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The Bengals think of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. Their roster says they should be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. So does their experience. All that’s left for them to do is to prove it on the field following Wild Card playoff losses at Houston the last two seasons.

The entire starting offensive unit returns, but after struggling down the stretch last season, there is much room for improvement. The offense produced just seven touchdowns in the final six games. There are plenty of weapons in the lineup in Andy Dalton’s third season, so if the Bengals are to take that next step it is on the shoulders of their red-headed quarterback.

The defense is top-10 quality with the ability to dictate and win games, headed by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

They have no excuses.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 5th

Related: 2013 Cincinnati Bengals Schedule Analysis

Offense
The numbers say Dalton improved in 2012, and surely by simple maturity he did, but it’s hard to get past those final five regular-season games and the postseason game in Houston and not have questions. Will Dalton be more than what he is now? Have defenses figured out his limitations? Does negating wide receiver A.J. Green render the rest of the offense manageable for the defense?

Dalton and the Bengals weren’t as effective passing deep in 2012 compared to 2011, with an accuracy percentage of just 26.0 percent and 633 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, they gained 922 yards and were accurate on 43.1 percent of Dalton’s deep throws in his rookie season.

Green, who has 162 catches, more than 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons, will win his one-on-one battles and a good percentage of his double teams, but Dalton has to be able to go elsewhere with the ball with confidence. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has three straight 50-plus-reception seasons, but he disappears at times and leaves Bengals fans wanting more too often. He had 10 drops in 99 targets last season.

The selection of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in the first two rounds of the draft were aimed at giving Dalton more options. Expect more two-tight end formations, and the Bengals will even split both Gresham and Eifert out at the same time. Bernard is the speed complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ power style.

Three of the five offensive line spots are secure with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Kyle Cook should win back the center position now that he’s healthy after an ankle injury last season. That said, Trevor Robinson gained valuable experience playing in Cook’s absence. Left guard will come down to Clint Boling and veteran Travelle Wharton.

Defense
Everything starts up front for the Bengals, who have developed one of the more dominant defensive lines in the NFL. Atkins is stout and quick, forcing teams to game plan for him. Ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are long and have learned to play hard every down. The rotation goes seven deep, and the pressure from the down linemen means defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer doesn’t have to blitz to get to the quarterback.

Signing outside linebacker James Harrison from Pittsburgh should help bring an edge in attitude. The Bengals are betting that Harrison, entering his 10th season, still has plenty left on the field even as he has to make the adjustment from the Steelers’ 3-4 zone blitz concepts to Zimmer’s 4-3 base. How well Harrison and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga can work in coverage will be key to the defense maintaining its top-10 level of play. The Bengals are leaving Maualuga in the middle and Vontaze Burfict outside. Burfict showed good ability to shed blocks last season, something that has hampered Maualuga in his career.

Cornerbacks Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are versatile enough to play inside or outside, and each of them can play the man-to-man style Zimmer wants out of his corners. The addition of Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s No. 1 pick who had an injury-plagued rookie season, provides more depth. Kirkpatrick is taller (6'2") than the other corners but doesn’t yet have their savvy.

Finding a second safety to play alongside Reggie Nelson is paramount. The Bengals had to sign Chris Crocker after the season started last year to fill the void. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams is going to get every chance at winning the starting role over Taylor Mays. Nelson will roam the field and take chances sometimes, so whoever wins this spot is going to have to be disciplined.

Quality depth at linebacker and safety is a concern. The players the Bengals do have as backups don’t have much experience.

Specialists
Mike Nugent missed the final month of the season with a calf strain but was re-signed in the offseason. He’s made 83.8 percent (67-of-80) of his field goal attempts in three seasons with the Bengals, including a club record-tying 55-yarder last season. Nugent has been consistent with his kickoffs, both in their depth into the end zone and placement away from the middle of the field, enabling the Bengals to become one of the top coverage units in the NFL.

Punter Kevin Huber was signed to a five-year extension, signifying how much the franchise values him. His career average of 44.0 yards is the best in team history. Huber has become adept at pinning opponents not just inside the 20-yard line but deeper as well; his 11 punts downed inside the 5-yard line were the highest total in the league.

Jones is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball in the return game, especially on punts when the action is quicker to happen. He reads blocks well and still has that second gear, which helped make him a first-round pick of Tennessee back in 2005. The trouble is, he can’t be a full-time returner because of his importance on defense. Bernard has returned punts in college and is going to get a look on kickoffs as well. Brandon Tate and Bernard Scott have experience in these roles but will be in a fight to make the roster.

Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC North
The Bengals are good enough defensively and on special teams to win the AFC North and be a threat to reach the Super Bowl. But are they good enough on offense? Can Dalton take a step forward in his third year in the league? Can another playmaker emerge to complement Green, one of the truly elite wide receivers in the game? This offense has done enough to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. But just enough won’t be enough this year. Dalton & Co. need to do more.

Order your 2013 Cincinnati Bengals Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
Cincinnati Bengals 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/7-threats-alabamas-dynasty
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If it wasn’t already, the Sabanization of college football is officially here. The national conversation has changed from how to stop the SEC’s dynasty to how to end Alabama’s dynasty. Three BCS championships in four years by Nick Saban leave Alabama with a title run that not even Bear Bryant accomplished.

As if to rub salt in everyone else’s wounds, Saban then landed his fifth mythical recruiting national championship in six years. Eight of the past 11 No. 1 classes by Rivals.com won a national title within three years.

The recruits continue to sign. The players continue to develop. The crystal balls continue to be raised.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what can stop Alabama? There are some potential pitfalls.

7 Threats to Alabama's Dynasty

1. Nick Saban leaves

Every year Alabama fans read tea leaves and convince themselves that Miss Terry won’t let her husband leave Tuscaloosa for another college job, the NFL or a lake house in Georgia. And every year, Saban slams the door on the NFL more loudly than ever.

“I closed the door,” Saban said of the NFL on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” in January. “The damn hinges are wore off, dog.”
The truth is, Saban has the best job in the world for him. He’s a control freak who wants to impact players and not be hamstrung by salary caps and salary egos.

Saban, who spent two years with the Miami Dolphins, could win in the NFL. But he could never win as much as he does at Alabama. Bill Belichick, Saban’s buddy, won three Super Bowls in four years and hasn’t won another in the eight years since.

NFL teams have multiple front office voices who draft one new player each round. At Alabama, Saban’s one voice makes the final call while signing as many talented recruits as he wants — or as the rules allow.

Never say never about coaches leaving. There’s too much money, ego and pressure ever to rule it out. But unlike with the Dolphins, Saban’s words and actions continue to line up at Alabama.
 

2. Complacency

It’s the most dangerous obstacle in sports to a team on top. Alabama experienced it in 2010 after its first national title under Saban, turning a talented team (albeit a young one on defense) into a three-loss Capital One Bowl team.

It’s always a fight at the top. Every opponent gets fired up for Alabama, leaving no room for feelings of entitlement.

Go ask Florida. The Gators won two BCS titles in three years under Urban Meyer. Then they collapsed to 8–5 in 2010 after Saban destroyed a 2009 Florida team that may have been Meyer’s most talented — and most entitled — team in Gainesville.

Go ask USC. Pete Carroll won two national titles and played for a third within three years. In Carroll’s final season, USC slipped to 9–4. Today, the program is depleted, partly due to Lane Kiffin and partly because of No. 3 on the dynasty-killer list.
 

3. NCAA penalties

This would be the quickest way for Alabama’s dynasty to end. The NCAA would have to hit a program like Alabama hard to have an impact. Imagine Ohio State’s postseason ban for lying about tattoos, rather than Alabama’s probation for impermissible sale of textbooks.

