Articles By Athlon Sports
Tim Tebow, the heralded Florida Gator quarterback who walked on swampwater, is now in a quarterback controversy with Kyle Orton in Denver. And his millions of followers can't believe it.
But the NFL isn't a popularity contest, and that's why Kyle Orton should be the starting quarterback in Denver.
The logic for most Tebow supporters goes like this: Tim Tebow was a college football superstar. There was no one like him in the last 20 years. So he should be a superstar in the NFL, right?
No. And here's why:
The Pro That's A Con:
He's A Winner. How many times have you heard the phrases, "Tebow's a winner." "He just wins ball games," and "Tim can turn water into wins." (OK, I made that last one up.) But it's true. At Florida he won a lot of football games. But you know who also won a lot of football games at Florida? Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes and Urban Meyer. If you want to win football games, tt helps to have the best team with the best players.
The problem with NCAA quarterbacks is that more often than not, the "winner" tag rarely translates to the big show. Sam Bradford being one of the more recent exceptions, most big name schools have not produced great quarterbacks. Looking at the list of last year's top 20 NFL Qbs and the school they went to, how many big schools do you see on the list?
1. Tom Brady, Michigan
2. Philip Rivers, NC State
3. Aaron Rodgers, California
4. Michael Vick, Virginia Tech
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH)
6. Josh Freeman, Kansas State
7. Joe Flacco, Delaware
8. Matt Cassel, USC
9. Matt Schaub, Virginia
10. Peyton Manning, Tennessee
11. Matt Ryan, Boston College
12. Drew Brees, Purdue
13. David Garrard, East Carolina
14. Jon Kitna, Central Washington
15. Kyle Orton, Purdue
16. Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt
17. Eli Manning, Ole Miss
18. Jason Campbell, Auburn
19. Carson Palmer, USC
20. Kerry Collins, Penn State
Only five (or 25%) of those schools would be considered top football programs (Michigan, Tennessee, USC, Virginia Tech and Auburn.) You could also say that Tom Brady didn't exactly light it up at Michigan. The proof is in the stats. The majority of good NFL quarterbacks come from lackluster colleges.
To further that point, let's look which schools the last ten Super Bowl winning quarterbacks came from:
Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers, California
Super Bowl XLIV, Drew Brees, Purdue
Super Bowl XLIII, Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH) (He beat Kurt Warner, a Northern Iowa grad.)
Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning, Ole Miss
Super Bowl XLI, Peyton Manning, Tennessee
Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger, Miami (OH)
Super Bowls XXXVIII, XXXVIX and XXXVI, Tom Brady, Michigan
Super Bowl XXXXVII, Brad Johnson, Florida State
Super Bowl XXXV, Trent Dilfer, Fresno State
Take Michigan, FSU and Tennessee off the list and you're left with a lot of schools you wouldn't necessarily call powerhouses. Do quarterbacks need to take their lumps with mediocre teams to make themselves better NFL quarterbacks? That would seem to be the case. It's easy to win a lot of games when you have the best team and your offensive line isn't forcing you to run for your life.
So yeah, Tim Tebow was a winner in college. But so were Danny Wuerffel, Eric Crouch, Jason White and Troy Smith (I can keep going if you want me to.) (Second parenthesis: You know who has also won a lot games in his pro career? Kyle Orton.)
And before you cite Tim's great work ethic as the thing that will separate him from all those other failed college quarterbacks, go and ask Danny Wuerffel and Jason White if they tried really, really hard when they got to the NFL. They did. But it didn't matter.
The Con That's A Con
Mechanics Matter. In college football, gifted athletes can get away with cutting corners. Jay Cutler's gigantic arm meant he never spent the time getting his footwork right. And that's why he's not a top five quarterback. If Cutler put the time in to have Kurt Warner's footwork, he could be the next John Elway.
The same goes for Tebow.
He never had to figure out where he should be holding the ball because his offensive line kept every defensive player 10 feet away from Tim all the time. He never had to learn how to put the ball in tight spaces because his receivers were always wide open. And if they weren't, he was the size of a linebacker so he wasn't taking his life in his hands by tucking the ball and running. In the NFL all that goes out the window.
The Curse of the Running Quarterback
The running quarterback has had a poor run in the history of the NFL (pardon the pun.) But in recent years two quarterbacks who could be considered "running" have had some success: Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. Let's break down why each one has been successful.
Big Ben: While he's not a classic running QB, his legs play a big part in his game and help extend plays. He also happens to have a world-class arm. Do you think Tim Tebow could make the throw that Big Ben made to Santonio Holmes win Super Bowl 43? I'm sorry, but I just don't see it happening.
Michael Vick: Four years ago, Michael Vick was the most athletically-gifted quarterback that's ever played the position. He has a cannon for an arm and a world class sprinter's legs. And he still didn't become a great NFL quarterback until he learned how to play like a classic pocket passer who still can outrun everyone if the play breaks down.
Tebow doesn't have Vick's legs, and he doesn't have Ben's (or Vick's) arm. So he's a Ben with a lower caliber arm. Which makes him the Jared Lorenzen of the NFL. Or Payton Hillis under center. Sure, he'll muscle his way in for a few rushing touchdowns, but he just doesn't have the skills to be a premier NFL quarterback.
Tim's great work ethic and popularity can only take him so far. It can't give him a cannon for an arm. It can make him a better pocket passer, but it can't give him a cannon for an arm or a legs that will garner him more than a one-yard QB sneak. He was an epically great college quarterback (we ranked him the #1 player of the BCS era). But I just can't see him transforming into a superstar in the NFL.
With hair like this, it's hard to see how the Seattle Seahawks could trade away a player like Matt Hasselbeck. It's also hard to see how he could get his head inside a helmet. I wonder is he's sort of like Sampson, and if you cut his hair he returns to being a mortal NFL quarterback with a quarterback rating that's only in the mid-to-low-70s.
Gary Kubiak is in select company. It is very rare that a head coach who has only one winning season and no playoff appearances on his résumé is asked to return for a sixth season. In fact, Bart Starr of the Packers (1975-83) is the only other coach since the NFL-AFL merger to be so fortunate.
Even Kubiak thought 2010 was a “playoffs or bust” season. He was given a reprieve and a new defensive coordinator. What can he do with them?
Kubiak may have a subpar win-loss record (37–43), but his offense has been very good and should continue to be. The Texans were the only team in the AFC to have both a top-10 passing and rushing attack in 2010, and with quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson returning, there is no reason to believe it couldn’t happen again. Few NFL teams return 10 starters from a unit that ranked among the best in the game.
Schaub’s consistency and improvement are related in large part to his health. After missing five starts in each of his first two seasons with the Texans, he has started every game the last two years and has been one of the most productive passers in the league. While Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Schaub spreads the ball around and has a strong relationship with tight end Owen Daniels, who a year ago didn’t return to form until the final month of the season after coming back from ACL surgery.
While an upgrade at the No. 2 wideout spot would be nice, Kevin Walter doesn’t drop passes. He’s not a deep threat, but his hands make him valuable. The No. 3 guy, Jacoby Jones, will make a spectacular catch on one play and hot-potato a simple hitch on the next.
The Texans’ running game is in excellent hands with Foster, an All-Pro, returning for his second year as a starter and former Giant and Buccaneer Derrick Ward as the top backup. Foster is big and powerful, and showed the one-cut-and-go ability that can make a back a star in the Texans’ zone blocking scheme. He doesn’t have to be as good as he was in 2010 (and statistically he probably won’t be) to have an excellent campaign. The third-year undrafted free agent, who played much of the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee, has the added incentive of playing to earn his first big-money contract.
Second-year tailback Ben Tate, looking for his first action after sitting out the entire season with a broken ankle, should push for playing time, particularly in third down situations, though Foster is more than capable in the passing game.
With all five starters back from an O-line group that jelled from Game 1, the Texans should get up to speed as quickly as anyone, despite the offseason’s lockout-induced derailment.
This is a balanced offense that can attack in a variety of ways. If Schaub stays healthy, the Texans should stay atop the offensive charts.
The league’s worst secondary got better in the offseason with the free agent acquisitions of cornerback Johnathan Joseph (Cincinnati) and safety Danieal Manning (Chicago). Houston will have three new starters in the defensive backfield, with the only holdover being Kareem Jackson, who struggled as a rookie, particularly in the first half of the season. Glover Quin, a third-year cornerback, is moving to safety.
Joseph was the second-best cornerback available in free agency behind Nnamdi Asomugha, whom the Texans made an effort to sign before agreeing to a deal with Joseph. Manning brings the added plus of being a gifted kick returner, which should make a difference for a team that had the worst starting position in the NFL a year ago.
But the Texans’ most significant offseason acquisition was defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He brings a wealth of experience, a track record of success and a new scheme. Phillips says the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 shouldn’t be too problematic, as his one-gap scheme is closer to a 4-3 than the traditional 3-4. But there will be changes.
Former No. 1 pick Mario Williams will play from a two-point stance, and though he will be charged with rushing the quarterback more than 90 percent of the time, he will now be required to play in space far more often than he ever has.
The return of DeMeco Ryans at inside linebacker should make a huge difference on what by most measures was the worst unit in football. Ryans is the smartest player on the defense, charged with making all the calls. The Texans’ defense fell apart when he went down in Week 6 (mid-October) with a torn Achilles tendon. Though he won’t have to cover as much territory in the 3-4, he isn't likely to be at full speed when the season begins.
After a sophomore-season drop-off, Brian Cushing looks to return to his rookie form, when he was one of the top defenders in the league. He will line up inside next to Ryans, with Connor Barwin, who missed all of last year after suffering a dislocated ankle, at the front of the line for the other outside backer spot.
After several seasons of weakness at the tackle spot, the Texans believe they are stronger at this position. First-round pick J.J. Watt jumps into the end spot opposite Antonio Smith.
Neil Rackers made the Texans forget about the awful end to Kris Brown’s eight-year run at kicker by connecting on 27-of-30 field goals, without a miss from less than 46 yards.
The Texans hope (and need) to improve their return game significantly. They were next-to-last in the AFC on punt returns, with Jones slipping to 7.0 yards a return after averaging almost 10 yards a return his first three seasons in the league. Jones and Steve Slaton were both ineffective on kickoff returns, as the Texans were 13th in the AFC with a sub-20 yard average and 32nd in the league in average starting position after kickoffs.
No question Houston played below its talent level in a six-win season. Of course, when you are tied for last in the league in takeaways and downright unlucky (and often downright bad) in the final two minutes of games, there is no way to play above your head.
The prevailing sentiment was that even an average defense last season would have delivered the franchise’s first playoff appearance. But that doesn’t take into account an overall lack of toughness and the occasional coaching blunder.
In other words, the Texans haven’t been talented enough to overcome average coaching or coached well enough to overcome deficiencies.
Playoff hopes are not unrealistic for a team that had playoff talent a year ago, returns its strongest unit intact and should realize a major upgrade in its weakest unit thanks to changes on the defensive coaching staff.
Outside the Huddle
Despite the lockout, Arian Foster had a whirlwind summer as his newfound fame brought him attention and endorsements that no one would have imagined a year earlier. After spending the majority of the 2009 season on the practice squad after going undrafted, Foster exploded with 1,616 yards in 2010, and found himself at the Pro Bowl and listed among the top backs in the league. Last summer he was working out in anonymity hoping to earn a starting role; this summer, he hired a publicist, and the next thing you knew he was making sandwiches at an appearance for a national sandwich chain and riding a mechanical bull for television cameras.
Agents in Waiting
Two Texans want to be agents when they retire from the NFL. Cornerback Jason Allen, who tied for the team lead in interceptions last season, would like to be a sports agent, while safety Troy Nolan has dreams of being an FBI agent.
Stick to Your Day Job
Matt Schaub finished 69th in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, 99 points (Stableford scoring system) behind in-state rival Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys.
At 6'4", 295 pounds, center Chris Myers wouldn’t strike you as a particularly skilled athlete, but Myers once won the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Myers’ uncle Dennis Kelleher played on Miami’s national championship teams in the late 1980s, and his grandfather Tom Kelleher was an NFL official for 28 years (1960-87).
Jack of All Trades
Tight end/fullback James Casey is probably the most versatile athlete on the Texans’ roster. Casey was a seventh-round selection out of high school as a pitcher by the Chicago White Sox. Four years later he left baseball to attend Rice, where in one game as a freshman he played seven positions. Casey, whose college teammates nicknamed him Thor, was slated to start at quarterback when he left Rice for the NFL Draft after setting the school record for receptions in a season.
Speaking of versatility, outside linebacker Connor Barwin started at tight end and averaged 10 minutes per game in basketball for Cincinnati before switching to defense and earning team MVP honors as a senior.
Hardly a Snap
Few players took the route deep snapper Jon Weeks did to reach the NFL. He went from his birthplace of Bethpage, N.Y., to high school in Glendale, Ariz., before walking on and earning a scholarship at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Resolved to be a working man, Weeks, then a volunteer at a hospital, enrolled in a nine-week course to become a fireman. But as a last-chance flyer, he attended a special teams combine, was offered a training camp spot by the Texans and earned the deep snapper’s role. He delivered 136 snaps in 2010 without an error.
Mario Williams’ adjustment to his new role, and the ability of opponents to find ways to block (or attack) him on the edge, could be the key to the defense’s success. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips thinks that Williams can be to the Texans what sackmaster DeMarcus Ware has been to the Dallas Cowboys in recent years. That might be a lot to ask from a player who has almost never played in space.
The Panthers dropped off a cliff in 2010, falling to an NFL-worst 2–14 mark and setting numerous team records for offensive futility. As you would expect when a team performs that poorly, much is new for 2011. New coach Ron Rivera — who interviewed for 10 head coaching jobs before finally being hired by Carolina — is determined to turn things around in the aftermath of the John Fox era. Fox, now the Denver Broncos’ head coach, had several good years among his nine but never could post back-to-back winning seasons in Charlotte and ultimately wore out his welcome with team owner Jerry Richardson. In his limited time with the players and media, Rivera has shown more bluntness and honesty than Fox ever did.
Rivera’s biggest early decision will come at quarterback. Will he start No. 1 overall draft choice Cam Newton right away, or will he begin the season with Jimmy Clausen, who had a horrible rookie year in 2010, or veteran Derek Anderson?
The Panthers must improve the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense quickly if they are going to make any noise at all this season. The 2010 season was a disaster, with Carolina scoring only 16 offensive touchdowns — five fewer than any previous Panther squad — and often going entire quarters without making a single first down.
Clausen, 1–9 as a starter in 2010, had a handful of moments. But mostly his rookie year will be remembered for going down too easily when pressured and checking down to his running backs too often (he didn’t throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver all season). Anderson has thrown 19 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in the past three seasons, but he at least has enjoyed some success in the NFL.
Newton is the Panthers’ future. He accounted for 51 touchdowns in one season at Auburn, and he won a national title and a Heisman Trophy. But the playbook at Auburn was very limited, and the main concern with Newton in the pros is how well he can adjust to NFL defenses on the fly. The Panthers still plan to let Newton run some, but not nearly as much as he did at Auburn. Clausen has publicly welcomed Newton to the team but has no intention of giving up his job.
No matter who plays quarterback, the Panthers will try to return to their run-game roots in 2011. Tailback remains one of the deepest positions on the team. DeAngelo Williams briefly tested the free agent market after the lockout but re-signed with Carolina for a reported $21 million in guaranteed money. Piledriver Jonathan Stewart had a subpar year for him in 2010 (770 rushing yards), but that was partly because teams so disrespected the Carolina passing game that defenses often put eight or nine men in the box. Fleet Mike Goodson will play both as the third down back and as a change of pace on rushing downs and handle kickoffs as well.
The offensive line is anchored by left tackle Jordan Gross, a Pro Bowler who organized the team’s players-only workouts during the NFL lockout. Affable and quick, Gross is solid protection for the quarterback’s blindside. Center Ryan Kalil, who got the Panthers’ franchise tag in the offseason, is smart and one of the best at his position. The rest of the line is not as strong.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey was a pre-lockout signing, and he will team with Greg Olsen, acquired in a post-lockout trade, to give the Panthers two solid pass-catching tight ends. Ben Hartsock will step in when Carolina needs more blocking.
There was speculation during the offseason that Steve Smith would not be back, but the veteran announced in late July that he plans on remaining with the Panthers as the team rebuilds. Smith’s numbers were way down last season (46 catches for 554 yards), but he is still a dependable target who has played at least 14 games in all but one of his 10 seasons in the league. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis had off-and-on rookie years in 2010, with both around the 500-yard mark despite ample playing time. LaFell has shown good hands in traffic, and Gettis has a little more ability to get deep (he had an 88-yard TD in 2010). Armanti Edwards’ transition from small college star quarterback to NFL wide receiver was a rookie-year bust.
The Panthers were fairly solid on defense in 2010, keeping their terrible offense in games far longer than it probably deserved on many occasions. The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Pro Bowler Jon Beason has a nose for the ball and never comes off the field since he plays pass and run equally well. Both Beason and Dan Connor (who returns from a hip injury) can play either in the middle or outside. Like Beason, Thomas Davis is one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, but he is coming off a torn ACL.
When watching film of his new team, Rivera didn’t like the way the interior of the defensive line too often got pushed backwards like it was on roller skates. The Panthers addressed that in free agency signing veteran Ron Edwards to a three-year deal — and in the draft, taking two players (Terrell McClain and Sione Fua) who will get into the rotation immediately.
Charles Johnson, easily the team’s best pass-rusher in 2010, was re-signed to a massive deal (six years, $72 million) after the lockout. Other than Johnson, the Panthers got very little production from their defensive ends. Everette Brown has a good burst but too often gets bottled up by offensive tackles who outweigh him by 50 pounds. Young players Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood have potential. Veteran Tyler Brayton was released.
At cornerback, Rivera needs to re-motivate Chris Gamble. The Panthers’ most athletic defensive player, Gamble played way below his usual standards in 2010. Captain Munnerlyn, Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey round out a decent secondary.
John Kasay, an original Panther who had been with the team since 1995, was replaced in free agency when Carolina signed Olindo Mare to a four-year contract. Mare was superb in three years with Seattle, connecting on 73-of-83 attempts (.880). Punter Jason Baker got a lot of work with the Panthers’ awful offense in 2010 and made the most of it. He’s also a reliable holder. Goodson has become a decent kickoff returner but needs a little better vision — he didn’t have a return of 50 yards or more in 47 attempts in 2010. Munnerlyn is a solid punt returner and fumbles less than Goodson. Edwards may get a shot at punt returning, too.
When you fall off the cliff, you don’t get to climb back up the mountain again right away. First you must repair all the damage and gear up. That’s the stage where these Panthers will find themselves in 2011. They could be a dangerous team on some Sundays, especially if Newton develops quickly, but they are at least a year away from contending for the playoffs again.
Outside the Huddle
Rookie quarterback Cam Newton made some friends among his new offensive linemen when — during a June players-only practice — he joined the group for a drill in which they repeatedly flipped tractor tires. “He’s trying to earn our respect, not demand it right away,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “I think that says a lot about his character.”
Not a Cam fan
Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner was not a fan of the Panthers’ selection of Newton No.1. “Franchise quarterbacks have to be able to play in the pocket,” Warner said on the NFL Network a few hours after Newton was picked. “He’s a long way from that right now.”
New Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey has a better story about how he spent part of the NFL lockout than most of his teammates. Shockey went to Great Britain to participate in a 100-mile adventure race that included whitewater rafting, dune buggy racing and archery. He also accidentally fell into Loch Ness — home of the fabled monster — while kayaking.
In four seasons, Jon Beason — playing mostly at middle linebacker — has posted the four highest tackles totals in a season in Panthers history.
The Panthers almost certainly would have selected Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the draft, but Luck decided to stay in school for his redshirt junior season. Instead, Carolina took Luck’s teammate — defensive tackle Sione Fua — in the third round.
Touchdown per game
In 2010, Panthers fans often took their trips to the refrigerator when their own team was on offense. The Panthers scored 17 total TDs all season. To put that number in perspective, no other NFL team scored fewer than 26 TDs (Miami), and New England led the NFL with 65.
Not for sale
Team owner Jerry Richardson, 75, met with the media in a press conference setting for the first time in nine years in January, shortly after parting ways with coach John Fox. Richardson, who underwent a heart transplant a few years ago, dismissed rumors that he might sell the team. He told a reporter: “First, I’ve probably got a younger heart than you do. And I’m probably going to be here longer than maybe you think I am. I intend to own the team as long as I live.”
Shula on staff
Newton, Jimmy Clausen and newly acquired Derek Anderson will be tutored by Mike Shula, son of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and a longtime NFL coach in his own right. Shula, who once started at quarterback for Alabama, will undoubtedly tease and be teased by Auburn product Newton.
Back to back
In their 16-year history, the Panthers have gone to a Super Bowl and made the NFC Championship Game three times. What they have never done is win consistently. The Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons, which is a major reason why head coach John Fox and his staff are no longer employed at Carolina.
DeAngelo Williams ranks second among active running backs (fourth among all players) with a career average of 5.0 yards per carry.
