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Arkansas Preseason Top 10

1. Har-Ber Wildcats (Springdale)
Nine starters return, including heralded senior defensive lineman Josh Frazier. Offensive tackle Isaac Johnson and defensive end Jake Hall also have major college offers. Senior quarterback Kyle Pianalto completed 123-of-214 passes for 1,903 yards and 26 touchdowns last fall.

2. Bentonville Tigers
A solid cast of returnees for the Tigers includes senior tight end Jack Kraus, who has committed to Arkansas, and junior offensive tackle Ean Pfeifer, who had 26 knockdown blocks last fall.

3. North Little Rock Charging Wildcats
Coach Brad Bolding says this could be the fastest team he’s had. The program received a boost in the offseason with two transfers — senior linebacker Tim Quickel and junior utility back K.J. Hill.

4. Southside Rebels (Fort Smith)
The Rebels are led by athletic senior quarterback Isaac Jackson and his younger brother, Ian, a junior linebacker.

5. Cabot Panthers
The Panthers improved to 6-5 last season after finishing 3-7 in 2011. Five three-year starters return to the offensive line.

6. Fayetteville Bulldogs
The two-time defending Class 7A state champions could start as many as 16 underclassmen, including several promising linemen.

7. Greenwood Bulldogs
Greenwood is seeking to become the first Arkansas school to capture four-consecutive state championships since 1989.

8. Conway Wampus Cats
The Wampus Cats return 11 starters, seven on defense. Junior kicker Matt “Thunderfoot” Cummins is one of the state’s best.

9. West Memphis Blue Devils
West Memphis had won or shared eight consecutive conference championships before tying for third last fall.

10. Jonesboro Golden Hurricane
The program continues to flourish under alum Randy Coleman. Defensive lineman Chuks Ota headlines nine returning starters.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Webb City (Mo.) at Har-Ber
Webb City, which won last year’s meeting 30-15, is riding a 45-game winning streak.

9.27 – Har-Ber at Bentonville
Caps a brutal four-game stretch for Bentonville, which has beaten Har-Ber five consecutive times.

10.25 – Greenwood at Fort Smith Southside
This may be the toughest regular-season test for Greenwood, which has a 38-game winning streak.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jabe Burgess, QB, Greenwood
Senior, 6-2, 200

Burgess, a Tulsa commit, made a seamless transition from backup to starter, completing 219-of-296 passes for 3,128 yards and 36 touchdowns last fall for the Class 6A champion. He is the cousin of former Greenwood and Arkansas star Tyler Wilson.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Bijhon Jackson, DT, El Dorado
Senior, 6-2, 320

Jackson was a starter as a sophomore on El Dorado’s Class 6A state championship team in 2011. The Arkansas commit had six sacks last fall and also won the state weightlifting title in April, bench-pressing 385 pounds and power-cleaning a record 335 pounds.

Order your Athlon Sports High School Football Annual today!

Teaser:
Arkansas' best high school football teams, preseason players of the year and games to watch.
Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:26
Path: /nfl/indianapolis-colts-2013-nfl-team-preview
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No more sneaking up on the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts blew their underdog cover in 2012 with a most unexpected climb to 11–5 and a playoff spot only one year after a 2–14 train wreck.

First-year general manager Ryan Grigson initiated himself by winning NFL Executive of the Year. First-year head coach Chuck Pagano endeared himself to a team and community with his inspiring fight against leukemia and emotional return to the sideline. Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck turned out to be every bit as talented and smart as advertised.

Just like that, the Colts are Super Bowl contenders in the eyes of many, and so soon after parting ways with Peyton Manning in March 2012. Who woulda thunk it?

Pagano suggests he hasn’t accomplished anything yet. The Colts are still “Building The Monster,” as player T-shirts remind. As much as everyone is excited about what could come next, the bottom line is about winning Super Bowls and hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 7th

Related: 2013 Indianapolis Colts Schedule Analysis

Offense
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians parlayed a stint as interim head coach into a permanent title with Arizona, so the Colts hired Luck’s former Stanford play-caller, Pep Hamilton. This should translate to a more balanced passing attack — Arians hated dink-and-dunk — with Luck utilizing more short-range throws in addition to going deep. He took 41 sacks last year and had to hold the ball too long behind a below-average offensive line.

The Colts had money to spend in free agency and used a chunk on Gosder Cherilus to play right tackle. They also added guard Donald Thomas. Grigson is a former O-lineman who ensured what he called a “cauldron of competition” for training camp with draft picks used on offensive guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes. How quickly the rookies transition will impact who stays and goes on a reshuffled front.

While wide receiver Reggie Wayne delivered his sixth Pro Bowl season and flourished in the slot formation when the Colts went with three wide receivers, the team needed another speed guy to replace free agent departure Donnie Avery. They signed former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey for one year. Like Avery, Heyward-Bey is fast, but drops are a concern.

Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener showed promise as rookies, especially Allen, who the Colts should utilize more — often times he helped block and even ran the ball as an H-back. Allen’s a mismatch in the pass game, and Luck needs to find him more.

The run game is still a question mark. That Vick Ballard proved to be a reliable rookie was a big bonus for a fifth-round pick. Donald Brown got hurt again, and the former first-round pick is in a contract year. The Colts talk about wanting to run the ball, which is why the team signed former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw in June. Bradshaw has had a tough time staying on the field, but he's also shown he's capable of being a 1,000-yard rusher when he gets enough carries. Seventh-round rookie Kerwynn Williams is valued as a kick returner but could be an ideal third down back.

Defense
Pagano used the word “hybrid” to describe the team changing from its usual 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 last year. That’s another way of saying the Colts didn’t have the parts to play an aggressive 3-4 like he did as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator.

More parts are now in place. While some were surprised at the money shelled out for certain players, needs were addressed with the addition of several free agents, most notably Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, outside linebacker Erik Walden and cornerback Greg Toler.

Landry is a run-stop thumper, the likes of which the Colts haven’t had since 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. Walden “sets the edge” as a decent run-stuffer and adequate pass-rusher, although many will unfairly compare him to the guy he’s replacing, all-time sack leader Dwight Freeney. The Colts decided not to re-sign Freeney, who didn’t fit the 3-4 and had just five sacks last season. Walden had more than 100 tackles in the last two seasons with Green Bay, so the priority is to have a guy on the edge who is responsible on all downs, not just rushing the pocket. If Walden can’t come up with enough sacks, first-round pick ­Bjoern Werner should get his chance.

Toler helps a secondary that lost cornerback Jerraud Powers, an oft-injured but capable starter. They essentially switched addresses — Powers going to Arizona and Toler coming from the Cardinals. While more changes were expected, the Colts opted to hang onto to cornerbacks Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn, who made plays at times but also got torched.

Eyebrows rose when Grigson gave starter money to San Francisco backup defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois. But he’s another ideal fit in a 3-4. He’s worked before with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and can play either end or tackle.

Specialists
Kicker Adam Vinatieri enters a contract year and turns 41 in late December. It’s possible his replacement is on the roster in punter Pat McAfee, who also handles kickoffs and aspires to one day add field goals to his areas of expertise.

The Colts thought enough of McAfee to use the franchise tag on him, which meant $2.9 million for this season. The sides have talked about a long-term contract.

T.Y. Hilton could be one of the league’s best punt returners. He started slow as a rookie but eventually displayed the speed and elusiveness to make cover teams miss. He accounted for both Colts TDs in a 20–13 home win over Buffalo in Week 12 with a 75-yard punt return and eight-yard catch. Williams should handle kickoffs and might spell Hilton on punts at times.

Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC South
As owner Jim Irsay said outside the locker room after January’s playoff loss in Baltimore, 11 wins is a tough act to follow.

If Luck’s O-line gives him time, watch him take another step forward. That’s saying something considering the passer set an NFL rookie record with 4,374 yards. But he should enjoy a better TD-INT ratio than 23-to-18. The Colts will still have to pass to set up the run in stretches, but Luck is mobile and has plenty of weapons. Even if every part doesn’t fit, the Colts should be better on offense.

The real question about this team is defense. The Colts couldn’t stop the run at times, the pass rush was spotty and the cover guys were exploited too often.

Granted, the team was able to overcome those shortcomings. But Pagano and Grigson realize that next step is a big one and requires a complete team. Winning masks inefficiencies for only so long. The initial hurdle is the two-time defending AFC South champion Houston Texans. They’ve taken ownership of the division once dominated by the Colts. Houston has learned that climbing the playoff ladder demands more than just talent. The Texans have never won in Indianapolis, so that bodes well if the Colts need a Dec. 15 win in the playoff push.

Order your 2013 Indianapolis Colts Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)IndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
Indianapolis Colts 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/st-louis-rams-2013-nfl-team-preview
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Jeff Fisher made his bones in coaching with a bruising, physical defense coupled with a conservative run-oriented offense led by big back Eddie George. That was in Tennessee (and Houston). As Fisher enters his second season in St. Louis, the bruising, physical defense is still there. But this offense could be unlike anything ever seen on a Fisher team. After undergoing a dramatic offseason makeover of skill-position players, the Rams have gotten faster and potentially more explosive on offense. After finishing 25th in scoring and 23rd in total offense in 2012, the Rams may do a 180 in terms of approach this season. It may take time to see how it all shakes out, but it looks like the emphasis is on getting players in space, creating mismatches, spreading the field and picking up the tempo.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 7th

Related: 2013 St. Louis Rams Schedule Analysis

Offense
For the first time as an NFL player, quarterback Sam Bradford has the same offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer — and the same terminology and playbook — in consecutive seasons. The apparent emphasis on more of an up-tempo passing style better suits Bradford. He did some of his best work a year ago in the hurry-up, when he was given more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.

He’s got a speedy receiver corps with the addition of tight end Jared Cook in free agency and wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in the draft. Four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long is the new left tackle on what already was an improved offensive line. If the Rams can find production in a backfield minus Steven Jackson, this could be Bradford’s eagerly awaited breakout season. There will be growing pains, however, because so many of the running backs and wide receivers are inexperienced. But the potential exists for a dynamic offense, one that can create a lot of matchup problems. Cook, who has 4.49 speed, will line up in the slot, out wide, in the backfield, and — oh yeah — on the line. Pairing Cook with the much-improved Lance Kendricks, the Rams can mimic the Patriots with two accomplished pass-catching tight ends.

At wide receiver, the Rams have a pair of burners in Chris Givens and Austin. Brian Quick presents a big target. Not unlike Cook, Austin will line up just about anywhere. Austin Pettis can make the tough short and intermediate catches and has developed into a decent red zone presence. But it won’t work as well without some semblance of a ground game. Second-year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are smaller scatback types. The Rams traded up into the fifth round for Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy, a tough inside runner who they hope can excel in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Terrance Ganaway, who played in only three games as a rookie, will have a chance to show he can provide a big-back element.

For at least the start of the season Richardson will play the role of lead back, as he beat out the rest of the competition during training camp. Pead hurt his chances when he received a one-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Even though Richardson is atop the depth chart, he won't be expected to carry the load like Jackson did for so many years in St. Louis. Pead, Stacy and Ganaway all should get their share of chances during the season.

The addition of Long gives St. Louis a veteran line — at least four-fifths of a veteran line — with former Green Bay Pro Bowler Scott Wells at center, hard-nosed Harvey Dahl at right guard and Rodger Saffold grudgingly moving to right tackle to accommodate Long. If the Rams find a left guard and the unit stays healthy, this could be one of the league’s better lines.

Defense
The Rams flirted with being a top-10 defense for much of the 2012 season. If rookies Alec Ogletree (linebacker) and T.J. McDonald (safety) fill the only holes in the starting lineup, this unit should achieve top-10 status this time around.

It all starts with the pass rush. Robert Quinn and the underrated Chris Long are developing into one of the NFL’s top tandems of pass-rushing ends. They combined for 22 sacks — a big reason the Rams tied for the league lead in sacks, an amazing achievement considering they led less than one-third of the time during games over the course of the season. They still managed to get all that pressure even though they didn’t have opponents in predictable passing situations all that often.

William Hayes was a super-sub off the bench with seven sacks, backing up Long and moving inside to tackle in passing situations. As a result, the Rams didn’t blitz all that often; they didn’t have to because of the consistent pressure of the front four. That figures to be the case this year, particularly if second-year tackle Michael Brockers can continue to provide an inside push, a part of his game began developing late in his rookie season.

At linebacker, James Laurinaitis continues to be a rock in the middle, and he will be seeking his fifth consecutive season as the team’s leading tackler. He also will help mentor Ogletree, who is slated to start alongside Laurinaitis. Read-option quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco and Russell Wilson of Seattle took the league by storm a year ago, and the Rams are counting on Ogletree’s closing speed to help keep them in check.

The Rams' other starting outside linebacker was expected to be Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who was a surprise last year after leaving New Orleans in free agency. He is an active, aggressive hitter capable of making the splash play via interception, sack, forced fumble, or simply a jarring tackle. Unfortunately, he also will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Fisher has already said that Dunbar may not be handed his starting job right away once he rejoins the roster in Week 5. Veteran Will Witherspoon, who played for the Rams from 2006-09 and for Fisher in his last season coaching the Titans in '10, is expected to fill Dunbar's spot in the starting lineup.

The only veteran in the secondary, corner Cortland Finnegan, sets the tone with his take-no-prisoners style of play. Janoris Jenkins showed he could be a game-changer as a rookie with four defensive touchdowns, but he needs plenty of technique work. After falling out of favor following a training camp injury a year ago, Darian Stewart will hold down the starting job at strong safety.

Specialists
A year ago, the Rams gambled by jettisoning kicker Josh Brown and deciding not to re-sign punter Donnie Jones. Both respected veterans were replaced by rookies. One year later, it looks like the gamble will pay off. Although he tailed off later in the season, Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein was sensational for much of the 2012 season, making his first 15 field goals in the NFL and kicking seven of 50 yards or more, including an NFL rookie record 60-yarder. Johnny Hekker needs more consistency but has that rare blend of leg strength and directional skills. The issue for years in St. Louis has been the return game. Austin should help solve that, especially on kickoff returns. And don’t be surprised if Jenkins gets another shot on punt returns where he was dynamic in college.

Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC West
There’s no doubt this is a team on the rise. Fisher is a proven commodity, players love playing for him, and he has an owner and organization that gives full support — financially and otherwise. Unlike many front offices of the past, general manager Les Snead & Company actually have a plan in terms of the draft and free agency. A foundation of young talent has been established, although the team probably needs another good draft and offseason to be considered a genuine playoff contender. So 2014 may be the true breakout year, not ’13.

For now, they are dealing with a radically strengthened NFC West, with Super Bowl contenders San Francisco and Seattle the teams to beat. So victories will be tough to come by and hard-earned. The best the Rams might hope for is .500.

Order your 2013 St. Louis Rams Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)IndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
St. Louis Rams 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/american-athletic-coaches-talk-anonymously-about-conference-foes-2013
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It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year. In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2013, Athlon asked coaches in the American Athletic Conference to talk anonymously about their opponents.

Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.

American Athletic Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes for 2013
 

Cincinnati

“I thought they might have dipped last year but they found a way to win.”…

“They weren’t as talented in the front as a few years ago. It used to be the best front seven in the league.”…

“They played better on the back end, where they were shaky before – a scrappy, physical team.”…

“The quarterback (Munchie Legaux) is not a great thrower, but he had a little something to him. You’d say he can’t throw it, but he’d scrap his way into a win.”…

“It’s going to be a drastic change in the way program is run under Tuberville. They won’t be quite as good as a year ago.”…


Connecticut

“They lost Don Brown, one of the best d-coordinators in the conference.”…

“They had five defensive guys at the combine, which is crazy.”…

“They had a better defense than some power programs.”…

“They can’t be as talented on defense. There will be a significant dropoff.”…

“They had probably the best-coached defense we played.”…

“Offensively, they’ll change what they do.”…

“The offensive line wasn’t overly physical but got in the way. Decent tight ends.”…

“Running back was an overachieving guy.”…

“They struggled at quarterback quite a bit.”…

“I think there will be a big dropoff there.”…
 

Houston

“They have skill all over the place, speed all over the place.”…

“Their issues aren’t talent. I wonder if the issues are internal. There was a coach who was on staff there for about three weeks and left.”…

“Maybe it’s chemistry, leadership – they are just so up and down.”…

“That program under Kevin Sumlin recruited deep, and they are still getting talent in there.”…

“They look like the same type of team – speed, athletes, physical – but just really inconsistent.”…


Louisville

“Teddy Bridgewater is arguably the best quarterback in the country. He’s in the conversation.”…

“They’ve done a nice job with offensive line and skill, though not dominant up front.”…

“I’m interested to see what they have for depth at running back.”…

“They weren’t great defensively at times because they weren’t sound in gaps and didn’t stop the run well. Charlie (Strong) would tell you that, but they showed growth at the end of the season.”…

“You’ll probably see more consistency and more stout defense.”…

“They weren’t dominant on the back end and were weak at corner. You could pick on them. Safeties are good players.”…

“Charlie’s recruited well. He’ll have some athletes.”...