Forgotten in Alabama’s dynasty: The Crimson Tide won its first BCS title while on NCAA probation. In fact, in January 2012, Alabama and LSU staged the first BCS Championship Game in which both teams were on NCAA probation.

This isn’t to suggest that Alabama finds itself in danger of being hit by the NCAA. But rival coaches and fans are always on the lookout for players’ curious photos, vehicle purchases and living arrangements — especially if those players are on the No. 1 team.

4. SEC challengers

This just in: No SEC coach plans to kneel and kiss Saban’s feet. They’re paid too much money and are under too much pressure to play for second place.

Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin beat Saban last year. The Aggies are on the rise with their new SEC brand while Texas is declining, opening up even more talent in their football-rich state.

LSU’s Les Miles is 3–4 vs. Saban since 2007. The Tigers may take a step back this year, but Miles takes games personally against Saban, and LSU isn’t going anywhere.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher. What happens to Alabama’s dynasty should Clowney dominate the SEC Championship Game, which has essentially become a BCS semifinal?

Georgia’s Mark Richt (left) could have been a national champion and the Saban vanquisher right now if not for falling five yards short at last year’s SEC Championship Game. Georgia and Florida — where Saban protégé Will Muschamp resides — both acquire enough talent annually to challenge Alabama in Atlanta.

Sign of the times on how the SEC won’t cave to Saban: James Franklin of Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt! — vowed to outwork “Nicky Satan.”


5. No-huddle offenses

Tempo is the name of the game now in some SEC circles. Saban hates the no-huddle, because it impacts his substitutions over the course of lengthy drives. Alabama mixes and matches defensive personnel based on down and distance as if it were an NFL team.

Days after facing Ole Miss’ up-tempo offense last season, Saban questioned how fast college football should allow the game to go for player safety.

“It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game,” Saban said. “With people that do those kinds of things, more and more people are going to do it. I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, is this what we want football to be?”

“Yes!” shout many coaches challenging Saban.

Texas A&M shredded Alabama with tempo last season. Gus Malzahn rejoins Auburn, after giving Saban fits in 2009 and 2010. Even Hugh Freeze’s no-huddle offense produced Ole Miss scoring drives of 13 and 16 plays against Alabama last year.


6. Mobile quarterbacks

Quick: Name the past six quarterbacks to beat Alabama.

Florida’s Tim Tebow. Utah’s Brian Johnson. LSU’s Jordan Jefferson (twice). South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia. Auburn’s Cam Newton. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

They have one trait in common: Mobility. Some were more elusive than others. Almost all of them could make plays with their feet, either to move the chains on designed runs or to escape pressure for a scramble or throw downfield.

Manziel befuddled Alabama last year with his arm and legs, amassing 92 yards rushing. Think Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spent the offseason watching film for the Sept. 14 rematch in College Station?
 

7. Luck runs out

Alabama may have dominated its three BCS Championship Game victories, but it did lose one game in two of those three seasons.

In 2011, if Oklahoma State hadn’t lost to Iowa State, if Boise State hadn’t missed a field goal against TCU, if Oregon hadn’t scheduled (and lost to) LSU, or if Stanford hadn’t fallen to Oregon, Alabama wouldn’t have played for the BCS title. In 2012, if Stanford hadn’t upset Oregon or if Baylor hadn’t stunned Kansas State, Alabama would have stayed home.

The BCS is around only one more year before a four-team playoff arrives with the whims of a selection committee instead of computers and polls. The SEC is already wondering aloud what happens if an elite team loses in the SEC Championship Game, positioning itself for the chance to have two teams in the playoff.

Dynasties are constructed with that type of forward thinking. Eventually, though, they always end.

Sometimes you never see it coming.

Written by Jon Solomon for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC Regional Preview Editions. 

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Teaser:
7 Threats to Alabama's Dynasty
Post date: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 07:14
Path: /nfl/new-orleans-saints-2013-nfl-team-preview
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The Saints enter the 2013 season as one of the most mysterious — and potentially dangerous — teams in the NFL. Are they the one-dimensional 7–9 squad that allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season? Or the formidable 13–3 unit that set an NFL record for most yards gained in a season in 2011? The truth falls somewhere between the two extremes.

Coach Sean Payton’s swagger and offensive creativity should return the edge to the sideline and locker room. So should the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has installed a pressure-based 3-4 defense. But whether the Saints have enough to keep pace with rising NFC powers San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle remains to be seen. One way or another, we know they won’t be boring.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 6th

Related: 2013 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis

Offense
As long as Drew Brees is under center, the Saints will have a puncher’s chance against anyone. Brees is the great equalizer for a team with a shaky defense and inconsistent running game. He spearheads an offense that has ranked first or second in total yards in five of the past seven seasons. The consummate field general, Brees understands every facet of Payton’s sophisticated offense and consistently keeps the Saints a step ahead of the defense with astute pre-snap reads and audibles. His anticipation, accuracy and pocket awareness rank among the best in the NFL. Indeed, Brees’ greatest strength might also be his biggest weakness. He can be interception-prone because he sometimes forces ill-advised throws.

Payton wants to re-establish the running game and become more physical up front. Mark Ingram should be the beneficiary of this renewed emphasis. The former first-round draft pick runs with power and balance and rarely is tackled by the first defender. It’ll be interesting to see if he can regain the acceleration and explosiveness he showed before injuries ended his rookie season in 2011. Payton plans to put the ball in Ingram’s hands more often this season. Pierre Thomas does a little bit of everything but lacks a special quality. He’ll continue to work his way into the rotation and make plays, especially on screens. The diminutive Darren Sproles makes plays as a runner and receiver whenever he touches the ball in space.

For the third consecutive year, the front line will have to find a replacement for a departing Pro Bowler. Jermon Bushrod’s departure in free agency leaves a gaping hole at left tackle. Former second-round draft pick Charles Brown will get the first crack at the starting spot, but the staff is high on rookie Terron Armstead. Both are excellent athletes who lack experience and prototypical bulk and power. When healthy, Brown has played well in cameo appearances. Reclamation project Jason Smith is the fallback option. The rest of the line returns intact, led by road-grader guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs.

The receiving corps lacks a superstar talent but is versatile and deep. Marques Colston doesn’t possess prototypical speed but has excellent hands and body control. Few players make more clutch catches. Lance Moore is expected to assume Devery Henderson’s starting receiver spot. He’s one of Brees’ favorite targets in the red zone, where he uses his quickness and field vision to find seams in opposing zones and move the chains. Joe Morgan, who the Saints were hoping to utilize his big-play ability, tore his ACL during training camp, putting more pressure on second-year wideout Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills to contribute this season. Tight end Jimmy Graham is a freakishly talented athlete who uses his 6'7" frame to make big plays in the middle of the field and in the red zone.

Defense
Ryan’s pressure 3-4 scheme will be a welcome change for the Saints defenders, who never appeared to buy into Steve Spagnuolo’s complicated system. The Saints have invested a number of high draft picks on defensive players in recent years and need a few of them to enjoy breakout seasons if the team is to rejoin the NFC elite.

Up front, the search for a pass rush continues. Defensive end Cameron Jordan assumes the mantle as the top pass-rusher with Will Smith on the tail end of his career. Jordan lacks elite strength and explosiveness but is a solid technician who knows how to use his long arms to keep blockers at bay. Smith is expected to hold down the other end spot. The 32-year-old vet is smart, tough and reliable, but he’s no longer a double-digit pass-rushing threat.

Instead, the Saints will look to outside linebackers Victor Butler, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Butler is undersized but is strong and explosive off the edge and will get first crack to start on the right side. Galette will have to make the transition to linebacker but has the burst and acceleration to be a double-digit pass-rush threat off the edge. The lanky Wilson needs to turn his flashes of ability into production.