Carolina Panthers Fantasy Football Team Breakdown
One year removed from a Super Bowl title, the Saints are poised for a rebound and are ready to battle the Green Bay Packers for supremacy in the NFC, although there is a palpable sense of urgency. With quarterback Drew Brees and the team’s core of young veterans in their prime, the Saints’ brain trust recognizes that the window to win another title is open only temporarily. Consequently, the front office has acted with appropriate haste to make deals and sign players at areas of need.
Likewise, motivation should not be a problem after a humbling 41–36 first-round playoff loss to Seattle that exposed the club’s deficiencies — a punch-less defense and faulty running game. The club used its first three draft picks to address these areas. Like many teams, the Saints are desperate for a difference-maker to emerge in their front seven. They need someone — anyone — to become a factor up front.
If the defense and running game can approximate their 2009 form, the Saints have the talent, experience, depth and — most important — quarterback to make another run at the Super Bowl.
As long as Brees is around, the Saints’ offense will rank among the best in the NFL. Few quarterbacks are better at making pre-snap reads at the line of scrimmage and attacking defensive weak spots. Brees compensates for his lack of size with a quick mind, hair-trigger release, pinpoint accuracy and underrated athleticism. Those assets make him a perfect fit for coach Sean Payton’s complex system, which relies on multiple formations and personnel groupings and a pass-first mentality. Brees’ aggressiveness can sometimes lead to costly mistakes. He threw a career-high 22 interceptions and lost two fumbles last season.
Brees is complemented by a veteran offensive line and deep receiving corps. The strength of the line is inside, where powerful Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans form the best interior tandem in the league. Tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb are smart and dependable but are not elite athletes and need help in pass protection against top pass rushers.
The receiving corps has a little bit of everything. Marques Colston is the go-to man on third down and in the red zone. He’s not a true burner but has everything else — great hands, a tight end’s frame, elite leaping ability and remarkable body control. The diminutive Lance Moore is the Saints’ version of Wes Welker, working the underneath routes with his quickness out of the slot. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are deep threats on the outside. Tight end Jimmy Graham is poised to blossom into a Pro Bowler in his second season. Darren Sproles, signed as a free agent, will replace Reggie Bush, as a pass-catching option out of the backfield.
When the Saints’ offense is clicking on all cylinders, the running game sets up the play-action passing game to keep defenses on their heels and set up big plays downfield. That didn’t happen enough in 2010, but Mark Ingram could be the answer to the problem. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama has a rare combination of speed, power, balance and vision. Like many of the Saints skill-position players, he doesn’t have prototype size or speed but is extremely productive. If he learns the system and proves he can protect Brees, team officials believe he’ll make an immediate impact.
The Saints have a nice fall-back option in veteran Pierre Thomas. He’s not particularly big or fast but is smart, tough and has an uncanny ability to make tacklers miss on zone runs and screen passes. Second-year power back Chris Ivory has breathtaking talent but can’t stay healthy. His status is uncertain after undergoing Lisfranc surgery in the offseason. If he returns to his pre-injury form, he’ll compete with Lynell Hamilton for the short-yardage and second-half closer role. Hamilton is trying to return to form after season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Coordinator Gregg Williams loves to get after the quarterback, but he’s often been forced to manufacture pressure because his unit lacks an elite pass-rusher. The tepid pass rush and a series of injuries in the secondary contributed to a drastic decline in the unit’s takeaway totals, from 39 in 2009 to 25 last season. Consequently, the overhauled front seven could feature as many as four new starters. Someone from the group desperately needs to become a disruptive force, especially in the passing game. Ends Will Smith and Alex Brown are solid, but neither has the elite explosiveness needed to pressure the quarterback consistently. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is coming off his best season and should benefit from the addition of massive run-stuffers Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. The Saints hope Rogers will be motivated by playing in a winning culture for the first time in his career. If so, he can be a difference-maker. Rookie Cameron Jordan could start at left end and is versatile enough to move inside in passing situations.
Speedy veteran Jonathan Vilma leads a linebacker corps that likely will feature two new starters outside. Jonathan Casillas is the frontrunner on the weak side after missing his second season because of a Lisfranc injury. He’s a Williams favorite and is a classic sideline-to-sideline tackler. Rookie Martez Wilson and veterans Scott Shanle and Danny Clark will compete for the starting job on the strong side.
The strength of the unit is the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are solid cover men outside. They don’t make many big plays, but they also rarely blow assignments or get burned deep. Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, played sparingly as a rookie but has talent. He’ll try to hold off newcomer Fabian Washington and promising third-round draft pick Johnny Patrick for the nickel spot. Strong safety Roman Harper is the team’s best tackler and ball-stripper but can still be exploited in pass coverage. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins is the best of the bunch. Smart and instinctive, he’s very similar to former teammate and mentor Darren Sharper.
The kicking game boasts a pair of powerful young legs in kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead. They’ve brought much-needed stability to an area that was shaky two years ago. Both should be around for awhile. Sproles should significantly upgrade the return game. An influx of young athletes should bolster the punt and kickoff coverage teams, which have annually ranked near the league’s bottom.
The talent, depth and experience are there for the Saints to supplant the Falcons in the NFC South and make another Super Bowl run. Much will depend on the impact of the newcomers. The offense remains potent. Brees is primed for another big season, and Ingram should bolster the rushing attack. If the defense can generate just a few more impact plays, the Saints will battle the Packers and Falcons for the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Outside the Huddle
Still marching in
The Saints sold out their full allotment of season tickets for the sixth consecutive season, another benchmark of the wildly successful Drew Brees-Sean Payton era.
Brees once again showed why he is one of the game’s great leaders when he organized a seven-week informal workout program for teammates in May and June. Thirty-five to 40 players regularly attended the thrice-a-week sessions at Tulane University.
The Saints have a chance to accomplish a rare feat this season. They’ve advanced to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons only once in club history, from 1990-92. They can match the feat with a postseason berth this season.
Dome sweet dome
The final phase of a five-year, $336-million post-Katrina renovation of the Superdome was completed in June. More than half of the cost was paid by FEMA. The renovation added more than 3,000 lower-bowl seats to the 36-year-old stadium, which will generate millions of dollars in additional annual revenue for the club.
Brees and fellow quarterback Chase Daniel are fierce competitors, especially with each other. They waged an epic battle in the home run derby at Heath Evans’ charity softball game in May, with Brees edging Daniel after the pair had homered on four consecutive at-bats in “extra innings.” Daniel did best Brees in the long-ball competition, sending one shot over the 330-foot fence in left field at Zephyr Field, the home of the Florida Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate. Afterward, linebacker Jonathan Casillas revealed the defense’s strategy in the ensuing offense-vs.-defense exhibition game: “We’re going to walk Drew and hit Chase every time they get up,” he said.
In June, Daniel raised more than $4,500 in relief funds for storm victims in Joplin, Mo., which is located about 250 miles from the University of Missouri campus where Daniel starred from 2006-08.
Payton created a stir locally in January when he elected to move his family from a bedroom community in New Orleans to an exclusive suburb of Arlington, Texas. Payton insisted the move was for personal reasons and wouldn’t affect his job, but many New Orleanians felt jilted, especially with the move coming only six months after the release of his best-selling book Home Team, in which he celebrated the emotional connection between the Saints and the local community.
Fullback Heath Evans has become one of the nation’s leading spokesmen for victims of childhood sexual abuse. His charity, the Heath Evans Foundation, has raised more than $2.5 million to increase awareness and provide resources to victims of abuse. Evans’ commitment is in honor of his wife, Beth Ann, who was abused by an older classmate in grade school.
Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage in each of the past two seasons — 70.6 in 2009 and 68.1 in ’10. He has completed at least 64.3 percent of his passes in all five seasons with the Saints. His career low is 57.6, which came in his second season a starter in San Diego.
New Orleans Saints Fantasy Football Team Analysis
The Saints and Packers rode the explosive offense and opportunistic defense formula to the past two Super Bowl titles. The Falcons appear to be following a similar plan.
Few teams can match the Falcons’ firepower on offense. Their weaponry at the skill positions equals any team in the league. Yet instead of fortifying the defense, the Falcons used two of their first three draft picks on wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, bolstering an already loaded offense.
They’ll likely need to score a lot of points, because the element of surprise is gone. The Falcons won’t sneak up on anyone after going an NFC-best 13–3 and winning the NFC South Division. Now comes the hard part: Repeating that success.
The talent to make a deep playoff run is unquestionably there. Questions remain about the intangibles. How will this young team handle the high expectations? Will they adjust to being the hunted rather than the hunter? Can they rely on the fourth-quarter wizardry of Matt Ryan for a second consecutive year?
In fiery head coach Mike Smith and Ryan, an unflappable quarterback, the Falcons have quality leadership in the right spots to face the challenge.
In this golden era of NFL quarterbacks, the Falcons have one of the best and brightest in Ryan. It’s difficult to find a hole in the fourth-year pro’s game. He has prototype size, is fundamentally sound and boasts all of the requisite intangibles for the job. He’s tough, competitive, smart and poised. Ryan is mature beyond his 26 years of age and has earned the trust of coaches and teammates with his cool work under pressure. The next step in his evolution is to earn his first playoff victory and become a consistent postseason winner.
Despite Ryan’s brilliance, the offense has lacked quick-strike ability. Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff tried to solve that problem in one bold draft-day stroke, trading five draft picks to move up and select Jones. The Falcons see Jones as the antidote for the constant double teams on Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White. The 6'3", 220-pound Jones is the complete package, a rare combination of size, speed and playmaking ability. He’ll team with White, who led the NFL in receptions with 115, to give the Falcons a scary one-two punch at receiver. Slot receiver Harry Douglas and sure-handed tight end Tony Gonzalez work the middle and underneath routes to give the Falcons one of the most talented sets of receivers in the league.
Jones’ addition should benefit Michael Turner as well. His powerful runs between the tackles are the perfect complement to Ryan’s passing. A bowling ball in cleats, Turner has a low center of gravity, powerful lower body and uncanny balance that combine to make him a tackler’s nightmare. Turner could have a big year.
Rodgers will provide a nice change of pace to Turner’s power. The elusive scat back has tremendous short-area quickness and will be a check-down threat out of the backfield in passing situations.
The line might be the most underrated unit in the league. They allowed only 23 sacks last season and consistently cleared paths for Turner on the ground. There’s no superstar in the bunch, but few lines are tougher, smarter or more consistent.
This unit is built for the fast track at the Georgia Dome, relying on speed and athleticism rather than size and strength. The Falcons don’t overwhelm anyone with their defensive personnel, but the unit plays well as a team. Still, they need to improve in a couple of key areas for Atlanta to hold off the Saints and challenge the Packers for the NFC crown.
First and foremost, the Falcons must improve on third down, where opponents enjoyed a 39.3 percent conversion rate. A better rush will help. The Falcons need someone other than veteran end John Abraham to pressure the passer. Abraham led the Falcons with 13 sacks last season but didn’t make many big plays when it counted as teams focused their blocking schemes in his direction. The Falcons believe they have found some help for Abraham in the form of sixth-year veteran Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons with the Vikings. Kroy Biermann will be in the rotation at end, too. He’s undersized and can be pushed around at the point of attack, but he is a tremendous effort player. Inside, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters form one of the most underrated tandems in the league.
The linebacker corps is equally solid. Curtis Lofton, a terrific interior run defender in the middle, is the star. Sean Weatherspoon flashed talent early as a rookie but struggled with injuries the rest of the way. Hopes are high for him to enjoy a breakout season as the starter on the weak side. Veteran Mike Peterson saw his production drop off dramatically last year and could lose his starting job to Stephen Nicholas or rookie Akeem Dent, who will add some much-needed thump and juice to the strong side.
Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are solid cover men outside. Robinson is one of the most physical corners in the league, but the Falcons are paying him to make impact plays. He needs to step forward this season. Grimes isn’t very big, but he’s extremely quick and competitive. Nickel back is a major question mark. Chris Owens was picked on mercilessly in his time there and will be challenged by Dominique Franks for the starting spot. While unproven, both are young players with upside. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is the quarterback who calls the pre-snap coverage assignments. He did not make as many plays last season as he did in 2009, but he’s still a solid starter. Strong safety William Moore is a big hitter who also tied Grimes for the team lead with five picks.
Kicker Matt Bryant made 28-of-31 field goals, including three game-winners. Matt Bosher, a surprise sixth-round draft pick, kicked and punted at Miami (Fla.). He will replace Michael Koenen, who signed with Tampa Bay, as the Falcons’ punter. Slippery Eric Weems is a game-changer on both punt and kickoff returns.
In what looks like a two-team race in the NFC South, the battle between the Falcons and Saints should come down to which defense can play better. The rivals are built almost identically, with franchise quarterbacks, high-powered offenses and opportunistic yet sometimes leaky defenses. If Jones is the difference-maker the Falcons believe he is, then Atlanta should field one of the most prolific offenses in the league and have no problem earning a second consecutive playoff berth. How far they go from there will be determined by the team’s intangibles and Ryan’s progression.
Outside the Huddle
Deion Sanders became the club’s first full-fledged Hall of Famer when he was enshrined in August. Sanders played for four other clubs during his 17-year career but chose to be inducted as a Falcon, the team that drafted him in 1989. The club’s other two Hall of Famers — Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald — primarily made their marks with other teams.
Kroy Biermann and girlfriend Kim Zolciak, of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame, welcomed their first child into the world this summer. Kroy Jagger Biermann was born on May 31.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli is a passionate singer. He’s a founding member of the NFL Players Choir, which sings every year at the Super Bowl. He was forced to miss the event last season because of his Pro Bowl duties. “When I was younger, I loved to do solos all the time,” he says. "Of course, my voice has changed a little bit from then.” Mughelli wowed fans when he sang the national anthem before an Arena Football League game between the Georgia Force and Dallas Vigilantes in April.
Owner Arthur Blank floated the idea for a new open-air stadium in downtown Atlanta. A feasibility study by a Kansas City. Mo., consulting firm identified a 21-acre site just north of downtown and estimated the cost for the 65,000-seat stadium at $700 million. The Falcons have been playing in the Georgia Dome since 1992.
Curtis Lofton has earned the nickname “The Police” from Falcons radio announcers Wes Durham and Dave Archer. The nickname is derived from Lofton’s jersey number: 50. One of the nicknames for the police is 5-0 as in the television show, “Hawaii 5-0.” Durham and Archer have determined that “teams can’t run from the Police.”
GM Thomas Dimitroff signed a multi-year contract extension with the club in March. He’s won the NFL Executive of the Year award twice in his first three seasons. Under his direction, the Falcons have posted a 33–15 (.688) record, which is tied for the third-best in the NFL over the past three seasons.
On the offensive
NFL.com published a chart of offensive points scored per game last season. Unlike the more commonly seen ‘scoring offense’ stat, the OPPG only takes into account points scored by a team’s offense. Special teams and defensive touchdowns are removed. The Falcons ranked seventh in the league, with 23.7 offensive points scored per game. The Patriots led the NFL with 28.5 OPPG. The Eagles led the NFC with 26.1.
BCS or bust
All but one of the Falcons’ draft picks played their college football in a BCS conference. Guard Andrew Jackson, the team’s first seventh-round pick, played in the WAC at Fresno State. Three of the picks played in the SEC — Julio Jones (Alabama), Akeem Dent (Georgia) and Cliff Matthews (South Carolina).
The Falcons were the least-penalized team in the NFL by a wide margin, committing only 58 penalties. Next on the list was Miami, which was flagged for 72 penalties. The Falcons were second in fewest penalty yards, with 598, just three more than the Dolphins.
Considering their young franchise quarterback, the brash head coach who speaks in salsa sound bites and a shrewd general manager, you would expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to jump at an invitation to be the subject of the HBO reality series Hard Knocks. After all, every game played at Raymond James Stadium was blacked out last season, so no team should crave camera time like the Bucs.
But quarterback Josh Freeman did not want his teammates to have any more distractions in preparation for 2011. Acting like a playoff contender worthy of the biggest stage is more important than acting up in training camp.
“Obviously, it was going to be a distraction having HBO cameras,” Freeman says. “You have guys who are trying to show (off) and going out of character a little bit.”
After going 10–6 and narrowly missing the final wild card spot in a tie-breaker to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, the Bucs and Freeman believe they have the character to make a run in the postseason.
The youngest team in the NFL a year ago can only hope to grow as quickly as their 23-year-old quarterback, who threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions in his first full season as a starter. In fact, coach Raheem Morris learned the hard way to trust Freeman more after losing a critical game against the Detroit Lions in overtime by settling for a game-tying field goal rather than giving his strong-armed QB a shot at throwing into the end zone.
At 6'6", 248 pounds with a Ben Roethlisberger-like ability to keep plays alive, Freeman has all the physical attributes. But his leadership qualities are off the charts, and that calm under pressure has allowed him to engineer seven fourth quarter comebacks in his young career.
During the lockout, it was Freeman who organized a three-day minicamp at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., helping to pick up the tab for food, facilities and training staff. Out of respect for Freeman as much as anything else, 52 players attended the three-day workouts.
“For sure, it’s the quarterback’s job on the team and they voted me captain last year,” Freeman says. “I take a lot of pride in being a leader on this team, and getting together is something you have to do.”
Freeman was in synch with several rookies last season, including receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, who is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in the next-to-last game of the season. Williams, a fourth-rounder from Syracuse, led all rookies with 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Running back LeGarrette Blount, the Oregon star who went undrafted and was claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans, led all first-year rushers with 1,007 yards in 13 games.
Tight end Kellen Winslow (66 receptions for 730 yards) may be Freeman’s favorite target and has shown few signs of the knee trouble that plagued his career in Cleveland. Another offseason of playing pitch-and-catch should only strengthen the weapons around Freeman.
Perhaps the key to taking the next step will be the improvement of the Bucs’ offensive line and the health of center Jeff Faine, who has missed 12 games the past two seasons with triceps and quad problems.
A long offseason with offensive coordinator Greg Olson would’ve benefited their young stars, but there’s no substitute for the experience many of them gained as rookies.
GM Mark Dominik has gone back to the Bucs’ old blueprint, putting an enormous amount of resources into rebuilding the defensive line. That started a year ago with the selection of Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with the third overall pick and UCLA’s Brian Price in the second round. This year, Dominik doubled down at the defensive end position, selecting Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers in the second.
At 23, McCoy is the de facto leader of the defensive line. But after recording only three sacks in 13 games before landing on injured reserve with a torn left biceps, he still has a lot of developing to do.
“They were moving me around,” McCoy says. “My first snap as an NFL player against Cleveland, I didn’t even play the 3-technique. I was an end. I was moving around all at the beginning of the year. I asked coach straight up, ‘Please let me play one position so I can learn it.’ He said, ‘Look, I want you to get off the ball. Do what got you drafted.’ I said, ‘All right.’ I started doing that, and things started working.”
Morris’ defense still is under construction. In addition to the newbie defensive linemen, the Bucs need more big contributions from safety Cody Grimm and cornerback Myron Lewis. Grimm missed the final five games with a broken leg.
Still, the secondary may still be the strength of the defense. Cornerback Ronde Barber is entering his 15th season, and Aqib Talib led the club with six interceptions despite missing the final month with a hip injury.
Talib, who was suspended one game last season for assaulting a cab driver in 2009, could face more sanctions from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in a shooting in Garland, Texas, last March.
After nine seasons, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia left the Bucs for a similar job with the Chargers. Dwayne Stukes takes over and he has some good pieces to worth with.
Placekicker Connor Barth connected on 23-of-28 field goal attempts (82. percent) last season. Perhaps more impressive, he was perfect in all 10 tries from 30-39 yards and 6-of-10 from 40-49 yards. The Bucs signed Michael Koenen to a six-year deal to punt and handle kickoff duties. They had only one touchback a year ago.
Receiver Micheal Spurlock will serve as the Bucs’ primary kickoff and punt returner.
The Bucs are fortunate, because they have a developing franchise quarterback in Freeman, continuity on their coaching staff and a core of young players who gained plenty of experience as rookies. But instead of flying under the radar, the Bucs will have a target on their backs and several primetime, national television games. There also are only seven games at Raymond James Stadium, since the Bucs will play the Chicago Bears in London. Defensively, Tampa Bay is extremely young and needs their high draft picks like McCoy to develop quickly. But even in the quarterback-rich NFC South, the Bucs should contend for an NFC wild card.
Outside the Huddle
Josh Freeman organized a three-day minicamp in June at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., which was attended by 52 players. The players did not wear helmets or shoulder pads — in fact, some practiced without shirts — and the morning session consisted of mostly fundamental work by position. Freeman was pleased by the turnout. “It just says we have a hungry team and going out and winning football games next year is important to all our guys,” Freeman says. “I know there were a couple guys, their contract situation they don’t really know, so their agents advised them to sit it.”