Memphis

“Erratic team, all over the place.”…

“They’ve been very junior college and transfer heavy in recent years, and they’ve never really been consistent as a result.”…

“They play like wild animals – make a big play, then give up three big plays.”…

“Justin (Fuente) is trying to change that and he’s doing a good job with teaching more sound football.”…

“The front on defense was toward the bottom seven of the league. Very weak front. They did have a few kids who were bigger in person than what I thought going in though.”…


Rutgers

“They were a hot early team.”…

“They kept the same scheme -- a lot of blitzing and stunting.”…

“They had some talent, too. They had a few guys on that defense drafted.”…

“A linebacker that led the league in tackling last two years (Khaseem Greene), he’ll be a big loss.”…

“Offensive consistency wavered late, but they had a good-looking group of kids -- big receivers, really physical looking group.”…

“They’ll be dangerous.”…

“Kyle’s done a good job keeping recruiting together in New Jersey.”…

“The quarterback (Gary Nova) improved, but I don’t know what happened. He started throwing a bunch of picks. Maybe the running game shut down.”…


SMU

“June Jones is very good, very smart and can find the mismatch in a defense.”…

“They establish the running game early.”…

“They are very simple defensively, so you can do things schematically to get around them.”…

“The negative thing with being fundamentally sound is sometimes you can limit yourself.”… 

“They were very big up front defensively.”…

“Offensive line play is very solid but not overly physical.”…

“Defensive end Margus Hunt was a freak of nature, but you could contain him. They’ll miss him, but not that much.”…

 

South Florida

“Defensively, they could be good.”…

“A linebacker, a true freshman, Tashon Whitehurst, he’ll be really good.”…

“Reshard Cliett has an NFL shot.”…

“Aaron Lynch is a freak. They tell me he’s better than Jason Pierre-Paul when he was there. If he does what he’s supposed to do, he’ll be dominant.”…

“The key will be corner play. They’ve had some young guys struggle and had some injuries.”…

“Tight end Sean Price -- not a good player, but a great player.”…

“There’s nobody at receiver who scares you.”…

“Quarterback is the question. Bobby Eveld, Steven Bench and Matt Floyd will battle it out.”…


Temple

“They maximized their talent.”…

“I think they had some good players, they just didn’t have a quarterback who could throw consistently.”…

“They had decent running backs.”…

“The line was physical.”…

“Tight ends were good blockers and they had some receivers with size.”…

“Defensively, it was kind of a scrappy bunch, not one dominant guy.”…

“Across the board, they are not as talented as South Florida. They are probably the lesser of some of the top American Athletic schools.”…
 

UCF

“They have a solid quarterback (Blake Bortles) and playmakers on offense with an experienced line.”…

“Left tackle Torrian Wilson is really talented.”…

“Bortles managed the game last year. The next step for him is to control the offense.”…

“They are younger on defense but should be better up front.”…

“They will need to replace a few spots in the secondary and need to improve there.”…

“George O’Leary’s done a nice job. They should be able to blend in with the depth in the American Athletic Conference.”…

Related College Football Content

College Football Bowl Projections for 2013
Top 10 Darkhorses to Win the National Title
Louisville Game-by-Game Predictions for 2013

American Athletic Breakout Players for 2013
Pivotal Players for the American Conference for 2013
College Football's Top 25 Running Back Units for 2013
College Football's Top 25 Receiving Corps for 2013
College Football's All-Name Team for 2013
College Football's Top 10 Underrated Quarterbacks

Teaser:
American Athletic Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2013
Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 08:00
Path: /nfl/dallas-cowboys-2013-nfl-team-preview
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After an “uncomfortable” offseason, the Cowboys believe they are ready to contend. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and much of the coaching staff paid the price for a third consecutive non-winning season after Jones vowed to make things “uncomfortable” around the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters. Ryan was replaced by Monte Kiffin, the grandfather of the Tampa-2. Former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli, who was with Kiffin on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay, was among the new assistants hired as the Cowboys are converting back to the 4-3 scheme.

The Cowboys didn’t have the money under the salary cap to be active in free agency. They instead used the draft to try and help Tony Romo — who signed a six-year, $108 million extension this offseason — become quite comfortable in the pocket. Romo will be asked to do more, including being more involved in the game-planning. “If you told me after our last game that we would get to stand here with the results of this draft, that we would get to stand here with what we have been able to put together with our coaching staff, with what we are doing with Tony — Tony is more involved in the finished product; he is more involved, unequivocally — I’m counting that in,” Jones says. “That ought to produce some success.”

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 8th

Related: 2013 Dallas Cowboys Schedule Analysis

Offense
Romo is the team’s quarterback of the present and the future after signing a contract that makes him the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid player. Romo is only 17–21 over the past three seasons, has one playoff win his career and, at 33, doesn’t have a lot of time left to get it done. The Cowboys spent the draft trying to create a “Romo-friendly” offense — and that starts with a more productive rushing attack.

The Cowboys set the team record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season in 2012. DeMarco Murray has 1,560 career yards, but he has missed nine games with injuries in his two seasons, including six last year with a foot injury. The Cowboys replaced No. 2 running back Felix Jones, a former first-round pick, with fifth-round selection Joseph Randle. Randle’s versatility should make him a solid fit as the team’s third down back. Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar will compete for the No. 3 job.

Dez Bryant, who struggled to stay healthy his first two seasons, came into his own the last half of 2012. Bryant was one of the league’s top receivers over the final eight games, which should have gotten him Pro Bowl honors. Bryant’s focus, route-running and knowledge of the playbook have improved greatly since he entered the league. Hamstring tightness continued to dog Miles Austin, who had only two 100-yard games in 2012. Dwayne Harris stepped up in the final seven games, but the Cowboys still drafted Terrance Williams in the third round. Williams will be groomed as the future replacement for Austin. Dallas thinks highly of Cole Beasley, and it hopes to see more of Danny Coale, who had an injury-plagued first season.

Tight end Jason Witten, 31, remains at the top of his game. The Cowboys believe they might finally have his future replacement — second-round pick Gavin Escobar. James Hanna, whom the Cowboys drafted in the sixth round last year, returns after coming on late last season. The Cowboys, though, are lacking a blocking tight end.

The Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line the past two offseasons. They signed Doug Free to a four-year, $32 million deal with $17 million guaranteed before the start of the 2011 season to be their left tackle. He now plays right tackle and didn’t play it very well last season with 13 penalties, including five holds, and seven sacks allowed. They drafted Tyron Smith with a first-round pick in 2011 and gave him a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal. He has become the team’s best lineman and a solid left tackle. This year, the Cowboys spent their first-round pick on a center, Travis Frederick, whom they believe will help give Romo an extra half second.

Defense
With the switch to the 4-3, all four linemen have new positions. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. Ware, who had only 2.5 sacks in the final eight games, vows to become an elite pass-rusher again despite his advancing age (31 this summer) and offseason shoulder surgery. Spencer was the team’s best defensive player last year, and the Cowboys opted to franchise him for a second consecutive season to keep him from becoming a free agent. Jay Ratliff is penciled in at the three-technique and Jason Hatcher at the one-technique. Ratliff, who turns 32 this summer, has had declining production because of injuries. He played in only six games last season.

The Cowboys have high hopes for linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, believing they can live up to the high standards the organization has had for the position. But there is a caveat: They have to stay healthy. Both ended last season on injured reserve. Lee, who just signed a six-year, $42 million contract extension, is the middle linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3, and Carter is on the weak side. Alex Albright and free agent signee Justin Durant are among the contenders for the strong-side job.

The Cowboys spent a lot on upgrading their cornerback position last offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal, and they drafted Morris Claiborne in the first round. This year, they drafted B.W. Webb in the fourth round to replace Mike Jenkins, who left in free agency. The safety position is unsettled after the Cowboys released Gerald Sensabaugh. They have faith that Barry Church can return from a torn Achilles tendon, and that Matt Johnson can emerge as a solid contributer. Johnson missed his entire rookie season with hamstring and back injuries. The Cowboys signed Will Allen in free agency, but he has started only 33 games in nine seasons.

Specialists
The Cowboys have confidence in kicker Dan Bailey, who, in two seasons, already has tied the team record for game-winning kicks with seven. Punter Chris Jones was having a solid first full season when he injured his left (kicking) knee in Week 3. He returns to try to settle a position that has been injury-plagued the past two seasons. Harris became a dangerous punt returner and was solid as a kickoff returner, too.

Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC East
The Cowboys aren’t drastically different from the team that came one game short of winning the NFC East title in 2012. This team can contend if Romo reduces his interceptions (he threw 19 last year), Kiffin can improve the defense (which set a record for most yards allowed in team history) and the team’s key players remain healthy. A division title would no doubt do a lot for coach Jason Garrett’s job security, but Romo and the rest of the Cowboys will continue to be under intense pressure until they win at least one playoff game.

Order your 2013 Dallas Cowboys Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Dallas Cowboys 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-2013-nfl-team-preview
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The Titans faithful hope the third time is a charm for coach Mike Munchak and quarterback Jake Locker, who are each entering their third season with the franchise following the disastrous breakup of Jeff Fisher and Vince Young.

With iconic owner Bud Adams entering his 90s, Tennessee is in win-now mode but may fall short of having the personnel to win the first Super Bowl in Oilers-Titans history.

Make no mistake, all eyes are on Munchak and Locker, both of whom have given reasons for hope as well as doubt.

Munchak is a Hall of Fame former O-lineman who brings a blue-collar pedigree and attitude. But he has also lost to the then-winless Indianapolis Colts in 2011 and the even-worse Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 — inexcusable defeats to AFC South Division foes.

Meanwhile, Locker has the type of dual-threat tough-guy swagger Steve McNair would approve of. But his completion percentages over the last six seasons (the first four at the University of Washington) read: 47.3, 53.8, 58.2, 55.4, 51.5 and last year’s 56.4.

Unless Munchak and Locker both take the next step, the Titans could be doomed for a Fisher-style 8–8 season.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 8th

Related: 2013 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

Offense
Chris Johnson has to be the most overlooked of the seven 2,000-yard rushers in NFL history. Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. CJ is still CJ2K-capable. Last year, he had scoring runs of 80, 83 and 94 yards, the longest TD run in the league since 2006. The key to Johnson’s revival is two-time BCS champion and 40-game Alabama starter Chance Warmack, the No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft. “War Daddy” is the type of mauler at guard who can pave the way for Johnson and new change-of-pace power back Shonn Greene.

Former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and enforcer right tackle David Stewart are entrenched. Guard Andy Levitre has started all 64 games of his career and was the Titans’ top free agent target, inking a six-year, $46.8 million deal.

Tennessee’s receiving corps is a mixed bag. Talented manchild Kenny Britt is oft-injured and saddled with off-the-field problems. Second-year wideout Kendall Wright has chemistry with Locker, but he sustained a sprained knee during the second preseason game. Although the injury isn't believed to be serious, it will impact the amount of practice time Wright will get before the season starts. Nate Washington was in offseason trade rumors, while rookie Justin Hunter has upside. Newly acquired tight end Delanie Walker likely will line up all over the field, bringing a physical style and run-blocking dimension the team lacked with Jared Cook, who is now in St. Louis. He also also has been slowed during training camp by a knee injury, so it may take him a little longer to get fully acclimated to the new system and his role.

Defense
Coordinator Jerry Gray and free safety Michael Griffin were both Texas Longhorn defensive backs. And both are on the hot seat this season after the Titans’ historically bad defensive performance last year, when the stop-unit allowed over 30 points eight times, including 51 to the Chicago Bears and 55 to the Green Bay Packers. The team brought back former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as a senior assistant coach in hopes that he can help instill the same type of physical mentality and aggressiveness that his Titans' defenses during the late '90s were known for.

Former Baltimore Raven and infamous Tom Brady pest Bernard Pollard brings a nasty demeanor and in-the-box mindset to strong safety, freeing Griffin to ball-hawk in center field. Depth could be an issue at cornerback, where Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner have run hot and cold during their young careers. Verner could see more time at nickel back if rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson steps up early on the outside.

Speed is paramount at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, rookie Zaviar Gooden and man in the middle Colin McCarthy fly sideline to sideline. McCarthy was the Titans’ best defender last preseason before injuries limited him to just seven games. Brown showed promise as a rookie, with 93 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions for 156 yards and two TDs.

The pass rush is a question mark, with Derrick Morgan — who was infamously drafted one spot behind Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul — having failed to provide the type of splash plays (10.5 career sacks over three seasons) expected from a first-round edge rusher. Veterans Kamerion Wimbley and Ropati Pitoitua and rookie Lavar Edwards are hard-nosed defenders who provide scheme versatility. A late push to sign a pass-rush specialist like John Abraham or Dwight Freeney could make all the difference in a division that features Indy’s Andrew Luck and Houston’s Matt Schaub, and a schedule that includes games against Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.

Jurrell Casey has shown flashes as a star in the making at tackle, while Mike Martin and Karl Klug are underrated overachievers inside.

Specialists
Kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business, and the Titans locked up the former All-Pro with a two-year contract extension this offseason despite coming off his worst statistical season (25-of-31 field goals) since 2006. Bironas was only 6-of-12 from 40-plus yards in 2012, after connecting on 40-of-46 from outside of 40 yards from 2009-11. For a team that has historically played a ground-and-pound, low-scoring style, Bironas’ ability to make long field goals is essential.

Brett Kern averaged 47.6 yards per punt but suffered the first two blocked kicks of his career last year.

The return game has multiple candidates in former Pro Bowler Marc Mariani, who suffered a broken left leg last preseason, and Darius Reynaud, who was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September — after executing a perfect Music City Miracle-style home run throwback. Reynaud finished the season with 1,240 kick return yards and a 105-yard TD, along with 410 punt return yards and two TDs.

Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC South
The offense should once again revolve around Johnson, with Greene — who is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in his own right — providing another option on the ground. With a strong running game, beefed-up offensive line and variety of pass-catching options, Locker appears to have the supporting cast necessary to succeed. Should he stumble or get hurt, backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could follow in the Tennessee tradition of proven second-fiddles — remember Kerry Collins and Neil O’Donnell? — who make the most of their opportunities on the big stage in Music City.

Defensively, there are many more concerns. The pass rush is weak, the secondary is thin and the linebacking corps is inexperienced. The schedule opens at Pittsburgh, then includes seven games against playoff teams from last season.

But if Locker takes another stride in his development and Munchak avoids his annual ugly loss, the Titans could make a run at the Wild Card playoff berth the Colts claimed last season.

Order your 2013 Tennessee Titans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Tennessee Titans 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/kansas-city-chiefs-2013-nfl-team-preview
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The Chiefs turned the page yet again after another miserable season, this time parting ways with general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel after yet another unsuccessful regime in Kansas City.

Now for the good news: The Chiefs landed perhaps the hottest free agent entering 2013, former Eagles coach Andy Reid. John Dorsey, a former Packers executive, joined him as GM, and they’ll try to bring stability — to say nothing of the first playoff win since January 1994 — to a franchise that has lacked it for years.

They began the latest rebuild immediately, trading for quarterback Alex Smith and releasing Matt Cassel after four mostly forgettable seasons. They quickly signed star wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a long-term contract, and then drafted offensive tackle Eric Fisher first overall.

Despite a 2–14 record in 2012, there is talent in Kansas City. The Chiefs did, after all, have six Pro Bowlers, including star running back Jamaal Charles. With a kind of luck that has been rare around these parts, a fast turnaround is possible.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 9th

Related: 2013 Kansas City Chiefs Schedule Analysis

Offense
Smith will be the key to Reid’s success timeline. The veteran quarterback is limited, as Cassel was, but he will bring an efficiency that hasn’t been present since Trent Green was starting. Reid will be judged on how quickly Smith adjusts and proves he can succeed without the eye of Jim Harbaugh, his coach in San Francisco.

The Chiefs spent much of the offseason building around their quarterback, and although that strategy is nothing new in Kansas City, it at least looks promising. Extending Bowe was a no-brainer and should’ve been done last year. Drafting Knile Davis to help ease the burden on running back Charles — and he was burdened often in 2012 by Crennel — was a smart move. Charles remains the Chiefs’ most explosive player. The question this season will be how his body will respond to having 285 carries last season, 55 more than his previous career high. At 26, he’s still young, but with an ACL surgery in 2011 and a continual pounding last season, one of the more interesting storylines will be how Charles holds up — and how Reid’s staff uses its best big-play threat, in the backfield and in the passing game.

This point was reinforced when Charles went down during training camp with what turned out to be a foot sprain. Although the injury isn't expected to impact his Week 1 availability, it's even more critical now for either Davis or Shaun Draughn or someone on the roster to emerge as a reliable second backfield option.

The Chiefs also made several moves in an effort to upgrade their offensive depth, including adding wide receiver Donnie Avery and veteran tight end Anthony Fasano during the offseason. The team also traded Jon Baldwin to San Francisco for A.J. Jenkins during training camp in an exchange of recent first-round wide receivers (Baldwin in 2011, Jenkins in ’12) that have yet to accomplish anything on the field.

But perhaps most important, the team also created a mess for itself at left tackle this offseason. Branden Albert, the starter since 2008 and the team’s franchise player, publicly said he wouldn’t move to another position. Regardless, the Chiefs drafted Fisher at No. 1 and now have two left tackles. Although the team will try to trade Albert, the best bet is that Fisher will start at right tackle as he adds weight — he’s listed at 6'8" and 305 pounds — and adjusts to the NFL grind. After that, the Chiefs can decide whether to part ways with Albert or sign the veteran and keep Fisher on the right side, though the top pick is a massive price for a right tackle.

The team’s interior line is solid, but with no projected starter with more than three years experience, a veteran presence is lacking. And that could make life difficult for Smith and Charles — and, by extension, Reid, who will be granted only limited patience by a Chiefs fan base scorned before by big names who won elsewhere but couldn’t bring success to Kansas City.

Defense
The defense will either be the heartbeat of a surprise team or the reason the Chiefs again struggle in the AFC West. The team’s linebackers are among the NFL’s best, but a defensive line whose best player is the underwhelming Tyson Jackson? That’s a situation no coach or coordinator wants to be in, but it’s one the Chiefs are faced with.

Outside linebacker Justin Houston showed last year that he could be one of the AFC’s better pass-rushers and a complement to Tamba Hali, a team leader and an elite rusher. Derrick Johnson has emerged as one of the league’s best all-around inside linebackers, and he’ll be asked this season to mentor rookie Nico Johnson, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama.