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was a disappointment as the interior run-stuffer and could be replaced by massive rookie John Jenkins. Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma form the heart of the defense. Both are smart, instinctive leaders. Vilma did undergo surgery on his knee during training camp, but the hope is he will be ready to play by Week 1.

Finding cornerbacks who can hold up in man-to-man coverage is critical to Ryan’s pressure packages. Jabari Greer thrived in Gregg Williams’ old system but struggled in 2012. He’s an excellent athlete but might have lost a step. The signing of cornerback Keenan Lewis is an indictment of Patrick Robinson, a former first-round draft pick who struggled in his first full season as a starter. Lewis has the size and speed Ryan likes. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are looking to rebound after subpar 2012 campaigns. Harper’s ball skills are rudimentary, and he’s become a popular target in coverage for opposing quarterbacks. That’s where rookie Kenny Vaccaro comes in. The athletic combo safety from Texas will see the field early in passing situations and could be the Saints’ answer to defending opposing tight ends.

Specialists
Punter Thomas Morstead and placekicker Garrett Hartley form a solid one-two punch. Morstead finally earned his first Pro Bowl berth. He has a powerful leg and is a master at directional punts and rugby-style backspin kicks. Hartley is solid but might have lost some range last year after his knee injury. The elusive Sproles had a terrible season on punt returns. Courtney Roby is a standout on kickoff returns and as the gunner in punt coverage.

Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC South
How bad was the Saints’ defense in 2012? The Saints ranked third in scoring offense and second in total offense and still finished just 7–9. If the Saints can make modest strides under Ryan, a return to the playoffs is not just possible — it’s likely. But that’s a major question considering the club’s history of struggles on that side of the ball. The Saints appear to lack the defensive firepower to challenge the NFC elite, but they’ll undoubtedly be a factor in the race. And as always, they’ll be one of the most entertaining teams in the league.

Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (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 OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
New Orleans Saints 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Monday, August 26, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/baltimore-ravens-2013-nfl-team-preview
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The Ravens’ second Vince Lombardi Trophy is prominently displayed in the lobby of their training complex underneath a painting of the late owner Art Modell. But that doesn’t mean that the defending Super Bowl champions are overly sentimental when it comes to making tough roster decisions.

The Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers following a contract dispute. They cut strong safety Bernard Pollard and allowed free safety Ed Reed, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams to leave as free agents.

“It wasn’t that one day we woke up and decided that we were going to let a lot of really good football players walk away and play for other teams, but we had a plan in place,” says general manager Ozzie Newsome, who’s also dealing with replacing the leadership of retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “We had to allow the plan to unfold.”

The Ravens have significantly overhauled their roster and are confident they’re built to compete again after qualifying for the playoffs for five consecutive years under the leadership of coach John Harbaugh. “I think we like our football team,” Newsome says. “I’d like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren’t good enough to go to the playoffs right now. Can anyone say that? OK then.”

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 6th

Related: 2013 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

Offense
Rewarded with a blockbuster $120.6 million contract after being named the Super Bowl MVP, quarterback Joe Flacco is a strong-armed pocket passer who delivered 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the playoffs and has become much more accurate, particularly on the deep ball. He’s willing to take calculated risks with his most trusted targets. Flacco is capable of greater production and will be granted significant freedom due to his growing comfort with the offense and a growing rapport with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

Trading Boldin takes away the Ravens’ most proven receiver, which means that Torrey Smith is being thrust into a more prominent role. Primarily a deep threat, Smith has incorporated more short and intermediate patterns to add polish to his game. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones could become a regular starting receiver this fall. Possession receiver Tandon Doss, speedster Deonte Thompson and David Reed will compete for playing time.

Entering training camp, the Ravens seemed to be set at tight end with sure-handed Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in the fold. That was before Pitta, who has nearly ascended to a Pro Bowl level, dislocated his hip and Dickson injured his hamstring. Pitta is most likely lost for the season, while Dickson's inability to practice resulted in the team adding veterans Billy Bajema, Dallas Clark and Visanthe Shiancoe to the roster. Once considered a position of strength, tight end has become a rather large question mark headed into the season.

Running back remains an important position in the offense. Ray Rice is one of the most dynamic all-purpose backs, eluding defenders in the open field. Although he’s short in stature, Rice is a physical inside runner and creates mismatches out of the backfield as a receiver. Hard-nosed backup runner Bernard Pierce provides a complementary style to Rice. He prefers to run over linebackers but also has the speed to go the distance. Vonta Leach is a devastating lead blocker who punishes defenders, but his playing time has been reduced because of the fullback only having a part-time status in Caldwell’s offense.

The Ravens re-signed Bryant McKinnie to play left tackle, meaning four of five starters are back after six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk retired. McKinnie’s weight and conditioning are lingering concerns. Marshal Yanda is a gritty right guard who pulls well. Michael Oher has settled in at right tackle after previous stints on the left side. Kelechi Osemele appears best suited to play left guard next to McKinnie. Gino Gradkowski, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, is an undersized technician who steps in for Birk at center.

Defense
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees faces a daunting task: He must replace a pair of former NFL Defensive Players of the Year in Lewis and Reed.

Athletic rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown could fill the void created by Lewis’ departure. Brown is undersized and fast and has drawn some comparisons to a young Lewis. Brown first has to prove to the coaching staff he deserves the opportunity to play in Lewis' spot, which is why the team signed veteran Daryl Smith to a one-year deal in June. Smith, who is the Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, can step in until Brown is deemed ready, while also helping mentor the rookie in the process.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, another former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had an injury-plagued year with a torn Achilles tendon and a torn biceps, hampering his contribution. The Ravens are banking on him returning to form. Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is coming off a spinal cord contusion suffered last December.

Following a bizarre fax debacle, Elvis Dumervil was cut loose by the Denver Broncos and joined the Ravens as a $35 million bookend pass-rusher to work in tandem with Suggs. Haloti Ngata is a dominant interior force when he’s healthy, but he has dealt with nagging injuries for the past few seasons. Arthur Jones is coming off a breakthrough season and returns at left end, but he could be pushed by veteran defensive lineman Chris Canty. Nose guard Terrence Cody has reached a career crossroads after a bad season and is recuperating from offseason hip surgery. Keep an eye on rookie Brandon Williams, Cody’s chief competitor for the job. Marcus Spears figures into the mix as a valuable rotation guy at end and tackle. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee had offseason groin surgery.

Michael Huff is the new center fielder. He has range and tackling ability but lacks Reed’s game-changing instincts. Rookie Matt Elam, the Ravens’ first-round pick, is expected to replace Pollard at strong safety.

A huge key to defensive improvement — whether $50 million shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb can make a sound return from a torn ACL. Jimmy Smith had some encouraging moments in the Super Bowl. He will compete with Corey Graham for the nickel back spot and will get a look as a potential starter as well.

Specialists
This is an enviable kicking game. Justin Tucker beat out Billy Cundiff as a rookie and connected on 30-of-33 field goals and made four kicks from 50 yards or longer. Punter Sam Koch has excellent hang time and is also adept at the coffin corner. He is coming off a career-best season with a 47.1 average. In his first season in Baltimore, Jacoby Jones returned three kicks for touchdowns during the regular season and ran a kickoff back for a score in the Super Bowl. The Ravens are looking for new blood in kick coverage after cutting former Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo during the offseason.

Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC North
As long as the offense continues to trend upward with Flacco, the Ravens should be able to score enough points to be competitive in every game. If the new-look defense is better than last year’s vulnerable outfit, the Ravens could return to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. Defending a title is always a huge challenge, but the Ravens shouldn’t be overlooked considering their consistent track record in the Harbaugh era.