Tight end Kellen Winslow, who has had six knee operations in his young career, survived an offseason without having to go under the knife. “Last year I was hurting, but I know how to rehab my knee better,” Winslow says. “I feel good. I feel as ready as I can be right now.” Winslow now admits that has rarely been the case. He recalls his earliest days with the Bucs, after his offseason trade to Tampa Bay in 2009, when he took criticism from fans for not being present at the team’s voluntary OTA practice sessions. But Winslow says he had a very valid reason for his absence. “The reason I wasn’t back, honestly, is I didn’t feel like my knee was where it should be, so I needed to rehab back in San Diego, do my own workouts,” he says. “That’s kind of why I wasn’t there. And when I was in Cleveland, well, it was just Cleveland. I would rather not be there and be at home training in the offseason.”
The Bucs have been attempting to add some punch to their running game, and they feel they know just how to do it — with big backs punishing defenders. You know about LeGarrette Blount. Now they have USC’s Allen Bradford, a 6'0", 242-pound tailback. “When you have to tackle (Carolina’s) Jonathan Stewart every week and you have (New Orleans’) Mark Ingram coming into our division, when you have to tackle all those big guys and you watch (LeGarrette) Blount run for 1,000 yards being a bigger guy, a structurally fit guy — it’s a big man’s league,” says Bucs coach Raheem Morris.
The NFL lockout will have an effect on players from every team, but few will suffer more than the rookie class, Freeman says. “It’s going to be tough on them, obviously, the drafted rookies,” Freeman says. “They don’t get the OTAs or the rookie minicamps, which is very valuable time. Free agents, man, it’s going to be tough on those guys because they don’t have a lot of time to make a big statement to these coaches.’’
To the rescue
Bucs offensive lineman Ted Larsen became a hero during the offseason. Larsen and his girlfriend were fishing on his 24-foot boat this summer when he heard the Coast Guard signal at 3 p.m. that a boater was in distress. After checking the coordinates, he realized he was near the scene. As he approached Honeymoon Island, he saw two people in the water holding on to their kayak, another still in another kayak. Larsen pulled up the teens and their kayaks and shuttled them ashore. “It could have been a big deal. You always read about overturned kayaks,” Larsen says. “It was good to help them. I just felt it was a good thing to do.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fantasy Football Team Analysis
A potent offense and a young defense that grew a great deal as the season went along propelled the Patriots to yet another AFC East title in 2010, but for the second straight year the team was one-and-done in the postseason, losing to their heated rivals, the Jets.
And it will very likely be the talkative, in-your-face Jets, the opposite of the buttoned-down Pats, who will be standing in New England’s way again this year as the teams battle for divisional supremacy.
Losing to New York left the Patriots frustrated, but they do not look radically different now compared to that January evening. This season, that may be a plus: Bill Belichick has controlled the franchise for over a decade, his coaching staff has largely remained the same for the last few years, and nearly all of their regular starters from last season are expected to remain. In a year without offseason programs, that continuity should work in New England’s favor.
Tom Brady turned 34 in early August, and this year he will be without personal passing guru Tom Martinez, whom he frequently called upon for work on his mechanics. Brady is coming off the second-best statistical season of his career, and he got a measure of comfort with the return of Deion Branch last year. However, as the playoff loss to the Jets showed, New England’s biggest problem offensively is the lack of a vertical threat, something the team didn’t address in the draft. Brandon Tate was expected to step into that role, but he was inconsistent in 2010 and will need to find his stride this year.
Branch and Wes Welker, on the other hand, are consistent and reliable. But Branch is 32, and after a series of leg issues, he isn’t as fast as he once was. He still has an uncanny chemistry with Brady, and that, coupled with a veteran’s savvy, keeps him effective.
Welker will be more than 18 months removed from his torn ACL come September, and though he still pulled in 86 passes last year, he should be more like his pre-injury self this season. Chad Ochocinco was acquired in a trade from Cincinnati in a classic Belichick low-risk, high reward deal. He is no longer an elite receiver, but Ochocinco still caught 67 passes for 831 yards in 2010.
At tight end, Rob Gronkowski became a force in the second half of his rookie season, and the knowledge and confidence he gained will propel him going forward. Aaron Hernandez was slowed by a hip injury that required postseason surgery, but at full strength he is a difficult matchup for defenses and could become a downfield threat.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis — the steady but unspectacular former undrafted free agent who became New England’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004 — will lead a suddenly young unit that includes versatile cult hero Danny Woodhead and rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
No one was more pleased than Brady when the team re-signed veteran left tackle Matt Light to a new deal. With first-round pick Nate Solder, the left tackle of the future, unsigned at the beginning of training camp, the Patriots got a deal done with Light in an effort to protect their most valuable commodity — their quarterback. Dan Connolly will likely begin the year at right guard after Stephen Neal’s retirement. Connolly has been a solid player the last two years, seeing time at all three interior spots as well as at fullback.
The Patriots will benefit from the return of key players on this side of the ball, as corner Leigh Bodden and lineman Mike Wright have recovered from significant injuries.
That duo can help bolster a statistically confounding unit: Last year New England was dead last in the league in third down defense (47.1 percent) and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete more than 63 percent of their passes. On the other hand, the Pats set a league record for giveaway-takeaway ratio at plus-28 (38 takeaways against 10 giveaways) and allowed fewer than 10 points per game over the final five weeks of the regular season.
One of the teams weaknesses — lack of a consistent pass-rush — was addressed with the acquisition of Albert Haynesworth in a trade with Washington. Haynesworth shined in Tennessee but bombed in his two seasons with the Redskins. This could be the steal of the offseason if Belichick can get Haynesworth back on track.
Even with Haynesworth, the Pats need their linebackers to do a better job of getting to the quarterback. Tully Banta-Cain had 10 sacks in ’09 but was hobbled by a groin injury for much of last year and was released in July. Second-year pro Jermaine Cunningham used his time during the lockout to watch a trove of film aimed at improving his play and understanding of the Pats’ defense. End Eric Moore, signed after the UFL season ended, could help as well.
Now an unquestioned leader, Jerod Mayo will once again anchor the defense from his inside linebacker spot, though it will be interesting to see how Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton are used alongside him. Spikes, suspended for the last four games of the season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy, is better against the run, while Guyton is stronger against the pass.
The secondary has depth, which should serve it well with pass-happy clubs like San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Indianapolis on this year’s schedule. Devin McCourty was impressive as a rookie and should only be better in his second season. The return of Bodden could mean that Kyle Arrington, who saw his snap count rise dramatically last year, will slide to the Star position in the slot, and Darius Butler remains as well. The wild card is draft pick Ras-I Dowling, a tall, physical corner who was considered a first-round talent before injuries affected his final season at Virginia.
The Pats’ kicking game should get a bit of a bump with the return of Stephen Gostkowski, who missed the second half of the season after tearing the quadriceps in his right (kicking) leg. With one season under his belt, cerebral punter Zoltan Mesko is expected to be more consistent. Tate got off to an amazing start, averaging 33.4 yards per kick return with two touchdowns in the first four games of the season. However, over the rest of the season he averaged just 19.8 yards per return. Julian Edelman finished second in the NFL with a 15.3-yard punt return average last year.
This team looks much the same as the one that posted a surprising 14–2 regular season in 2010, so it is hard to believe it won’t be strong again this year. However, since Rex Ryan took over in New York, the Jets have won three of five meetings between the clubs and have become formidable challengers for the AFC East crown.
Another playoff appearance is in the offing for New England, although the window for Brady is closing. The defense needs to improve if New England is to play in the Super Bowl for the fifth time under Belichick.
Outside the Huddle
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was able to fly in an F-16 fighter jet with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in May; he called it a “once in a lifetime experience” that he truly enjoyed. Green-Ellis also spent time training at the Miami gym of boxing legend Angelo Dundee.
Coming off a rookie season that ended with a Pro Bowl appearance, cornerback Devin McCourty became something of a media darling — in addition to appearing on a catalog cover for athletics retailer Eastbay, he and twin Jason, who plays for the Titans, were on NFL Network, ESPN and other outlets together. The two also share a Twitter account (@McCourtyTwins) and a Facebook page.
Maybe Some Day
All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, who played last year under a restricted free agent tender, is designated this year as the Pats’ franchise player, meaning he’ll go yet another season — this is his seventh — without a long-term extension or the ability to hit the open market. In April, he was asked about his future playing prospects and said, “I’ve heard there’s this thing in football called free agency … but I haven’t seen it. Maybe one of these days I could actually experience that.”
Watch Your Feet
Pats draft pick Marcus Cannon is a man of many talents: He can squat over 700 pounds, play the piano, knows how to execute flipping, twisting dives at the pool at 6'5", 350-plus pounds, and is a practical joker. A favorite at TCU: At the team hotel the night before a game, he’d fill a wastebasket with water, lean it against the door of a teammate’s room, knock and run. When the door was opened, the bucket tipped, soaking the feet of the unsuspecting teammate, and sending him looking for revenge.
Turnovers = Points
Thanks in large part to their league-leading turnover ratio (+28), the Patriots led the NFL in scoring by a wide margin — they averaged 32.4 points per game, 4.8 more than the No. 2 team — despite ranking only No. 8 in the NFL in total offense (363.8 ypg).
Being the reigning league MVP and married to a supermodel means Tom Brady gets attention from all sorts of media outlets. And those outlets make lists. In recent months, Brady was named the second-most influential athlete in America by Forbes magazine, and Forbes also placed him 55th on its annual Celebrity 100 list. FOXSports.com named him one of the 10 most injury-prone players in the NFL. Then there’s the footage of him dancing at Carnival in his wife’s native Brazil — that may have been the most awkward video of the year.
What’s in a Name?
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling got his name after boxer Livingstone Bramble began boxing under the name Ras-I Bramble; Dowling’s father liked the moniker and gave it to his son. Fellow second-rounder Shane Vereen is a cousin of entertainer Ben Vereen.
Soft Closing Stretch
New England has to weather a tough schedule — until it reaches the four-game home stretch of the season, when it plays also-rans Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo, teams that combined for only 21 wins in 2010. This less-than-imposing quartet of contests could position the Patriots for a run at homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
Coming off two consecutive AFC Championship Game losses, the Jets feature the necessary blend of young talent and veteran leadership to make a legitimate Super Bowl run. Rex Ryan’s team should be a major factor in the playoffs for a third consecutive season despite falling short of the ultimate goal in his first two years at the helm. The brash, tell-it-like-it-is coach hasn’t toned down the rhetoric. However, Ryan’s next Super Bowl guarantee will fall on deaf ears if the Jets don’t deliver in 2011. “I think it’s about time we get it done and see this thing through because, after a while, people are going to start looking at it as a joke,” linebacker Bart Scott said on ESPN in the offseason.
The first order of business is for the Jets to beat the rival Patriots, who have owned the AFC East for the better part of a decade.
For all the growth Mark Sanchez has shown in the postseason with an NFL record-tying four career road playoff wins, the third-year quarterback must improve his accuracy (career 54.4 completion percentage) to take the next step in his development. Sanchez will need to display more consistency to avoid having to pull off fourth quarter comebacks like last season.
Expect Santonio Holmes, who was the team’s top free agent priority this offseason, to explode statistically. Plain and simple, Holmes is a game-changer who will have every opportunity to shine as Sanchez’s top target. Fourth-year tight end Dustin Keller could be the ultimate sleeper in Gang Green’s offense. He should be able to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers and smaller safeties in the middle of the field. Keller will become Sanchez’s second option in the passing game behind Holmes. Plaxico Burress, signed to a one-year deal, hasn’t played since the 2008 season. He will replace Braylon Edwards as a big-bodied target in the red zone.
But don’t expect Ryan’s club to air it out each week. The Jets will remain true to their ground-and-pound philosophy. The coaching staff fully expects third-year back Shonn Greene, who was part of a two-back platoon in each of his first two years, to be the primary back with the capability getting 18 to 20 carries per week. “Shonn’s ready to take that next step,” says offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. “We expect a breakout season from him. He’s a guy that’s got just huge, huge, huge potential that we think is right there ready for him to grab.”
LaDainian Tomlinson will give Sanchez another pass-catching option as he transitions into a third down role in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.
A veteran offensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, All-Pro center Nick Mangold and right guard Brandon Moore. Vlad Ducasse, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, is expected to start at right tackle after spending the bulk of his rookie season on the bench.
Thanks to an injection of youth along the defensive line, the Jets may have corrected their most troublesome area from a year ago. Rookie linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis will play pivotal roles as part of a rotation that includes Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito. Ellis has plenty of room for growth, but he’ll be able to provide immediate help stuffing the run as a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. Defensive end Marcus Dixon, who was picked up off the scrap heap last year, may make the biggest impact of them all.
Inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott should benefit from the improved defensive front by getting better lanes to the quarterback and ball-carriers.
The Jets’ decision not to draft an edge pass-rusher will put more pressure on outside linebacker Calvin Pace to produce as a reliable threat to relieve some stress on the secondary. Ryan would prefer not to dial up as many exotic corner and safety blitzes as last year, which means that Pace will have to bring more consistent heat on the quarterback.
The Jets appeared to be on the verge of pairing Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha in what would have been one of the top corner tandems in the history of the NFL, but Asomugha opted to sign with the Eagles. The Jets regrouped and re-signed their own free agent, Antonio Cromartie, to a four-year contract worth a reported $32 million. Kyle Wilson, who was inconsistent as a rookie, will be the nickel back, but he will have to improve his man-to-man cover skills. He repeatedly got into trouble last season, when he struggled with ball awareness and recognition. The league’s labor impasse certainly didn’t help Wilson, who could have used the additional coaching during mini-camps and OTAs this summer.
Safety Jim Leonhard, the brains of the secondary, is expected to be fully recovered from his season-ending leg injury. Look for Dwight Lowery to transition from cornerback to safety after playing a hybrid role last season. Lowery’s intelligence and instincts could be a valuable asset in a scheme that relies on its safeties to make a lot of pre- and post-snap adjustments.
Nick Folk must improve his accuracy or he’ll be sent packing. Although Folk hit the game-winning field goal in the Jets’ wild card win over the Colts last year, his struggles beyond 40 yards have given the coaching staff cause for concern. Journeyman Nick Novak, who most recently impressed in the UFL, will push Folk. The Jets will have a change at punter, where T.J. Conley will step in for Steve Weatherford, now a member of the Giants.
Expect Joe McKnight to take over the punt return duties from Leonhard. McKnight, Wilson and rookie Jeremy Kerley will be in the mix to handle kick returns. They’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate Brad Smith’s big-play ability in the return game over the past few years; Smith helped the Jets lead the AFC in kick return average in 2010.
The Jets have all the pieces in place to end their four-decade Super Bowl drought, but they’ll have to navigate through a difficult early season stretch that includes three consecutive games on the road against the Raiders, Ravens and Patriots from Weeks 3-5.
The first hurdle to reaching the Promised Land will be to de-throne New England as AFC East champions to guarantee at least one home playoff game. For all the success in Ryan’s first two seasons, his team has yet to host a postseason game.
An uptick in Sanchez’s accuracy and consistency, combined with Greene’s ability to move the chains with tough yards on the ground, should turn the Jets into a top-10 offense. An improved defensive line coupled with solid secondary play will keep the Jets among the elite defenses in the league.
Outside the Huddle
Rex Ryan’s new book Play Like You Mean It peaked at No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list in the spring. Ryan’s book tour media blitz included stops on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Colbert Report.
For the second consecutive year, Mark Sanchez hosted offensive skill position teammates at Jets West Camp in Southern California. Sanchez and his family organized the de facto OTA that included watching film, field work and free food from a variety of sponsors. Sanchez put up his teammates in a posh villa near the practice site.
Garden State Bias
For the second consecutive year, the Jets drafted a New Jersey native with their first-round pick. Muhammad Wilkerson grew up in Linden, N.J., while 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson hails from Piscataway, N.J.
Santonio Holmes, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis made the Top 100 Players of 2011 list on the NFL Network as voted by the players. Revis finished in the Top 10.
Home Sweet Home
Left guard Matt Slauson moved his wife and newborn into his parents’ house this offseason to save some money due to the lockout. Slauson has a $480,000 base salary for 2011.
Sanchez has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in the regular season, but has a three-to-one TD-to-INT ratio in six career playoff games.
Nose tackle Sione Pouha chronicled his days during the labor impasse on YouTube with a documentary entitled “Life of a Lockout.” The veteran also helped organize workouts for defensive linemen at a high school field in New Jersey.
All-Pro center Nick Mangold spent some time in the offseason working as an intern for Donald Trump in New York. Mangold’s adventures, which included getting The Donald a Diet Coke, were documented on one of Trump’s reality shows.
Ryan and his staff invited several former coaches to the team facility in the offseason to pick their brains about strategy, including Joe Gibbs and Tom Moore. Ryan spoke specifically to Gibbs about how he dealt with past work stoppages. Moore must have made a favorable impression; the Jets hired him in late July as a consultant.
Linebacker Bart Scott capitalized on his now famous “Can’t Wait!” postgame interview with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio after the Jets’ divisional round playoff win against the Patriots by coming out with a new line of t-shirts commemorating his rant. The t-shirt sports an image of Scott with his arms widespread.
Revis made it known that he’d like to star in a reality show with best friend and manager John Geiger. He’s envisioning a series similar to MTV’s “Rob and Big.”
Jets seventh-round pick Scotty McKnight has been friends with Sanchez since they were eight years old. The Jets’ signal-caller helped out his pal by throwing to him at Colorado’s Pro Day. Sanchez watched the draft with McKnight at the receiver’s parents’ house in Southern California.
Lately, the Dolphins have been more exciting off the field than on it. That trend continued following the dispiriting 2010 season, during which the offensively anemic team lost seven of eight home games, including the final three to losing teams.
Dolphins owner Steve Ross flew across the country with general manager Jeff Ireland to try to convince then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to take the coaching job still held by Tony Sparano. Harbaugh chose the San Francisco 49ers instead, leaving Ross in an embarrassing position. He admitted that, “I could have done it a different way,” claimed that he had never offered Harbaugh a contract, and quickly gave extensions to Sparano and Ireland.
That doesn’t mean either is safe, however. The Dolphins haven’t just been bad (14–18) the past two seasons, but also boring. So it’s natural that their fan base’s patience and enthusiasm are waning.
Three points and a cloud of criticism. That’s the most the Dolphins could usually muster during the 2010 season, when they were held to 15 or fewer points in nine of their 16 games. That wasn’t supposed to be the case, with Chad Henne taking over as the starting quarterback, Brandon Marshall added as an elite receiver, a retooled offensive line and two proven running backs, all led by experienced coordinator Dan Henning.
Henning was forced out in favor of Brian Daboll, whose Cleveland scoring offense was a rung lower than Miami’s (31st compared to 30th). Henne, however, is back. He tried to take more of a leadership role during the lockout, but he won’t be given a long leash, after Sparano pulled him for both Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen during his first full season as a starter. While Henne has the necessary arm strength, he often chooses to check down. He must improve his accuracy, pocket presence and poise, while gaining the confidence of teammates and coaches.
The volatile Marshall caught plenty of passes for marginal impact, made comments fueling the narrative that Henne is too robotic — and then was allegedly stabbed by his wife in a domestic dispute. Miami needs his head right. It also needs to find someone to help him, beyond Davone Bess, the slippery, valuable slot man. Anthony Fasano is a steady tight end, and Brian Hartline led the team with 10 catches of at least 20 yards, but neither is feared. That makes the development of speedy rookie Edmond Gates nearly as critical on the outside as Daniel Thomas’ will be in the backfield. Thomas, a 230-pound one-cut runner with average speed, is expected to get the starting role, and then the ball quite a bit. Reggie Bush, acquired from the Saints in a post-lockout trade, will provide a nice change-of-pace option out of the backfield. He will catch passes and help out in the return game, too.
Sparano is touted as an offensive line specialist, but he has struggled to build a stable unit, even with Jake Long’s emergence as one of the game’s premier left tackles. Long is a force in both pass protection and run-blocking and proved his toughness by playing with a serious shoulder injury down the stretch. Richie Incognito was a nice surprise in 2010, harnessing his talent while controlling his infamous temper. He’ll probably slide back to guard, with first-round pick Mike Pouncey taking over at center. Vernon Carey has been a fixture at right tackle but has never gotten into premium shape and has tended to wear down with assorted injuries. Inside, Joe Berger is a serviceable, versatile player, and John Jerry has potential.
Considering the burden it bore in 2010, this unit performed admirably in its first season in Mike Nolan’s 3-4 scheme, and its youth bodes well for the future. The budding star is electric outside linebacker Cameron Wake, the former CFL Defensive Player of the Year who was in contention for the same award in the NFL, with 14 sacks and improved play against the run. This season, the Dolphins will need others to apply more pressure, starting with promising second-year man Koa Misi, all-around playmaker Karlos Dansby and newcomer Kevin Burnett. A former Cowboy and Charger, Burnett was signed to replace Channing Crowder.
Massive nose tackle Paul Soliai emerged as a force last season, allowing the undersized Randy Starks to slide back to his more comfortable spot at end. There’s quality depth on the line, especially if Jared Odrick and Philip Merling can fully recover from serious foot and Achilles injuries, respectively.