If this sounds promising, it should, but that line is still a question. The Chiefs were unable to upgrade the position during free agency or the draft, and it’ll depend on three questionable draft picks — including two first-rounders — from the previous regime to see them through this season. Jackson is only a serviceable player, and the departure of Glenn Dorsey should elevate Allen Bailey, who has been only a situational player, into the starting lineup. Last year’s top pick, nose tackle Dontari Poe, was a pleasant surprise despite a poor draft-night grade, and the Chiefs need him to continue making progress. Still, the line is the shallowest position on a team that has, for years, tried to make improvements along its defensive front. Yet again, this will likely be the team’s top priority during the 2014 offseason.

Confidence in the Chiefs’ secondary falls somewhere between the linebackers and linemen. There’s talent, but there was so much movement during the offseason that it’s difficult to know how well the defensive backs will jell. Strong safety Eric Berry is a promising defender entering his fourth season, and cornerback Brandon Flowers is one of the league’s most complete corners. But cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith, brought in as free agents, are imperfect. Reid has indicated that rookie Sanders Commings could start at free safety, pushing aside the talented but injury-prone Kendrick Lewis.

Specialists
Dustin Colquitt has a new contract as the league’s highest-paid punter, and kicker Ryan Succop has the talent to become one of the best at his position.

The Chiefs will take their chances at kick returner with Draughn and Dexter ­McCluster, who has big-play capability but problems with fumbles. The team traded Javier Arenas, its punt returner the past three seasons, to Arizona and will either let McCluster and Draughn handle both jobs or try a new face in a return game that has improved little.

Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC West
Reid has made no promises of a playoff appearance, and that’s the smart play for a team with plenty of holes — but also plenty of potential. If the Chiefs are somehow in contention, it’ll mean Smith has adapted quickly to Reid’s offensive scheme, the defensive line has played better than the roster suggests it will, and the secondary and offensive line have quickly found chemistry and comfort. That’s a tall order.

More likely is another year of growing pains but with some noticeable progress. Eight wins may be the barometer, which, after 2012, seems just fine. Bowe, Hali, Johnson and Charles aren’t getting any younger, but if Reid and Dorsey continue the smart, methodical approach they’ve leaned on so far, brighter days are ahead for this suffering franchise and fan base.

Order your 2013 Kansas City Chiefs Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)ChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Kansas City Chiefs 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 11:00
Path: /nfl/minnesota-vikings-2013-nfl-team-preview
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On New Year’s Day 2012, the Vikings stumbled across the finish line of the most miserable season in franchise history. That day’s home loss to Chicago completed a 3–13 collapse. And with the defeat coming only two days after Adrian Peterson underwent surgery on torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, nothing but misery surrounded the franchise.

The disorienting freefall left many wondering just how steep the climb back to relevance would be. Yet by this past New Year’s Eve, the Vikings were headed back to the playoffs and Peterson was completing an astounding comeback season — of the MVP variety — rushing for 2,097 yards and carrying his team through a four-game winning streak to close the year. In abbreviated form, that summarizes the underdog conquest of the 2012 Vikings.

So now what? After all that, how will Peterson and the Vikings handle the heightened expectations brought on by their own brilliance?

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 9th

Related: 2013 Minnesota Vikings Schedule Analysis

Offense
So long as Peterson is around, the game plan will be run first, run second, throw when necessary. But even with that predictability, opposing defenses have found little to slow the MVP. Look back at the second half of last season, with Percy Harvin lost to a season-ending ankle injury in the ninth game and Christian Ponder lapsing into a funk that saw him throw for just 443 yards with four turnovers in three November games. All Peterson did in his final eight games was average 165 rushing yards per contest and 6.7 yards per carry while scoring nine touchdowns.

He was physical. He was elusive. He was a one-man show in a one-dimensional offense.

But now comes a quest to find balance. And after trading Harvin to Seattle, the team quickly signed Greg Jennings before drafting Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round to help revive the passing attack. The anticipation is that Jennings’ enthusiasm and professionalism will become a catalyst for both Ponder and Patterson. Ponder needs Jennings to be his new go-to receiver, a crisp route-runner with obvious intelligence whose presence alone should keep defenses from constantly stacking up against Peterson.

Patterson, meanwhile, will rely on Jennings to learn more about being a pro. After only one season of major college football, Patterson is widely considered raw. And even the Vikings aren’t setting grand expectations for Year 1: They don’t need Patterson to emulate his childhood hero, Randy Moss, whose jersey number (84) he’ll wear. Patterson may do his most damage out of the gates as a returner but has the combination of size, speed and athleticism to be a game-breaker once he absorbs some of the nuances of the NFL game. And coordinator Bill Musgrave also understands the need to be imaginative in creating touches for the rookie.

All the playmakers should benefit from the offensive line stability, with the same quintet that started all 16 games in 2012 back together for another year. Left tackle Matt Kalil, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, may be one of the league’s best in pass protection and proved last season he’s underrated as a run-blocker. Center John Sullivan, a 2008 sixth-round pick, continues to improve and is the leader of a unit that may be as smart as it is nasty.

As for Ponder? The Vikings have delivered the same directive he had in 2012, asking him to avoid drive-killing sacks and game-changing interceptions without growing overly conservative. Ponder’s late-season rebound provided positive reinforcement. With a playoff berth on the line in Week 17, Ponder beat Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, 37–34, throwing three TDs with a career-best 120.2 rating.

Defense
In his first year as a coordinator, Alan Williams mixed up the defensive calls and improved the 4-3 attack. But the unit still finished in the middle of the pack in total defense (16th, 350.0 ypg) and points allowed (tied for 14th, 21.8 ppg). And there are big holes to plug with the exits of cornerback Antoine Winfield and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.

Heading for training camp, the Vikings were still searching to identify a top candidate at middle linebacker, dabbling with the idea of moving Erin Henderson inside after he started the past two seasons at weak-side linebacker. But despite Henderson’s athleticism and tenacity, there are worries about his habit of wandering out of place with a thirst for making the big play. Strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway might be the most consistent player on defense, a tackling machine who always does what’s asked. The team also signed former Packer in Desmond Bishop, who missed all of last season with a torn hamstring, in June. If he can show he's healthy and effective, Bishop will only deepen the Vikings' linebacking corps.

But the Vikings’ edge still starts up front where their line is both accomplished and aging. Three standout veterans — Jared Allen, 31; Kevin Williams, 33; and Brian Robison, 30 — all are heading into contract years. And it would not be a surprise if this were the last hurrah for both Allen and Williams as Vikings. Allen battled a torn labrum in his shoulder last fall and saw his sack production fall dramatically, from 22 in 2011 to 12 last season. But the internal belief is that he is still a pass-rushing force who commands plenty of attention.

Everson Griffen is an emerging force whose athleticism and versatility were evident in his eight sacks plus a 29-yard interception return touchdown. And there is excitement about the athleticism and burst that rookie tackle Sharrif Floyd will bring.

The secondary remains young but eager with second-year safety Harrison Smith emerging as an always-in-the-right-place playmaker who uses his instincts to excel in pass coverage while also bringing a hard-hitting edge. Pairing rookie Xavier Rhodes opposite Chris Cook at cornerback should give the Vikings a chance to play man-to-man more regularly. Both players are big, physical and quick, prerequisites in a division with Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and all those playmakers in Green Bay.

Specialists
The new punter will be Jeff Locke, a left-footer out of UCLA who was drafted in the fifth round. The decision to use a Day 3 draft pick on a punter might have been more head-scratching had the Vikings not hit the jackpot a year earlier by selecting kicker Blair Walsh in Round 6. As a rookie, Walsh responded with one of the best seasons by a placekicker in NFL history — 35-of-38 on field goals, 10-of-10 from 50 yards and beyond, 53 touchbacks on 86 kickoffs. Walsh’s leg strength and poise were evident throughout, and his inclusion in the Pro Bowl and on the All-Pro team were well-deserved.

Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC North
The team seems to be on an upward arc. But in an ultra-tough division, a return to the playoffs will require the Vikings to navigate a much tougher schedule while finding contributors to plug holes left by Harvin and Winfield. Peterson’s bid to repeat as MVP will be key. More significant will be Ponder’s ability to take the next step in his growth.

Order your 2013 Minnesota Vikings Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)ChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
Minnesota Vikings 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 11:00
Path: /nfl/chicago-bears-2013-nfl-team-preview
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For the first time since 2004, this is not Lovie Smith’s team. Marc Trestman was imported from the Canadian Football League with the hope that he could make the Bears a more frequent participant in the postseason. That’s something Smith was able do only once in his final six seasons, including 2012, when the Bears went 10–6 but missed the postseason on a tiebreaker.

The Bears are not in a rebuilding mode, and they ­shouldn’t be, considering their 29–19 record over the last three seasons. But they will have different looks on both sides of the ball, even though new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will play a 4-3 with some Cover-2, similar to what the Bears ran in the past.

The Bears parted ways with eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher when neither side would budge from the team’s offer of $2 million for the future Hall of Famer, who is 35. There were, however, some positive additions on the other side of the ball. For the first time since quarterback Jay Cutler was acquired, before the 2009 season, he has a Pro Bowl left tackle protecting his blind side: free agent pickup Jermon Bushrod. On the same day the Bears acquired the former Saint, they added Martellus Bennett, giving Cutler a tight end known for his pass-catching skills for the first time since Greg Olsen was traded in July 2011.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 10th

Related: 2013 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis

Offense
Cutler is in the final season of a five-year, $49.7 million deal, and he’s unlikely to get another big deal from the Bears without adding to his career playoff victory total of one.

In his fifth year with the Bears, Cutler has been provided with more talent on the offensive line than he’s ever had in Chicago. Bushrod is the key, bringing the stability and consistency that was lacking. Guard Matt Slauson, a starter the previous three years with the Jets, was also added in free agency, replacing Lance Louis, who signed with the Dolphins. Then the Bears used their first-round pick on guard Kyle Long and their fifth-rounder on tackle Jordan Mills.

Bennett, a complete tight end and a talented receiver, represents a huge upgrade at the position. Together with big, strong wide receiver Brandon Marshall and quick, elusive running back Matt Forté, Cutler has more offensive firepower at his disposal than ever before. GM Phil Emery acquired Marshall before the 2012 season for only a pair of third-round picks because of off-the-field problems, which the 6'4", 230-pounder says were a result of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder. Emery’s gamble paid off with the most prolific pass-catching season in franchise history (118 receptions, 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns). The Bears hope to be less dependent on Marshall, although he still figures to be the go-to guy.

The protection in front of Cutler will look a lot different. J’Marcus Webb will compete with journeyman Jonathan Scott at right tackle. Gabe Carimi, the 2011 first-round draft pick who was a bust at right tackle in 2012, will get a chance to compete for a spot at guard, along with Slauson and Long. The Bears hope they can get a 12th year out of Roberto Garza at center.

The run game is in the more-than-capable hands of Forté, the primary ball-carrier and a productive pass-catcher. He had more than 50 catches in each of his first four seasons before dipping to 44 last season, when the offense de-emphasized his role in the passing game. Burly but agile Michael Bush is a nice complement to Forté and an effective short-yardage option.

If they stick to Trestman’s plan of using Devin Hester almost exclusively as a return specialist, the Bears need to find a deep threat. They had one in Johnny Knox, but he was unable to come back from a spine injury in 2011. Last year’s second-round pick, 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery, is more than a possession receiver, and tough Earl Bennett is a reliable underneath target, but there’s no one to stretch the field vertically.

Defense
The window is closing on a talented but aging defense, led by three players in their early 30s — seven-time Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman. Urlacher is gone, as is Nick Roach, the strong-side starter for most of the past five seasons. Former Bronco D.J. Williams was brought in to play the middle, and James Anderson takes over for Roach. But both were signed to one-year contracts, and Williams is 31 and Anderson turns 30 in September. Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, the second- and fourth-round picks, respectively, could represent the Bears’ future at linebacker. Williams injured his calf early in training camp, which provided even more reps for Bostic, who could end up the starter by Week 1.

Tillman’s running mate, feisty little Tim Jennings, also made the Pro Bowl last season on the strength of an NFL-best nine interceptions. Ninth-year veteran Kelvin Hayden is back to play the nickel, but for now, the only proven depth consists of Zack Bowman, who has started only four games since 2009.

The safety position showed an uncharacteristic continuity last season. Strong safety Major Wright and free safety Chris Conte both started every game, until Conte missed the finale with a hamstring injury. In the previous eight seasons, the Bears had made a combined 54 lineup changes at the safety position. There is plenty of depth with veterans Tom Zbikowski and Craig Steltz and youngsters Brandon Hardin and Anthony Walters.

Up front, 3-technique tackle Henry Melton went to his first Pro Bowl, partly due to his six sacks, and 2010 fourth-round pick Corey Wootton had a breakout season, winning the left end job at midseason and contributing seven sacks. Shea McClellin, the 2012 first-round pick, played in the end rotation and showed pass-rush potential. Stephen Paea started 14 games at nose tackle but doesn’t have the ideal size for the position and is best playing in a rotation. There is very little depth inside.

Specialists
Placekicker Robbie Gould missed the final three games of 2012 with a calf injury, but he’s as reliable as they come, ranking sixth in NFL history in field goal percentage. His kickoffs have gotten longer every season, as has his proficiency at long field goals. Punter Adam Podlesh allowed just 84 return yards on 81 punts. The Bears are counting on a return to form in the return game from Hester, who slumped badly as a punt returner last season but was solid on kickoff returns. Hester failed to score on a return for the first time in three years.

Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC North
The Bears have an almost-all-new coaching staff, and a lot of the personnel also has changed. But Tucker’s 4-3 scheme is not expected to look much different from the defenses of the previous nine years. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and Trestman will run their version of the West Coast offense with a priority on getting rid of the ball quickly. This was a 10–6 team last season that barely missed the playoffs, so anything less than postseason participation will be considered a disappointment.

Order your 2013 Chicago Bears Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)ChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
Chicago Bears 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/san-diego-chargers-2013-nfl-team-preview
Body:

There’s nothing like snapping the fans to attention by making a radical regime change and drafting Manti Te’o. That’s what the Chargers did after missing the playoffs for the third straight season and watching attendance sag. Citing the need for a “culture change,” team president Dean Spanos finally bowed to the fans’ wishes and fired Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. He replaced them with 40-year-olds Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco, who are in their first head coaching and general manager gigs, respectively.

Telesco began rebuilding a roster that had grown stale because of Smith’s unproductive drafts and a wild free agent binge prior to the 2012 season. Among his many moves, Telesco got rid of left tackle Jared Gaither, who’d earned the nickname “The Big Lazy,” and drafted Te’o, a move sure to give the Chargers much more national exposure than they otherwise would merit. Still, returning the Bolts to their days of dominating the AFC West could take the new brain trust a few seasons.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 10th

Related: 2013 San Diego Chargers Schedule Analysis

Offense
The Chargers hope Philip Rivers can pull out of a slide that’s seen him commit 49 turnovers the last two years combined. Not only will Rivers be running a new system under McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, but there are also still big questions about the line. Rivers was under siege much of last season, leading to 49 sacks and 22 turnovers. Fans are concerned that Rivers might have a hard time staying upright again this season.

Telesco spent his first-round draft pick on Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, but the new GM failed to upgrade the critical left side of the line in the draft. The Chargers had left tackle Bryant McKinnie in for a visit before he re-signed with Baltimore. So going into training camp, the No. 1 left tackle protecting Rivers’ blind side is King Dunlap, a free agent pickup from Philadelphia. Dunlap is big (6'9", 330), but he had a hamstring injury last year, and the Philly line struggled. The Chargers’ string of bad luck at left tackle started when Marcus McNeill retired due to a neck injury and continued when Gaither got the heave-ho because of his poor work ethic and injury troubles. The left guard is projected to be Rich Ohrnberger, one of Telesco’s three free agent acquisitions on the line. With Fluker set to start at right tackle, Jeromey Clary will move to right guard. Fluker was considered one of the best run-blockers in college last year, but he’ll need to improve his pass-blocking.

Another player who needs to bounce back big is running back Ryan Mathews, who broke both collarbones last season and failed to fix his fumbling problem. Five defensive players on his own team had as many or more touchdowns than Mathews, who scored only once. Telesco added free agent Danny Woodhead to help at running back.

The Bolts have already gone through a fair amount of attrition at wide receiver before the season has even started. Danario Alexander was signed in mid-October and ended up being one of the team’s most productive receivers, but he tore his ACL in early August and is lost for the season. Malcom Floyd, the team's leading receiver last season, sustained his own knee injury shortly afterwards, but he is expected to ready to play by Week 1. San Diego drafted Cal’s Keenan Allen in the third round in April, but the team really needs Vincent Brown to bounce back from a fractured ankle and more production out of Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem, provided both end up on the final roster. Tight end Antonio Gates bounced back from a painful foot injury but will be playing his 11th season.

While Turner called his own plays and often struggled with game management, McCoy was praised for hiring former Cardinals head coach Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator.

Defense
Te’o instantly became the most intriguing player on the Chargers’ roster when Telesco traded up to get him in the second round of the draft. Telesco said he wasn’t worried by the star linebacker’s poor showing in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, his being involved in a hoax involving a fake girlfriend or his poor 40-yard dash times. After looking so bad against Alabama’s powerful run game, Te’o will have to prove that he can make it in the NFL, both physically and mentally. With veteran Takeo Spikes a salary cap casualty, Te’o will play inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme alongside Donald Butler, who had a breakthrough season in 2012.

San Diego was counting on second-year linebacker Melvin Ingram to help replace Bulter, but he tore his ACL back in May and it's unknown if he will be able to return at any point this season. The Chargers signed former Indianapolis Colt Dwight Freeney to a two-year deal following Ingram's injury. Freeney has 107.5 career sacks, but the 11-year veteran is 33 years old and managed just five sacks last season. San Diego needs him to re-establish himself as a pass-rushing presence from his outside linebacker position.