Order your 2013 Baltimore Ravens Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (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 OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

Teaser:
Baltimore Ravens 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Monday, August 26, 2013 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: High School
Path: /high-school/2013-wisconsin-high-school-football-top-10-and-preview
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Wisconsin Preseason Top 10

1. Arrowhead Warhawks (Hartland)
The defending Division 1 state champs won the title with a junior-heavy roster last season. Tackle George Panos (Wisconsin), defensive tackle Billy Hirschfeld (Wisconsin) and linebacker Sam Seonbuchner (Iowa State) have already committed to FBS programs, and more will follow.

2. Sun Prairie Cardinals
The reigning Big Eight Conference champs have defensive tackle Craig Evans anchoring the defense and Ryan Curran, a three-year starter at quarterback, running the offense.

3. Kimberly Papermakers
Fourteen starters return to a team that reached the Division 1 state quarterfinals last year. One of those players, All-State receiver Scott Schreiber, will get a look at quarterback.

4. Homestead Highlanders (Mequon)
The offensive line will be tough, and the return of tackle Brandon Hines and linebacker Bryce Juedes gives the defense potential.

5. Appleton North Lightning
Few programs can match North’s 41 victories and four conference titles over the past four seasons.

6. Waunakee Warriors
There are just two returning starters on either side of the ball, but until proven otherwise, the Warriors are among the state’s elite.

7. Oak Creek Knights
Among the Southeast Conference champs’ 12 returning starters are the quarterback, a running back and three offensive linemen.

8. Mukwonago Indians
The offensive line is well stocked, and quarterback Aaron Nixon is back for his second year as a starter.

9. Hamilton Chargers (Sussex)
The return of running back Drew Patterson and the program’s overall depth could make this a special season.

10. Badger Badgers (Lake Geneva)
The Badgers have a lot of pieces back from a team that nearly beat Sun Prairie in the state semifinals last year.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

8.30 – Arrowhead at Homestead
Two of the biggest winners in southeast Wisconsin face each other in a non-conference showdown.

9.6 – Waunakee at Mount Horeb/Barneveld
Can Waunakee reload again? This game will give us an idea of where the Warriors stand.

9.27 – Appleton North at Kimberly
North’s string of four straight conference titles could hinge on how it fares against the Papermakers.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Patterson, RB, Hamilton (Sussex)
Senior, 6-0, 205

Patterson’s seek-and-destroy running style makes him fun to watch, but his sprinter’s speed makes him a game-breaker. He’s pretty productive, too. He ran for 1,969 yards on 222 carries and scored 26 touchdowns in 2012. Patterson has offers from Army and Air Force.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Craig Evans, DT, Sun Prairie
Senior, 6-3, 315

Good luck getting some movement up the middle against this 6'3", 315-pound defensive tackle. He finished with 84 tackles, including 18 for a loss, and even scored six touchdowns in his role as part-time fullback. The 4-star prospect committed to Wisconsin in March.

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Washington Preseason Top 10

1. Bellevue Wolverines
A year after a program-defining win over Euless (Texas) Trinity and an undefeated run to a fifth straight 3A state title and 10th since 2001, the Wolverines will again have one of the top teams in the West. Two-way speedster Budda Baker and a loaded offensive line lead the way.

2. Camas Papermakers
After a run to the 4A semifinals last year, the Papermakers will attempt to take the next step behind an offense that features productive quarterback Reilly Hennessey.

3. Bellarmine Prep Lions (Tacoma)
Last year’s run to the 4A state final was powered by a junior (now senior) class that includes running back Lou Millie and wide receivers Garrett McKay and Drew Griffin.

4. Skyline Spartans (Sammamish)
The two-time defending 4A champions were hit hard by graduation. Transfer quarterback Kilton Anderson replaces prep All-American and current USC freshman Max Browne.

5. Eastside Catholic Crusaders (Sammamish)
Deion Fetui is a terrific defensive tackle to build around, while leading rusher Henry Jarvis returns to a team looking to knock Bellevue from its 3A perch.

6. Mount Si Wildcats (Snoqualmie)
Quarterback Nick Mitchell is the top returner for a team that suffered its only two losses to eventual champion Bellevue.

7. Bothell Cougars
The Cougars figure to be improved this fall behind an offense that should light up the scoreboard with quarterback Ross Bowers.

8. Federal Way Eagles
Putting up points will not be a problem with quarterback Keenan Curran and explosive junior running back Chico McClatcher.

9. Newport Knights (Bellevue)
Running back Connor Baumann and tight end Drew Sample are two of the best in the state at their respective positions.

10. Ferris Saxons (Spokane)
There is experience all over the roster. The defensive line will be especially strong behind Adam Martin and junior Keegan Bray.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Jesuit (Portland, Ore.) at Camas
One of Oregon’s best programs will be a good early litmus test for the Papermakers.

9.7 – Bellevue vs. Skyline at the University of Washington
This highly anticipated showdown may be a year late but will be a must-see nonetheless.

9.20 – Ferris at Gonzaga Prep
This will be an early separation game between two of the top Greater Spokane League squads.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Isaiah Brandt-Sims, RB, Wenatchee
Senior, 5-11, 180

After rushing for approximately 1,400 yards and accounting for 25 touchdowns as a junior, this speedy back, who happens to be one of the top track sprinters in the state, has verbally committed to Stanford after being pursued by BCS-level and Ivy League schools.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Budda Baker, DB, Bellevue
Senior, 5-11, 180

Another speed merchant out of Bellevue, this playmaker on offense, defense and special teams has college suitors projecting him as a safety at the next level. So far, the list of offers includes Notre Dame, USC, Boise State and Oregon.

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Utah Preseason Top 10

1. Jordan Beetdiggers (Sandy)
The loss of several offensive linemen is a concern, but this team returns the best quarterback in the state in junior Austin Kafentzis and productive running back Clay Moss. The schedule is brutal with two stout out-of-state tests and a date with 4A contender East.

2. Alta Hawks (Sandy)
Quarterback Chipper Lucero will look often in the direction of receiver Mack Richards behind one of the state’s best linemen in Baron Bruce. Linebacker Jaden Johnson will pace the defense.

3. Bingham Miners (South Jordan)
Versatile tight end Dalton Schultz is one of the most highly sought-after players in the state. The offense once again should have a punishing ground game behind an experienced line.

4. Lone Peak Knights (Highland)
New coach Mike Mower will look to dual-threat quarterback Baron Gajkowski and a top-shelf defensive line to lead the way.

5. East Leopards (Salt Lake City)
The Leopards are led by Wisconsin commit Ula Tolutau at tailback and Arizona State commit Korey Rush at defensive end.

6. Northridge Knights (Layton)
The loss of running back David Adams hurts, but explosive junior running back/defensive back/return man Dayan Lake is back.

7. Brighton Bengals (Salt Lake City)
Junior running back Osa Masina already has multiple BCS offers. He will run behind a stout offensive line.

8. Timpview Thunderbirds (Provo)
The returning 4A champs will be formidable again with a defense that boasts experienced linebackers Emmett Tela and Pio Stowers.

9. Syracuse Titans
Defensive lineman Kaden Craig and linebacker Wyatt German power what should be a strong defense.

10. Logan Grizzlies
Ultra-productive quarterback Luke Falk is gone, but his favorite target, Taylor Compton, is back.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

8.31 – Alta vs. Lone Peak (at Rice Eccles-Stadium)
Coach Mike Mower’s debut at Lone Peak will come against one of the state’s best.

9.7 – Bingham at Valor Christian (Colo.)
The Miners will try to duplicate last year’s exciting 21-20 victory over this Colorado powerhouse.