One of Miami’s goals in 2010 was to allow fewer big plays, and that occurred to a degree. But the Dolphins also didn’t make many either, recording only 11 interceptions and failing to get off the field consistently. Vontae Davis, whose technique is starting to match his toughness, should be a multi-season fixture at one cornerback spot. The question is whether the lanky Sean Smith, who was benched for part of 2010, can be the other. If not, Miami will turn to savvy veteran Will Allen (coming back from a knee injury), second-year player Nolan Carroll or nickel back Benny Sapp. Yeremiah Bell, the rock of the secondary for several years, led the team in tackles again, but he can be exposed in space, and he’ll be pushed by second-year player Reshad Jones. Chris Clemons showed some range at free safety in his first season as a starter. Still, Miami could use competition for his spot.
What had been a sore spot for the Dolphins became what Sparano called “a tidal wave” on Oct. 4 when Miami allowed two blocked kicks and a kick return touchdown. That led to John Bonamego’s firing and Darren Rizzi’s promotion, but the overall results improved only slightly. The Dolphins need to put a greater premium on special teams play when making final cuts.
Dan Carpenter returns as the kicker after getting off to another great start before fading late. For the season, he missed 11-of-26 attempts of 40 yards or more. Brandon Fields is one of the league’s better punters; in several games in 2010, he was the Dolphins’ best player. The return game, ordinary for years, could use a boost, and should get one from Bush and Gates.
With Bill Parcells officially out of the building, Dolphins fans need not wonder who is in charge. It’s Ireland, at least for now.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to get this thing done,” the GM says. “I know there’s a lot of passion in the fan base, and I understand the frustrations. But we’re not going to sleep around here until we get this thing turned in the right direction.”
Dolphins fans can sleep well about the young defense, which has the potential to be among the best in the conference. It’s the offense, and especially the guy tossing the football, that will lead to all the tossing and turning. Unless Henne develops, or the Dolphins find another solid solution, the playoffs will be out of the question.
Outside the Huddle
The Dolphins have become a faceless organization, especially when compared to their NBA neighbors (the Heat). That’s best typified by the fact that their highest-ranked player, according to the peers who voted for the NFL Network list, was a left tackle. Jake Long was ranked No. 28. The only others in the top 100? Brandon Marshall at No. 61, and Cameron Wake at No. 63.
This will be the last season that the Dolphins need to deal with the dirt infield during the first few weeks of their season. The Marlins, at long last, will be moving into a new stadium, roughly 20 miles southeast, in 2012. Of course, during the 19 years that they shared the stadium, the Marlins won two World Series titles, while the Dolphins didn’t even reach the AFC Championship Game.
In most NFL cities, fans love to see their coaches pump their fists. Dolphins backers, however, came to dread when Tony Sparano did it in 2010, since he had a habit of doing so after field goals. It even spawned a number of YouTube videos and songs.
Mad Dog Tribute
Jim Mandich, the former Dolphin tight end and popular analyst, died during the offseason after a fight with bile duct cancer. Nearly 3,000 people attended a memorial at Sun Life Stadium, including Don Shula, and the night closed with a chorus of Mandich’s catchphrase, “All right, Miami!”
Chad Chad Pennington rehabilitated from a third surgery on his right shoulder, only to re-injure it on his first regular season play in November and miss the rest of the season. Then, in March, he tore his ACL playing basketball. So he’ll spend this season in the safety of the studio, as a FOX analyst.
Making Ends Meet
While millionaire players and billionaire owners squabbled during the NFL lockout, rookies got caught in the crossfire. Those included Dolphins sixth-rounder Charles Clay who, to pay for his trainers, did odd jobs, including cutting grass at oil wells.
How anemic was Miami’s aerial attack? The Dolphins threw for 17 touchdowns. Dan Marino threw for that many in the first six games of the 1984 season.
Bill Parcells rarely spoke to the media during his three years with the Dolphins. He’s been chatty since, taking responsibility for the busted Pat White pick (second round, 2009), and explaining that Jake Long was a “surer bet” than Matt Ryan at No. 1 overall in 2008. White tried baseball before turning to the UFL.
After going winless the first two months of the season, the Bills played .500 football for first-year coach Chan Gailey. Unfortunately, any signs of progress were wiped out by losing the last two games of the year to AFC East rivals New England and New York by a combined score of 72–10.
That finish established the gameplan for the offseason: Do whatever it takes to improve the NFL’s 24th-ranked defense, one that ranked dead last in stopping the run, 28th in points allowed, and did little for the offense in terms of takeaways and field position.
It could not have been easy for an offensive-minded coach like Gailey to avoid taking a quarterback with the third overall pick, but Buffalo went with Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus after Auburn’s Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina. Gailey surmises that the best way to help his 25th-ranked offense, one that features a host of young talent, is to improve the defense. Time will tell.
The Bills were one of only nine NFL teams in 2010 to feature a 3,000-yard passer (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and a running back (Fred Jackson) and receiver (Steve Johnson) with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage apiece. What hurt the Bills over the long haul was lack of a consistent running game and red zone scoring (19 TDs on 37 trips).
With their learning curve with Gailey’s system behind them and with the starting lineup returning virtually intact, the Bills should make noticeable strides in terms of finishing off drives.
For the first time in his six NFL seasons, Fitzpatrick enters a campaign as a starter and not an insurance policy known more for his Ivy League brains than his arm. His teammates love his low-key leadership style, and he and Gailey clicked from the start.
Helping Fitzpatrick is one of the league’s deeper receiving pools. Johnson, a former seventh-round pick, emerged as the team’s top threat with 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll need fewer dropped passes at key times to be anointed an elite receiver, but signs are positive. Signs are also positive for the youthful trio of David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt, a group that combined for 58 catches as rookies. Roscoe Parrish found new life after nearly being cut, catching 33 passes for 400 yards before a wrist injury cut his season short. The team still lacks a true threat at tight end. Free agent acquisition Brad Smith could fill a variety of roles, including handling the ball in the Wildcat package.
At running back, Jackson and C.J. Spiller form a strong tandem — on paper. Jackson fell just shy of his second 1,000-yard season, and while he doesn’t have a lot of wear on his 30-year-old body, he’s likely to give up carries to Spiller, the team’s first-round pick in 2010 who was underutilized as a rookie with only 74 carries.
As for the offensive line, Buffalo will return four out of five starters in Demetrius Bell, Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner and Eric Wood. Right tackle is up for grabs with Erik Pears, a sixth-year pro out of Colorado State, getting the early nod. Run-blocking consistency is a primary concern for this unit.
Former Bears and Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt was hired to coach the linebackers and help clean things up on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills have two great building blocks up front to work with in Pro Bowl nose tackle Kyle Williams and Dareus, the team’s first-round pick. Williams is a one-man wrecking crew, while the 6'3", 319-pound Dareus can play inside in a four-man look and outside as an end in a 3-4. He has the potential to be the team’s most dominant defensive lineman since Bruce Smith.
The release of veteran Marcus Stroud, meanwhile, frees up playing time for young players such as Alex Carrington and Torell Troup in the team’s rotation.
More size up front should benefit a linebacking corps that was decimated by injuries last season. The Bills lost Paul Posluszny in free agency but filled his spot with veteran Nick Barnett, who spent the previous eight years in Green Bay. Barnett will team with rookie Kelvin Sheppard on the inside. Andra Davis, who is coming off shoulder surgery, and Akin Ayodele, who had a nice season in 2010 with 106 tackles, will be in the rotation as well. On the outside, steady veteran Chris Kelsay should be more effective after making the switch from end a year ago, and Arthur Moats, who showed flashes of stardom as a rookie, is back in the mix. Aaron Maybin, the club’s 2009 first-round pick who has yet to record a sack, has not improved his ability to shed blocks, and his coaches won’t be nearly as patient this year.
Meanwhile, former San Diego All-Pro Shawne Merriman will look to resurrect his career as a situational pass-rusher if he can show that his recent history of injuries is behind him.
Buffalo’s secondary should remain a team strength. Cornerback Drayton Florence, an unrestricted free agent coming off a strong year, was signed to a new deal, giving the team a strong rotation of corners — Florence, Terrence McGee and former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin. In addition, the Bills spent their second-round draft pick on Texas corner Aaron Williams, who is expected to contribute as a rookie. At safety, fourth-round pick Da’Norris Searcy will join solid veterans, Jairus Byrd, George Wilson and Bryan Scott.
Kicker Rian Lindell’s record streak of successful extra points to start an NFL career ended last year at 321, but the team’s second-leading all-time scorer (814 points) still had one of his best seasons, converting 16-of-21 field goals. Since 2006, his 97.6 percentage rate on attempts inside of 40 yards is second only to Atlanta’s Matt Bryant at 97.7. As for punter Brian Moorman, he holds team records for most punts (775) and best career average (43.5). He’s played in 160 consecutive games for Buffalo, longest streak among NFL punters.
Spiller and Parrish return to handle the return chores. Spiller’s 1,014 kickoff return yards were third-best all-time for a Buffalo rookie, and Parrish’s 12.12 career punt return average is tied for ninth all-time in NFL history.
Better use of Spiller and the addition of Dareus should make the Bills a better team at running the ball and stopping the run. A year ago, opponents ran for almost 1,000 more yards and scored 12 more rushing touchdowns than the Bills, so improvement here will undoubtedly improve the record. GM Buddy Nix and Gailey probably need another year to end the team’s playoff drought, now at 11 seasons. But things are headed in the right direction.
Outside the Huddle
Defensive lineman Marcell Dareus ignored his agent’s advice about staying away from workouts with veteran players during the NFL lockout. Without a contract and insurance against injury, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft was taking a chance. But Dareus felt that it was more important to meet his new teammates than it was to protect his health. "There’s some risk involved; there’s some risk in getting out of the bed," the former Alabama star says.
The Bills will sport new uniforms in 2011. They last made a change in 2002. The team retained its charging buffalo logo, and red, white and blue scheme.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 92, has no plans to sell his team while he’s still alive, but potential buyers are lining up for the day the team does become available. Toronto, where Buffalo has played a regular-season game every year since 2008, remains a logical destination. However, potential local purchasing groups, including one that’s headed by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and another headed by Los Angeles bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach, are getting their ducks in a row. Gundlach is a Buffalo native who would keep the team in western New York.
Defensive tackle Michael Jasper, the team’s seventh-round draft pick out of Bethel University in Tennessee, is listed at 6'4", 394 pounds. Amazingly, he tipped the scales at 448 in January but shed enough weight to earn the honor of getting drafted by an NFL team. "He’s not as big as you’ve got him listed," GM Buddy Nix said with a wink. "He’s lost down to 378, so he’s drying up to nothing."
From the department of ugly statistics: The Bills lost their final two games of the 2010 season to AFC East rivals New England and New York by a combined score of 72–10. In those two games, the Bills surrendered 493 yards rushing — 246.5 yards per game — and committed 13 turnovers. The defense accounted for the only touchdown.
Thank Heaven for Harvey
Chan Gailey’s 4–12 record in his first season with the Bills was bad, but it wasn’t the worst season by a first-year coach in the club’s history. That dubious distinction belongs to Harvey Johnson, who went 1–13 in 1971, his first full season as the head coach. "There are two types of people (in this business) — the humble and humbled. If you’re not in the first group, you’ll be in the second group at some point in time," says Gailey, who has been an assistant coach in four Super Bowls.
When the Bills face the Bengals on Oct. 2 in Cincinnati, they will be looking to extend their streak of wins against them to 11. Their 10 wins in a row against the Bengals ties the club record for most against one team (New York Jets 1987-92).
A much kinder schedule could help the Bills in the win column after a tough slate in 2010, when the Bills faced seven playoff teams and four division champions. Among 2011 opponents, only the Patriots, Jets, Chiefs and Eagles made the playoffs a year ago.
Coach Mike Shanahan enters the second year of his building project with a foundation in place but some significant lingering questions. Overshadowing the team’s two-win improvement in 2010 is the disastrous trade for quarterback Donovan McNabb. The ugly, prolonged divorce from McNabb leaves the Redskins with no proven option at the most important position on the field. Meanwhile, the offensive line remains a major weakness, and there’s a lack of proven skill-position players.
The defense in 2010 suffered in transitioning to a 3-4. The question now is whether it will improve after a year of learning and time to acquire personnel that fits the scheme.
Players insist that Shanahan’s structured, disciplined approach has changed the team’s losing, disorderly culture. However, fans, and possibly owner Daniel Snyder, will get antsy if there isn’t another step forward in the standings.
No head-to-head race captivates the nation’s capital like a Redskins’ quarterback controversy. The latest quarterback competition, which features Rex Grossman against John Beck, isn’t exactly a matchup of heavyweights, but anything would excite the masses. Grossman is a known quantity with 34 starts in his eight seasons. His decision-making is sometimes baffling (40 career INTs compared to 40 TDs), but he also has a firm grasp of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Beck, on the other hand, is a wild card. Since being drafted 40th overall in 2007, he has started only four games — all during his rookie season with a dreadful Miami team that finished 1–15. Now with his third club, Beck has a golden opportunity to apply all he’s learned on the sidelines. He’s smart and incredibly determined. He also has a stronger arm than Grossman and is better on the run. He, too, knows the offense after joining the Redskins in early August 2010.
Running back Ryan Torain was exceptional when healthy last season. He has the vision, patience and ability to break tackles needed to succeed in Mike Shanahan’s one-cut running game. Torain has an extensive injury history, which means former Cardinal Tim Hightower or a pair of rookies — Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster — will have an opportunity to play a prominent role.
The wide receiver position got an unexpected boost shortly after the lockout ended when the Redskins re-signed free agent Santana Moss to a three-year deal. Moss caught a career-high 93 passes last season for 1,115 yards. A few days after signing Moss, Washington acquired Jabar Gaffney in a trade with Denver. Gaffney caught a career-high 65 passes with the Broncos last season. Anthony Armstrong’s Cinderella story is as incredible as any, and he was among the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL last season.
Veteran tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis are also weapons in the passing game.
The offensive line presents plenty of questions after Shanahan drafted only one lineman, in the seventh round. Left tackle Trent Williams was overmatched at times during his rookie season by some of the elite pass-rushers in the NFC East. Neither Will Montgomery nor Artis Hicks proved to be reliable options at right guard, as both were pushed back too frequently. The Redskins, however, did shore up the left tackle spot by re-signing Jammal Brown.
The Redskins were a perennial top-10 defense before last year’s switch to a 3-4 alignment resulted in a No. 31 ranking. Shanahan decided before returning to the NFL that the 3-4 would be his scheme, and he was willing to accept the growing pains with a Redskins roster that lacked the skills to run it effectively. He began his second year in charge by drafting Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan 16th overall to address a crippling pass-rush imbalance. Kerrigan is expected to improve the rush from the left outside linebacker spot opposite Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo. Kerrigan has a strong motor and exceptional hands. However, he rarely dropped into coverage at Purdue, so his transition from defensive end will take some time. Veteran inside linebacker London Fletcher is still a tackling machine, but the Redskins’ three-man line must exploit that asset by more consistently occupying blockers up front.
The line was upgraded in free agency with the acquisitions of Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen. Cofield, a tackle in the Giants’ 4-3 front in recent years, will be plugged in as the starting nose in Washington. Bowen started nine games at end for the Cowboys last season. Second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins is quick and powerful, two attributes that should earn him plenty of playing time. Shanahan plans to play him at the 5-technique (defensive end).
After moving from free to strong safety last season, LaRon Landry was playing at an All-Pro level before missing the last seven games with an Achilles’ tendon injury. He took better angles playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and his speed was an asset while blitzing. The Redskins need him at full strength. Free safety O.J. Atogwe, a free agent signing just before the lockout, should be a major upgrade over Kareem Moore in coverage and against the run.
Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall frequently gambles to make big plays. Sometimes it works — he picked off four passes against Chicago last year — and other times he gets burned. Josh Wilson, who spent last season in Baltimore, will start opposite Hall. He can be matched up with quicker wide receivers. Former third-round pick Kevin Barnes, a two-year veteran, is the No. 3 corner.
If the Redskins could ever find stability with their specialists, it would add years to special teams coach Danny Smith’s life. Four different players punted for the Redskins last season, and none was a long-term answer. Veterans Josh Bidwell, Hunter Smith and Sam Paulescu all had their chances. Smith didn’t like any of the options in the draft, so the Redskins signed Sav Rocca, who spent the past four years in Philadelphia, as a free agent. Washington’s placekicking saga also continues. In his first full NFL season, Graham Gano missed 11 field goals, tied for an NFL high. Gano has sufficient leg strength but must prove his mental toughness. He’ll enter a training camp position battle with little margin for error.
Diminutive return specialist Brandon Banks emerged last season as one of the Redskins’ most electrifying playmakers. He must overcome last year’s meniscus tear and avoid off-the-field trouble (he was stabbed outside a D.C. nightclub in February).
Shanahan’s second season was always going to be another building year, because the team he inherited was too old with too many holes. This season is about continuing to bring the right players into the scheme and seeing if Beck is a playoff-caliber quarterback. The Redskins should be competitive almost every week, but they need another year before they contend.
Outside the Huddle
Follow the stars
John Beck surrounded himself with two quality mentors in his quest to earn a starting quarterback job — Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. In the 2009 offseason, Beck bought a home in San Diego so he could train with them. Like Beck, Brees was drafted in the second round and didn’t pan out with the team that drafted him. “I said, ‘Here’s a guy that has had a lot of similarities to me and reached the pinnacle,’” Beck says. “I want to learn everything that he has done.”
Three’s a crowd
Receiver Anthony Armstrong’s climb to the NFL from the Intense Football League is one of those stories you can’t make up. Even after becoming one of the NFL’s biggest deep threats last season — he averaged 19.8 yards per catch — Armstrong squirmed when the Redskins drafted three receivers. “When they drafted one, I expected that,” Armstrong says. “When they drafted three, I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I was mad.”
Washington’s new ace
Ryan Kerrigan had a heck of a three-week span this offseason. Not long after the Redskins drafted the Purdue end/linebacker 16th overall, he aced the 150-yard, par-3 seventh hole at The Players Club at Woodland Trails in Indiana. Kerrigan describes himself as an average golfer.
Know what’s good for you Quarterback Rex Grossman attended all eight of the Redskins’ players-only workouts in the offseason despite having an expired contract. The eight-year veteran knows that Washington provides his best chance to start, and coaches encouraged him before the lockout to keep training with Redskins players.
Blame the booze
Veteran tight end Fred Davis got down to 245 pounds this offseason from his playing weight of 258 last year. His methods included reducing alcohol consumption. “I started working out and started seeing I was getting slimmer,” he says. “I was eating differently and it felt good. I felt like I could run all day and not get tired, and I’m quicker.”
The Redskins began the third day of April’s draft by selecting three consecutive players from the University of Nebraska — running back Roy Helu Jr., safety DeJon Gomes and receiver Niles Paul. Afterward, coach Mike Shanahan was asked if Shemy Schembechler, son of legendary college coach Bo and the Redskins’ area scout responsible for Nebraska, would get a bonus. “He wants a car, yeah,” Shanahan cracked.
Hall in the family
Free safety O.J. Atogwe, who signed a five-year, $26 million free agent contract with the Redskins just before the lockout began, got married in May. His new father-in-law could teach him a thing or two. Atogwe married Jill Singletary, the daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker and former San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary.
Something to prove
Return man Brandon Banks suffered a collapsed lung when he was stabbed outside a D.C. nightclub in February. He and his agent have dismissed suggestions that he was involved in starting the incident. Rightly or wrongly, though, Banks begins his second NFL season facing questions about whether the stabbing was symptomatic of a deeper problem.
Washington Redskins Fantasy Football Team Preview
You know a lot of salty language is used on the football field during an NFL game. So, knowing that, this video asks players like Mark Sanchez, Jared Allen, Josh Cribbs, Shaun Alexander, Shawne Merriman Percy Harvin and Eli Manning what their favorite swear words are. And then asked them to use those swear words in a sentence.
I think the fact that the swears are bleeped makes it even better. Especially for Shaun Alexander.
The Giants were the class of the NFC East and a Super Bowl contender last season as late as the fourth quarter of their Week 15 game when they held a 31–10 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles. They were about to roll to their fourth straight win and were getting hot just in time for the playoffs.
If only they could’ve stopped the clock right there. The final 8:17 of that game, including DeSean Jackson’s game-ending punt return for a touchdown, will live in team infamy right alongside “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.” It sent the Giants into a mini-tailspin that left them out of the playoffs, despite an impressive record of 10–6.
Look beyond the collapse, though, and what you see is a veteran team returning most of its key players, and a team that barely lost a playoff race to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. They may have missed the postseason, but they showed they had — and still have — the talent to be among the best teams in the NFC.
All they have to do is avoid another late collapse.
For a team with the fifth-best offense in the NFL last year, the Giants sure were models of inconsistency. More often than not, that’s been the norm for veteran quarterback Eli Manning, who led the NFL with 25 interceptions last year. Add in six lost fumbles by running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and you can see why coach Tom Coughlin was so frustrated at the end of the year.
That’s not the mark of a Coughlin team, though, and there’s no reason to believe their butter-fingered ways will continue. Beneath all the drops — and the tipped passes — is a high-octane passing attack. Manning may not be on par with his Hall of Fame-bound brother, but he’s topped 4,000 yards each of the last two seasons. And with future Pro Bowler Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham at receiver, Manning has one of the most overlooked and dangerous receiving corps in the league. Nicks and Manningham combined to catch 139 passes last season.