Like the offense, the defense has both playmakers and some holes, although Telesco made more moves on this side of the ball due to the salary cap and his desire for a younger roster. While Smith was panned for many of his draft picks in recent years, he did do well in adding some good, young players on defense. Ends Corey Liuget, a first-round pick in 2011, and Kendall Reyes, a second-rounder in 2012, have fans excited with their dominating play. Liuget had seven sacks and Reyes had 5.5. One problem is the hole in between them. Antonio Garay was allowed to leave as a free agent, leaving Cam Thomas as the only defensive tackle on the roster. The Chargers also lost Shaun Phillips, who led them with 9.5 sacks.

San Diego will turn over three-quarters of its secondary. Only free safety Eric Weddle returns as a starter. The Chargers, who haven’t had a thumper at strong safety since Rodney Harrison was released more than 10 years ago, will turn to Brandon Taylor, a third-round pick in 2012. Marcus Gilchrist and free-agent acquisition Derek Cox will be the new starters at cornerback after Antoine Cason left for Arizona and Quentin Jammer became a free agent.

Specialists
After an off-and-on role with the Chargers, Nick Novak finally stuck as the kicker. He was signed four weeks into the 2012 season after Nate Kaeding got hurt, and he hit 18-of-20 field goal attempts in the final 13 games. He was 16-for-16 inside 50 yards, and his 90 percent conversion rate was the third-highest for a season in team history. Kaeding was eventually put on injured reserve and then released, ending a run in which he became the most accurate regular-season kicker in NFL history. Kaeding’s playoff misses, however, still rankle fans. Punter Mike Scifres remains a key player with his powerful left leg, and Mike Windt returns as long snapper.

Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC West
Chargers fans should brace for the possibility that the Bolts could miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Telesco doesn’t like the word “rebuilding,” but it’s hard to deny that he has a pretty big project on his hands. He has vowed to rebuild via the draft rather than through expensive, splashy and unpredictable free agent signings, so his plan for reshaping the roster could take a few seasons.

With two-time AFC West champion Denver and Kansas City making their share of big moves, the Chargers might have to settle for finishing ahead of the lowly Oakland Raiders.

Order your 2013 San Diego Chargers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)ChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
San Diego Chargers 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Funny, Overtime
Path: /overtime/baseball-fans-day-these-guys
Body:

Two Pirates fans showed their support for the team through a pair of enormous foam Pirates hats, going the extra mile at PNC Park during a game against the Diamondbacks. Surprisingly, they were not mobbed by women.

Teaser:
Two Pirates fans showed their support for the team through a pair of enormous foam Pirates hats, going the extra mile at PNC Park during a game against the Diamondbacks.
Post date: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 08:48
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/100-twitter-accounts-every-college-football-fan-should-follow
Body:

College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took a(nother) look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.

These tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).

ESPN
No doubt if you're any kind of college football fan you're familiar with ESPN's stable of college football reporters, columnists and broadcasters. Here are the best on Twitter:


@McMurphyESPN (1)

Brett McMurphy was a good get for the Worldwide Leader, and as he was with CBS Sports, he's a prolific breaker of news via Twitter, even when it involves his employer.

 

@TravHaneyESPN (2)
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.

@cbfowler (3) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (4)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day.

@notthefakeSVP (5)
From ESPN's radio empire, Scott Van Pelt brings a mix of humor, knowledge and insight. The Maryland grad will spend the next year brushing up on the Big Ten.

Conference bloggers (6)

It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC (Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson), @ESPN_BigTen (Adam Rittenberg and Bryan Bennett), @ESPN_Big12 (David Ubben and @Jake_Trotter), @ESPN_Pac12Blog (Ted Miller and Kevin Gemmell), @ESPN_SEC/ @AschoffESPN (Edward Aschoff and Chris Low), @Matt_Fortuna (Notre Dame) 

@ESPNStatsInfo (7)
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.

CBS SPORTS

Verne Lundquist can’t be found on Twitter and Gary Danielson hasn’t Tweeted since 2011. These will be good follows anyway.

@BFeldmanCBS (8)
Bruce Feldman is a prolific and informative tweeter with a history of breaking news via the medium. Few carry as much in-depth knowledge as Feldman.

@dennisdoddCBS (9)
CBS' national college football columnist Dennis Dodd can be infuriating, but he's never not interesting.

@JFowlerCBS (10)
A young gun on the CBS college football staff. He’s not a “bad guy” on Twitter or otherwise, despite what Urban Meyer may say.

 


@MrCFB (11)
Referring to yourself as Mr. College Football may seem a little self-aggrandizing, but after years in the SEC trenches, Tony Barnhart's earned the right to pat himself on the back.

CBSSports.com’s bloggers (12)
For news and hard analysis, go to the ESPN blog network. CBSSports‘  Eye on College Football bloggers share news and viewpoints, but they’re a little bit of an edge here. Viral videos and colorful jabs are welcome with @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen.

@jppalmCBS (13)
Two things no college football fan can live without: Bowl projections and BCS tidbits. One thing to remember: Don’t blame the messenger.

@GreggDoyelCBS (14)
One of CBS’ national columnists, Doyel rarely pulls punches (shaddup). He doesn’t care if you disagree with him. He can rip someone with the best of them, but he’ll also write a piece that pulls at the heartstrings.

 



SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

@slmandel (15)
Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel describes himself as a "Writer, author, lover, humanitarian and college football writer for SI.com." We can only vouch for the college football part. Guy's a fountain of information and opinion, although he doesn't always seem to welcome criticism very cheerfully. Of course, who does?

@Andy_Staples (16)
Mandel's SI colleague is a college football savant and full-time BBQ expert who's also equal parts funny and astute.

 



@SIPeteThamel (17)
Thamel has a nose for news that has infuriated a handful of fanbases (Hi there, Big Blue Nation).

Campus Union bloggers (18)
Sports Illustrated’s bread and butter is news and features, but the Campus Union/SInow pair of @MartinRickman and @ZacEllis focus on quick-hitters and other college football oddities.

 

 



USA TODAY

@PaulMyerberg (19)
Myerberg would have difficulty hitting Athlon magazine word counts with his extensive team previews. Nevertheless, he condenses his prodigious knowledge into 140-character chunks.

 



@GeorgeSchroeder (20)
Another USA Today scribe, Schroeder freely dispenses observations on a variety of topics, not just college football. He's moving away from Oregon, though, so no more Springfield police log.

@DanWolken (21)
Wolken isn't shy with strong opinions. A shame he won’t have Gordon Gee to kick around anymore.

NATIONAL VOICES

@YahooForde (22)
The Forde-Yard Dash remains a college football staple.

@DanWetzel (23)
A thorn in the side of the NCAA, Wetzel isn’t someone you want sniffing around your organization. Now that he’s achieved Death to the BCS, what’s next?

@MattBrownSoE (24)
Brown heads up college football coverage for Sports on Earth, USA Today’s version of Grantland, for long-form pieces and advanced analysis. His breakdowns of each of college football’s top 10 quarterbacks was a must-read this offesason.

 



@Bachscore (25)
The Wall Street Journal follows college football a little differently than most. Rachel Bachman brings quality reporting and analysis to business, legal and NCAA issues.

@RalphDRussoAP (26)
You might associate the Associated Press with relics of a different time, but AP college football writer Ralph Russo's Twitter feed, delivered in Brooklyn-ese, is anything but stale.

@Matt_HayesSN (27)
Another national college football columnist bringing views from around the country.

@CFTalk (28)
A one-stop shop for injuries, lineup changes, transfers and other new.

BLEACHER REPORT
 

@KegsNEggs (29)
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Nothing to add to that, except to recommend a follow.
@BarrettSallee (30)
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.

@InTheBleachers (31)
Michael Felder's feed is aptly named. His careening from college football to other tangents is perfect bleacher talk.

SB NATION

@JasonKirkSBN (32)
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.

@38Godfrey (33)
Steven Godfrey is a long-form “writerer/journamalist” (and Athlon contributor) who knows his way around SEC and Sun Belt football.

@DanRubenstein (34)
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom and ‘90s trivia. What more could anyone want?

@TyHildenbrandt (35)
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will be worth following if only to watch to watch the Notre Dame fan squirm with Tommy Rees leading the team.

 

COMIC RELIEF

@edsbs (36)
Spencer Hall (formerly Orson Swindle) brings us The Fulmer Cup, the Curious Index and a twisted look at college football because, well, college football is always a little twisted.

 



@celebrityhottub (37)
Another member of the "Every Day Should Be Saturday" empire, “sir broosk” regales with absurdist observations, never failing to bring the funny on college football and anything else that springs to mind.

@HollyAnderson (38)
Former Every Day Should Be Saturday and SI Campus Union writer has taken her talents to Grantland. She made Bill Simmons take an interest in college football. That’s saying something right there.

@ClayTravisBGID (39)
Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Travis entertains and inflames with his SEC-centric observations. Prepare to get angry, although Travis' affection for those he lampoons takes some of the edge off. The last year has seen Travis post about butt-chugging, dumbest fanbases, a catfight, ruminations on Johnny Football and the occassional breaking news.


@KevinonCFB (40)
Phildelphia-based writer Kevin McGuire has news and views for all over the country. He knows his stuff.


@SteakNStiffArms (41)
Football and food. What more is there to the Internet? Elika Sadeghi covers both with a Big Ten emphasis. To follow her is to love her.

@DanBeebe (42)
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.

@lsufreek (43)
The reason GIFs were invented.

PLAYERS AND COACHES

@CoachHand (44)
This is why Twitter is awesome: No one would have predicted Vanderbilt’s offensive line coach to be a must-follow, but here we are. Hand beats the drum on Twitter for Vandy, Nashville and the SEC while offering words of wisdom for everyday living. Not your usual coach-speak.

@Coach_Riley (45)
Oregon State’s Mike Riley is more and more of an outlier in the college football profession ... in a good way. He’s not paranoid. He’s approachable. And he’d prefer his players feast on In-N-Out Burger.

 



@LSUCoachMiles (46)
Les Miles once spent the entire course of a Miami Heat game Tweeting at himself. Pretty much what you’d expect.

@Coach_Leach (47)
Who knew the Washington State coach was such a cinephile?

 



@JManziel2 (48)
Johnny Manziel, you may have heard of him and his Twitter feed.

@aaronmurray11 (49)
Judging by his posts from the Milledge Run, the Georgia quarterback is enjoying his final year on campus.

 



@10AJMcCarron (50)
Exhibit A for why he’s the consummate Saban quarterback:

 


 

@TajhB10 (52)
We wanted to highlight a handful of Heisman conteders, but Clemson shut down Twitter for its players. See you in December, Tajh.

RECRUITING

@JeremyCrabtree (53)
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.

@TomLuginbill (54)
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.

@BartonSimmons (55)
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.

@Niebuhr247 (56)
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.

@jcshurburtt (57)
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.

@rivalsmike (58)
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.

@adamgorney (59)
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West

@rivalsjason (60)
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.

@BrandonHuffman (61)
Completing the roundup of recruiting names is Scout’s national expert, Brandon Huffman.

MEDIA WATCHDOGS

@jasonrmcintyre, @tyduffy and @thebiglead (62)
McIntyre and the Big Lead have their fingers on the pulse of the media transaction wire. Follow him for all the news and trends that will impact your consumption habits.

@bkoo and @awfulannouncing (63)
Ben Koo and Awful Announcing cover plenty of media trends, but college football fans will take special interest in the Pammies — a collection of Saturday’s best verbal snafus unfortunately named after ESPN’s Pam Ward.

@bubbaprog (64)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke is a must-follow on Saturday for his collection of videos, images and GIFs. Miss a key play, chyron fail or sideline shenanigans, Burke’s your guy. Oh, and he helped break the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax story.

@mattsarz (65)
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.

NICHE INTERESTS

@SBN_BillC (66)
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow him to get smarter.

@smartfootball (67)
If you prefer a more cerebral take on the game, this feed's for you. Editor Chris Brown's also a Grantland contributor if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

@DarrenRovell (68)
Athlon once named him the No. 1 follow in all of sports, but college football fans will take particular interest in Rovell (who has since moved from CNBC to ESPN) after he reported on Johnny Manziel’s involvement with college athletics’ shadow autograph industry.

@SportsBizMiss (69)
Kristi Dosh is the founder of BusinessofCollegeSports.com and now she reports on sports business for ESPN. Want to know how much college athletes would really make off jersey sales? Dosh does.

@JimMWeber and @LostLettermen (70)
Jim Weber keeps up with college athletes past and present. His site and Twitter feed is a mix of where are they now and what’s new.

@coachingsearch (71)
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.

@footballscoop (72)
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.

@bylawblog (73)
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.

@pollspeak (74)
The polls are infuriating. Pollspeak knows where you should direct your anger. They look through the AP ballots each week to publicly shame the most extreme voters.

 


@HeismanPundit (75)
His self-descriptor says it all: CBSSports.com writer/Heisman voter breaking down the politics of the most prestigious award in sports, plus hard-hitting college football commentary & analysis. What more do you want?

 

REGIONAL INTEREST

@SEC_Logo (76)
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.

@JonSDS (77)
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.

@Josh_Ward (78)
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.

@wesrucker247 (79)
When there’s an award for covering an athletic program in continuous tumult, it may be called The Rucker. And half of Wes Rucker’s followers seem to hate him for it.

 



@finebaum (80)
SEC country’s top radio voice takes his show to the World Wide Leader. You can’t spell WWL without PAAAAAAWWWL.

@MattScalici (81)
A sports producer at AL.com, he’s a go-to source for all things Alabama. Pro tip: You may want to pay attention to the upstart CrimsonTide

@CecilHurt (82)
Cecil's been covering Bama since the Bear's last season. That makes him a suitable go-to guy for all things Tide-related. Not bad with the one-liner either.

@BTNTomDienhart (83) and @BTNBrentYarina (84)
Veteran reporter Tom Dienhart sends dispatches from Big Ten campuses year-round, and editor Brent Yarina shares Big Ten insights from all over the internet. Two must-follows from the Big Ten Network team.

@TeddyGreenstein (85)
Teddy has one of the best self-descriptions on Twitter: "lover, fighter, Chicago Trib sportswriter." Kind of says it all. A go-to follow for Big Ten news, though the Second City writer tilts a bit to Northwestern and Illinois.

@11W (86)
Eleven Warriors is your source for all things Scarlet and Grey. It's the largest free Ohio State sports source on the internet, and they've extended their footprint to Twitter in a big way.

@BCastOZone (87)
Another source of Ohio State news, Brandon Castel at The-Ozone.net is heavy on recruiting news. When Urban Meyer is involved, that’s a worthy follow.

@Sean_Callahan (88)
The publisher of HuskerOnline.com, Sean Callahan has seen the Nebraska program suffer through some uncharacteristic struggles the last several years. But unlike the team, Sean's coverage is consistently solid.

@ACCSports (89)
Someday, maybe soon, ACC football will be relevant, and when that day comes, Jim Young is poised to rule. He's your ACC source on all things football and basketball.

@D1scourse (90)
Another key writer from ACC country, Patrick Stevens keeps a close eye on Maryland, but his feed is full of great statistical discoveries.

 



@BryanDFischer (91)
Prolific Tweeter now writes for the Pac-12 Networks. A go-to source for West Coast football news and more.

@Mengus22 (92)
Louisville fan, blogger and radio host Mark Ennis has carried water for the maligned Big East over the years (he ran SB Nation’s Big East Coast Bias blog). Needless to say, this will be an interesting season for him.

@BlatantHomerism (93)
An Oklahoma fan who knows his way around the college football landscape.

@GBHunting and @cuppycup (94)
All things Texas A&M and Johnny Football. With GIFs.

@HustleBelt (95)
One word: #MACtion

 



@Miller_Dave (96)
There are plenty of names for ESPN, CBS and SI worth following for college football, but don’t let National Football Post’s Dave Miller fall through the cracks.

@TheOregonDuck (97)
If you follow only one college football mascot, make sure it’s the one who can dance to Gangnam Style and befriend spiders.

 



@CapitalOneBowl and @RussellAthBowl (98)
Don’t like the bowl system, that’s fine. These two accounts keep their Orlando-based games entertaining all year long. Give credit to these bowls to creating a public persona apart from the old men in fancifully colored blazers.

 



@ChaseGoodbread, @DanGreenspan and @MikeHuguenin (99)
NFL.com has expanded their college football coverage with writers covering the NFL Draft year round. If you want to know what the No Fun League thinks of your favorite college players, start here.

@AthlonSports, @AthlonMitch, @AthlonSteven, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonDoster
And last but not least, the Athlon Sports team.

 

List and bios compiled by Rob Doster and David Fox.

Teaser:
These tweeters will keep you entertained, educated and occasionally enraged
Post date: Monday, August 19, 2013 - 15:00
Path: /nfl/cleveland-browns-2013-nfl-team-preview
Body:

The Cleveland Browns have not proven themselves adept at doing a whole lot well since the team returned to the field in 1999. The only thing the Browns have done consistently in these last 14 seasons is change. Front office to front office, players to players, coach to coach — the constant change has been the only theme with a team that can’t win.

Yes, there may be a correlation.

Because every time the Browns have had an organizational change, the coaches change and the players change and the approach changes. Fans have been treated to a never-ending carousel of people telling them that the right person has been hired and the right player acquired, only to hear the same thing about the next person hired and next player acquired.

The Browns have averaged 5.2 wins per season in the 14 they’ve been back. They’ve won 23 games the past five seasons. Rob Chudzinski will be the seventh head coach, Norv Turner the 10th offensive coordinator.

Tumult is the theme, epitomized by the fact that even the ownership changed in the past year, as Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam.

But in typical Browns fashion, Haslam’s Knoxville, Tenn., company — Pilot Flying J — became the subject of a fraud investigation that had the FBI and IRS conducting a raid on the business in April.