9.14 – Bergen Catholic (N.J.) vs. Jordan (at Rio Tinto Stadium)
The Beetdiggers get an early chance to knock off one of New Jersey’s powerhouse programs.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Austin Kafentzis, QB, Jordan (Sandy)
Junior, 6-1, 195

As a sophomore, Kafentzis threw for 3,018 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,884 yards and 26 scores, so expect more fireworks this fall. He had offers from both BYU and Utah but committed to Wisconsin during a visit to Madison in June.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Bryan Mone, DT, Highland (Salt Lake City)
Senior, 6-4, 310

A University of Michigan commit, this disruptive force in the middle finished last season with 70 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and three sacks. Mone has the body type and athleticism to be an elite defensive tackle for the Wolverines in the Big Ten.

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Oregon Preseason Top 10

1. Sheldon Irish (Eugene)
The Irish lost some key personnel from the 2012 Class 6A state championship team, but Sheldon has proven it can reload and remain among the state’s elite. Seniors Mitch Herbert, Tanner Davies, Liam Talty and Yadie Dunmore will form the core of Lane Johnson’s squad.

2. Central Catholic Rams (Portland)
Central Catholic made it to the 6A quarterfinals in 2012 with a very young team. The Rams bring most of their talent back, led by two-way lineman and U.S. Army All-American Connor Humphreys.

3. Jesuit Crusaders (Portland)
Jesuit lost its entire offensive line — and all five signed with Division I schools — but most of the Crusaders’ skill players are back. Linebacker Joey Alfieri leads the defense.

4. Southridge Skyhawks (Beaverton)
Southridge made a surprising run to the 6A quarterfinals last season. Now a year older, the Skyhawks are poised for a deeper run.

5. Tigard Tigers
The Tigers rely on aggressive defense and a ball-control offense. A.J. Hotchkins is a two-way threat at fullback and linebacker.

6. Roosevelt Roughriders (Seattle)
What used to be one of the state’s worst programs is now loaded. Five players had Division I offers going into the summer.

7. Lake Oswego Lakers
The 2012 6A runners-up lost a ton of talent, but one of the state’s best coaching staffs always finds a way to make the playoffs.

8. West Albany Bulldogs (Albany)
Senior running back Jake LaCoste hopes to break the state rushing record held by current Oregon freshman Thomas Tyner.

9. Lakeridge Pacers (Lake Oswego)
The Pacers struggled in 2012 while playing a very difficult schedule. The ’13 club brings back almost every key player.

10. Sherwood Bowmen
The 5A powerhouse program lost a ton of talent, but the Bowmen bring back some key pieces on both lines.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Central Catholic at Sheldon
This could be a preview of a playoff rematch. Sheldon won last year in the regular season, 33-26.

9.6 – West Albany at Sherwood
Two 5A powers clash in a game that will feature two of the state’s top rushing teams.

9.20 – Central Catholic at Jesuit
College coaches always flock to the Holy War to scout some of the best players in the state.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jake LaCoste, RB, West Albany
Senior, 5-11, 185

Thomas Tyner stole the headlines in recent years, but LaCoste is closing in on 6,000 yards rushing and 60 touchdowns in what has been a brilliant career at West Albany. Last year, he averaged 11.1 yards per carry en route to a 3,000-yard season.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Joey Alfieri, LB, Jesuit (Portland)
Senior, 6-3, 220

Alfieri enters his third year starting at Jesuit and has developed into the state’s No. 2 prospect. He recorded over 120 tackles as a junior and is also the starting fullback. Alfieri has offers from Oregon State, Stanford, California and Washington, among others.

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Nevada Preseason Top 10

1. Bishop Gorman Gaels (Las Vegas)
The Gaels haven’t lost to a Nevada school since Nov. 21, 2008. The team lost four-year starting quarterback Jarrett Solomon as well as its top two receivers to graduation. But Randall Cunningham Jr., a 7'3" high jumper, takes over at quarterback and will lead with his athleticism.

2. Liberty Patriots (Henderson)
The Patriots have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons but will have to continue that streak without Kai Nacua  and Niko Kapeli, the school’s career leaders in passing and rushing, respectively.

3. Arbor View Aggies (Las Vegas)
The Aggies went 10-1 last year and return five backs who rushed for more than 350 yards, led by senior Anthony Smith (735 yards).

4. Green Valley Gators (Henderson)
Quarterback Christian Lopez is coming off an outstanding sophomore season (2,081 passing yards, 531 rushing yards) and looks to lead the Gators to bigger things.

5. Palo Verde Panthers (Las Vegas)
The Panthers return a trio of two-way standouts in Jake Ortale, Josh Hamilton and Mike Hughes but must reload at running back.

6. Reed Raiders (Sparks)
The Raiders suffered huge graduation losses but have become the top large-school program in Northern Nevada.

7. Centennial Bulldogs (Las Vegas)
Linebacker Toby Lopez (126 tackles) returns to anchor a defense that held opponents to 14 or fewer points five times.

8. Spanish Springs Cougars (Sparks)
Nevada-commit quarterback Hunter Fralick (2,899 passing yards, 22 TDs) returns along with leading rusher Jeff Jurgensmeier.

9. Canyon Springs Pioneers (North Las Vegas)
The Pioneers return plenty of talent on defense but must replace big-time back Donnel Pumphrey, who is now at San Diego State.

10. Truckee Wolverines (Truckee, Calif.)
One of five California schools that compete in the NIAA, Truckee won its fourth straight Nevada state title in 2012.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.26 – Las Vegas at Rancho
The state’s oldest rivals fight for “Sir Herkimer’s Bone,” a cow bone that goes to the winner.

10.4 – Liberty at Coronado
A rematch of last season’s Sunrise Region title game should be a key Southeast League contest.

10.4 – McQueen at Reed
A key High Desert League contest that could be a preview of the Northern Region title game.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Hunter Fralick, QB, Spanish Springs (Sparks)
Senior, 6-2, 190

Fralick displayed great accuracy as a junior, completing 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,899 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was picked off only three times and added six rushing TDs. Fralick committed to Nevada at the end of May.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Rayshawn Henderson, DT, Canyon Springs (North Las Vegas)
Senior, 6-1, 275

Henderson can dominate at the line of scrimmage, and he recorded 76 tackles, including 11 for a loss, along with seven sacks as a junior. He even picked off a pass, and he is nimble enough to log time at fullback for the Pioneers.

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Minnesota Preseason Top 10

1. Eden Prairie Eagles
Feared for their physical style yet loathed for their success, the Eagles are favored to become the first program to win three consecutive big-school state titles. Expect large helpings of bruising running backs Dan Fisher and Anthony Anderson.

2. Wayzata Trojans (Plymouth)
Less-heralded players gained experience when starting seniors suffered injuries in 2012. Expect a sound defensive unit and capable offensive line.

3. Totino-Grace Eagles (Fridley)
Though much smaller in enrollment than most Class 6A schools, Totino-Grace succeeds thanks to a few stars and lots of smart, disciplined football players.

4. Maple Grove Crimson
The Crimson welcome back 12 starters, most of them offensive linemen with good size and defensive players who can run.

5. Minnetonka Skippers
Quarterback Nick Rooney, running back Ian Cote and seven defensive veterans plan to keep the Skippers in the hunt.

6. Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders (St. Paul)
A one-and-done playoff run should have the Raiders hungry. Graduation took a toll, but few programs reload like Cretin-Derham Hall.

7. Edina Hornets
The surprise team of 2012 could turn heads again, as 11 starters return for the Hornets.

8. St. Thomas Academy Cadets (Mendota Heights)
Favorites to win the Class 5A title, the Cadets boast a stable of running backs with complementary styles few defenses can solve.

