the moribund Dolphins franchise. Saban's squad impressed with a six game winning streak to finish the season, and if new quarterback Daunte Culpepper can return to his 2004 form, the Dolphins should be able to challenge the Patriots for control of the otherwise weak AFC East. Despite a very shaky roster, the Cleveland Browns were surprisingly competitive in Romeo Crennel's first year as a head coach, and with a host of free agent additions and a strong draft, the Browns are poised to break out in the next year or two. Crennel has wasted no time assembling the personnel neccesary to run the type of 3-4 defense that thrived under his guidance in New England, and he is counting on second year quarterback Charlie Frye to become a leader on the other side of the ball.

Two first-time head coaches to watch for this year are Eric Mangini with the New York Jets and Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans. Mangini, another Belichik disciple, will have his work cut out for him in the pressure cooker of New York, but he has the intelligence to succeed if the Jets can stock their roster with adequate talent. Kubiak, the long-time second hand man to Mike Shanahan in Denver, has been patiently awaiting an opportunity after helping to orchestrate one of the most consistent offenses in the league during his time in Denver; Kubiak will bring the Broncos' proven zone blocking schemes with him to Texas, and will attempt to ressurect the career of quarterback David Carr as he did over the past few years with Jake Plummer. Look for Kubiak to maximize the untapped potential of wide receiver Andre Johnson, a potent weapon if they can find ways to get him the ball. The pieces are in place to build a dynamic offense in Houston if the young offensive line can come together.

Several fast-rising assistants could join this list within a few years-- keep an eye on Ron Rivera, the coordinator for the tough Bears defense, and former great Mike Singletary, the current Assistant Head Coach in San Fransisco. Also, defensive mastermind Gregg Williams seems to be the logical candidate to replace Joe Gibbs in Washington when he retires, although nothing is certain with unpredictable owner Dan Snyder.
All in all, the future of the league looks to be in competent, inspired hands. It's going to be fun seeing who emerges as the next legend of the sidelines.