As they say in Cleveland … only in Cleveland.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 11th

Related: 2013 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis

Offense
New CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi did some tinkering with the offense but did not perform an overhaul. Banner’s thinking was that the offense has some young talent, and it’s worth giving them an opportunity to grow. Translation: Brandon Weeden and company are on a one-year “show me” basis. If Weeden does not succeed in his second season, he won’t get another in Cleveland.

The Browns’ former brain trust of Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur saw little to be excited about in the 2013 quarterback class. So they took Weeden in the first round in 2012, no matter that he was 28 (and will be 30 this fall). The latest regime will give Weeden a chance, and they will give him a chance running an offense that is more vertical and down-the-field than Shurmur’s West Coast system. Also, the Browns will put Weeden in the shotgun more. He proved in college that he was comfortable working from that spot.

Weeden had moments last season, but they were too few — and he faded as a long and depressing season continued. But he also showed ability that prompted the Browns to draft him. If Weeden falters, however, the Browns will look to the draft to take yet another “franchise” quarterback.

Weeden has a solid offensive line in front of him with left tackle Joe Thomas a consistent standout. Running back Trent Richardson played much of  ’12 with cracked ribs, so he should be more consistent — and better able to live up to the expectations of a third overall pick. Richardson has to learn when a play is over, though, because he took too many extra shots fighting for yards that weren’t there. Richardson's health and durability is even more important with backup Montario Hardesty expected to miss the first two or three games because of a knee injury and Dion Lewis, who the team acquired from Philadelphia in a trade in April, also sure to miss time after breaking his leg in the second preseason game.

The Browns are justifiably excited about their young receivers. Josh Gordon had a solid rookie season after not playing college for two years because of issues with marijuana use. Greg Little struggled early but had a strong second half. The Browns added veterans Davone Bess and David Nelson to round out the receiving crew.

The biggest question on offense — other than relying on young players to grow — is at tight end, a position Chudzinski and Turner like to use a great deal. Jordan Cameron appears to be the choice to start, but he has only 26 catches and eight starts in his two seasons, with most of the starts due to injury to Ben Watson. Cameron has ability, but he also has to show more toughness and the willingness and ability to block.

Defense
The Browns spent two years drafting and building for a 4-3 defense. With new management and coaching, Cleveland moves to a 3-4 alignment with Ray Horton trying to implement a Pittsburgh system without Pittsburgh players.The coaching staff shrugs off the change to a “hybrid” 3-4 with different fronts and blitzes, but it’s complicated. And it might not be that beneficial. The one element of the team that Heckert built was the defensive front. Now that front has to transition to a two-gap system. And Jabaal Sheard, a pretty good 4-3 end, has to transition to a stand-up linebacker. Free agent signee Paul Kruger, Sheard, first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and free agent signee Quentin Groves will be the rush linebackers, as Horton will try to mimic the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme. Horton tried the same approach as coordinator in Arizona a year ago, and the players loved the system. Arizona finished 12th in total defense, 17th in scoring. Mingo sustained a bruised lung in the Browns' second preseason game, so his Week 1 availability could be in doubt depending on the severity of his injury.

Horton’s biggest challenge is finding a cornerback to start opposite Joe Haden. Haden has grown into one of the better cover corners in the league, but he needs to stay away from off-field problems. The Browns hope Leon McFadden, the team’s third-round draft choice, can step in. If he can’t, the Browns would have to rely on Buster Skrine, a young player who struggled in 2012.

Specialists
The one thing the Browns had going for them since 1999 was the consistent excellence of placekicker Phil Dawson. Not anymore.

Dawson, weary of losing and being franchised, signed with the 49ers as a free agent. The Browns never explained why they let their most popular player walk, and the decision looked more odd when they signed 35-year-old Shayne Graham (formerly of the Texans) to replace the 38-year-old Dawson. The Browns also let returner Josh Cribbs leave via free agency. The departure of Cribbs and Dawson took two of the most popular players from the team. Popularity doesn’t win games, obviously, but the loss of those two was emblematic of the change in regimes.

Final Analysis: 4th in AFC North
Expectations for the 2013 Browns were set by their owner in March. At the NFL’s spring meetings, Haslam said (candidly) that the Browns would not go 13–3 this season. Give him credit for candor, and for accuracy. The Browns aren’t close to a 13–3 team. There are new systems on both sides of the ball and new playbooks. The Browns have talent, but they also have the uncertainty of their owner’s legal situation and the uncertainty of how committed the new front office and coaching staff are to these players. As the Browns have often proven, uncertainty rarely wins in the NFL.

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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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They could be terrible. They could be OK. There is even a small chance they will be very good. The only thing certain about the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 is that they will be different.
Very different.

After 14 years, Andy Reid is off to Kansas City. Chip Kelly, the quick-thinking, fast-talking enigma who breathed high-scoring life into the Oregon football program, has taken his place. Nobody — not Kelly, not the Eagles, not the sharpest NFL observer — knows how this will turn out.


Will Kelly be another Pete Carroll or John Harbaugh, making the leap from college to excel in the NFL? Or will he be another Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino, overmatched and quickly sent back to the college ranks?


The early signs were mixed. Kelly opted to retain Michael Vick, the 33-year-old symbol of Reid’s final, futile years. But he also kept the immobile Nick Foles and added USC’s Matt Barkley in the draft. What do those contradictory moves say about Kelly’s offensive scheme? Kelly hired NFL lifer Bill Davis to run his defense, but neither the head coach nor the coordinator would commit to the kind of scheme they plan to run.



Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 11th

Related: 2013 Philadelphia Eagles Schedule Analysis

Offense
However he deploys them, Kelly at least starts off with some legitimate NFL playmakers at his disposal.
 Running backs LeSean McCoy, Felix Jones and Bryce Brown, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight ends Brent Celek, James Casey and rookie Zach Ertz give Kelly the opportunity to create all kinds of mismatches.


Wideout Jeremy Maclin was expected to be in that group as well, but he tore his ACL early in training camp and will be out for the entire season. It's now up to someone, whether that be Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson or Riley Cooper, to step up and try and replace Maclin's production. Chances are it will be a collaborative effort of some sort.

Kelly also begins with a solid, potentially excellent offensive line. A disaster area last year because of injuries, the line immediately improves with the return of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, veteran Todd Herremans and center Jason Kelce. First-round pick Lane Johnson should start at right tackle, allowing Herremans to return to guard. That would make for an athletic, agile unit able to push the tempo and get out into the second level, as Kelly likes.


The most pressing issue is just who this line will be protecting. With his mobility, Vick is the closest to the style of quarterback Kelly won with at Oregon. But Vick is injury- and turnover-prone. He started only 10 games last year, winning three of them. He threw 10 interceptions and fumbled the ball 11 times. He goes into the season on a one-year contract, which suggests he won’t be the quarterback by the time Kelly’s program peaks.


Foles had his moments as a rookie in relief of Vick. His release is as quick as his feet are slow, though, making him a terrible fit for a read-option offense. But Kelly has steadfastly insisted he can shape his offense around Foles. That position was reinforced when he drafted Barkley, the former USC star who dropped to the fourth round.


“We’re an equal opportunity scoring offense,” Kelly says, “whether we throw it across the line or run it across the line. If we can wing it, we’ll wing it.”

Accuracy is the quality Kelly values most in a quarterback. That would seem to favor Foles and even Barkley over Vick. But Vick can move, and that is almost indispensable in the modern NFL.
How will it play out? If he were under pressure to win right away, Kelly might have to go with Vick. With a little leeway to build his program, expect him to focus on developing Foles and Barkley. There is always the 2014 draft if neither steps up.



Defense
If the quarterback situation is a puzzle, at least there are pieces. Davis will be trying to create a defense almost entirely from scratch. Chances are, the entire starting secondary will be different. In free agency, the Eagles signed cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, along with safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung. All but Williams have dealt with recent injuries, but that still makes them less dubious than the Nnamdi Asomugha-led secondary that allowed 33 touchdown passes in 2012.

Davis is expected to run a variation of the 4-3 under scheme he has used in previous stops. The alignment can look like a 3-4, and sometimes the personnel will line up in a true 3-4. The scheme will ultimately accommodate the players.


Up front, that means 2012 first rounder Fletcher Cox will be either a tackle or a 3-technique end. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga and rookie Bennie Logan will line up at nose tackle. Beyond that, a group of players — Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry — will either be ends or outside linebackers, depending upon scheme, skill and situation. Of the three, Cole has the most experience as a pure edge-rusher while Graham is most likely to evolve into a linebacker capable of dropping into coverage as well as getting after the quarterback.

Connor Barwin, a free agent pickup from Houston, will be relied on to rush the passer from the weak-side linebacker spot. DeMeco Ryans, arguably the team’s best defensive player as a middle linebacker last season, will bring his savvy and toughness to one inside spot. Mychal Kendricks, who had solid games early in his rookie season, is likely to be the other inside backer. Combined, they bring some much-needed physicality to the middle of the defense.

But there are many more questions than answers on this side. It will be a huge challenge for Davis to shape this group into a cohesive unit.

Specialists
Donnie Jones, who averaged 47.2 yards — with a net of 40.5 — last year in Houston, will shore up a position that was one of the Eagles’ many trouble spots in 2012.
Third-year placekicker Alex Henery is tough to get a read on. His career field goal accuracy of 87.9 percent is very good, and he made 22 consecutive kicks last year. But Henery has had few chances to make kicks under pressure, and he missed two in a close game at Tampa Bay in December. He will need to deliver in those situations as they arise.


New special teams coordinator Dave Fipp will have his hands full retooling coverage units that struggled in all phases. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jackson returning more punts, while nickel corner Brandon Boykin is likely to be returning kicks again.



Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC East
A quick turnaround is more than possible in today’s NFL. It has become the expectation.
Kelly has enough skill players to implement a formidable offense, especially if he is as good as his reputation as an innovator. He will have to settle on a No. 1 quarterback and go all-in with him. Scoring points should not be as tough as it was in Reid’s final seasons.


Can the Eagles jump back to elite status with a patchwork defense run by a coach who failed to excel in two previous stints as a coordinator? That is probably the bigger question, and the issue most likely to keep the Eagles from contending in 2013.

Order your 2013 Philadelphia Eagles Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Alabama Preseason Top 10

1. Hoover Buccaneers
It’s not exactly a bold prediction to call for the Bucs to return to the state title game — Hoover has been there every year this century with the exception of 2008. Winning the game will be another matter, as the Bucs will look to replace a corps of senior leaders with a strong group of younger stars, including superstar senior Marlon Humphrey along with rising juniors Christian Bell and Darrell Williams on defense.

2. Clay-Chalkville Cougars (Pinson)
After a fourth-round playoff loss to Hoover to end last season, the Cougars will be out for revenge this fall, and they’ll have the weapons to pull it off. Clay-Chalkville returns quarterback Hayden Moore and running back Sidney Battle, and the Cougars boasted one of the state’s most stifling defenses last season.

3. Auburn Tigers
One of the state’s top producers of college talent, Auburn once again features a large crop of impressive athletes, including defensive end Rashaan Evans and cornerback/wide receiver Blaise Taylor.

4. Opelika Bulldogs
The surprise of the 2012 season, the Bulldogs shocked high school football fans with their unlikely run to the 6A state title game. They return cornerback Stephen Roberts (an Alabama commit) and tight end Jakell Mitchell (an Auburn commit).

5. Spanish Fort Toros
Coming off his second state title in the last three seasons, head coach Mark Freeman will look to fill the holes left by a strong senior class, including breaking in a new starting quarterback.

6. Carver Wolverines (Montgomery)
After making a run to the state semifinals last season, Carver loses Mr. Football winner Jeremy Johnson but returns defensive stars Shaun Hamilton and Jon Michael Edwards.

7. Calera Eagles
After a tough early exit from last year’s playoffs, the Eagles will enter the 2013 season with plenty of motivation and with one of the state’s top athletes in two-way star Ronnie Clark.

8. Muscle Shoals Trojans
The Trojans must reload after losing star defensive lineman Dee Liner and their top two rushers from last season’s undefeated regular-season run.

9. St. Paul’s Episcopal Saints (Mobile)
One of the powerhouses of the Mobile area, St. Paul’s will look to make yet another deep playoff run thanks to elite stars like linebacker Tre’ Williams and offensive lineman Joshua Casher.

10. Vigor Wolves (Prichard)
New head coach Ashley Johnson hopes to lead the Wolves back into the state championship discussion. Key players include running back Desherrius Flowers and defensive end Justin Thornton.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.30 – Colquitt County (Ga.) at Hoover
Alabama’s top program opens the season against one of the top teams in Georgia. The real intrigue centers around Colquitt County’s head coach Rush Propst, the former Hoover head coach who built the Bucs into a powerhouse program.

8.30 – Tanner at Madison Academy
Another intriguing opening weekend game features the defending state champions from the 2A and 3A divisions squaring off against each other. Tanner has lost just twice in the last three years. Madison Academy boasts several major college prospects.

9.13 – Thomasville at UMS-Wright
A rematch of one of the 2012 season’s most exciting games, a 49–42 shootout between the top two teams in the Mobile area. UMS-Wright pulled off the road win last year. Can Thomasville return the favor this season?

9.20 – Davidson at McGill-Toolen
Another big matchup between two of the Mobile area’s powerhouse programs. Last year’s game was a 29–28 thriller in favor of McGill-Toolen, but the Yellowjackets will be breaking in a new starting QB this season.

10.25 – Auburn at Opelika
These rivals split their two meetings last season, with Opelika eliminating Auburn from the playoffs. Both teams return key pieces on both offense and defense along with loads of SEC-level talent.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Racean Thomas, RB, Oxford
Senior, 5-11, 195

Thomas goes by the nickname “Rock,” and over the past two seasons, he has more than earned that moniker. He was named first-team All-State (Alabama Sports Writers Association) and second-team All-American (247Sports) as a junior for his 1,968-yard, 26-touchdown performance (combined rushing and receiving) that almost single-handedly propelled a young Oxford Yellow Jackets squad to six wins. As one of the top offensive playmakers in the Class of 2014, Thomas is likely to be the subject of an intense recruiting battle between Alabama and Auburn, though out of state schools have shown interest as well, including Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss. Thomas has the soft hands to contribute as a receiving threat while his solid frame and tackle-breaking ability make him an ideal running back in the SEC, where toughness is a must for a between-the-tackles runner. With a more experienced quarterback and offensive line in front of him, “Rock” could be poised for his best season yet in 2013.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Hoover
Senior, 6-1, 175

After Humphrey’s junior season — highlighted by four interceptions and 15 pass breakups — recruiting analysts raved about his astounding speed and quickness. Humphrey put those skills to use again during the spring when he broke numerous state and national track and field records. Widely regarded as the nation’s top cornerback in the class of 2014, Humphrey has also proven himself to be a dangerous special teams threat, blocking two punts and returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. At 6'1", 175 pounds, Humphrey also has the size to get physical with receivers in press man-to-man coverage, an asset that makes him a strong candidate for early playing time at the college level. Humphrey’s athletic prowess hardly comes as a surprise — he’s the son of former University of Alabama running back Bobby Humphrey. Many expect that the Crimson Tide legacy will end up in Tuscaloosa, but he has also shown significant interest in South Carolina as well.

 

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Texas Preseason Top 10

1. Allen Eagles
The Eagles are a solid pick to repeat as Class 5A Division I state champions. Led by sensational junior quarterback Kyler Murray, who topped 2,000 passing yards and ran for over 1,500 yards and 42 total touchdowns, the Eagles will be a handful for teams to slow down. Allen’s defense has possibly the best tandem of linebackers in the state in Christian Sam and Tay Evans.

2. Katy Tigers
The lone unbeaten team in 5A a year ago, Katy has some holes to fill, but that’s nothing new for one of the state’s most tradition-rich programs. Rodney Anderson will take over at running back after making solid contributions as a freshman and sophomore. Katy won’t overwhelm you with athleticism, but the Tigers are always solid and well-coached.

3. Euless Trinity Trojans
Trinity is known for winning state titles in odd-numbered years (2005, 2007 and 2009). The Trojans once again will be massive in the trenches, and they have a bevy of experienced skill position players returning.

4. DeSoto Eagles
The always athletic Eagles are coming off their best season in school history. They’ll play one of the toughest non-district schedules in the country, ensuring that they’ll be prepared for the grind that is the 5A playoffs.

5. Cibolo Steele Knights
Despite losing their head coach this offseason, Steele is the unanimous selection as the top team in the San Antonio area. The Knights will be led by running back and Texas Tech commit Justin Stockton and a physical and athletic defensive unit.  

6. Austin Westlake Chaparrals
The Chaps are fresh off a surprise run to the 5A Division II semifinals a year ago, and coach Darren Allman returns one of the state’s most experienced squads. Westlake will have to battle five-time 4A champion Lake Travis (now in 5A) in district play.  

7. Southlake Carroll Dragons
Tradition-rich Southlake Carroll fell to DeSoto in the quarterfinals a year ago but is poised to reload. The Dragons have to replace quarterback Kenny Hill, who signed with Texas A&M, and four starters on the offensive line.

8. Houston Lamar Redskins
Lamar made a surprise run to the 5A Division I title game before falling to Allen. Hopes are high that the Redskins can repeat, as they are led by quarterback Darrell Colbert, who is an SMU commit.

9. Arlington Bowie Volunteers
Bowie posted an 11-2 record a year ago, and the Volunteers return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball. They could employ a two-quarterback system under new coach Danny DeArman.

10. Galena Park North Shore Mustangs
Legendary coach David Aymond has another outstanding team returning, and the Mustangs will look to avenge a loss to Houston Lamar in last year’s quarterfinals. North Shore will be athletic and very physical on defense.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.30 – Allen at Southlake Carroll
Carroll will look to turn the tables on Allen in this top-10 matchup. Last year, Allen opened its new stadium with a win over the Dragons, who were the defending state champions. Now Allen is the defending champion going on the road.