The key to the offense, though, is the running game. Bradshaw tested the market in free agency before ultimately re-signing with the Giants for four years and a reported $18 million. A seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft, Bradshaw has emerged as one of the elite running backs in the league over the past few seasons. Last year, he carried the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns while adding 47 receptions for 314 yards. There are, however, questions about Bradshaw’s health; he’s had surgery on both feet and both ankles in the past two years. With Bradshaw taking on the role of leading man in the backfield, Brandon Jacobs has been relegated to a reserve role.
The offensive line, a strength of the team in recent years, will have at least two new starters after center Shaun O’Hara and guard Rich Seubert were released in late July. David Baas, who started 16 games in each of the past two seasons in San Francisco, was signed to replace O’Hara at center.
The Giants’ defense had 46 sacks, 16 interceptions, and 34 forced fumbles in Perry Fewell’s first season as defensive coordinator; so he accomplished one of his primary goals — making the Giants defense an aggressive, attacking unit again.
That bodes well for this season, especially with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora back at defensive end, each coming off 11.5-sack seasons. They give the Giants as good of a 1-2 pass-rushing punch as any team in the league, and will be even more dangerous if Mathias Kiwanuka — who was the team’s best defensive player when he got hurt last year — can approach his old form after injuring his neck.
The Giants also have quite an aggressive secondary. Cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster had five and four interceptions, respectively, last year, and first-round pick Prince Amukamara could end up being the best corner of all. Antrel Rolle also made plenty of big plays at safety in his first season in New York.
The biggest question mark on defense remains in the middle, where their linebacking corps has seemingly been in a state of flux for a decade. They have found a solid middle linebacker in Jonathan Goff, but they don’t have a lot of punch on the outside. The Giants have high hopes for Clint Sintim, a former second-round pick who has been a disappointment so far, and they spent $25 million two years ago on Michael Boley, who has provided only an occasional pass-rushing punch.
If there was one part of the team that was simply a disaster last year, this was it. But there’s hope that things will be considerably better in 2011. The Giants have a solid kicker in Lawrence Tynes, and they believe they upgraded at punter, as former Jet Steve Weatherford was signed to compete with (and likely replace) Matt Dodge, who was inconsistent (at best) as a rookie.
The return game may get a similar boost. Both the kickoff return and punt return teams were doomed last year when Domenik Hixon tore his ACL in a June mini-camp. Darius Reynaud and a host of others were dismal at best in his place. Hixon, though, is back and says he’s well-rested and feeling 100 percent. If he’s really back to his old self, he has the talent and speed to be one of the most explosive returners in the game.
The Giants are essentially what they’ve been for most of the Coughlin era — a flawed team that can be dangerous if it gets hot at the right time. They have big problems on special teams, some questions in the middle of their defense and lots of potential injury issues on offense. But when the Giants have a full roster and they’re clicking, they’re as explosive as any team in the NFL.
Think about what happened last year. The Giants lost their best defensive player (Kiwanuka), their No. 1 receiver (Smith), their center (Shaun O’Hara), two left tackles (David Diehl, Shawn Andrews), were disastrous on special teams and had a disheartening late collapse — and still had 10 wins and didn’t miss the playoffs until the final day of the season.
So if their luck changes on the injury front and they fix some of their problems, 10 wins might only be a starting point for this team. Even if things do go wrong, the Giants have the talent and the coaching to stay around .500 and keep their heads in the wild card chase until the very end.
Outside the Huddle
No Plax? No problem
Think the Giants are still looking for Plaxico Burress’ replacement? In three- and-a-half seasons in New York, he averaged 68 catches, 1,033 yards and nine touchdowns per season. Last year, in only 13 games, Hakeem Nicks caught 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Production Rookie Jerrel Jernigan is joining one of the NFL’s top receiving corps — led by Hakeem Nicks (see above) — but the guy knows how to move the ball down the field. In four seasons at Troy, the 5'8" native of Eufala, Ala., caught 262 passes for 3,128 yards and carried the ball 132 times for 892 yards.
Right and wrong
Eli Manning completed a career-high 62.9 percent of his passes last year — his third straight year over 60 percent. On the downside, he was 0-of-1 with an interception throwing with his left hand. Manning was intercepted last year attempting to throw a shovel pass with his left hand. The righty is now 1-of-3 with two interceptions while throwing left-handed in his career.
Prince Amukamara, the Giants' first-round draft pick, is actually a prince. Sort of. His grandfather is the chief of Awo-Omamma in the Imo State of Nigeria, and Prince is next in line — if he ever decides to move to Nigeria. However, he was born in Boston, raised in New Jersey and Arizona and went to college in Nebraska. Osi Umenyiora is also an honorary chief of a tribe in Nigeria, while Mathias Kiwanuka is the grandson of Uganda’s first prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka.
Hit and miss
Tom Coughlin is considered one of the NFL’s best coaches when it comes to challenging officials, but his record on replay reviews is actually mixed. He was 7–5 last season, is 30–32 in his time with the Giants and just 40–41 in his career.
Give and take
The Giants committed an NFL-worst 42 turnovers last season, but it was hardly the norm for Coughlin’s team. In his seven seasons, the Giants have a plus-six in turnover ratio, including last year’s minus-3. In 2008, the Giants tied a then-NFL record for the fewest turnovers in a season with 13.
Light on LBs
Great linebacker play was once synonymous with Giants football, but they’ve been unable to find and develop good ones for most of the last decade. Since Jesse Armstead, a former eighth-round pick, went to his fifth straight Pro Bowl in 2001, the Giants have had just one Pro Bowl linebacker — Antonio Pierce, who went as an alternate in 2006. Since Lawrence Taylor’s last trip in 1990, Armstead and Pierce are the only Pro Bowlers.
The Giants ranked second in the NFL with 23 rushing plays that went for at least 20 yards. The Raiders led the way with 27.
Don’t go four it
The Giants were the NFL’s worst team on fourth down attempts, converting only 27 percent (3-of-11) all year.
Changing of the guard (and center)
The Giants’ streak of beginning the season with the same starting five along the offensive line will come to end at five. The team released center Shaun O’Hara and guard Rich Seubert in late July, shortly after the lockout ended.
In the Andy Reid era, which has endured into its fourth presidential term, the Eagles have been no strangers to startling personnel moves. Reid broke from his usual way of doing things by going after Terrell Owens in 2004, then stunned the football world by taking a chance on Michael Vick in 2009.
This was different. A few days before the Super Bowl, word began spreading that the Eagles had decided on a new defensive coordinator. And no, it wasn’t one of the up-and-coming coaches on the Green Bay and Pittsburgh staffs. It was Juan Castillo, who had been on the Eagles’ staff even longer than Reid. Yes, Reid had promoted his offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, a position Castillo last held at the high school level back in his native Texas. It was a stunning move, one that will either turn out to be boldly brilliant or the beginning of the end of Reid’s long run as Eagles head coach. Either way, the Eagles’ biggest offseason move should help define the 2011 season.
Vick’s comeback story, from Pro Bowler to federal prisoner to rejuvenated superstar, arguably reached its dramatic climax in a nationally televised game against Washington — whose quarterback that night just happened to be Vick’s friend, mentor and predecessor, Donovan McNabb. Drawing on his own speed plus an array of weapons that included quicksilver DeSean Jackson and emerging stars Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, Vick put 52 points on the scoreboard (a defensive score made the Eagles’ total 59). He threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more. That night, and in an epic comeback against the Giants at the Meadowlands, Vick and the Eagles’ offense appeared as unstoppable as the tides.
And then it wasn’t. The offense misfired in three consecutive losses to end the season, including a lackluster home playoff loss to the Packers. Vick suddenly seemed unable to react to certain blitzes, and he appeared worn down by the many hits he absorbed.
“Listen,” Reid said after the season, “it’s not only the quarterback in a blitz situation. But to answer your question, he can get better at that. He can get better at that. And the one great thing about football is that you can always improve.”
That quote proved even more telling later, when Reid lured offensive line coach Howard Mudd out of retirement. As part of the coaching shakeup that saw Castillo move from the O-line to defensive coordinator, Reid added the guy whose Indianapolis units kept Peyton Manning’s uniform stain-free for a decade.
The offseason focus became even sharper when the Eagles took an offensive lineman, Baylor’s Danny Watkins, in the first round of the draft. Reid all but anointed Watkins as a starter at right guard. King Dunlap, who replaced Winston Justice during the playoff game, could hold on to the right tackle job, though new addition Ryan Harris will get a look. Clearly, the plan is to shore up the protections through changes in technique, scheme and personnel, to allow Vick, Jackson, Maclin, McCoy, tight end Brent Celek and the rest of the skill guys to get back to the fastbreak offense that was on display against Washington and New York.
Once the backbone of the team under the late Jim Johnson, the Eagles’ defense was spineless in 2010 under Sean McDermott. Reid fired McDermott, moved Castillo into the coordinator spot and brought in Jim Washburn to coach the defensive line.
The new-look defensive staff will lean heavily on the NFL’s top cornerback tandem — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles acquired Rodgers-Cromartie from Arizona for backup quarterback Kevin Kolb then surprised pretty much everyone in the NFL by stealing Asomugha away from the Jets and Texans in free agency. The corners are set, but there are some questions at safety. Can Nate Allen return from a knee injury? Will rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett be able to step in for Quintin Mikell at strong safety?
Washburn’s hiring led to the return of defensive end Jason Babin via free agency. Considered a first-round bust for the first six years of his career (including ’09 in Philly), Babin thrived under Washburn’s tutelage in Tennessee last year, earning his first Pro Bowl berth after racking up 12.5 sacks. Babin will team with veteran Trent Cole to form a formidable duo at defensive end.
Jamar Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010, steps into a starting role at linebacker, either in the middle or on the strong side. Chaney’s ability to be consistently productive will be a key for the defense. Moise Fokou seems set at one of the other linebacker spots — possibly at weak side — but there are issues finding a third starter.
For most of Reid’s tenure, Johnson’s defensive schemes favored smaller, quicker players deployed in his aggressive fire-zone blitz packages. In two years under McDermott, the Eagles simply got run over. Their pass rush was ineffective and their defensive backs and linebackers simply couldn’t cover well enough to compensate.
Pairing Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback will solve the coverage issues and make everyone else’s job on defense that much easier.
Castillo says his plan is to simplify the system as much as possible and stress fundamentals — just as he did with the offensive line. “We are going to be fast and physical and we are going to be fundamentally sound,” says the new coordinator.
Kicker David Akers deserves some exit music. Although the Eagles placed the transition tag on their all-time leading scorer before the lockout, they used a fourth-round draft pick on Nebraska kicker Alex Henery, spelling the end of Akers’ 12-year tenure. Henery also punted in college, but the Eagles appear interested in him only as a placekicker. Punter Sav Rocca was released in late July. Chas Henry, an undrafted free agent from Florida, is Rocca’s likely replacement.
In Jackson and Maclin, the Eagles have two excellent return men. Reid likes to use them situationally — most famously when Jackson took a punt back to beat the Giants on the final play last season — which creates opportunities for backup players to make a mark. Cornerback Jorrick Calvin made the most of that chance last year and will get another opportunity in 2011.
For all the debate and discussion surrounding the transition from McNabb to Kevin Kolb and finally to Vick, the Eagles wound up with a 10–6 record and a first-round playoff exit — the same unsatisfactory result that got McNabb the heave-ho. Expectations are much greater this season. The Eagles have a bevy of weapons on offense and made significant upgrades on the defensive side of the ball, specifically at cornerback. The demanding Philly fans will be satisfied with nothing less than a trip to the Super Bowl.
Outside the Huddle
Andy Reid’s effort to coax Howard Mudd out of retirement was helped by the hiring of defensive line coach Jim Washburn. The two old line coaches are great friends and have ridden motorcycles together across Africa. Washburn was available because Jeff Fisher’s tenure ended in Tennessee. Mudd retired after the 2009 season.
Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe Eagles GM Howie Roseman has been dabbling in genetics in his spare time. Whatever the case, three of the Eagles’ 11 draft choices are sons of former NFL players. Linebacker Casey Matthews is the son of Clay Matthews Jr. and younger brother of Green Bay star Clay III. Defensive back Curtis Marsh’s dad, Curtis Sr., was a wide receiver for Jacksonville and Pittsburgh. And there’s linebacker Greg Lloyd, who also shares the name and position of his father, the former Steelers star.
Eagles tight end Brent Celek and guard Todd Herremans opened a bar in Philadelphia’s Old City area. The name — 879 — is based on the uniform numbers of Celek (87) and Herremans (79).
With the lockout looming, the Eagles placed their franchise tag on Vick and transition tag on kicker David Akers. Tagging players has backfired for the team in the past (see: Jeremiah Trotter and Corey Simon), but Vick’s situation left little choice. He was finishing the two-year contract signed when no one knew whether he would be a part-time player, backup or, as it turned out, No. 1 quarterback. Both sides agree that a long-term deal will be the goal for Vick. Akers, meanwhile, refused to sign his tender and will be replaced by Alex Henery.
Used to the heat
First-round pick Danny Watkins was a firefighter in his native British Columbia, which explains the group of firemen who cheered his selection on draft night. Watkins visited firehouses in New York and upon his arrival in Philadelphia. “It was like you knew the guys 10, 20 years,” Watkins says. “No matter where you go, you’re going to be a brother fireman.”
Because of their success with Vick, the Eagles were immediately rumored as a possible destination for wide receiver Plaxico Burress upon his release from prison. The notion was nurtured by Burress’ Giants teammate Brandon Jacobs and enhanced when Burress emerged from prison wearing a maroon, 1980s-style Phillies cap. Of course, Burress went from locked up to locked out.
Upon the announcement of Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator, cornerback Asante Samuel’s priceless reaction pretty much summed things up: “The offensive line coach?”
Pitt to Philly
For the second time in three years the Eagles selected a running back from the University of Pittsburgh who declared for the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in college. In 2009, the Eagles picked LeSean McCoy in the second round. This past April, they grabbed Dion Lewis, McCoy’s replacement at Pitt. As a freshman in 2009, Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. His sophomore season was slowed by injuries, but he still managed 1,061 yards and 13 scores. Lewis was eligible for the draft after two years in college because he attended prep school for a year after high school.
Philadelphia Eagles Fantasy Football Team Preview
Why You Shouldn't Draft Michael Vick
The best thing about this year is that it isn’t last year. The Cowboys’ 1–7 start in 2010 quickly ended any Super Bowl talk. The team is looking to start over this year with a new head coach and a good-as-new quarterback. Jason Garrett inherits a team that returns most of its starters, including quarterback Tony Romo, who missed the final 10 games with a fractured left clavicle.
Some things have changed with the Cowboys, including the defensive coordinator, as have some names. But the expectations remain the same.
“I don’t consider us to be rebuilding,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. “I consider us to be a team that’s trying to add to what we’ve got so we can compete.”
Rob Ryan has the biggest job. The former Browns defensive coordinator — who is the outspoken twin brother of Jets coach Rex Ryan — arrived at Valley Ranch to fix a defense that was the worst in team history. The Cowboys allowed 436 points and 5,628 yards, the most points and yards given up in franchise history. Ryan will build around one of the league’s top pass-rushers, DeMarcus Ware, who has led the NFL in sacks in two of the past three seasons.
In Romo’s his absence, backup Jon Kitna went 4–5 as the starter, completing 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,365 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Kitna turns 39 in September, and despite tight end Martellus Bennett’s suggestion that Kitna be allowed to compete with Romo for the starting job, Romo is the unquestioned starter. However, Romo has only one playoff victory in four-plus seasons as the starter. Third-stringer Stephen McGee, a fourth-round pick in 2009, won his first career start in the season finale against the Eagles. The Cowboys showed their faith in McGee by not drafting a quarterback in April.
Felix Jones has become the team’s go-to running back, having carried a team-high 185 times for 800 yards and one touchdown. His 185 carries represented 43.2 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, including quarterback sneaks and scrambles. It was 39 more carries than he had in his first two seasons combined. But Jones needs to share the load. He averaged 11.6 carries and 3.0 catches per game last season and can’t handle much more than that. Tashard Choice and rookie DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick, will compete for the backup job. Choice likely is in his final year in Dallas unless he has a big season.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant showed flashes of brilliance until he broke his right fibula on a kickoff return Dec. 5 against the Colts. He should know the playbook better and understand defenses better in his second season in the league. Miles Austin was not as productive as he was in 2009, but he still caught 69 passes for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns and earned a second Pro Bowl nod. He will remain the team’s go-to wideout. Roy Williams’ production never matched what the Cowboys paid for him, and he was released in late July.
Tight end Jason Witten, 29, seems to get better with age. He earned All-Pro honors last season with 94 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns. He has been and will be Romo’s favorite target. Bennett, a second-round pick in 2008, remains maddeningly inconsistent and unproductive. He has the talent but has yet to show it on the field with only 68 catches for 702 yards and four touchdowns in his career. Bennett is running out of time to make good on his potential.
The Cowboys have grown old on the offensive line, and they addressed that in the draft. USC’s Tyron Smith became the first offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Cowboys since Howard Richards was the 26th overall choice in 1981. Smith, 20, is expected to begin his career at right tackle. Left guard Kyle Kosier and center Andre Gurode are in their early 30s. Left tackle Doug Free, who allowed five sacks in his first season as a full-time starter, was the team’s most consistent lineman. He could vie for Pro Bowl honors this season. Veterans Leonard Davis (guard) and Marc Colombo (tackle) were released shortly after the lockout ended.
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, a former seventh-round pick, has become one of the top players in the NFL at his position. The Cowboys found a capable backup in the 2010 supplemental draft, as Josh Brent had 16 tackles in limited time. The Cowboys shored things up at end by re-signing Marcus Spears after the lockout. He will team with fellow starter Igor Olshansky and reserves Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman to form a solid rotation.
Ware had another Pro Bowl season, leading the league in sacks for the second time in three years with 15.5. He also had 66 tackles and 36 quarterback pressures. Anthony Spencer did not take the next step expected of him, though he did have 63 tackles and recorded five sacks. Bradie James didn’t have one of his best years, but he led the team in tackles again with 118. Keith Brooking had a huge drop-off, and at 35 years old he appears to be nearing the end. The Cowboys do have a capable replacement in Sean Lee, a second-round pick last season. Injuries are the only thing that slowed Lee as a rookie. Dallas drafted North Carolina’s Bruce Carter in the second round this year, and the team expects to groom him as James’ future replacement.
Free agent signee Abram Elam is expected to take over at free safety, teaming with strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who signed a new deal after the lockout. The Cowboys also like Danny McCray and Barry Church, who both showed potential last year as rookie free agents. The Cowboys began last season with only three cornerbacks — Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick — and none of the three lived up to expectations. Alan Ball, who struggled at safety last season, has been moved to cornerback.
In his first season as the team’s placekicker, David Buehler went only 24-of-32 on field goals and missed two extra points. He will need to kick well in the preseason to win the job. Mat McBriar is at the top of his game, having led the league in net (41.7) and gross (47.9) punting last season. His performance earned him Pro Bowl honors. Bryant returned two punts for touchdowns. The Cowboys hope Murray will become a threat as a kick returner, something they haven’t had in a few years.
The Cowboys would love nothing more than to finish what they couldn’t last season. The Super Bowl won’t be in Cowboys Stadium, but it would be just as sweet for a team that hasn’t been to the big game since the 1995 season. A lot depends on how Romo rebounds from his broken left clavicle and whether Ryan can fix a defense that was nothing short of awful last season.
Outside the Huddle
Protect this house
The key to making the playoffs is winning home games and going at least .500 on the road. Only the Patriots went 8–0 at home last season, but among the 12 teams in the playoffs, only the Eagles (4–4) failed to have a winning record at home. In a year in which the team was hoping to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, the Cowboys were 2–6 at home and 4–4 on the road. They were 6–2 at Cowboys Stadium in 2009, when they won the division, and then won a wild card playoff game at home.
The Cowboys were second in the NFL in points allowed in 2009 at 15.6 per game. Despite having 10 returning starters on defense, they ranked 31st in 2010 by allowing 27.3 points per game. The 436 points surrendered were the most in Cowboys history.
Kicker David Buehler missed two extra points and was only 24-of-32 on his field goal tries, although he did manage to kick two game-winners in the final five games. His 38-yarder in overtime beat the Colts, and his 39-yarder against the Redskins — which came with 50 seconds left — was the difference in a 33–30 Cowboys win.
Act like you’ve been there
The Cowboys had three post-touchdown celebration penalties. One of them, on right tackle Marc Colombo, ultimately resulted in a 34–27 loss to the Titans.
DeMarcus Ware won his second sack title with 15.5 after recording three on Kevin Kolb in the season finale. He was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 when he led the league with 20 sacks.
Second half surge
After a 1–7 start, the Cowboys won five of their last eight games. That stretch of solid play included upsets of two playoff teams. Their three second-half losses were by a total of seven points.