9. Rosemount Irish
A young Irish team improved all season, culminating in a Class 6A state tournament appearance. Rosemount will wear a target this fall.

10. Owatonna Huskies
Continuity on the offensive line and nine defenders who saw action in the Class 5A title game loss give the Huskies a solid foundation.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.7 – Joliet Catholic (Ill.) at St. Thomas Academy
The Cadets, favorites in Class 5A, hope to shine at home against the storied Hilltoppers.

9.12 – Eden Prairie at Totino-Grace
Totino-Grace rebounded from a rout in 2011 to top Eden Prairie last fall.

10.11 – Wayzata at Eden Prairie
The state’s two largest schools collide, likely for the Lake Conference title.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jeff Jones, RB, Washburn (Minneapolis)
Senior, 6-0, 200

Jones used great burst and breakaway speed to compile 1,002 yards (9.0 yards per attempt) and nine touchdowns in eight games. He added 105 yards and three TDs receiving. Millers coach Giovan Jenkins called the Minnesota commit “the total package.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Andrew Stelter, DE, Owatonna
Senior, 6-4, 250

Stelter set his school’s single-season record with 12 sacks. He uses quickness off the ball and strength (he squats more than 500 pounds) to get off blocks and into opposing backfields. The 3-star prospect spurred Owatonna to the Class 5A title game last season.

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Kentucky Preseason Top 10

1. St. Xavier Tigers (Louisville)
After losing to Trinity by a point in last year’s 6A playoffs, the Tigers may be ready to knock their crosstown rivals from their perch atop the state. A big, experienced line and a deep stable of backs have this team poised to win its first state title since 2009.

2. Trinity Shamrocks (Louisville)
Despite some heavy graduation losses, the Shamrocks return one of the state’s best athletes in Louisville commit Reggie Bonnafon, who takes over at quarterback after a strong season at receiver.

3. Highlands Bluebirds (Fort Thomas)
Perennially one of the top offensive teams in the region, the Bluebirds will again put up points in bunches with receivers Luke Brockett and Brandon Hergott and tight end Nick True.

4. Bowling Green Purples
The two-time defending 5A champs have won 30 straight games, including two in a row over St. Xavier.

5. Scott County Cardinals (Georgetown)
The Cardinals nearly shocked Trinity in last year’s playoffs and return one of the top receivers in the state in Scott Daniel.

6. Covington Catholic Colonels (Park Hills)
Expect another strong defense, as linebacker Sam Burchell anchors the front seven.

7. Central Yellowjackets (Louisville)
Linebackers Donald Styles and Phillip Francis pace the defense for Central, winner of five 3A state titles in the last six seasons.

8. Conner Cougars (Hebron)
Quarterback Drew Barker should keep this offense humming at a high level, while the defense figures to be improved.

9. Pleasure Ridge Park Panthers (Louisville)
The Panthers look to duplicate last year’s offensive showing behind an experienced line and emerging back Delvon Dunn.

10. John Hardin Bulldogs (Elizabethtown)
Only two offensive starters return for new coach Chad Lewis, although one is leading rusher Khalil Frazier.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Bowling Green at St. Xavier
An early chance for a statement game by two teams with legitimate state title hopes.

9.28 – Highlands at Covington Catholic
Covington Catholic was one of only two teams to hold Highlands under 40 points last year.

10.4 – St. Xavier vs. Trinity (at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium)
Trinity owns a six-game winning streak in this rivalry between the state’s marquee programs.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Barker, QB, Conner (Hebron)
Senior, 6-4, 210

For his career, Barker has thrown for 3,104 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for 2,971 yards and 41 touchdowns. The 4-star prospect committed to Kentucky over South Carolina this summer in a huge recruiting victory for the Wildcats’ new staff.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Matt Elam, DT, John Hardin (Elizabethtown)
Senior, 6-6, 350

A powerful and athletic presence anywhere you line him up, Elam can make an impact rushing the passer, stuffing the run or blocking kicks and punts. He’s a 4-star recruit who has offers from a host of SEC powers as well as Louisville.

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Colorado Preseason Top 10

1. Valor Christian Eagles (Highlands Ranch)
Despite a coaching change, there is just too much talent on the four-time defending state champions (won in three classifications) to pick against them. The offensive line features five 300-pounders paving the way for the state’s best player (Christian McCaffrey).

2. ThunderRidge Grizzlies (Highlands Ranch)
Routinely in the mix these days, the Grizzlies were ranked No. 1 in the state deep into the playoffs last season and have enough returning to make another run.

3. Cherokee Trail Cougars (Aurora)
The Cougars are a rugged team that didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in a game last season, and they held mighty Valor Christian to nine in the state championship game.

4. Ralston Valley Mustangs (Arvada)
Quarterback Jacob Knipp returns for his senior season after completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,646 yards with 28 touchdowns as a junior.

5. Pomona Panthers (Arvada)
Running backs Chris Benefiel, Konner Burns and Chris Marquez lead the Panthers’ potent rushing attack.

6. Cherry Creek Bruins (Greenwood Village)
Coach Dave Logan, now in his second season at Cherry Creek, always seems to have his team in the mix for a conference title.

7. Monarch Coyotes (Louisville)
The defending 4A state champion reloads with the addition of quarterback Jay MacIntyre, the son of Colorado’s football coach.

8. Denver South Rebels
The 2012 runner-up in Class 4A has the bulk of its key contributors back and just might be the favorite.

9. Arapahoe Warriors (Centennial)
This team lost only twice last season, both times against powerhouse programs. The Warriors have key components coming back.

10. Pueblo West Cyclones
Last season, four players rushed for at least 398 yards as the Cyclones went 12-1.

Three Can't Miss Games

8.24 – Central (Fresno, Calif.) at Valor Christian 

A quality opponent should give Valor Christian a tough test as it begins its bid to repeat in the state’s top classification.

9.7 – ThunderRidge at Ralston Valley 

An early top-five matchup in non-league play will give one of these powers a leg up.

10.4 – Cherokee Trail at Cherry Creek 

Both of these teams will have something to say about who wins the Centennial League.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch)
Senior, 6-0, 195

The youngest son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey plays both running back and slot receiver for his team and could do either when he heads to Stanford next year. He’s a threat from any spot on the field and also returns kicks.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Evan White, S, Cherokee Trail (Aurora)
Senior, 6-3, 190

White is a bruising athlete who might be a linebacker in college but has the speed to stick in the secondary. He intercepted seven passes as a junior in his first season playing primarily as a defensive back. He also helped his track team win a state championship in the 4x200 relay.

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Pennsylvania Preseason Top 10

1. Gateway Gators (Monroeville)
Loaded with Division I athletes, Gateway is the favorite to finally capture district and Class 4A state titles. Star wideout/defensive back Montae Nicholson headlines a half dozen D-I prospects, and new coach Donnie Militzer might have one of the elite secondaries in the state.

2. St. Joseph’s Prep Hawks (Philadelphia)
Prep lost in the district final, but some youthful Hawks, including junior running back Olamide Zaccheaus, should challenge again.

3. Central Catholic Vikings (Pittsburgh)
Linebacker Niko Thorpe and defensive back Tre Tarpley lead a defense that pitched five shutouts last year.  

4. West Allegheny Indians (Imperial)
Now juniors, quarterback Andrew Koester, running back Chayse Dillon and linebacker Armand Dellovade could challenge for a state title.

5. Archbishop Wood Vikings (Warminster)
The 2012 Class 3A state runners-up will go with a youth movement behind sophomore quarterback Tom Garlick and junior linebackers Andrew Guckin and Jake Cooper, all D-I prospects.