9.14 – Euless Trinity vs. DeSoto
A neutral site showdown is a size vs. speed test as Trinity, with its bruising play in the trenches, takes on a DeSoto team considered among the fastest in the country. Trinity will be out for revenge after DeSoto knocked off the Trojans 42-21 in 2012.

9.20 – Austin Westlake at Cibolo Steele
A possible state championship preview pits two semifinalists from a year ago playing for bragging rights. Westlake is considered by most to be Austin’s top team, while Steele is considered the top team in San Antonio. Steele won last year’s game 35-10.  

9.27 – Cedar Park at Leander
The district opener for both teams will likely decide the 25-4A title. Cedar Park is the defending 4A Division II state champion, while Leander is fresh off an 11-2 campaign. It’s likely that both teams will be in the 4A top five when this matchup takes place.

10.4 – El Campo at Bellville
The 25-3A title will be on the line in one of the top small-school matchups in 2013. Division I state runner-up El Campo meets up with Division II semifinalist Bellville. Both teams love to run the football, so if you like the spread, this may not be your cup of tea.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jerrod Heard, QB, Denton Guyer
Senior, 6-1, 193

What to do for an encore? That’s the question for Heard, who capped off a magical junior season with a jaw-dropping performance in the Wildcats’ 48-37 win over Georgetown in the 4A Division I state championship. Heard ran for 143 yards and five touchdowns and threw for 189 yards and two scores in the title game. The future Texas Longhorn led GHS to a 14-2 record in 2012 as he threw for 2,090 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for another 2,138 yards and 35 touchdowns. Guyer, which also produced current Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh, could be poised for a second straight title with Heard running the show once again. “Things come naturally for him, whether it’s understanding the game or throwing the ball,” Guyer coach John Walsh says. “He’s just got that calm demeanor.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Hoza Scott, LB, La Porte
Senior, 6-2, 205

If you want a prototypical linebacker, there’s not a better candidate in the state than Scott. For the past three years, he’s terrorized opposing offenses in the Houston area, and he’s helped put the Bulldogs on the map as an elite team statewide. Scott has the perfect blend of size, speed and instincts, which he uses to make plays all over the field. The Texas A&M commit battled through some nagging injuries a year ago, but he’s healthy heading into his senior season. La Porte and state powerhouse Katy met in each of the last two years in the third round of the state playoffs, with the two teams splitting those meetings. Katy got the best of Scott’s Bulldogs a year ago, so leading La Porte to a possible regional and state title is of paramount importance for Scott before he makes the short trip to College Station.

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Ohio Preseason Top 10

1. St. Edward Eagles (Lakewood)
Simply put, St. Edward has been as successful as any program in the state at attracting and grooming top-level players in recent years. This season, the Eagles have to replace quarterback Ryan Fallon and running back Dwayne Aaron, among others, but there is plenty of returning talent as well as motivation after last season ended in a stunning 63-56 playoff loss in which Mentor scored the game’s last 21 points.

2. Archbishop Moeller Fighting Crusaders (Cincinnati)
The Crusaders can move the ball on anybody and will win their share of shootouts, but they will need to tighten up defensively in order to repeat as Division I state champs. Star linebacker Sam Hubbard, who has committed to Ohio State, helps that cause.

3. St. Ignatius Wildcats (Cleveland)
Jimmy Byrne anchors a powerful offensive line, and linebacker Kyle Berger is the playmaker of a stingy defense. Led by legendary coach Chuck Kyle, the Cats face a daunting schedule but appear headed for yet another 10-win season.

4. St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish (Akron)
LeBron’s alma mater is rife with speed and talent, especially at the skill positions, and promises to be explosive. Forget the Division III designation — this is simply one of the elite outfits in the state.

5. Glenville Tarblooders (Cleveland)
Coach Ted Ginn Sr. has reloaded and is primed for another shot at an elusive state title, this time in Division II. The defense is stocked with major college prospects; the offense, as usual, is jet-fast.

6. Colerain Cardinals (Cincinnati)
One of the top public school programs in the state, Colerain turned in an undefeated regular season and finished 12-1 in 2012. Many key performers, including slippery running back De’Tuan Smith, are back in the fold.

7. Central Catholic Fighting Irish (Toledo)
Toledo Whitmer played for the Division I state title last year, but Central Catholic has been the most consistent force in northwest Ohio in recent years and should only benefit by dropping from D-II to D-III.

8. Coffman Shamrocks (Dublin)
Coffman is the class of the best league in central Ohio, the Ohio Capital Conference, and is always a postseason threat. However, there is unfinished business after last year’s 9-0 start quickly became an unfulfilling 9-2 season.

9. Washington Tigers (Massillon)
Dripping with tradition and boasting one of the best fan bases in the state, the Tigers are ready to pounce again this season. Their drop to Division II could open the door to yet another state title.

10. Clinton-Massie Falcons (Clarksville)
Clinton-Massie has 213 male students, and about 50 of them are very good football players. The Falcons again are the class of Division IV and will thrive with a sophisticated offensive attack.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Coldwater at Columbus Bishop Hartley
This intriguing early-season matchup — and potential preview of the Division V title game — pits a pair of recent state champs. The Cavaliers could be riding a 16-game winning streak but will have to slow down electrifying Hartley running back Alonzo Saxton.

9.20 – Dublin Coffman at Hilliard Davidson
This is a central Ohio rivalry that has produced both euphoria and heartbreak. Last year, for example, Coffman rolled to a 33-10 win in September but committed four turnovers and fell 17-14 to the Wildcats in its playoff opener. More drama awaits.

10.25 – St. Vincent-St. Mary at Massillon Washington
Paul Brown Tiger Stadium will be rocking when these two area powers clash. Washington erupted late in last year’s 44-23 win. The Fighting Irish will return to the scene of the crime with revenge on their minds.

10.26 – Cincinnati Moeller at Lakewood St. Edward
You can’t do much better in October. The defending state champs travel to Cuyahoga County to take on powerful St. Ed’s in a Saturday night special. The trenches will feature disruptive Moeller defensive lineman Elijah Taylor against a top-notch offensive line.

11.2 – Cleveland St. Ignatius at Lakewood St. Edward
How’s this for a little doubleheader at home to end the campaign? Fans will be packed in for this battle for Cleveland-area bragging rights between a pair of state superpowers.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Parris Campbell, RB, St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron)
Senior, 6-1, 179

Campbell already was a known commodity as a 15-year-old junior, but his bust-out performance came in front of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in the state title game when he racked up 165 yards rushing and three touchdowns on just 14 carries, leading the Fighting Irish to the Division III crown. He became the first recruit to commit to OSU after the 2013 National Signing Day and is now poised for a huge senior season. Last year, the slick tailback totaled 1,353 rushing yards and 28 TDs on 160 carries and added 13 receptions and three kick returns (two punts, one kickoff) for scores. His encore, at 16, figures to be impressive as well. “He is starting to become a pretty good football player,” SVSM coach Dan Boarman says. “He can run inside. We can put him in the slot and he’s able to catch the ball also.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Kyle Berger, LB, St. Ignatius (Cleveland)
Senior, 6-3, 215

The prospect Michigan coach Brady Hoke once mistakenly called “Alex” on a recruiting visit, Berger made a name for himself with a breakthrough 2012 season, showing he could attack from near the line of scrimmage as well as get outside. He’s as crafty as he is physical and has a penchant for game-turning plays. Why is St. Ignatius one of the premier teams in Ohio? Start with Berger, who is the point man on a defense that posted three shutouts and held foes to fewer than 10 points per game last season. He racked up 105 tackles and took up residence in opposing backfields with 10.5 sacks and an astounding 44 TFLs. Berger underwent offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia but should be full-go to terrorize teams again this fall. He committed to Ohio State in April over a host of schools including Michigan, Tennessee and UCLA.

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California Preseason Top 10

1. De La Salle Spartans (Concord)
Coach Bob Ladoueceur has stepped down at 58, taking his 399-24-2 record to a less-stressed role of mentoring running backs. The new coach is Justin Alumbaugh, who played at De La Salle and has been a top assistant the last 13 seasons. The Spartans return quarterback Chris Williams (29 total TDs in 2012) and 1,000-yard rusher Das Tautalatasi.

2. Junipero Serra Cavaliers (Gardena)
The Cavaliers rolled to a CIF State D-II Bowl rout over Oakdale and have the core group back, including All-America candidate Adoree’ Jackson, a defensive back, return specialist and receiver/slot gamebreaker. The D-line is anchored by Rasheem Green (6'5", 275).

3. St. John Bosco Braves (Bellflower)
The Braves return nine starters on defense, including linemen Damien Mama, Malik Dorton and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and nationally recruited linebacker Chandler Leniu, with the makings of a dominant unit to completely negate the run. Quarterback Josh Rosen, just a junior, passed for 2,082 yard and 22 TDs.

4. Centennial Huskies (Corona)
The Huskies rolled all comers last season before falling to De La Salle in the CIF State Open Bowl game 48-28. Few teams in the land run the spread quite like this one, with Robert Webber returning at quarterback along with running back Tre Watson, wide receiver Barry Ware and impact transfer lineman Austin Maloata from American Samoa. A return to the State Open game is within reach.

5. Folsom Bulldogs
A fast-rising state power in Sacramento County, the Bulldogs are spread-option wonders, having won the 2010 CIF State D-II bowl with a win over Serra behind the MaxPreps National Player of the Year, quarterback Dano Graves. Next in line is junior Jake Browning, who passed for 5,248 yards and 63 touchdowns in 2012. He joins 13 other returning starters.

6. Granite Bay Grizzlies
A Week 1 opener against Folsom will be telling for a program coming off a CIF State D-I championship win over Long Beach Poly. The defense is headed by linebackers Cameron Smith and Dylan Keeney and the Fly offense by back Tony Ellison. State Coach of the Year Ernie Cooper stepped down on the eve of summer.

7. Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits
Poly reached the state CIF Division I Bowl game and returns a wealth of talent, including defensive backs Iman Marshall and John Smith, defensive lineman Jason Fao and quarterback Tai Tiedermann.

8. Vista Murrieta Broncos
The Broncos have just two on-field losses in the past two seasons amid the rough-and-tumble Southern Section, including the 2012 playoffs to Corona Centennial. Vista returns top running back Kishawn Holmes (1,109 yards, 10 touchdowns) and wide receiver Colin Baker (7 TDs) and sack leader Curtis Bolton (10.5).

9. Mater Dei Monarchs (Santa Ana)
The Monarchs will rumble again with quarterback Chase Forrest, two-way impact leader Jonathan Lockett and speed on defense for longtime coach Bruce Rollinson.

10. Mission Viejo Diablos
Veteran coach Bob Johnson, a quarterback guru, has his main cogs back on offense in quarterback Ian Fieber and tailback Alex Sushesk.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Oceanside at Junipero Serra
A playoff-like setting will help kickstart the academic year between programs that each have state titles in the past three seasons. Oceanside has gone 105-15-3 the last nine years, while Serra boasts a fast, explosive, heavily recruited program.

9.13 – Corona Centennial vs. Long Beach Poly (at Mission Viejo)
Speed kills, and it’ll scorch the field here with a unique showdown of Southern California heavies that are nationally ranked in a recruiting haven. Long Beach Poly has a speed-machine program that has sent more talents to the NFL than any other high school in the land — ever.

9.13 – Freedom at Granite Bay


All-America tailback candidate Joe Mixon of Freedom tests the D of the defending state Division I champion Grizzlies of Placer County, who are led by 6'3", 230-pound linebacker Cameron Smith.

9.14 – Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) at Mission Viejo


A titanic inter-state rumble brings the national power Ironmen from the East, sporting an 89-5 record since 2005, against a decades-long West Coast power.

9.20 – Del Oro at De La Salle
Tradition-rich and fear-no-one Del Oro of the Sac-Joaquin Section braces for a team that has gone 384-7-2 against NorCal foes since 1984. DLS has the talent to win its fifth successive CIF State Open championship in extending a remarkable legacy.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Joe Mixon, RB, Freedom (Oakley)
Senior, 6-2, 210

With a mixture of power, speed and burst, Mixon is a 5-star recruit with seemingly the entire country in pursuit, including USC, Oklahoma, Cal, Notre Dame, Texas and Oregon. He has a second gear, and then he has the end zone in sight. Mixon rushed for 1,134 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore and went for 1,443 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior last fall for a team that was often pass-heavy. Mixon went for 188 yards and four touchdowns against Castro Valley, and he scored in every game. He also had 18 receptions for 383 yards and six scores for a team that went 9-3, won the Bay Valley League championship and reached the second round of the North Coast Section D-I playoffs. Mixon knows the heat is on, and he embraces it, saying, “I’m ready for a big year. The whole team is. We’re excited.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Dwight Williams, LB, Junipero Serra (Gardena)
Senior, 6-1, 205

Soft-spoken out of cleats and shoulder pads, Williams screams ability in heading a national powerhouse program. Able to move sideline-to-sideline and close in a hurry, Williams had 158 tackles, including eight sacks, and two interceptions to help propel the Cavaliers to a 14-2 season and a CIF State Division II Bowl rout over Oakdale. Williams dominated spring and summer combine events and is closing in on 40 scholarship offers. Heading the list as of June: LSU and Alabama. Surrounded by playmakers on defense, he’ll look to stout defensive lineman Rasheem Green to occupy blockers while he flies to the football. Williams says he and his teammate crave the challenge of 2013, “We’ve all got a target on our backs. We love it. I’m ready to help this team win.”

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Teaser:
The top 10 high school football teams in California, plus Preseason Players of the Year and can't miss matchups.
Post date: Friday, August 16, 2013 - 12:48
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Georgia Preseason Top 10

1. Norcross Blue Devils
The Blue Devils return 16 of 22 starters from an undefeated state championship team. They have four players with major college offers, led by defensive end Lorenzo Carter, one of the top prospects in America. Versatile threat Myles Autry can play in the backfield or at receiver and accounted for 20 touchdowns last year. The big questions come at quarterback and running back.

2. Sandy Creek Patriots (Tyrone)
Sandy Creek is almost a sure thing to win the Class AAAA crown. The Patriots are 56-2 with three state titles over the past four years, and they should be the biggest favorite in any classification. Quarterback Cole Garvin, receiver Demarre Kitt, defensive lineman Chris Williams, tailback Eric Swinney and linebacker Khari Lain all have FBS offers.

3. Gainesville Red Elephants
The best player in the state resides in Gainesville: quarterback DeShaun Watson. The electric Clemson commit holds most of the state passing records after leading the Red Elephants to their first state title.

4. North Gwinnett Bulldogs (Suwanee)
The Bulldogs have won 10 games or more each year since coach Bob Sphire arrived in 2006. They can announce themselves as a prime contender if they thrive against an opening stretch against Camden County, Grayson and Norcross.

5. Colquitt County Packers (Moultrie)
The Packers return nine starters on defense and 15 overall, and they’ll need the experience to navigate a brutal schedule that includes Grayson, Lovejoy, Carver-Columbus, Lowndes and Camden County. They have advanced to the state semifinals in each of the past four years.

6. Camden County Wildcats (Kingsland)
Camden County never enters a season without a goal of winning a state title. The Wildcats have won three titles over the past 10 years. But the architect of the program, Jeff Herron, left for Prince Avenue Christian. His offensive coordinator, Welton Coffey, takes over.

7. North Cobb Warriors (Acworth)
The Warriors should be able to score on just about anybody with the return of junior quarterback Tyler Queen. He passed for 2,607 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 925 yards and 20 touchdowns. They must replace 15 starters off last year’s semifinalist team.

8. Lovejoy Wildcats
The Wildcats did the improbable, replacing several key starters and navigating a move up in classification to play for a second straight state title. They replace 14 starters, but the program is one of the best in the state.

9. St. Pius X Golden Lions (Atlanta)
St. Pius played in its first state championship game since 1968 last year, losing to Buford in the title game. The Golden Lions will need to replace their quarterback and fullback — the two most important players in their offense. Daniel Crochet and Nick Ruffin return after All-State junior seasons on defense.

10. Tucker Tigers
Top recruits Detric Dukes (linebacker) and Elisha Shaw (defensive tackle) could make Tucker the top contender to dethrone Gainesville in Class AAAAA.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.24 – Camden County vs. North Gwinnett
There are plenty of great games in the season-opening Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome, but this game may have the most intrigue with the debut of new Camden County head coach Welton Coffey, who takes over for Jeff Herron. North Gwinnett begins a brutal stretch with games at Grayson and Norcross following this one.

8.24 – Booker T. Washington (Fla.) at Norcross
Apologies to Colquitt County coach Rush Propst’s return to play his old team at Hoover (Ala.), but this matchup is the best one for a Georgia team taking on an out-of-state opponent. The Blue Devils will try to win their 16th straight against Florida’s defending Class 4A champion.

9.6 – Colquitt County at Lovejoy
Lovejoy won 12 straight games last year following its 14-7 early season loss to Colquitt County. Both teams advanced to the semifinals — Lovejoy lost to Norcross in the title game — and this game could provide a similar boost to the winner.

9.6 – Buford at Gainesville
Two of the state’s champions meet in a rematch of Gainesville’s 19-15 win over the Wolves in 2012. Both teams will be among the favorites to repeat, with Buford seeking a sixth state title in seven years. Gainesville quarterback DeShaun Watson and Buford linebacker Korie Rogers are both committed to Clemson.