It was supposed to be a breakout season for Anthony Spencer, but the 26th overall pick in 2007 didn’t take the next step in 2010, posting only five sacks and 14 pressures. Spencer did have 63 tackles, which was sixth on the team, but the big plays he contributed late in the 2009 season weren’t there in 2010. For the Cowboys to get back to where they were as a defense late in the 2009 season, they need Spencer to play as well as he did then. The Cowboys are counting on it. “Don’t get me wrong, sack numbers are important, but pressures are important and plays where he affects the quarterback is important,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says. “The quarterback has to hurry because this guy is in (his) face, a hand in his face — he has to move quickly in the pocket and throw a ball up there that might create a turnover. All those things are factors that don’t show up on the stat sheet necessarily. He needs to get better. He’s working to get better. He understands that.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says that the team had targeted offensive tackle Tyron Smith for the ninth pick since USC’s Pro Day workout March 30 — the only Pro Day that Garrett attended. “I think in our evaluation of him, he distinguished himself beginning at his workout,” Jones says of his new right tackle.
Dallas Cowboys Fantasy Football Team Breakdown
The streaks are almost all gone now, which means the Detroit Lions finally are ready to put their past behind them. The Matt Millen era is a fading memory, along with the historically awful 0–16 season that capped it in 2008. In the span of two weeks last December, the Lions ended both a 19-game losing streak in the NFC North and a 26-game losing streak on the road. And by winning four in a row to finish the season — even without their franchise quarterback — the Lions have suddenly offered tangible evidence that they’re a team on the rise.
Three years of rebuilding the roster under general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have produced an offense loaded with young talent at the skill positions, while a defense that was once the league’s laughingstock now actually is among the more menacing up front.
Can Matthew Stafford stay healthy? The answer to that question will likely decide this team’s fate in 2011. While the Lions’ front office has done its job putting the playmaking pieces around Stafford, he’s the one who will make it all come together. Stafford played in parts of only three games last season after suffering a separated right shoulder in the season opener at Chicago and then doing it again in his second game back against the Jets in November. He underwent surgery to repair his throwing shoulder in January and spent 10 weeks doing rehab with Dr. James Andrews and his staff in Pensacola, Fla. The results looked promising in player-organized workouts in May and June: Stafford added muscle and strength in his upper body and was training and throwing without restrictions. Still, the former No. 1 overall pick, who suffered left shoulder separations as a rookie starter, has played in only 13 games in two seasons, while missing 19.
Injuries also derailed Jahvid Best’s rookie season, one that began with a bang — five TDs in his first two games — but quickly ground to a halt due to turf toe problems. Healthy again, the burner wasn't expected to be asked to do as much as part of a backfield tandem with rookie Mikel Leshoure. But an injury derailed Leshoure, who has his rookie season shelved due to an Achilles injury. Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell were brought in during camp to battle for Leshoure's spot, and that leaves Best leading the crew of Maurice Morris, Jeroma Harrison and Mike Bell as camp progresses.
Brandon Pettigrew emerged as one of the NFL’s best young tight ends, with 71 catches despite a number of drops. When he’s paired with Tony Scheffler in two-tight end sets, that’s two more big targets for Stafford to go along with Calvin Johnson, who finally got his due with a Pro Bowl invitation in 2010. The addition of veteran Nate Burleson helped free up Johnson last season, and the hope is that rookie Titus Young will stretch the field further as a No. 3 receiver, providing a legitimate deep threat.
Continuity’s the key for the offensive line, with all five starters returning for the first time in what seems like an eternity in Detroit. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus remains a question mark coming off microfracture knee surgery, and right guard Stephen Peterman — hampered by a foot injury last fall — needs a bounce-back season. But while the much-maligned group took a lot of heat due to Stafford’s injuries, the Lions actually allowed the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL despite the third-most pass attempts. That’s even more impressive when you consider that most of the season was played with a second- or third-string quarterback.
The Lions’ biggest strides in 2010 came in the front four, where the addition of veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch and rookie tackle Ndamukong Suh had a tremendous impact on this team’s identity. Vanden Bosch, the prime free agent target of Schwartz (his coordinator in Tennessee), immediately asserted himself as a team leader. Almost as quickly, Suh became a dominant force alongside Corey Williams, producing 10 sacks on his way to All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Now with rookie first-round pick Nick Fairley joining the rotation at tackle, the Lions can ease Suh’s workload — he played more than 950 snaps — without sacrificing pressure. And with the maturation of ends Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson, coordinator Gunther Cunningham now has the athletes to fit his attacking, four-wide scheme. Or, as Vanden Bosch puts it, to “throw fastballs the whole game.”
The Lions wanted to upgrade their athleticism at linebacker in free agency, and they did so by signing Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant. Tulloch, who will start in the middle, will be reunited with Schwartz, his former coordinator in Tennessee. Tulloch’s arrival will push third-year pro DeAndre Levy to outside linebacker. Durant, who comes over from Jacksonville, should contend for the starting job on the other side.
Detroit is set at free safety with Louis Delmas, but there will be competition at strong safety between Erik Coleman and Amari Spievey. At cornerback, the Lions failed to make a huge splash in free agency, but they did re-sign Chris Houston and brought in former Brown Eric Wright. Nathan Vasher, Alphonso Smith and Aarron Berry will also be in the mix, but the latter two seem best-suited for nickel and dime roles in the secondary.
This unit showed significant improvement last year under new coordinator Danny Crossman, partly because he had better overall roster depth to work with than his predecessor, Stan Kwan. Special teams standouts like John Wendling and Isaiah Ekejiuba made an impact, but none more so than returner Stefan Logan. A waiver wire pickup in August, he was the only player in the NFL to rank in the top five in both punt and kickoff returns.
Punter Nick Harris rebounded from a subpar 2010 season, while Don Muhlbach remains one of the league’s better long snappers. But Jason Hanson, a mainstay as the Lions’ kicker for nearly two decades, finished last season on injured reserve. And at age 41 with two knee surgeries and an Achilles problem the last two years, he’s no longer Mr. Reliable — at least when it comes to his health. Dave Rayner, who made 13-of-16 field goals in his absence, is the guy if Hanson falters.
Fans in Detroit are trained to be skeptical, but there’s reason for excitement based on last year’s improvements. The Lions scored 100 more points in 2010 than they did in 2009, and they allowed 125 fewer points than they did in ’09. They went from a team that was routinely getting blown out in the fourth quarter to one that was in nearly every game last season, and they finally figured out how to win down the stretch.
It has been more than a decade since the Lions posted a winning record (9–7 in 2000), but that’s the next step for this team. And barring another Stafford injury, a .500 or better record — with an outside shot at the playoffs — is a fair expectation in 2011.
Outside the Huddle
On second thought
Nate Burleson took a little grief when he left Seattle for Detroit a year ago, signing a free agent deal with a team that had gone 2–30 the previous two seasons. “A lot of people, they kind of mocked my decision and really didn’t give me too much encouragement when I came to Detroit,” Burleson says. “But I went back home this offseason, the same people said that I might have made the best move of my career.”
Mikel Leshoure, the Lions’ rookie running back out of Illinois, showed up at player-organized workouts in May wearing his new allegiance on his sleeve. He got a huge tattoo of the Detroit Lions logo on his forearm, complete with the date he was drafted. “Regardless if I get traded or leave, this date will never change,” Leshoure says. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my life, but to be drafted to the Detroit Lions is definitely the biggest step of my life.”
Fairley dominant up front
GM Martin Mayhew called it “sort of a dream scenario” when a run on quarterbacks helped Nick Fairley fall to the Lions at No. 13 overall in April’s draft. And there was little, if any, hesitation about adding a player who didn’t fill a serious need. “The philosophy here was, ‘We’re drafting to our strength,’” coach Jim Schwartz says. “Defensive line is a strength of what we do. When we won our last four (games) last year, you could probably have a quiz show to find out who our corners were in those games. But we were good up front. And being good up front is what drives our defense.”
The abbreviated offseason shouldn’t hurt the Lions as much as some other teams. Schwartz returns the bulk of his staff — including his offensive and defensive coordinators — for a third consecutive season. Meanwhile, the Lions will face six teams with new head coaches in 2011, including four in the first two months of the season.
What’s in a nickname
With time to kill during the lockout, Schwartz took to his Twitter account, holding an impromptu contest for fans to give the Lions defensive line a nickname. The winner was “Silver Crush” — a play off Detroit’s dominant “Silver Rush” unit of the late 1970s and early ’80s — beating out other a few other Schwartz favorites, including “The Dis-Assembly Line.”
Schwartz, a well-known rock ’n’ roll enthusiast, got a thrill in May when Detroit rock legend Bob Seger invited him backstage before a concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Seger then told the crowd the Lions would make the playoffs before he dedicated the song “Old Time Rock ’N’ Roll.”
His own man
The night he was drafted, receiver Titus Young laughed when he was asked about comparisons that called him a poor man’s DeSean Jackson. “I’ve never been another man’s nothing,” Young said. “I’ve always known that I’ve been Titus Young from Day 1. My mother named me Titus Demetrius Young. She didn’t name me nothing else. I know who I am and I know people compare you to people. But God made me to be me. He made me to be Titus Demetrius Young. You can compare me all you want to, but I’m no man’s poor man.”
Detroit Lions Fantasy Team Breakdown
The team that has made a habit of reinventing itself will try yet another reinvention in 2011. The Cleveland Browns begin 2011 with their sixth new coach since 1999. Hold up the cue cards; the lines have all been used: This is the guy ... We are on the right track ... It is a process ... We have the system ... and on and on and on.
This time, the faithful are trusting the judgment of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, who hired Pat Shurmur after dismissing Eric Mangini. The same fans who a few years ago were repeating “In Phil We Trust” when Phil Savage was general manager now are putting their faith in Holmgren and Heckert, which isn’t a bad pair in which to place faith.
In hiring Shurmur, the pair has turned to one of “their own.” Shurmur comes from the St. Louis Rams, where he was the team’s offensive coordinator. He previously worked under Andy Reid in Philadelphia when Heckert was in the front office. He runs the offensive system Holmgren operated and employs the 4-3 defense that Heckert saw in Philadelphia and that Holmgren used as a head coach. In short, he’s more part of “the team” than Mangini was.
This sounds good on paper. But as Browns fans can attest, nothing on paper means much without wins on the field.
Shurmur brings the West Coast offense to Cleveland with the hope that it will help quarterback Colt McCoy be more effective. McCoy’s forte is not throwing down the field, but he was asked to do just that quite a bit in the system run by Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. As a rookie, McCoy completed 65 percent of his throws that went 1-to-10 yards, and 62.5 percent when the passes were between 11 and 20 yards. The completion percentage dropped precipitously, though, when McCoy was asked to throw long. He was 6-of-23 when throwing 21 yards or more, or 26 percent. His rating when throwing short was 89.1, but throwing long it was 50.3. McCoy — theoretically at least — will benefit from an approach better designed to take advantage of his abilities, which would be to emphasize the short-to-intermediate passing game and take chances down the field more judiciously.
One major concern of the Browns’ offense lies in McCoy’s targets. The team lacks a big-play, dependable threat at wide receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi has shown potential, but Brian Robiskie looked lost in Daboll’s offense. The pair started 25 games between them in 2010 yet ranked fourth and fifth on the team in receiving, respectively, and they combined for only 65 catches — 24 NFL receivers had more on their own. Ben Watson is a viable target at tight end, but the Browns need an outside receiving threat. There is hope for second-round draft pick Greg Little, but there are also some concerns. Little was suspended for all of 2010 after blatantly violating NCAA rules while at North Carolina. Also, Little is hardly polished — he played the position for only one full season at UNC after moving from running back.
The Browns’ running game belongs to Peyton Hillis, who came out of nowhere to rush for 1,177 yards after being acquired for quarterback Brady Quinn. He is a bruising runner with amazingly quick feet, which makes him a lot shiftier than most guys his size. He wore down in 2010, and the Browns hope Montario Hardesty returns from a knee injury that cost him his entire rookie season. Brandon Jackson, who rushed for 703 yards with the Packers last year, was signed in the offseason to provide some depth.
Despite Hillis’ success, and despite the growth of McCoy, which was impressive, the Browns’ offense remained inept in 2010, ranking 29th in the league. The offensive line is led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, easily the team's best player. Still, the hope for improvement rests with the new system. At least there is ample proof the West Coast attack has worked in other places.
By almost any measure, the Browns’ defense needs a lot of work. In 2010, the team “improved” to 22nd overall. Cleveland was 18th in pass defense but gave up 26 touchdown passes, the ninth-worst total in the league, and had only 29 sacks, which tied for 25th. The Browns also continued a longstanding tradition by failing to stop the run. They gave up 129.4 yards per game, which ranked 27th.
Amidst all these numbers is this bit of reality: Cleveland now must improve while trying to make the transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, handcuffed by an offseason lockout that limited player movement and acquisitions.
Gone is Shaun Rogers, the mammoth defensive tackle. In is first-round draft pick Phil Taylor, another man-mountain who stayed on the field all downs for Baylor. If Taylor lives up to first-round billing, he and Ahtyba Rubin could form a potent tackle duo. The rest of the line is up for debate, though it would be a surprise if second-round pick Jabaal Sheard did not start at end.
Cleveland’s linebacker corps is in flux. The Browns expect Scott Fujita to start outside, perhaps along with D’Qwell Jackson, who is coming back from a torn pectoral muscle, and Chris Gocong. Marcus Benard showed pass-rush ability outside as well.
The secondary is in good hands at corner with rising star Joe Haden and 10th-year pro Sheldon Brown. Haden’s emergence last season as a rookie made Eric Wright expendable. The safety position needs upgrading, a fact the team concedes.
One thing the Browns have done well since their return in 1999 has been to put outstanding special teamers on the field. Last season was no exception. Phil Dawson remains a reliable placekicker, to the point that the team made him its franchise player in the offseason — a move designed, no doubt, to ensure that Dawson would not jump to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Punter Reggie Hodges suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and was replaced by Richmond McGee. Josh Cribbs remains a threat every time he touches the ball. Also, nobody in the league covered kicks the way the Browns did under Mangini, a coach who loved to stock his roster with special teams standouts.
The lockout hurt some teams a little and a few teams a lot. Put the Browns in the latter category. Teams that were installing new schemes lost valuable teaching time. Critical evaluation time was missed, as was the chance to build offseason camaraderie.
The Browns were not a good team in 2010, though they do believe they found a quarterback in McCoy. Still, McCoy needs time to grow and the Browns need to surround him with more playmakers.
This team could improve its win total — the Browns went 5–11 a year ago — but doesn’t figure to be much off a factor in the top-heavy AFC North.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
Head coach Pat Shurmur will be his own offensive coordinator. This is not unprecedented, and in fact in many West Coast offenses the head coach has been the de facto coordinator. Browns president Mike Holmgren called the plays when he was coach in Green Bay and Seattle. Andy Reid calls the plays for Philadelphia. Norv Turner is his own coordinator in San Diego. Shurmur called the plays in St. Louis, and he will keep those duties in Cleveland. His challenge will be doing both jobs in his first year as a head coach.
The West Coast offense heralds back to the Browns’ glory days. Bill Walsh credited legendary Hall of Fame Cleveland coach Paul Brown with developing the offense — though Walsh clearly refined and enhanced it. Brown ran the offense when he coached the Browns, then took it to Cincinnati as the Bengals’ head coach. Walsh learned it as an assistant, then brought it the 49ers, where he passed it on to Mike Holmgren, who passed it to Andy Reid, who passed it to Pat Shurmur.
Stuffing the Ballot Box
Few fans can respond to a call to arms like Cleveland Browns fans. Their ire brought the organization back when Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore, and their devotion put Peyton Hillis on the cover of the Madden 2012 video game. Hillis won an online competition, earning 66 percent of the vote and beating Mike Vick for the honor, such as it is. Hillis will now have to contend with the Madden cover jinx, a tale that has dogged previous players on the cover — including Vick.
Late Season Blues
Did Hillis wear down as the 2010 season went on? Consider the numbers. Through 11 games, Hillis had run for 905 yards and a 4.5-yard average. In the final five games, he ran for 272 yards on 71 carries, an average of 3.8 per carry. The Browns played some good defenses during that stretch — Baltimore and Pittsburgh — but also played teams like Cincinnati and Miami. Much was asked of Hillis, and he gave much. But it’s not difficult to understand why the Browns are hoping that Montario Hardesty can return this season — Hillis needs breaks, and the two could complement each other well.
A New ’Tude
GM Tom Heckert does not seem to mind players who bring some attitude. Consider his two second-round picks, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little. Little was suspended last season at North Carolina. Sheard was suspended for his role in an offseason fight but was reinstated and named a Pitt captain. Clearly talent with attitude is no longer an issue in the Browns’ front office.
Since they returned in 1999, the Browns have had constant turnover. Pat Shurmur is their sixth head coach, following Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie (interim), Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. In that time they have had nine offensive coordinators, including Shurmur, who will be his own coordinator. The others were Palmer, Pete Carmichael, Bruce Arians, Robiskie, Maurice Carthon, Greg Davidson, Rob Chudzinski and Brian Daboll. Defensively, it’s not pretty either. Dick Jauron’s hiring this season makes him the seventh coordinator on a list that includes Bob Slowik, Crennel, Foge Fazio, Dave Campo, Todd Grantham, Mel Tucker and Rob Ryan. Jauron is the fourth defensive coordinator in the past five years.
The usually stoic personality of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco momentarily disappeared. Joe Cool was on fire. Used for target practice by a legion of critics despite three consecutive playoff appearances, Flacco lashed out after being derided for his leadership, work ethic and ability in the clutch. “I think I’m pretty damn good,” said Flacco, who had been called out by LaMarr Woodley, Dhani Jones and Jamie Dukes. “You can think what you want about me. I would like some more people than myself to think good about me, but they never do, they never do.”
There have been a number of changes with Flacco recently. He got married to his high school sweetheart this offseason, and he uncharacteristically sounded off when quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn was fired.
“I want the ball to be put in my hands,” says Flacco, who’s been granted increased responsibility to change plays and offer more input into game plans. “I want it to be on me. You’ve got to have trust in me, and I think we’re there.”
The Ravens’ primary roadblock in the AFC North hasn’t changed. It’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers. To conquer the division and make a serious Super Bowl run, the Ravens need Flacco to take charge. “I think he’s more than ready to do it,” general manager Ozzie Newsome says. “This will become Joe’s offense.” If that happens, then it may also become his football team.
Flacco’s bolder demeanor isn’t the only change for an offense that’s under major construction. The most dramatic moves were eliminating Flacco’s comfort zone by cutting two of his favorite targets, tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason.
A strong-armed passer, Flacco wants to throw deep more often. However, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron prefers to play it safe.
Flacco’s primary target is wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose chemistry with his quarterback is a work in progress. Boldin muscles cornerbacks for the football like few others, but he doesn’t create much separation. Rookie wideout Torrey Smith could provide the vertical threat this team has lacked. He’s a bit raw but has all the physical tools. Lee Evans was added in a trade with Buffalo during camp to perhaps give the Ravens the veteran deep threat they desire.
Ed Dickson takes over for Heap at tight end. Athletic with good size, he needs to shape up his blocking skills. Dennis Pitta is a sure-handed complement behind Dickson.
Injecting muscle into the backfield, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach to provide an intimidating lead blocker. Leach led interference for NFL rushing champion Arian Foster in Houston last season, giving linebackers toothaches. The Ravens dipped to 14th overall in rushing last year. Ray Rice’s average slumped to 4.0 yards per carry from 5.3 two years ago, but he remains a dangerous all-purpose threat. “For whatever reason, we kind of fell off last year,” guard Ben Grubbs says. “We’re going to get the mindset back and start pounding the ball.”
The offensive line had a rough season last year, giving up 40 sacks, and line coach John Matsko was replaced by Andy Moeller. Nasty Marshal Yanda was retained and shifted to his natural right guard spot. He’ll work next to precocious rookie tackle Jah Reid, an instant starter. Center Matt Birk was talked out of retiring, but he had knee surgery to start camp, and his status is in question. Grubbs is a stout blocker, agile enough to wall off linebackers, but he is coming off ankle surgery. Michael Oher gets another shot at left tackle after an uneven season when he struggled with penalties and against speed rushers. The Ravens like how Oher is channeling his aggressiveness and refining his technique. Still, the Ravens are one injury away from facing serious jeopardy.
Despite going 12–4 in the regular season, the Ravens were outscored 119–80 in the fourth quarter. That could be a sign of age or scheme deficiencies.
A scrappy former Wyoming strong safety, new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is expected to be more aggressive than the man he replaced, Greg Mattison. Known for being emotional on the sideline, Pagano is reminiscent of Rex Ryan in temperament and philosophy. “Coach has his own swag to him,” linebacker Terrell Suggs says.
To restore the defense to Ryan’s standard of ‘organized chaos,’ the Ravens need to apply more heat to quarterbacks. They often just played coverage and rushed only three players. Only Suggs and franchise defensive tackle Haloti Ngata are legitimate pass-rushing threats. A powerful, disruptive interior force, Ngata dropped 20 pounds in an effort to get even quicker.