6. Bishop McDevitt Crusaders (Harrisburg)
Running backs Rashad Lawson (1,002 yards, 12 TDs) and Andre Robinson (1,034 yards, 18 TDs) both return.

7. North Allegheny Tigers (Wexford)
The defending Class 4A state champs reload with senior two-way star Elijah Zeise (four TDs, three INTs) and junior linebacker Layne Skundrich (96 tackles, six sacks).

8. Coatesville Red Raiders
The Class 4A state runners-up return athlete Daquan Worley (1,779 yards, 20 TDs) and linebacker Tyler Burke (208 tackles, 11 sacks).

9. La Salle College Explorers (Wyndmoor)
Jimmy Herron leads the offense, and linebacker Zaire Franklin headlines the defense on a team that’s won four straight district titles.

10. Cardinal O’Hara Lions (Springfield)
Transfer running back J.T. Blyden joins quarterback Dashawn Darden (1,607 yards, 20 TDs) and receiver Thaddius Smith (eight TDs).

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.31 – Harrisburg at Bishop McDevitt
McDevitt opens its new field, and both teams get a chance to make an early statement.

9.7 – St. Joseph’s Prep at Don Bosco Prep (N.J.)
SJP hops the state line for a game against a perennial top-100 team in the country.

10.4 – Cathedral Prep at McDowell
A heated public/private rivalry game in Erie, the game’s been played every season since 1958.

10.4 – Gateway at North Allegheny
Top challenger Gateway gets a shot at dethroning the defending Class 4A state champs.

11.28 – Phillipsburg (N.J.) vs. Easton
Financial woes nearly ended Easton’s program, giving the nation’s oldest interstate Thanksgiving game a new perspective.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Robert Martin, RB, Harrisburg
Senior, 6-0, 191

Martin missed his sophomore year at Steel-High, but his transfer to Harrisburg injected life into the moribund program and shot him onto the recruiting radar. Martin ran for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 games as a junior and is poised for a dominant encore performance in 2013.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Dravon Henry, DB, Aliquippa
Senior, 5-11, 190

Henry has 15 interceptions in two seasons, and early comparisons are being made to fellow Aliquippa grad Darrelle Revis. Henry’s also an accomplished running back for the perennial contender. He chipped in 1,919 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns to go with his presence in the secondary.

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Oklahoma Preseason Top 10

1. Jenks Trojans
One of the state’s premier powerhouse programs is loaded again. The Trojans are strong on defense with a secondary that includes Steven Parker and Dylan Harding. But coach Allan Trimble’s offense will be looking for playmakers to step into primary roles.

2. Tulsa Union Redskins
The Redskins have combined with Jenks to win every Class 6A state championship since 1996, and this year doesn’t look to be any different, with Union trying to take the title back.

3. Broken Arrow Tigers
Broken Arrow has the most Division I talent in the state, but the Tigers have to make it count on the field. Quarterback Coleman Key and running back Devon Thomas lead the high-powered offense.

4. Owasso Rams
Owasso must replace talented leader Jaylen Lowe at quarterback, but the Rams have several other tools to work with.

5. Edmond Santa Fe Wolves
The Wolves return several pieces of a strong offense, starting with quarterback and Oklahoma commit Justice Hansen.

6. Edmond North Huskies
The Huskies return a powerful run game, led by 210-pound Arizona State commit Michael Farmer, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry.

7. Norman North Timberwolves
The Timberwolves reached the Class 6A finals last fall, but they’ll have some holes to fill, particularly on defense.

8. Carl Albert Titans (Midwest City)
The Titans won the 5A title behind quarterback Stevie Thompson, who rushed for 1,926 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior.

9. Lawton Wolverines
With overpowering linemen on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines should bounce back after missing the postseason in 2012.

10. McAlester Buffaloes
The Buffaloes rebounded from an 0-3 start to reach the 5A semifinals and return much of the starting lineup.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

9.13 – Jenks vs. Union
The state’s most noted rivalry is set for the second week of the season at the University of Tulsa.

10.4 – Carl Albert at Bishop McGuinness
Carl Albert avenged last year’s midseason loss in a Class 5A semifinal showdown.

10.11 – Clinton vs. Anadarko
This is a budding rivalry. Clinton won the meeting in the 2012 Class 4A state championship game.

10.11 – Broken Arrow at Jenks
The winner is likely in the district driver’s seat, and no other game in the state will put as many Division I prospects on the field.

11.8 – Tuttle at Blanchard
Defending Class 3A champion Blanchard’s only loss last year was at rival Tuttle, so plenty will be riding on this Week 10 matchup.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Justice Hansen, QB, Edmond Santa Fe
Senior, 6-3, 200

Hansen completed 58.2 percent of his passes (185-of-318) with 36 touchdowns and only nine interceptions last year while showing his ability to run the ball effectively as well. In his senior season, Hansen and the Wolves will try to snap Jenks’ and Union’s 6A championship dominance.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Deondre Clark, DE, Douglass (Oklahoma City)
Senior, 6-3, 240

Clark had 22 sacks last year to set the Douglass single-season record, regularly overpowering the Class 4A offensive linemen he faced each week. His speed and power made him a national recruit. This year, he’ll try to help the Trojans end a two-year run of first-round playoff exits.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:17
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Athlon Sports monthly, the world's largest sports magazine (9.3 million monthly circulation), is now offering a digital edition of its popular product. Featured under the "magazine" tag on AthlonSports.com, the digital version of the print monthly allows sports fans access to stories and features that were once only available to readers of Athlon's 500 newspaper partners. 
 
The first digital edition is Athlon's August 2013 issue, featuring Johnny Manziel, along with Athlon's College Football Preview, 5 Bold NFL Predictions, high school football, the NBA offseason, and a look at the newest sports channel, FOX Sports 1. 
 
Click on the cover below to check it out.
Athlon Sports Monthly Goes Digital
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Athlon Sports Monthly Goes Digital
Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:15
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Path: /high-school/2013-mississippi-high-school-football-top-10-and-preview
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Mississippi Preseason Top 10

1. Brandon Bulldogs
Brandon returns the bulk of its Class 6A runner-up team, including junior quarterback Gardner Minshew (3,001 yards, 27 TDs). Senior defensive end Michael Brooks Jr. and junior tackle Fletcher Adams each bring more than 130 tackles back on a loaded defense.

2. South Panola Tigers (Batesville)
The Tigers won their seventh title in the last 10 seasons, beating Brandon in December. Now a senior, quarterback Rip Kirk threw for 2,358 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012.

3. Olive Branch Conquistadors
The Conquistadors went 11-2 but will have to replace Memphis football and basketball recruit Sam Craft, who combined to run and throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.

4. Meridian Wildcats
The Wildcats return a talented backfield, and the defense features one of the nation’s top safeties in C.J. Hampton.

5. West Point Green Wave
Running back Aeris Williams is one of the state’s top recruits and will line up behind a new full-time quarterback, junior Josh Ewing.

6. Picayune Maroon Tide
The Tide’s only loss came in the playoffs to South champion Pascagoula. Preston Dedeaux (1,451 rushing yards, 20 TDs) returns.

7. Madison Central Jaguars
The Jaguars again had their championship plans foiled by South Panola, but they did beat 5A champ Starkville.

8. Petal Panthers
The Panthers welcome back top linebacker Forrest Harvey, but their top receiver, running back and quarterback all graduated.

9. Oak Grove Warriors
The Warriors return quarterback Kirk McCarty, who threw for 2,356 yards and 31 touchdowns, as well as receiver Cameron Myers.

10. Bassfield Yellowjackets
The Class 2A champions must replace their top runners, but Trodrick Daniels had 811 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.22 – Brandon at Madison Central
Brandon, the 2012 South 6A champ, battles a Madison Central team that is eager to make an early season statement.