10.11 – Stephenson at Tucker
These two powers — separated by less than 10 miles — had never played before Stephenson’s 13-6 win last season. Both teams figure to be in the Class AAAAA title chase again this year.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Deshaun Watson, QB, Gainesville
Senior, 6-3, 195

What didn’t Watson do in 2012? The Clemson commit led the Red Elephants to their first-ever state championship, and he did so by rewriting the state’s record books. He already holds the state’s career records for passing yards (9,360) and passing touchdowns (108), giving him a chance to create some near-untouchable career marks as a senior. In leading Gainesville to the championship, Watson passed for 4,021 yards and rushed for 1,430 yards and became only the second player in state history to toss 50 touchdown passes. He added 24 touchdowns on the ground. The Red Elephants averaged 49 points per game in the playoffs, including a game of 61 points against a Kell secondary that featured two FBS defensive backs. Watson welcomes back one of his top two wide receivers in Rodney Lackey.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Lorenzo Carter, DL, Norcross
Senior, 6-6, 220

The Blue Devils didn’t enter last season with the same hype as other powers, but they quickly became one of the top contenders for a championship during a five-game stretch in which the defense didn’t allow more than a touchdown. Much of the progress during that stretch could be credited to the playmaking ability of Carter. The hulking defensive lineman finished the season with 136 tackles, 50 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks. He played huge in the big games, including making 12 tackles, five tackles for a loss and forcing a fumble in the championship game win over Lovejoy. Carter, who also helped Norcross win a basketball state title, has even bigger expectations placed on him as a senior. He’s the top prospect in the state, and many of the national recruiting services list Carter among the top-10 prospects in the nation, regardless of position.

 

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Teaser:
Georgia's best high school football teams, players of the year and games to watch.
Post date: Friday, August 16, 2013 - 12:44
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Florida Preseason Top 10

1. Miami Central Rockets
Miami Central boasts the most talented roster in Florida. The defending 6A state champs return 10 on offense, including two of the top three running backs in the nation in Florida commit Dalvin Cook and Miami commit Joseph Yearby. Miami commit Trevor Darling (6'5", 300) leads the offensive line, and junior Da’Vante Phillips is one of the state’s top 2015 wide receivers.

2. Booker T. Washington Tornadoes (Miami)
The defending Class 4A champs lose just three offensive starters and only five on defense. Coach Ice Harris’ son, Treon, leads the way at quarterback, and the roster is loaded with elite talent, highlighted by wide receiver Lamar Parker, defensive end Chad Thomas and defensive back Nigel Patten. The Tornadoes certainly know the way to the Orlando Citrus Bowl, the site of the state title game.

3. St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders (Fort Lauderdale)
Star wide receiver Corey Holmes is joined by Ely transfer wideout Devante Peete (Class of 2015) to give Western transfer quarterback Wade Freebeck another weapon. Freebeck missed several weeks during the summer with a broken thumb, so Jake Rizzo could also see snaps.

4. University School Suns (Fort Lauderdale)
Transfers at quarterback (Sean White) and linebacker (Richard Yeargin) as well as junior running back Jordan Scarlett lead the way for the Suns, who are making the move from 3A to 4A for the 2013 season.

5. Apopka Blue Darters
The 2012 8A champs boast a father-son combo with head coach Rick Darlington and hard-nosed quarterback Zack Darlington. The Darters have nine returning starters on defense, including standout defensive linemen Isaiah Buehler, Anthony Ellis and Eric Jackson.

6. First Coast Buccaneers (Jacksonville)
Quarterback De’Andre Johnson (a Florida State commit) and linebacker Sherrod Pittman are a pair of juniors who will lead the Bucs as they move up to Class 8A this fall. First Coast has lost only twice in the last two years.

7. Manatee Hurricanes (Bradenton)
The Hurricanes were ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation much of last year, but St. Thomas Aquinas took care of that. Manatee still has some weapons, led by D-tackle Demarcus Christmas, a Florida State commit.

8. Plant Panthers (Tampa)
It was a down year for Plant, which failed to make its annual state title-game trip. But after turning down a job with USF, coach Robert Weiner returns to get things back in order.

9. Sandalwood Saints (Jacksonville)
The Saints have two Florida State commits — linebacker Kain Daub and defensive end Blake McClain. With a few newcomers and some big-time underclassmen, Sandalwood could challenge.

10. Oviedo Lions
The Lions move up to Class 8A after making the 7A quarterfinals last year. The top weapons are back, led by quarterback Chris Davis Jr. and defensive end Tyree Owens, both seniors, and a slew of junior studs.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.30 – Miami Central at Plantation American Heritage
This game features the top three running backs in the state with Heritage’s Sony Michel (Georgia commit) and Central’s dynamic duo of Dalvin Cook (Florida commit) and Joseph Yearby (Miami commit). Unfortunately for Michel, he’ll face one of the state’s top defenses.

9.6 – Miami Central vs. Booker T. Washington (at Sun Life Stadium)
It’s early for this showdown of the state’s top two teams, but these two will play each other anytime, anywhere. They met on the same Dolphins turf last year, with Central rallying behind Joseph Yearby, who played quarterback, for a 37-26 victory.
 
11.1 – Jacksonville First Coast at Jacksonville Sandalwood
Prospects abound in this one, and three of them are already committed to Florida State in Sandalwood linebacker Kain Daub and defensive end Blake McClain and First Coast quarterback De’Andre Johnson. The First Coast offense should give Sandalwood a big test in this key Class 8A district matchup.

11.1 – Oviedo at Orlando Timber Creek
Junior running back Jacques Patrick leads Creek against an Oviedo team that has five players with FBS offers. This will either be for the district title or a clash for second place to determine who stays home for the playoffs.

11.8 – Fort Lauderdale University School at Miami Central
This is a county battle for the ages pitting Broward and Miami-Dade schools. Defending 6A champ Central hosts 3A champ University, which moves to 4A. The scheduling is odd, with the state playoffs beginning the next week, but these teams will be ready for this epic showdown.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Sony Michel, RB, Plantation
Senior, 5-11, 205

Michel is a special running back who has been starting for the Patriots since his eighth-grade year, when he ran for 1,825 yards and 18 touchdowns. He followed his debut varsity season with another 18 touchdowns and 1,264 yards as a freshman, but he missed his sophomore season with a torn ACL. He was back at it again last year, churning out 1,667 yards and 21 more touchdowns. Michel committed to Georgia in April, and the Bulldogs can’t wait to get him between the hedges. With his recruiting behind him, he can focus on the 2013 season, and he’ll be looking for the 2,000-yard mark. He’s ranked by many recruiting websites as the No. 1 running back prospect in Florida and the No. 2 running back in the country behind everybody’s No. 1, Leonard Fournette of New Orleans.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Dillon Bates, LB, Ponte Vedra (Ponta Vedra Beach)
Senior, 6-3, 220

The epitome of a football player, Bates has been molded by a big-time role model. Former Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates is his dad, and the elder Bates has instilled some of the same characteristics that kept the old man roaming the Cowboys’ defensive secondary for 15 years in the NFL. Dillon Bates is disciplined, hard-hitting and intelligent on the field. He gets after the ball and covers the run and pass with equal efficiency. He’s one of the best pass-coverage linebackers in the state, and against the run, Bates sheds blockers as well as anyone. He’s already announced his top five college choices, with dad’s alma mater Tennessee sitting on top. He also likes, in order: Florida, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina. He had 63 tackles and three interceptions last year after recording 100-plus tackles as a sophomore.

 

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Teaser:
Florida's best high school football teams, preseason players of the year and games to watch.
Post date: Friday, August 16, 2013 - 12:35
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After four straight non-playoff seasons, you can say this about the Dolphins: They are decidedly different. Jeff Ireland, the holdover general manager, spent the offseason deploying owner Stephen Ross’ cash and his draft pick stash to transform the roster, leaning on input from second-year coach Joe Philbin. Gone are many players — such as Jake Long, Karlos Dansby, Reggie Bush and Davone Bess — who gave the Dolphins plenty of good games in recent seasons, but collectively, weren’t good enough.

Miami will have at least nine new starters, including free agent signings Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, and first-round pick Dion Jordan. Even with all the additions, though, the Fins still might have issues in the secondary and along the offensive line, and they still need second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill to take a giant leap forward.

“There’s no doubt I feel like we’re a better football team,” Ireland says. “I think we’ve gotten faster in a lot of different areas. I think we’ve added some playmakers.”

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 12th

Related: 2013 Miami Dolphins Schedule Analysis

Offense
Do the Dolphins finally have their first franchise quarterback since Dan Marino? Maybe. Aided by the presence of his former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, Tannehill ascended to the starting spot as a training camp rookie, and rarely looked overwhelmed by the assignment. Even so, he had little surrounding talent, and his overall performance was uneven, best evidenced by his underwhelming passer rating of 76.1. Miami actually slipped in points and yards per game from the previous season, when Matt Moore, now the backup, was the primary quarterback. Tannehill has the arm strength, mobility and feel for the position, and Sherman expects big improvement in his quarterback’s second season.

The Dolphins believe Tannehill will have more help, even after letting Bush, their leading rusher and most dynamic playmaker, leave for Detroit. Lamar Miller, a fourth-round pick in Tannehill’s draft class, flashed some potential as a rookie, and he will get the chance to carry the backfield burden. Daniel Thomas, a former second-rounder who has had trouble staying healthy or upright in his two seasons, is also in the mix.

Brian Hartline was re-signed to a rich contract after a breakout season in which he and Tannehill quickly developed chemistry, even if it didn’t produce points. Now he can settle into the more appropriate role of second receiver. The top guy? That will be Wallace, who got nearly $30 million in guaranteed money to scare safeties, stretch the field and score touchdowns. Wallace’s contract is relatively small in the first season, but it quintuples in size in 2014. To be worth that, he will need to do something he didn’t in his fourth and final season in Pittsburgh — top 1,000 yards — and at least match his career average of eight touchdowns. At tight end, Dustin Keller signed a one-year deal to replace the departed Anthony Fasano, but the former Jet sustained a serious, season-ending knee injury in the Dolphins' second preseason game. Now the team will look to Charles Clay, fourth-round draft pick Dion Sims and 2012 third-round selection Michael Egnew for production from the position.

Mike Pouncey, one of the league’s better centers, will be expected to lead the line, especially after Long, the former No. 1 overall pick, resisted a late Dolphins effort and signed with St. Louis. Richie Incognito, a wild card in prior stops, has actually been a steadying influence in Miami, and the massive John Jerry showed progress at the other guard spot last season. Jonathan Martin was the regular at right tackle as a rookie and, after bulking up in the offseason, likely will move to the left side to make room for veteran Tyson Clabo.

Defense
Over the past two seasons, the Dolphins ranked sixth and seventh in points allowed, hardly the sort of statistics that cry for a major overhaul. Still, there was some softness beneath the surface, with too few game-turning plays made when it mattered, especially on the edge and in the secondary. Kevin Coyle, in his second season as defensive coordinator, has been given plenty of new pieces to integrate into the 4-3 scheme he introduced in 2012.

The strength remains on the defensive front, where the electric Cameron Wake made the transition to putting his hand in the dirt and put up great numbers (15 sacks) without his teammates mustering much support. That was the inspiration for Ireland’s decision to deal an extra second-round pick, move up nine spots, and grab the ultra-athletic Jordan. He played defensive end in high school, and finished his Oregon career as an outside linebacker. Ireland characterized Jordan as an every-down player, though that will depend on how quickly he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery and whether he can hold up against the run.

Miami should be set inside, with space-eater Paul Soliai and the versatile Randy Starks, though Starks missed some conditioning sessions due to a contract issue.

The biggest offseason surprise came at linebacker. Few expected Miami to dump both Dansby and Kevin Burnett, after both had been productive — though, in Dansby’s case, overpaid — during their Dolphins tenures. In an effort to get younger and faster, Miami aggressively pursued Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe and Oakland’s Philip Wheeler, and got them both. Wheeler can play all three positions, and Ellerbe emerged as one of the most reliable performers on the Ravens’ Super Bowl squad. The third linebacker is Koa Misi, who has flashed ability but needs to provide more productivity.

The starters at safety likely will be the same with Chris Clemons re-signed to pair with Reshad Jones, who had a breakout season at age 24. Jones led the team in interceptions and the secondary in tackles and the team rewarded him with a four-year contract extension in early August. Prior to Philbin’s first training camp, it appeared the Dolphins were set for years at cornerback, with the players (Vontae Davis and Sean Smith) they had drafted in the first and second rounds in 2009. Now, neither is on the roster. Instead, Miami will pair a veteran signing (Brent Grimes) and a second-round rookie (Jamar Taylor) to see if that works. It’s better, but there still isn’t much depth.

Specialists
If Brandon Fields hasn’t been the best punter over the past four seasons, he’s been in that conversation. No worries there. Kicker, however, has been a different story, which is why the Dolpins drafted Florida's Caleb Sturgis in the fifth round. The coaching staff obviously has liked what it has already seen from the rookie, as incumbent kicker Dan Carpenter was released during training camp, meaning the job belongs to Sturgis. Marcus Thigpen was an undrafted find last season, and he will be the primary returner again.

Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC East
For the first time in a while, there appeared to be a clear offseason plan for the Dolphins — throw picks and cash at a variety of problems, notably the lack of support for Tannehill and the speed on both sides of the ball. How will that translate to wins? That largely depends, as it always does, on the quarterback. If he makes the leap that his coaches project, Miami can compete for a playoff spot. If not, there will be more calls for Ireland’s ouster and Philbin will be under pressure early in his tenure.

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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)Cleveland (8/19)JacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
Philadelphia (8/19)Green Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Two significant obstacles stand between the Redskins and the next step in their turnaround: The fitness of quarterback Robert Griffin III’s right knee and the $18 million salary cap penalty the club is serving in 2013. Washington could hardly enjoy its first NFC East division championship in 13 seasons because Griffin had surgery on Jan. 9 to revise the reconstruction of his ACL and repair his lateral collateral ligament and medial meniscus. Griffin’s status for the regular season won’t crystallize until training camp, and even then, questions will remain about his ability to stay healthy.

Meanwhile, the Redskins’ salary cap sanction hindered efforts to sign free agents to bolster the first string. Washington’s contingency plan was to retain 21 of 22 starters from last year’s squad. That offense led the NFL with 6.2 yards per play, so the continuity could serve the Redskins well if Griffin is healthy. Defensively, though, the secondary needs an infusion of talent. Those problems make defending the division title difficult, though not impossible.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 12th

Related: 2013 Washington Redskins Schedule Analysis

Offense
Griffin expected to miss at least the Redskins’ offseason program because of his knee injury. Spring practices would have helped him evolve as a drop-back passer. Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle, didn’t force Griffin to drop back frequently during his rookie year because they opted to highlight what he did well at Baylor — line up in the shotgun and use his legs to help set up simple throws. The Shanahans believe Griffin will develop into one of the NFL’s best throwers, but that process is delayed.

There’s also the matter of Griffin’s durability. Coaches are emphasizing the importance of throwing the ball away and sliding, but those self-preservation methods detract from Griffin’s explosiveness and his ability to turn negative plays into positive gains.

Overall, though, Griffin is extremely dynamic when healthy. He protects the ball and became a more accurate passer as his rookie season progressed. He can make every throw, and his running ability allows Washington’s option package to keep defenses guessing.

Fellow second-year quarterback Kirk Cousins has the coaches’ confidence if Griffin can’t play. His tendency to make throws based on instincts can be problematic, but he is smart and well-prepared.

It would be surprising if running back Alfred Morris duplicated his 1,613-yard rookie season because Shanahan knows Morris would wear down if he fed him another 335 carries. Morris will get most of the touches because he has good vision and footwork in the one-cut system, and he usually gains yards after contact. Roy Helu missed virtually all of his second NFL season because of a foot and toe injury that required surgery in the spring. Fifth-round draft pick Chris Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee at Florida State last October and hopes to be ready for training camp.

Washington’s receivers should be even better this season. The sprained right foot that cost Pierre Garcon six games is almost fully healed. Joshua Morgan had a plate and seven screws removed from the right ankle he had surgically repaired in 2011. They might be the most physical receiving duo in the NFL. Tight end Fred Davis can be a dynamic weapon if he returns as expected to full fitness from tearing his left Achilles tendon last October.

The Redskins return all five starting offensive linemen. Tyler Polumbus, Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos will compete to start at right tackle. Polumbus, the incumbent, struggles at times with footwork and leverage in pass protection, but he moves defenders in the run game.

Defense
Washington’s secondary is the team’s greatest source of uncertainty, so getting strong safety Brandon Meriweather back healthy from a torn ACL in his right knee is imperative. His speed enables the Redskins to disguise coverages, and he plays balls in space well.

Free safety presents the biggest question. Tanard Jackson, last summer’s first-stringer, remains suspended indefinitely until at least Aug. 31, so Washington can’t count on him. Incumbent Madieu Williams was the only starter not re-signed; he lacked range in deep coverage. The Redskins could move Meriweather to free safety and fill strong safety with the committee approach they used last season in place of Meriweather. Reed Doughty is a smart player whose tackling ability and physicality suit him well in the box. Jordan Pugh replaced Doughty in passing situations, when his speed in the deep secondary was required.

Coordinator Jim Haslett could go another direction and play sixth-round rookie Bacarri Rambo. He has collegiate experience playing strong and free, which meets the interchangeability requirement the Redskins have for their safeties. Unfortunately, fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas is no longer an option as the rookie will miss all of 2013 after sustaining a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his first preseason game.

Two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo returns to aid the pass rush. He is recovered from the torn left pectoral muscle that cost him 14 games last season. His strength, speed and technique help him push the pocket.

The front seven remains an asset, particularly against the run. It must generate a more formidable pass rush with only four rushers. Defensive end Adam Carriker’s recovery from a season-ending quadriceps tear in Week 2 was delayed by a setback in March. His strength makes him an important part of the line rotation in the nickel package. Without him, others have to do extra work, so the Redskins hope he’s back for training camp.

Specialists
The Redskins’ greatest loss in free agency was Pro Bowl special teamer Lorenzo Alexander. He constantly commanded double teams by opposing kickoff and punt return units. Kai Forbath is an accurate field goal kicker, but his kickoffs fall short of desired distance. As long as he’s making field goals, though, his job is safe. Punter Sav Rocca can be inconsistent, but he’s capable of long punts when necessary. Richard Crawford shined as a punt returner late last season because of his fearlessness getting up the field. Niles Paul isn’t an explosive kick returner, so his hold on that job is tenuous.