Beefy nose guard Terrence Cody, who replaces Kelly Gregg, is down to 349 ponds. Stamina has been an issue for the gigantic anchor in the middle.
Linebacker Jarret Johnson has strengthened his surgically repaired shoulder and has bulked back up to 260 pounds. An X-factor is linebacker Sergio Kindle, finally cleared to play after missing his rookie season with a fractured skull.
All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis remains an intimidating tackler and inspirational leader, but he has lost some range and is no longer a big factor in pass coverage. Reliable inside backer Jameel McClain does the dirty work next to Lewis.
Ed Reed is one of the most dynamic, instinctive safeties in the game, but he’ll be breaking in a new starter opposite him after Dawan Landry left. The competition is between Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and newcomer Bernard Pollard.
First-round pick Jimmy Smith is the Ravens’ first big shutdown corner since Chris McAlister. Domonique Foxworth is back from a torn ACL. If his knee isn’t sound, then Lardarius Webb or veteran Chris Carr, who got starter’s money with a $15 million deal, could take over.
The Ravens demonstrated their emphasis on special teams when they locked up Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff and Pro Bowl alternate punter Sam Koch for $14.7 million and $11.5 million, respectively. It’s arguably the top kicker-punter tandem in the game. David Reed led the NFL in kick return average with a 29.3 average, setting a franchise record with a 103-yard jaunt against the Texans. Webb will handle punt return duties after averaging 9.5 yards per return. Kick coverage is in good shape with Pro Bowl special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo fully healthy and linebacker Prescott Burgess returning.
The Ravens look poised to compete with the Steelers, and the schedule is fairly generous. If the running game is truly rejuvenated and Flacco takes the next step, they could advance deep into the playoffs. However, vulnerability and inexperience on the offensive line and at wide receiver will probably prevent the Ravens from achieving their goal of hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
|Wizard of Oz
General manager Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end, and now he’s forging an equally impressive track record as an NFL executive. Newsome manufactured one Super Bowl winner and believes strongly in building through the draft. His first two draft picks in 1996 are both future Hall of Famers: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis. Sixteen of his first-round draft picks have combined for 46 Pro Bowl selections. The Ravens' biggest misses in the first round have been wide receiver Travis Taylor and quarterback Kyle Boller.
One year after fracturing his skull when he fell down two flights of stairs and missed his entire rookie season, linebacker Sergio Kindle is playing again with no restrictions after being cleared by neurological specialists and signing an injury waiver. The former second-round pick suffered serious hearing loss in his left ear and uses hand signals for defensive calls, but he has proven that he can take and absorb hits without incident. Whatever the speedy edge-rusher contributes is regarded as a bonus by team officials.
Strong safety Tom Zbikowski is a pugilistic hit as an undefeated cruiserweight. The former Gold Gloves champion boxer signed with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum during the lockout and won all three of his fights and is 4–0 as a professional with three knockouts. Trained by boxing legend Emanuel Steward, ‘Zibby’ won fights in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. After testing positive initially for a substance found in marijuana and being briefly suspended following an Oklahoma boxing card, the former Notre Dame star passed the second test and was cleared to fight. “The tests that were taken were very unreliable,” Arum said. “He’s clean.”
On the Bike
Ray Lewis took up cycling as a low-impact way to reinvent his training regimen. And the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year reported at a lean 250 pounds for his 16th season. “Cycling is one of the greatest sports in the world,” he says. “To really be able to train hard and get your heart rate as high as you can get it without the pounding, that’s the key to it.”
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth was a key figure in the NFL labor talks. As a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee, Foxworth works closely with union chief DeMaurice Smith and is regarded as a tough negotiator by NFL management.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs doubles as a movie producer. He’s the owner of an award-winning independent Maryland film company. Suggs is heavily involved, writing scripts, auditioning actors and making the occasional cameo appearance on screen.
A Japanese-American, safety Haruki Nakamura quickly organized a Red Cross relief program to aid tsunami-ravaged Japan. Nakamura and his teammates raised over $60,000, and he was honored by a Japanese ambassador for his efforts.
Quarterback Joe Flacco married his high school sweetheart this summer, and their wedding pictures became a viral hit on the Internet. The most entertaining shots were one of the wedding party throwing popcorn in a movie theater and another of the bride snapping the football to the groom.
Marvin Lewis is seeking a fresh start for 2011, and in an offseason filled with labor strife and uncertainty, the Bengals faced their biggest upheaval of personnel since their head coach’s first season of 2003.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, delivered on his threat to retire if the Bengals did not trade him — which they refused to do. Chad Ochocinco, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, was dealt to New England, where he signed a three-year contract. On top of that, the Bengals lost one of their best players, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, in free agency.
The Bengals don’t play by the same rules as most NFL teams. Few, if any, franchises would’ve brought back Lewis following a 4–12 season that ran his overall record (including playoffs) to 60–69–1. But these are the Bengals. They did replace embattled offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski with Jay Gruden. Jon Gruden’s younger brother has never been a coordinator at the NFL level, but the Bengals have given him some weapons by using their first two draft choices on wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.
In Cincinnati, that constitutes a fresh start.
The lockout hurt every team when it came to preparation and installation of the playbook, but that’s especially true for the Bengals, who are starting with a new offensive coordinator to go along with a new quarterback and headline receiver.
Unlike Carson Palmer’s rookie season, when he sat behind veteran Jon Kitna, Dalton is going to play in 2011. With the shortened offseason, veteran Bruce Gradkowski (signed after the lockout) is likely to get the opening-day start, but Dalton won’t be sitting long. Gruden’s offense will utilize multiple looks in the run and pass game, and Dalton has the mental makeup to run the scheme.
Besides the absence of Carson Palmer and Ochocinco from the offensive mix, the Bengals also will say goodbye to Terrell Owens, who led the team with 72 receptions and nine touchdowns in 2010 but wasn’t re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. Jettisoning the “me-first” personalities of Owens and Ochocinco will help Dalton’s progress.
One player who did return is tailback Cedric Benson, who flirted with the Houston Texans in free agency before signing a two-year deal to stay in Cincinnati. Benson has topped 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.
While Green will get a lot of attention, Gradkowski and Dalton should make fast friends with Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham. They caught 52 passes apiece last season, and Gresham, in particular, made improvements throughout the season. His size (6'5", 260) and speed will allow him to line up anywhere and create mismatches.
The offensive line has to improve from last season, when it allowed 28 sacks and produced a run game that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth used to have trouble with speed-rushers, but that is no longer the case, and the former LSU Tiger has quietly developed into one of the better players at his position in the league. The Bengals are still waiting for right tackle Andre Smith to prove he was worthy of the No. 6 overall pick in 2009. He’s been overweight and injured for two seasons.
Rey Maualuga moves from the strong-side linebacker position to the middle, taking over for Dhani Jones. Maualuga had a disappointing second season in 2010, when he was often overly aggressive and out of position. He wasn’t the only Cincinnati defender guilty of those transgressions, but if the Bengals are going to regain the status of a top-10 defense, a distinction they had in 2009, Maualuga has to be at the forefront.
A promising sign for the defense is the youth on the line. End Michael Johnson has developed into an every-down player, while second-year end Carlos Dunlap is working his way there. Dunlap is a potent pass-rusher who will command double-team attention after getting 9.5 of the Bengals’ 27 sacks last season. The interior of the line needs to generate more push in the pass rush. Geno Atkins provided some last season as a rookie, but it’s an area that needs improvement from veterans Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. Don’t be surprised to see Pat Sims finally force his way into the starting lineup.
Joseph’s departure didn’t come as a big surprise. With Leon Hall entering the final year of his contract at the other corner spot, the Bengals just weren’t going to be able to pay two top-end cornerbacks. Hall is durable (he’s never missed a game in four seasons) and has an ability every cornerback needs: He knows how to forget previous plays. The Bengals replaced Joseph with Ohio native Nate Clements. Now 32, Clements is past his prime, but he is still a quality cornerback who will team with Hall to make this a position of strength.
Safety is a weak spot. Chris Crocker (strong) and Reggie Nelson (free) are the starters, but Crocker has been prone to injury the past two seasons, and Nelson, acquired in a trade with Jacksonville last season, needs to show the talent that made him a first-round pick on a more consistent basis.
Whether they were kicking or returning, the Bengals didn’t do enough to dictate field position in 2010.
Mike Nugent is hopeful of returning from an ACL tear and MCL sprain of his right (kicking) knee, but the Bengals could find themselves in a mad scramble to locate a reliable replacement if he can’t make it back. The answer won’t be Clint Stitser, who struggled tremendously in his five games last season. Punter Kevin Huber’s numbers looked better in 2010 than ’09, but the Cincinnati native lacks consistency, especially with his hang time. All of his stats from 2010 put him in the middle of the pack of NFL punters.
Cincinnati was below-average in the return game, ranking 25th in the NFL in punt returns and 20th in kick returns.
It’s tough to see the Bengals making a push at a division title with as much change as they are going to go through this season. Starting a new quarterback brings enough difficulties, but when that player (who could be a rookie) comes in with less offseason prep time than normal and then goes up against a schedule that includes four games against defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, that’s asking a lot. Still, it was only two years ago that the Bengals swept their division games, and a good number of the players who made that happen are still on the roster. They should be more competitive than a year ago, but not enough to challenge the Steelers or Ravens. This team is another year or two away from contending again.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden comes from a successful family. Fans are aware of older brother Jon’s success in the football world as a coach and broadcaster, but the oldest of the three Gruden boys, Jim, heads up the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He’s the cerebral one,” says Jay.
The Bengals’ offensive woes of 2010 were particularly telling in the first and third quarters of games. They totaled just 45 points — less than a field goal per game — in the opening 15 minutes and just 57 points in the third quarter. Only five teams — the Bills, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Jets and Panthers — scored fewer points in the first quarter of games, and only seven teams had greater scoreboard futility than Cincinnati coming out of halftime.
Helping at Home
Linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Domata Peko traveled to American Samoa in late June to take part in a football clinic run by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and his foundation. Peko, a native of American Samoa, and Maualuga, whose parents are natives of the island, have made the trip to the South Pacific previously for other charitable efforts. Following the tsunami of 2009 that devastated the island, both Peko and Maualuga spearheaded relief efforts in the Cincinnati area.
Peko and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth organized player workouts in Cincinnati for the defense and offense while the lockout was in effect. Nearly 50 players showed up for all or parts of the two-week practice sessions that simulated workouts the players would have gone through at the team’s facility had the lockout not occurred.
Good Luck, Kid
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason understands more than most the frustrations that led Carson Palmer to declare that he would retire if he were not traded. Esiason was traded to the New York Jets in 1993, a year after the Bengals drafted David Klingler with the No. 6 overall pick. “He’s checked out of the Cincinnati hotel,” says Esiason of Palmer. “I sympathize with him. I hope Mike (Brown) tries to do the right thing even though with me he waited a year. I don’t know if (Andy) Dalton can withstand what we all have gone through. We’ll see. I wouldn’t have high expectations for this year, though.”
Anderson for HOF
Anthony Munoz is the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who spent the majority of his career in Cincinnati, but former teammate Ken Anderson is receiving increased media support as his candidacy for the 2012 class switches to the Senior Committee. Anderson won four NFL passing titles and led the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI in 1981.
Carlos Dunlap didn’t start getting significant playing time until the second half of last season, but he still managed to total 9.5 sacks, a Bengals rookie record and second only to Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh for most by a rookie last season.
The Bengals went 0–4 last season when Carson Palmer threw for 300 or more yards. Since 2006, the Bengals were just 2–10 when Palmer passed for 300 or more yards.
Few teams were better positioned than the Steelers to weather the lockout — and specifically the missing offseason workouts and practices that were a casualty of the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.
Every defensive starter from 2010 returns, and the offense didn’t sustain any major losses. Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff stayed largely intact, and the loss of offseason practices probably benefited a defense that has nine starters in their 30s and needed extra rest following a season that stretched through January.
The Steelers again appear poised to hold off the Ravens in the AFC North and make a run at an NFL-record ninth Super Bowl appearance. They will have to overcome recent history as much as anything else: Seven of the last 10 teams that lost in the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs the following season.
Rashard Mendenhall blossomed into one of the better running backs in the NFL last season, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains the focal point of the Steelers’ offense. Roethlisberger overcame the drama he largely created last season to throw for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 12 games. He may not get mentioned in the same breath as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but Roethlisberger’s value goes beyond numbers. His ability to extend plays and his toughness have allowed Roethlisberger to thrive despite playing behind a line that has been battered by injuries and criticism the last couple of years.
The Steelers ran the ball only eight fewer times than they threw it in 2010, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has been criticized by fans for steering the Steelers away from a power running attack, may have to resist the temptation to air it out more this season. The Steelers also have a deep and talented receiving corps, led by Hines Ward and emerging star Mike Wallace, as well as one of the NFL’s most underrated tight ends in Heath Miller.
Keeping the line relatively healthy for an entire season would go a long way toward improvement on offense. The Steelers were besieged by injuries up front last year, and only graybeard right tackle Flozell Adams (since released) and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey started every game. Pouncey is the linchpin of the line and should be a perennial Pro Bowler for the next decade. His play — Pouncey has drawn comparisons to former Steelers great Dermontti Dawson — and concerns at guard are why the Steelers explored trading up in the first round of the draft to take Pouncey’s identical twin brother, Mike, who went No. 15 overall to the Dolphins.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s emphasis on player safety won’t deter the Steelers from trying to batter opponents into submission, an approach that has outlasted the steel mills as a Pittsburgh hallmark. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley give the Steelers two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, and they are part of a linebacking corps that is as good as any in the league. The Steelers led the NFL with 48 sacks, but the defense is vulnerable when it can’t get consistent pressure on elite quarterbacks, as Brady and Aaron Rodgers showed last season.
Brady and Rodgers toyed with a secondary that is led by strong safety Troy Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but is suspect when it comes to covering in space. Cornerback Bryant McFadden started opposite Ike Taylor last season, but the Steelers could use an upgrade there. The problem is that William Gay is best suited to play nickel back and Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler lack experience. Lewis is a former third-round draft pick and may go down as a bust if he doesn’t make significant strides this season.
Defensive end Aaron Smith is the biggest question mark on the line as he tries to return from a torn triceps. The emergence of Ziggy Hood last season minimizes concerns over Smith, a 13th-year veteran who is returning from a third season-ending injury in the last four years. Assuming nose tackle Casey Hampton is his usual, immovable self, the Steelers should again be harder to run on than wet cement.
Shaun Suisham is back after bailing out the Steelers’ kicking game last season. Suisham, signed last November after the Steelers cut the erratic Jeff Reed, may have found a home after bouncing around the NFL. Punter Daniel Sepulveda also returns, although his right knee is a major concern as he has torn the ACL in it three times, including twice since the Steelers moved up in the fourth round of the 2007 draft to take the lefty with the booming leg. If Sepulveda can stay healthy, he should be one of the better punters in the NFL. Another serious injury will likely end his career in Pittsburgh.
Second-year man Antonio Brown gives the Steelers an explosive kickoff returner, something they had lacked since Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. If he gains the trust of the coaching staff, Brown will also supplant the sure-handed Antwaan Randle El as the Steelers’ primary punt returner.
The Steelers shored up their kick coverage teams last season after allowing four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009. Those units have alternated between solid and shaky since 2007, a pattern the Steelers are hoping will end this season. As always, the Steelers will look for help from their rookie class and younger players who, like Harrison and Brett Keisel before them, are expected to make an impact on special teams before graduating to the starting lineup.
The Steelers have been hearing for years that they are getting too old. “I (say) we’re like fine wine,” says linebacker James Farrior, who is 36 and entering his 15th NFL season. “We just get better with age.”
Three Super Bowl appearances in the last six years buttress that claim, but the Steelers have also been adroit at keeping their nucleus together while working in young impact players such as Woodley, Wallace and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
The AFC North looks like a two-team race between the Steelers and the Ravens. The bitter rivals are so close in many ways, from personality to personnel, but the Steelers seem to have a psychological edge over the Ravens. They are, simply put, in the Ravens’ heads after overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit in last season’s AFC Divisional Playoff game — and beating Baltimore for the sixth time in the last eight games dating back to 2008.
If the Steelers can weather injuries — something they excelled at in 2008 and 2010 but couldn’t do in 2009 — they should win a third AFC title in five years under Tomlin. The prospects for a seventh Lombardi Trophy will largely depend on how the Steelers’ passing defense holds up against premier quarterbacks.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
Two-back systems are either trendy or a necessity right now, making Mike Tomlin a traditionalist when it comes to running the football. The Steelers have relied heavily on one back since Willie Parker carried the ball 321 times before breaking his lower right leg in the next-to-last game of Tomlin’s first season. Rashard Mendenhall, a former first-round pick who replaced Parker as the starter in 2009, logged 79 percent of the carries by Steelers running backs last season in rushing for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. And it doesn’t sound like Tomlin plans on lightening Mendenhall’s workload this season. “That’s why you draft running backs, to hand them the ball,” Tomlin says. “I think if you polled any back, they want the ball and they want it a lot.”
Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the only players in Steelers history to record at least 10 sacks in each of their first three seasons as starters. The two have combined for 71.5 sacks since 2008, when Woodley cracked the starting lineup. Just as with Harrison, whom the Steelers in 2009 made the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history, the organization plans to make a long-term commitment to Woodley. And Woodley would love nothing more than to spend his entire career with the tradition-rich franchise, one that maintains strong ties with many players who helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. “You see ‘Mean’ Joe Greene always around, Mel Blount,” Woodley says. “You see those guys and say ‘You know what? When I get to that age that’s how I want to be.’”
Retirement Can Wait
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau enjoys a father-son relationship with many of his players, and the respect he commands is one reason why the Steelers are so synonymous with stingy, hard-hitting defense. When LeBeau got inducted into the Western chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame during the offseason, Harrison, James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Bryant McFadden were among those who attended the dinner. How much does Farrior love LeBeau? “I’m leaving when he leaves,” the inside linebacker and Steelers’ defensive captain says. Neither has given any indication that retirement is imminent even though LeBeau turns 74 two days before the regular-season opener and Farrior is 36. Farrior is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and the ageless LeBeau helped the Steelers finish first in the NFL in scoring and rushing defense last season. “He could go until he was 90 if he wanted to,” Farrior says of LeBeau. “I haven’t seen too many 70-some-year-old men that look like him.”
What Are the Odds?
Harrison, Farrior, Troy Polamalu and past Steelers greats Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were among those who watched Hines Ward compete live on “Dancing With the Stars” during the spring. The support Ward received from his teammates blew him away. But they were a tad skeptical after it was announced that Ward would take part in the 12th season of the popular reality TV show. “I think they had a locker room pool to see how long I might last,” Ward says. The Steelers’ all-time leading receiver outlasted everybody, joining Emmitt Smith as the only past or current NFL players to win DWTS.
With an offense that remains a work in progress, the Chicago Bears will again depend on an elite defense to do most of the heavy lifting after falling a game short of the Super Bowl.
The defense is getting a bit long in the tooth, and critics contend that it may be in danger of slippage. The Bears scoff at the notion. If last year was an accurate indication, the unit is still operating at very close to peak efficiency, but the fact remains that the effectiveness of many key players could start to diminish in the near future. Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs all went to the Pro Bowl last season, giving them a combined total of 19 appearances. But all three are 30 or older. Urlacher, 33, is entering his 12th season; Peppers, 31, is going into season No. 10; and Briggs prepares for his ninth season, during which he will also turn 31. The team’s best cornerback, Charles Tillman, is 30, but he, too, is coming off a solid season. And defensive end Israel Idonije turns 31 in midseason, but he had a breakout year in 2010 with a career-best eight sacks.
This is the second season in offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system, and, as a team, the Bears will not be able to take the next step without continued improvement on this side of the ball. There were some positive signs last season, but there were also troubling developments that must be addressed before any gains will be realized.
The Bears’ biggest problem last season was an offensive line that allowed an NFL-worst 56 sacks, and no time was wasted on draft day attempting to upgrade the team’s weakest area. First-round draft pick Gabe Carimi is expected to start immediately, but he seems better suited for right tackle, which means last year’s rookie sensation, seventh-rounder J’Marcus Webb, would have to shift to left tackle. That would also mean another position change or a reserve role for Frank Omiyale, who began the ’10 season with two starts at right tackle but started the final 14 games at left tackle. In ’09, he started 12 games at left guard, but that was where ’09 first-round pick Chris Williams started the final 11 games last season. Right guard Roberto Garza, may have to fight for his job.
O-line coach Mike Tice faces a formidable task in getting all the pieces in the right place, but he had the same chore last season and eventually figured out the right combination. This year, however, he must do so without Olin Kreutz, the Bears’ popular center who was released in late July in the wake of the signing of Seattle free agent center Chris Spencer. A more cohesive line would allow Martz to maximize the talents of quarterback Jay Cutler, who improved in his second year with the Bears but has much more room for growth. Cutler sliced his interceptions from a league-worst 26 in ’09 to 16, but he will never play to his immense potential without better protection.