8.29 – West Point at South Panola
These teams opened last season, and it came down to a last-second field goal for South Panola.

10.4 – Olive Branch at South Panola
Only one can get to the Class 6A championship. This will be one intense division game.

10.11 – Picayune at Pascagoula
Pascagoula ended Picayune’s perfect season in the playoffs last season.

10.18 – Ridgeland at Callaway
Callaway is loaded with individual talent. A division win here can stamp the Chargers as a team to be reckoned with.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Aeris Williams, RB, West Point
Senior, 6-1, 205

Williams will again be the featured ball-carrier for the Class 5A favorite — and rush-heavy — Green Wave after running for 1,893 yards as a junior. His offer sheet is starting to fill in nicely, with Florida State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Wisconsin already on board.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
C.J. Hampton, S, Meridian
Senior, 6-1, 190

The state’s top-ranked safety, Hampton had 48 tackles and three interceptions last season. An Ole Miss commit, Hampton added an offer from Alabama in May and also has offers from Auburn, Mississippi State, Stanford and Tennessee. He has accepted an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:10
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Michigan Preseason Top 10

1. Cass Tech Technicians (Detroit)
The Technicians could again be the deepest and most talented team in the state this fall, with several future FBS players on the roster, including linebacker/defensive back Deon Drake (committed to Michigan State) and corner Damon Webb (Ohio State).

2. Grand Rapids Christian Eagles
The defending Division 3 champs bring back Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Drake Harris and Northwestern-bound tackle Tommy Doles.

3. Brother Rice Warriors (Bloomfield Hills)
Last year’s Division 2 state champions will be led by senior running backs Brian Walker and Shon Powell, who combined for 35 touchdowns and nearly 2,400 yards on the ground in 2012.

4. Clarkston Wolves
The Wolves return several standouts, including running back Ian Eriksen, tight end Cole Chewins and defensive lineman David Beedle.

5. Muskegon Big Reds
With Western Michigan commit Kenny Finley leading the way up front, the Big Reds could win their fourth state crown in nine years.

6. Ithaca Yellowjackets
The Yellowjackets will go for their fourth consecutive state title this year under the leadership of signal-caller Travis Smith.

7. South Christian Sailors (Grand Rapids)
The Division 4 champs in 2012, the Sailors will be led by Jon Wassink, who threw for 2,564 yards and 23 TDs as a sophomore.

8. Country Day Yellowjackets (Detroit)
Rutgers-bound senior quarterback Tyler Wiegers has one of the state’s top targets in Michigan commit Maurice Way.

9. St. Mary’s Prep Eaglets (Orchard Lake)
The Eaglets lost a heartbreaker in the Division 3 championship but bring back stud athletes Tyson Smith and Jalen Watts-Jackson.

10. Southfield Bluejays
Transfer Malik McDowell forms the most intimidating defensive tandem in the state with Michigan commit Lawrence Marshall.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.29 – Grand Rapids Christian at South Christian
This cross-town rivalry features two defending state championship squads.

8.30 – Cass Tech at Southfield
The Technicians could get their biggest regular-season test in this Week 1 contest at Wayne State.

10.4 – Brother Rice at St. Mary’s Prep
Brother Rice didn’t lose another game after falling to St. Mary’s 24-14 last September.

10.18 – Zeeland East at Muskegon
Muskegon hopes to avenge a 40-39 loss, while Zeeland East’s Spencer Viening tries to replicate his 137-yard, three-TD showing.

10.19 – Warren De La Salle at Detroit Catholic Central
This matchup usually delivers some drama. Central escaped with a 31-30 win last fall.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drake Harris, WR, Grand Rapids Christian
Senior, 6-3, 170

Harris tallied more than 2,000 receiving yards as a junior, including a record 243 in the Division 3 state title game win. A Michigan commitment, he averaged 22 yards per catch and scored 25 TDs. He might struggle to replicate those numbers with the added attention he’ll get this season.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Malik McDowell, DE, Southfield
Senior, 6-6, 280

McDowell, who earned Division 7-8 Player of the Year honors from the AP after dominating small school competition (70 tackles, 15 sacks) for Loyola (Detroit) last season, will try to do it against top competition this year. He forms a formidable tandem with Lawrence Marshall, who is trying to get McDowell to commit to Michigan, too.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:57
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Maryland/D.C. Preseason Top 10

1. Our Lady of Good Counsel Falcons (Olney)
Coming off a fourth straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship, the Falcons will look to replace two-way standout Kendall Fuller. Good Counsel averaged 33.2 points in its six regular-season WCAC contests in 2012.

2. DeMatha Stags (Hyattsville)
The Stags went 9-3 and are set to return a host of talented seniors, led by quarterback John Lovett and his band of receivers. Getting past rival Good Counsel is the annual challenge.

3. Gilman Greyhounds (Baltimore)
The Greyhounds lost to Good Counsel 20-19 in overtime last season, then won nine in a row and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association “A” Conference crown.

4. Henry A. Wise Pumas (Upper Marlboro)
The reigning Class 4A state champs played a thriller in the title game, and will have quarterback Isaiah Black returning.

5. River Hill Hawks (Clarksville)
The Hawks overcame a 14-6 halftime deficit in the 3A state title game to beat Huntingtown 18-14 and win their 24th game in a row.

6. Dunbar Poets (Baltimore)
The Poets are state championship veterans, with three straight 1A crowns. But they’re moving up a classification to 2A this fall.

7. Middletown Knights
The 2A state champion Knights boast an all-state offensive lineman in senior Justin Falcinelli (6-4, 300).

8. St. Paul’s Crusaders (Brooklandville)
The Crusaders capped a perfect 11-0 season by beating John Carroll in the MIAA “B” Conference title game.

9. Calvert Hall Cardinals (Towson)
The Cardinals’ season ended with a 35-7 loss to rival Gilman in the MIAA “A” Conference title game.

10. Friendship Collegiate Academy Knights (Wash., D.C.)
The Knights are loaded with college recruits, and topping the list are sought-after cornerbacks D’Andre Payne and Jalen Tabor.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.23 – Good Counsel vs. Gilman
Private powers collide before most teams get started this year at Towson University.

9.1 – Manatee (Fla.) vs. Gilman
A tasty interstate matchup in Baltimore featuring Florida’s Class 7A power against the Greyhounds on ESPN.

9.6 – Middletown at Westminster
Last year’s 2A state champs come to Ruby Field to face the 4A state semifinalist for the first time.

10.11 – Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep at Friendship Collegiate Academy
One of New Jersey’s (and the nation’s) premier teams takes on the Knights in the nation’s capital.

11.28 – Calvert Hall vs. Loyola
The Turkey Bowl is in its 94th year and likely will be played this year on the campus of Towson University.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Demetrius Johnson, ATH, Annapolis Area Christian
Senior, 6-2, 205

The Annapolis Area Christian program is relatively new and didn’t win a game last season, but Johnson is set to emerge as one of the state’s premier prep stars. He played wide receiver and defensive back last fall and has earned a roster spot in the 2014 US Army All-American Bowl in Texas.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Melvin Keihn, LB, Gilman (Baltimore)
Senior, 6-3, 225

The speedy Keihn racked up 13 sacks to lead a stingy Greyhounds defense, and he reportedly has offers from close to 20 FBS schools. Keihn helped Gilman to a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association “A” Conference title and a 9-2 record.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:46
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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.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:26
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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.

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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)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)

 

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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.

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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)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)

 

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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.”…

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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)

 

Teaser:
Dallas Cowboys 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-2013-nfl-team-preview
Body:

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)

 

Teaser:
Tennessee Titans 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:00

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