Final Analysis: 4th in NFC East
The Redskins return all but one starter from the team that overcame significant injuries en route to 10 wins and the division title. Their success hinges on Griffin’s health, but the Redskins are well-coached and deeper than they’ve been in years. If Griffin is healthy all season, they could contend. If not, they could have trouble breaking the .500 mark.

Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)Cleveland (8/19)JacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
Philadelphia (8/19)Green Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Virginia Preseason Top 10

1. Ocean Lakes Dolphins (Virginia Beach)
The Dolphins ended a banner 2012 season on a down note, falling in the Group AAA Division 6 championship game. That four-point loss to L.C. Bird should be plenty of motivation for starting quarterback Walter “Churchie” Harold and 1,000-yard running back Brandon Simmons, who return to bolster the offense. On defense, lineman Derrick Nnadi anchors a unit that recorded six regular-season shutouts and held 14 of 15 opponents to 15 or fewer points.

2. C.D. Hylton Bulldogs (Woodbridge)
The Bulldogs, state semifinalists last season, welcome back Travon McMillian, a dual-threat quarterback who threw for 1,313 yards, ran for 1,194 yards and accounted for 28 TDs as a junior. Lineman Brian Roberts and defensive back Lawrence Hunt also could help Hylton challenge for its first state title since 2002.

3. Oscar Smith Tigers (Chesapeake)
After the Tigers missed the state tournament for only the second time in six seasons, prized lineman Andrew Brown and 1,000-yard back DeShawn McClease hope to spearhead a return to form for a team that won state titles in 2008 and 2011.

4. Lake Taylor Titans (Norfolk)
Blue-chip recruit Jalyn Holmes, a tight end and defensive end, joins a host of returners from a Titans squad that last season finished 15–0 and won the school’s first state championship.

5. Lloyd C. Bird Skyhawks (Chesterfield)
The Skyhawks won their first Group AAA Division 6 state championship, carried by 2,000-yard rusher Paul Robertson, who graduated. But quarterback Terrance Ervin (1,549 passing yards, 23 TDs) and most of his receiving corps are back.

6. Phoebus Phantoms (Hampton)
The Phantoms’ running game got an unexpected offseason boost when running back Marshawn Williams, a Virginia Tech recruit, transferred from cross-town rival Hampton. And Phoebus has motivation after falling short of a fifth straight state title.

7. Hermitage Panthers (Richmond)
Dapper coach Patrick Kane, who sports a red tie during games, must replace Michigan-bound star running back Derrick Green. But he has stout lineman Marius Young and the motivation of a surprising loss in last year’s playoff opener.

8. Stone Bridge Bulldogs (Ashburn)
The Bulldogs rolled into the state championship game unbeaten before a heartbreaking six-point loss — the team’s fourth in a state final since 2005. Playmaker D’Ante Yarborough, a 1,000-yard receiver last season, and lineman Connor Smith are back.

9. Lake Braddock Bruins (Burke)
The dynamic pass-and-catch combo of quarterback Caleb Henderson and wide receiver Aramis Alexander have the Bruins eyeing a trip to the state tournament for the first time since a championship game appearance in 2009.

10. Briar Woods Falcons (Ashburn)
Quarterback Trace McSorley has guided the Falcons to three consecutive state titles. But McSorley’s quest for a four-peat will have to come in a more competitive division after the state’s realignment for 2013.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Oscar Smith at Lake Taylor
This season opener matches perennial Southeastern Virginia powers who haven’t played in years. Oscar Smith won Group AAA Division 6 state crowns in 2008 and ’11, while Lake Taylor was 15-0 and won its first Group AAA Division 5 state title last season.

9.27 – Phoebus vs. Hampton
The cross-town rivals often hook up at Darling Stadium during the regular season to decide the Peninsula District title before a trip to the state tournament. Hampton (1995-98) and Phoebus (2008-11) are the only Virginia teams to win four straight state titles.

9.27 – Gate City at Union
A name change — Powell Valley became Union in 2011 — hasn’t diminished this rivalry between two small schools tucked into the southwest corner of the state near the Tennessee border. The teams played for the first time in 1959.

10.18 – Woodbridge at C.D. Hylton
These neighborhood rivals square off in a regular-season game that features two of the state’s top recruits on the field at the same time: Woodbridge defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand and Hylton quarterback Travon McMillian.

11.9 – Woodberry Forest at Episcopal
These boarding schools played for the first time in 1901, and more than 100 years later the rivalry — referred to simply as “The Game” — is still going strong.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Caleb Henderson, QB, Lake Braddock (Burke)
Senior, 6-4, 223

Henderson has ripped defenses for more than 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and he’s not finished. Henderson, committed to North Carolina, returns for his senior season after throwing for 2,435 yards and leading Lake Braddock to the playoffs as a junior. He threw for 240 or more yards six times in 2012, including a season-high 310, and added some versatility with 453 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. In two seasons as a starter, Henderson has thrown 46 touchdown passes. Henderson “has a howitzer for an arm,” Lake Braddock coach Jim Poythress said. “Scan the high school ranks and that is not often seen. On top of that, he can run well enough to be elusive in the pocket and to gain some yards if things break down. Then, when you consider he is a coach’s son, you get an intangible that should only help.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Woodbridge
Senior, 6-4, 255

Karibi Dede has yet to coach Hand in a game, but he’s already impressed. Dede, hired after last season, has gotten to know Hand during the offseason and has watched plenty of film on his star pupil. “The first thing about him is on the field he has a dominating presence,” Dede says. “It doesn’t matter where he lines up on the defensive front. He’s a kid who’s like a man among boys, and he’s a physical kid who delivers a punishing blow.” Hand delivered plenty of them last season despite drawing constant attention from offensive linemen. He had 78 solo tackles, including 28 for a loss, and collected 16 sacks. That followed an 84-tackle, 21-sack sophomore season. Dede can’t wait to get a first-hand look before Hand graduates and moves on to one of his college suitors. “He’s a phenomenal and unique player,” the coach says.

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Paradise lost would be the way to describe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first year under coach Greg Schiano. The resort atmosphere disappeared, replaced by more rules and regimentation than a boot camp.

“We had one big thing we had to do. We had to establish a culture in the building,’’ Schiano says. “Sometimes, you have to go overboard one way or another to get that culture established. But I think at this point our football team understands who I am and how our football program is going to be run. I think that happened as the season went on.”

A 6–4 start collapsed into a 1–5 finish, mostly because of a wildly inconsistent defense that was first against the run and worst against the pass.

GM Mark Dominik spent the offseason retooling the secondary by signing 49ers free agent safety Dashon Goldson, swinging a blockbuster trade for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and drafting Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks in the second round. Revis Island may have relocated to Tampa Bay, but it’s still going to be a very inhospitable place.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 13th

Related: 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Schedule Analysis

Offense
Josh Freeman set single-season club records for passing yardage (4,065) and touchdown passes (27) last year. But 10 of his 17 interceptions came in three games, leaving the Bucs still to wonder whether to make a long-term commitment to their enigmatic quarterback, who enters the final year of his contract.

Freeman will benefit from one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. Davin Joseph returns from a season-ending knee injury he suffered in 2012, and Carl Nicks has recovered from a foot injury that limited him to seven games.

But you can bet the offense will run through Doug Martin, who ranked second among rookies with 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a score. Receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are terrific big-play targets for Freeman, but the Bucs could use a better tight end than Luke Stocker and don’t have a slot receiver.

Tampa Bay traded running back LeGarrette Blount to New England and will go with free agent Brian Leonard, who played for Schiano at Rutgers, and Miami rookie Mike James to round out the backfield. The team also added former Cleveland and Kansas City running back Peyton Hillis to the mix before the start of training camp, although the one-time 1,000-yard rusher may have a hard time making the roster.

Freeman should thrive in the second year of the system under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. The Bucs will do more to move the pocket and change his launch sites, because he can be very accurate on the move. He also has a new quarterbacks coach in John McNulty, who had the same position with the Arizona Cardinals and coached with Schiano at Rutgers.

But Schiano still is hedging his bets a little with Freeman long-term. Perhaps that’s why NC State quarterback Mike Glennon is here.

“The reality is this is a performance-based game … to say you’re married (to a player), well, nobody is married to anyone in this game,’’ Schiano says of Freeman. “They’re not married to me. You’ve got to win or I’m not going to be the coach.”

Defense
It’s extremely unusual for a defense to play in polar-opposite ways against the run and the pass. Statistically, Tampa Bay had the best run defense in the league in 2012. Perhaps that’s because opponents preferred to travel by air. The Bucs fell just 38 yards shy of setting the NFL record for the most passing yards allowed.

With so much scorched earth in the secondary, the Bucs knew they needed an overhaul. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who was suspended for four games last year for illegal use of the stimulant Adderall, was traded at midseason to the New England Patriots. Eric Wright, who lost four games for the same reason, was forced to take a one-year, restructured contract, and then was subsequently traded to the 49ers in July for a conditional 2014 draft pick. Wright, however, failed his physical, which nullified the trade and led to his eventual outright release by the Buccaneers.

Dominik began the makeover by signing Goldson to a five-year, $41.25-million deal. A few weeks later, he persuaded the Jets to part with Revis for the 13th overall pick and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2014. Revis still is recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 3 last year but is expected to be full go by training camp. If he is 90 percent as good as the old Revis, it could be scary for the NFC South. The Bucs finally will have a player to match up with the Falcons’ Julio Jones or the Saints’ Marques Colston.

The Bucs will benefit from the return of right defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was lost for the season because of a knee injury after only a few games. Da’Quan Bowers, who battled back from a torn Achilles to play 10 games a year ago, should be a powerful bookend. Rookies William Gholston and Steven Means fortify the pass rush.

But the rush is anchored by man in the middle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall choice in 2010. McCoy finally put together a full season, finishing with five sacks, and was named to his first Pro Bowl team.

Tampa Bay lost starting nose tackle Roy Miller to Jacksonville and its leading sackmaster Michael Bennett to Seattle. But the Bucs seem confident in veterans such as Derek Landri and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim as well as Illinois nose tackle Akeem Spence, a fourth-round pick.

The linebackers are solid with Mason Foster and Lavonte David, who led the team in tackles as a rookie. The Bucs have to replace Quincy Black at strong-side linebacker. He was released after suffering nerve damage following a hit on San Diego running back Ryan Mathews.

Playing in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton means having to stop big plays in the passing game. The Bucs also face Tom Brady this year. But the first game of the season will be at MetLife Stadium against the Jets. What better place for Revis to make a statement that he is back?

Specialists
The Bucs' kicking game sustained a big blow in July when Connor Barth tore his Achilles playing in a charity basketball game. Barth, who hit on on 28-of-33 field goal attempts last season, will be replaced by veteran Lawrence Tynes. Tynes connected on 33-of-39 field goal attempts for the Giants last season, but he doesn't have near as strong a leg as Barth (six made FGs from 50+ yards in 2012). Punter Michael Koenen, who also handles all the kickoff duties, needs to pick it up after only netting 37.4 yards in 2012.

Long-snapper Andrew Economos re-signed, keeping the Bucs’ battery intact. What the team could use is some return yardage. Cowboys free agent Kevin Ogletree has a chance to bring back punts and kickoffs this year.

Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC South
If Revis is Revis again once his knee heals, and he plays the entire season, the Bucs have the main ingredient for an antidote to the Falcons’ and Saints’ passing games. Freeman, as usual, will be the key. Avoid two of the three meltdown games, and the Bucs could sneak into the postseason after a five-year hiatus.

Order your 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaeneers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
Miami (8/16)Cincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)Cleveland (8/19)JacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
Philadelphia (8/19)Green Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
Washington (8/16)Minnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Six starters fled the Jets in free agency, including their top running back and two safeties. Their best player, one of the great shutdown cornerbacks in football, was traded to Tampa Bay just prior to the draft. Their big free agent signing was a 35-year-old quarterback who retired in May. Owner Woody Johnson fired his general manager right after the 6–10 season but retained Rex Ryan for his final contract year, turning him into a lame-duck coach.

This has all the makings of a rebuilding season at best and a mess of a year at worst.

Despite heading into a win-or-else season with an uncertain quarterback situation, offensive backfield in flux, and an exodus that left the defense in shambles, Ryan doesn’t look at 2013 as a rebuilding season.

“I think (other teams) should be worried about us a lot more than they are,” Ryan says. “We’ll see what kind of team our opponents get to play, and I’m excited about it.”

He might as well be. A winning record seems like a daunting challenge, especially in light of a five-game stretch starting in Week 5 against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England, Cincinnati and New Orleans. Even without the Tim Tebow albatross, Ryan has plenty of pressure on him in 2013, not the least of which is his job security under a new GM. The quarterback position is no closer to being solved, and the rest of the offense is just as underwhelming. Meanwhile, the Jets were dealt a psychological blow with the trade of lockdown corner Darrelle Revis to the Buccaneers. This has all the makings for another long year in New York.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 13th

Related: 2013 New York Jets Schedule Analysis

Offense
Ryan’s enthusiasm could turn to despair quickly if keeping Mark Sanchez around backfires. Sanchez, to whom former GM Mike Tannenbaum handed a three-year extension with $20.5 million of guaranteed money prior to last season, took the first snap of minicamp, though second-round draft pick Geno Smith is poised to give him some competition in the summer. The Jets signed veteran David Garrard in March and had planned on giving him a legitimate chance to win the job, but he announced in mid May that he was retiring due to ongoing issues with his knees. So that leaves Sanchez as the likely Week 1 starter, but he may struggle in new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s system. Timing and touch are essential in the West Coast offense, areas in which Sanchez has shown little comfort level the past two years.

Regardless of who starts at quarterback, he won’t have many targets out there. Jeremy Kerley is good, and when healthy, Santonio Holmes is better. But Holmes is returning from season-ending foot surgery and will take a limited workload through training camp. The team did bring back former Jet wide receiver Braylon Edwards and also signed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to add to its pass-catching options.

The running back picture became much more interesting when the Jets traded their fourth-round pick to New Orleans for bruising veteran Chris Ivory. He can punish a defense and has a 5.1 yards-per-carry career average. But injuries and his failure to exhibit significant receiving ability out of the backfield could make him miscast in Mornhinweg’s system. The Jets might end up starting free agent pickup Mike Goodson, whose pass-catching ability complements a 4.5-yard career average. Holdover Bilal Powell is also a candidate. He caught 17 passes and rushed for 437 yards and four touchdowns as a backup last year. Whatever they do, the Jets have to improve their 3.8 yards-per-carry average, which ranked 23rd in the league. In the end, Goodson — with his ability to run and catch — may be the best option, but his May 17 arrest on weapons and gun charges have complicated things, to say the least.

The offensive line is also in transition, with underachieving Vladimir Ducasse likely to move into the right guard spot to replace Brandon Moore, who departed in free agency. Willie Colon, a seven-year veteran who started 11 games at left guard for the Steelers last year after missing all but one game the two previous seasons, signed with the Jets in the offseason. He should help improve the blind side.

Defense
After a dramatic trade-him-or-don’t-trade-him decision in the front office, the Jets eventually sent Revis to Tampa Bay for the No. 13 pick in the 2013 draft and a conditional selection in 2014. The Jets then used the ninth overall pick to draft a corner in Alabama’s Dee Milliner. The Jets only partially replaced the other key personnel losses, starting with free agent acquisition of former San Diego linebacker Antwan Barnes, who had 18.5 sacks over the last three seasons. He dropped from 11 sacks in 2011 to just three in an injury-shortened 2012. But he is familiar with Ryan, having played for him in Baltimore in 2007. That’s a plus, since Ryan will return to calling his own defensive plays. And Ryan will need Barnes to boost a pass rush that tied for 25th last year with only 30 sacks. Barnes is also fast enough to cover the tough tight ends found in the AFC East, such as the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and former Jet Dustin Keller in Miami.

Muhammad Wilkerson showed signs of becoming a defensive line stalwart in his second year, compiling five sacks, 70 tackles and three forced fumbles at end. This year, Wilkerson will have to fight through a slew of double-teams unless the Jets somehow find some inexpensive players to replace Sione Po’uha and Mike DeVito. Best case would be for last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Quinton Coples, to take over DeVito’s spot.

Right cornerback Antonio Cromartie stepped up and had a great year once Revis went down with a torn ACL, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again. But the middle of the secondary is rife with inexperience in Josh Bush and Antonio Allen. At least free agent acquisition Dawan Landry — brother of departed safety LaRon Landry — will provide coverage skills and durability after recording 100 tackles in 16 starts for Jacksonville last year.

Specialists
Kicker Nick Folk was re-signed for his fourth season in green after going 21-of-27 on field goals. His 93 points tied him for 26th in the league. Robert Malone, the league’s 19th-ranked punter, returns after a franchise-record 45.8-yard average on 61 punts (38.5 net).

Joe McKnight likely will handle kickoff returns again after bringing back 39 for a 27.5-yard average (third-best in the league) that included a 100-yard TD against the Texans. The punt return game, handled mostly by Kerley last year, will need more yardage and fewer fair catches.

Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC East
It’s always bad medicine for an owner to change his general manager and keep his head coach. Ryan is entering the final season of his contract with a number of troublesome contracts, unfulfilled Super Bowl expectations and an unresolved quarterback quandary. The head coach may be optimistic, but the team’s roster indicates otherwise.

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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimore (8/26)Houston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
Miami (8/16)Cincinnati (8/27)Indianapolis (8/23)Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)Cleveland (8/19)JacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)Tennessee (8/22)San Diego (8/20)
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
Dallas (8/22)Chicago (8/20)Atlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis (8/23)
Philadelphia (8/19)Green Bay (8/29)New Orleans (8/26)San Francisco (9/3)
Washington (8/16)Minnesota (8/21)Tampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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