The Bears lack a true No. 1 go-to wide receiver. But in Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and the newly acquired Roy Williams, Cutler has enough weapons to launch an effective aerial attack, especially when the receiving talents of running back Matt Forté are factored into the equation. Forté bounced back big time from a sophomore slump, demonstrating his talents as a featured runner by averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry and tying Knox for the team lead with 51 receptions. The Bears do lack a proven pass-catching tight end after shipping Greg Olsen to Carolina in the offseason.
The Bears finally gave up on former Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris, who had become just a shell of his former self, but their Cover-2 scheme demands an active, disruptive player at the 3-technique to function at full capacity. Second-round pick Stephen Paea could be that guy, and playing on the same line with the multi-talented Peppers should only help his assimilation into the starting lineup. Anthony Adams’ play at the nose has been solid for the past four seasons, but he is an unrestricted free agent. Fourth-year veteran Marcus Harrison, a third-round pick in 2008, has been a disappointment, and this could be his last chance. He has the tools to be a starter but has yet to use them effectively. Youngsters Corey Wootton and Henry Melton both flashed pass-rush potential last season, and Melton is sometimes used inside in nickel situations where he can utilize his quickness to create mismatches.
Urlacher and Briggs are still perhaps the best 1-2 linebacker punch in the NFL, but there is no clear-cut starter on the strong side, with last year’s complementary players facing free agency.
The only constant in the secondary has been Tillman at cornerback. He isn’t a classic shutdown corner, but he matches up well with big receivers, is physical and forces a bunch of turnovers with his uncanny knack for stripping ball-carriers. He tied with safety Chris Harris for the team lead with five interceptions in ’10. The remaining corners are undersized, although Tim Jennings and nickel back D.J. Moore (four interceptions) both played well last season. Zack Bowman lost the starting job to Jennings last season but has prototypical size and speed for the position.
Both safety spots have been a revolving door since Lovie Smith took over in 2004, with a total of 41 changes at the two spots. Last season there was unprecedented continuity with Danieal Manning at strong safety and Harris at free safety; both started all 16 games. But Manning isn’t expected back, and last year’s third-round pick, Major Wright, is being groomed as a starter.
Punter Brad Maynard was a reliable and effective directional kicker in Chicago for the last decade, but he was finally showing some signs of age, so the Bears made a move and signed Adam Podlesh, who is 11 years younger than Maynard, in free agency. Robbie Gould is the sixth-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (85.5 percent), and his kickoffs were significantly longer last year. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly is 36, but he received a contract extension last season, a testament to his continuing accuracy and consistency.
The Bears have an abundance of returners, led by Hester, the NFL record-holder with 14 return touchdowns. Hester has focused primarily on punt returns the past two seasons, but he still averaged 35.6 yards on a dozen kick returns in 2010, and Knox was second in the NFL in ’09 with a 29.0-yard average. Coordinator Dave Toub’s coverage teams are annually among the league’s best.
The defense is still playoff-caliber, although almost all of the difference-makers are past 30 years of age. The Bears’ special teams are always among the league’s best. But this team won’t make it back to the NFC title game without improvement on offense, specifically on the line.
Outside the Huddle
A new McCaskey
Long before he replaced his brother Michael as the chairman of the board on May 5, George McCaskey served the Bears in far less prestigious roles. McCaskey was just 14 when he began working for the team his grandfather, George Halas, founded in 1920. “I had just graduated from the eighth grade, and I asked my grandpa if I could work in the office during the summer,” McCaskey says. A fire had recently damaged the Bears’ offices that year, 1970, and whatever was salvaged from the blaze was transferred to a back room of the new office. “I would go into the office with a tie and dress shirt, change into a t-shirt and go back into what was actually an old handball court, and come out covered with soot, wash it off and change back into my dress shirt and tie to go home.”
It says a lot about defensive tackle Stephen Paea’s potential that, even after setting the all-time Scouting Combine record with 49 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the 6'1", 303-pounder considers quickness his greatest attribute. “I feel like the bench press was something in my back pocket,” the second-round draft pick says. “When I watched the replay, some of the experts, (Mike) Mayock and all of those media guys saying that I’ll be a true nose tackle. But, in my mind, strength is my Plan B. As far as the quickness and stuff, that is what I feel like I can bring to the game.”
Growing their own
If offensive coordinator Mike Martz believes quarterback Nathan Enderle is a worthwhile project in his offense, which he does, then that more than overshadows the 6'4", 240-pounder’s lack of athleticism (5.21 40-yard dash). Besides, there’s no such thing as a fifth-round bust, and this certainly seems like a better solution to the quarterback situation than 39-year-old Todd Collins was last season. The Bears want to develop their own quarterbacks, and now Martz has one to mold.
Sticking to his guns
First-round pick Gabe Carimi isn’t taking back one word of what he said at the Combine when he claimed he was the best offensive tackle in the draft. “What am I going to say?” Carimi said. “That I don’t think I’m the best tackle or (I’m) not going to be the best tackle? No. I assume almost any tackle would feel confident in their own game.”
As Cutler goes...
Jay Cutler has posted 22 games with a passer rating of 100 or better, and his teams are 22–0 in those games, including 7–0 last season. In those seven victories, the Bears averaged 30.6 points per game.
Pieces in place
After much juggling along the offensive line in the early part of the 2010 season, the Bears started the same five players up front for the final nine regular-season games. With Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza and J’Marcus Webb starting in the final nine games, running back Matt Forté averaged 4.9 yards per carry, eighth-best in the NFL during that time. In the final six weeks, Forté averaged 5.8 yards per carry, fifth-best in the league over that stretch.
The returns are in
With his 14th return touchdown last season, Devin Hester surpassed Brian Mitchell for the all-time NFL record. Hester scored his 14 TDs on a total of 291 return opportunities; Mitchell had 13 TDs on 1,070 chances. Dante Hall and Eric Metcalf are tied for third with 12 return touchdowns, and both had more than twice as many attempts as Hester.
The Chicago Bears Fantasy Football Preview
Aaron Rodgers fancies himself as something of an amateur NFL historian, so it hardly came as a surprise when the Green Bay Packers quarterback had his answer at the ready when asked during the offseason what he and the Super Bowl XLV champions must do for an encore.
“No team from the NFC has repeated as conference champions in the last 10 years,” Rodgers replied, well aware that the last NFC team to go to back-to-back Super Bowls was the Packers in 1996 and 1997, when they won Super Bowl XXXI, then lost Super Bowl XXXII to the underdog Denver Broncos. “That’s definitely motivation.”
The reigning Super Bowl MVP enters 2011 with plenty of personal motivation as well. Now in his seventh season, Rodgers stands as the NFL career leader in passer rating (98.4) but still believes he has some work to do in convincing naysayers he’s among the league’s elite signal-callers.
But with a deep arsenal of offensive weapons, a defense capable of taking over games and an influx of depth from players returning from injury, Rodgers and the Packers have an excellent opportunity to reach the Super Bowl once again.
Coach Mike McCarthy calls his offense “quarterback driven,” and there might not be a better guy to have behind the wheel than Rodgers, who was magnificent down the stretch last year (122.1 passer rating during his final seven regular-season starts and four playoff games). Right now, his game is essentially without weakness. He’s fantastic against the blitz because of his high football IQ, allowing him to read defenses, adjust protection schemes and get the ball out. After two concussions and the first missed start of his career, he needs to avoid further injury, but at least the Packers now know that they have a capable backup in Matt Flynn.
Of course, there’s only one ball to go around to Rodgers’ deep corps of pass-catchers. In the first four games of 2010, the passing game was routed through tight end Jermichael Finley, whose size-speed combination was a matchup nightmare for opponents. After Finley’s season-ending knee injury at Washington on Oct. 10, Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings (76 catches, 1,265 yards, 12 TDs) became the focal point of the passing game. In 2011, Finley will be back to full health and entering a contract year, meaning he’ll require touches. But at whose expense? Not only has Jennings emerged as a star, but Jordy Nelson also had a breakout game in the Super Bowl (nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown) and looks like the Packers’ next big thing. The biggest question among the receivers is whether 36-year-old Donald Driver is in decline after having his streak of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons snapped.
The Packers’ ground game last season might have been just as formidable had Ryan Grant’s season not ended in Week 1 because of an ankle injury. With Grant back to full strength, 2011 could be interesting in the backfield. While the Packers’ running back committee of Brandon Jackson, James Starks, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance did very little to keep opposing defenses honest, the late-season emergence of Starks gave a glimpse of a potentially lethal 1-2 punch. Starks had fresh legs late in the year and ran hard every time he touched the ball.
The offensive line did a better job of protecting the quarterback (38 sacks, down from 51 in 2009) but still has work to do. Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton isn’t getting any younger, but Josh Sitton is among the league’s best guards, second-year right tackle Bryan Bulaga should lift his game after starting 12 games as a rookie, center Scott Wells’ intelligence makes up for his lack of size, and first-round pick Derek Sherrod adds depth at tackle.
Retired Packers GM Ron Wolf used to talk about players who “tilted the field,” and he had two during the franchise’s last run atop the league — defensive end Reggie White and safety LeRoy Butler. The Packers’ latest championship defense had two such defenders as well in outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson. Both will have to continue their elite play for a defense predicated on stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Up front, third-year nose tackle B.J. Raji should be mentioned in the same breath as the top 3-4 noses in the league. Whether it’s eating up double teams, stuffing the run or getting after the quarterback when allowed (7.5 sacks, including playoffs), he emerged as an impact player. He’ll anchor a line that will include fellow big men Ryan Pickett and Howard Green and will be counting on promising second-year man Mike Neal to step up.
The linebackers are led by Matthews, who had six sacks in the first two games of 2010 and may have challenged Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record if not for a shin injury that slowed him at midseason. Matthews is the total package; all he lacks is a big-time running mate on the opposite side, where part-time starters Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones will compete for the starting gig. Inside, Desmond Bishop took over for an injured Nick Barnett after four games and never looked back, seizing the starting job. He’ll be paired with steady A.J. Hawk.
While Woodson isn’t the cover man he used to be, he’s seldom outside anymore, with the Packers in nickel nearly 60 percent of the time. In those situations, Woodson is more of a slot corner or safety hybrid. He’s been surpassed as a cover man by Tramon Williams. Third cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent, was phenomenal as a rookie.
The team hasn’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum took one back in 2000, and many fans hold their breath when Williams, a Pro Bowl cornerback, sets up deep on fourth down. The drafting of Randall Cobb in the second round could remedy the situation, with the speedy Shields also an option on kickoff returns now that he catches the ball more consistently.
Kicker Mason Crosby is solid, especially in Green Bay’s unfriendly climate, but he hasn’t made a game-winning field goal since his NFL debut in 2007. Since then, he’s missed all three of his chances. Punter Tim Masthay — who won the job in training camp last season over Australian import Chris Bryan — was a godsend, almost singlehandedly beating the Jets and Bears during the regular season by dominating the field-position battle in low-scoring affairs.
If the Packers were able to win the Super Bowl despite having 16 players on season-ending injured reserve, imagine how good they could be if they actually stayed healthy. Rodgers alone makes them a perennial contender as long as he’s healthy, and the offensive weaponry at his disposal is almost unfair. Add to that a defense that is entering its third year in Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, and the pieces are in place for a repeat.
Outside the Huddle
Millions of fans watching the aftermath of Super Bowl XLV saw Clay Matthews put a glittery boxing/wrestling-style championship belt over Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder on the podium, a nod to Rodgers’ patented touchdown celebration. But few know the humble beginnings of Rodgers’ signature move, which dates back to 2005, when Rodgers was the backup to ironman Brett Favre. “The championship belt represents my personality more than anything. Because it is a joke of a celebration that I started on the practice field, on the scout team, that has turned into this cult following,” Rodgers says. “For me, wanting to get the most out of those (scout team) reps, the best way I found to get those guys motivated was to make it fun for them, and the way to make it fun was to celebrate every big play. And taunt the defense. And the way we did it was (by saying), ‘You know what? Every time we make a play, we’re celebrating. And let’s make it as ridiculous as we can.’ And that’s how it started.”
John Candy moment
Growing up a Joe Montana fan in Northern California, Rodgers had hoped his first Super Bowl would give him what he called his “John Candy moment,” referring to how Montana saw the comedian in the stands and pointed him out in the huddle to loosen up the 49ers offense before the game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive at the end of Super Bowl XXIII. As it turned out, Rodgers got his before kickoff, when a pair of foreign photojournalists nearly came to blows at the coin flip. “At the Super Bowl, there are these long TV timeouts. So we go out for the coin toss, there are five of us, and the Steelers guys are standing over there. And we’re just standing there looking at each other for a good three minutes,” Rodgers says. “Over to the left, about 10 cameramen have been trying to get in place to get the best shot, and two of them are fighting. They’re yelling at each other in different languages, flipping each other off. They’re both screaming at each other taking pictures of each other for a good minute and a half. And I’m tapping A.J. (Hawk) and saying, ‘Look at that! Look at that! It’s unbelievable!’”
Learning to lead
Rodgers’ circuitous route to the NFL is well known: He went unrecruited out of high school and attended Butte (Calif.) College before transferring to California. But one lesson learned during that winding road is paying dividends for him now that he’s the leader of the Pack. As an 18-year-old freshman at Butte, Rodgers took the class An Introduction To Coaching As A Career in 2002, taught by the school’s basketball coach, Russ Critchfield. “I remember specifically one day we were talking in class about motivation, and how coaches need to treat their teams as individuals — and how each individual has different buttons,” Critchfield says. “People often talk about well-known people and the presence they have, and they seem to have the ‘It’ factor. I don’t know if I can describe what it means. He just has a presence about him. You can see why people would follow him. He just has those qualities. The class, it’s a fun class, and we have a lot of discussions. I think he got something out of it. Anything Aaron does, he gets something out of it.”
Gren Bay Packers Fantasy Football Team Predictions and Rankings
The Vikings’ expectations for 2011 can be found somewhere between promise and denial. Several talented pieces remain from a 2009 team that was one botched play from a Super Bowl berth, but those pieces are either aging or still wondering what the heck happened during last season’s 6–10 meltdown.
Now the Vikings find themselves at a crossroads. It’s unclear whether this team is rebuilding or clinging to fading glory. This is a veteran roster that knows it has a small window to win, but can a few dusty Pro Bowl résumés offset regression at several positions and the need for a new outlook on offense? After all, new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and the starting quarterback — veteran Donovan McNabb — must make the rest of the offense believe in a new approach.
First-year coach Leslie Frazier must manage these moving parts skillfully to avoid a second consecutive last-place finish in a loaded NFC North.
McNabb, acquired from Washington in a post-lockout trade, must grasp a new playbook during a lockout-abbreviated training camp as he hopes to prove that his lone season in Washington was an aberration. McNabb threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) for the first time in his career and ranked 24th in the league with a 77.1 passer rating. If McNabb struggles, the Vikings can turn to Joe Webb or 2011 first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. Webb is one of the team’s most intriguing players. The Vikings love his upside, elite speed and arm strength, but he’s considered raw as a passer with unproven accuracy, which is essential in the Vikings’ West Coast-inspired attack. Ponder, too, has rollout quickness and a sizable arm, but the Vikings don’t yet know what they have. At least the Vikings have mobile quarterbacks, a necessity behind an oft-injured line starting three players over 30.
The Vikings feature some nice firepower at the skill positions, but they suffered a blow in free agency when Sidney Rice bolted for Seattle and a big paycheck. Rice has been prone to injury, but when healthy he provided a much-needed deep threat.
Now, to the positives: Running back Adrian Peterson has limited his fumbles and is still arguably the league’s premier tailback; tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is an athletic option who wins one-on-one matchups; and wide receiver Percy Harvin can channel Wes Welker-type inside production and help move the chains. After that trio, things get murky. The team does have high hopes for rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph, who will be used often in Musgrave’s two-tight end sets.
The Vikings need more consistency up front from its veteran line to give the offense a chance to flourish.
For years, the Vikings entered every game knowing they were one of the league’s best at stopping the run. The Vikings want to restore that confidence after falling to ninth in rushing defense last season, but the personnel within the Tampa 2 scheme has a steep climb to produce the desired results.
At its core, Minnesota’s defense still has five veteran players performing at a high level. That’s no longer enough to mask deficiencies up front and in the secondary. Still, hope remains because of talent such as defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who remains the anchor of the Vikings’ interior attack. But Williams’ ability to penetrate the backfield might be in question after he recorded a career-low one sack in 2010. Williams won’t have much help save Letroy Guion, who is good for one- or two-down stints but probably isn’t a full-time starter, and newly acquired Remi Ayodele. Depth will be an issue inside. The right edge will provide a dozen or more sacks every year thanks to Jared Allen, who sometimes resorts to flailing against elite left tackles but always finds his stride through a 16-game season.
The Vikings could use an influx of secondary talent despite a system that emphasizes stopping the run and utilizing the nickel package. Cornerback Antoine Winfield, still an elite tackler and corner blitzer, is the only sure thing in the unit. Winfield wasn’t tested as often in 2010 because the other side was such a mess, but now that he’s 34, it’s uncertain how long he can contain bigger, stronger wideouts. Corners Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook missed a combined 24 games in 2010 due to knee injuries. The Vikings can’t be sure how Griffin will respond after two ACL tears, and Cook needs to be fully healthy to showcase his combination of size and athleticism.
The Vikings wanted to keep safety Madieu Williams around, but they cleared $3.5 million in cap space with his release. Tyrell Johnson will be given every opportunity to take Williams’ spot. Husain Abdullah recorded three interceptions in his first season as a starter but isn’t the game-changing safety teams covet.
One of the safest bets on the roster is linebacker, where Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson play more than 90 percent of the snaps. Greenway rarely misses a tackle and is disciplined in the running and passing games. The next step for him is getting to the quarterback after one sack the last two seasons combined. Henderson is a versatile playmaker fresh off his first Pro Bowl, but he struggles laterally against quick backs in the open field. Don’t be surprised if Erin Henderson wins the battle for the third spot. His athleticism and nose for the football are apparent; now he must win over coaches and limit occasional mental lapses.
It’s hard to argue with the efficiency of tandem Ryan Longwell, who made 17 of his last 18 field goal attempts, and punter Chris Kluwe, among the league’s best at downing punts inside the 20.
Despite three career touchdowns and a 23.3-yard return average in 2010, Harvin likely will relinquish kickoff return duties to running back Lorenzo Booker in an effort to preserve Harvin’s health. Booker showed a spark in limited kickoff action last season. The Vikings likely need an upgrade at punt returner. Wide receiver Greg Camarillo was thrust into the role out of necessity, and despite his sure hands, he’s not fast enough to be a dynamic returner.
The Vikings could flirt with a .500 record. At least a few wins will hinge on whether this team can stay healthy. Problems in the secondary and up front will haunt the defense when facing Aaron Rodgers twice a year. But an offense with McNabb and a solid collection of playmakers might actually surprise some people. Still, Minnesota will have to battle to stay out of last place.
Outside the Huddle
Football’s best backhand
After playing at 360 pounds in 2010, left tackle Bryant McKinnie decided tennis lessons from friend Venus Williams in Florida would help him slim down. McKinnie dropped five pounds in the first few weeks with Venus and set his goal at 340 for the season opener. “One thing I learned with Venus, you have to be ready for a long lesson,” McKinnie says.
An offseason arrest prompted defensive end Everson Griffen to move to Minnesota full time in an effort to curb distractions. Griffen was charged with resisting arrest in January in Los Angeles. He worked out with linebacker E.J. Henderson all offseason. “I’m just trying to make changes,” Griffen says. “I’ve got big years coming up.”
Invested in the game
When not on the field, offensive tackle Ryan Cook spends time studying real estate markets in Minnesota and his native New Mexico for startup company RCC Investments. Cook’s plan is to acquire 10 small apartment buildings, serve as property manager and flip them for a profit. “I graduated from (University of New Mexico) with a business degree, so this has been my plan all along,” Cook says.
Rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph endured pain through the entire draft evaluation process after hamstring surgery in October. Rudolph didn’t start to feel “completely normal again” until May, which reminded the former Notre Dame star of his potential as a pass-catcher. “I now feel athleticism and explosiveness from when before I got hurt,” Rudolph says.
Grabbing football by the horns
When news of his three-year, $14.1-million contract became official on March 3, defensive end Brian Robison was at a rodeo in the Houston area. The Texas native is admittedly a little country. “I got to celebrate the moment a little bit,” says Robison, the only Viking to sign a long-term deal before the old CBA expired.
Quarterback Christian Ponder wanted to become a vocal leader, but the rookie needed time over the years to overcome his shy personality. Teammates at Florida State thought he was conceited because he didn’t talk much as a freshman, but he was just reserved. A summer telemarketing job cold-calling boosters helped him break out. “I hated that job,” Ponder says. “But I’m glad I did it.”
Running back Toby Gerhart, who played at Stanford, had a miserable time dealing with the Minnesota winter. His car got stuck in the snow several times, and he once had to call quarterback Joe Webb to pick him up. “I just need a few years to get used to it,” Gerhart jokes.
Multiple formation location
The Vikings were scattered throughout the country in the offseason. More than a dozen players stayed locally in Minnesota, but others spent time everywhere from Florida (Percy Harvin) to Maryland (Visanthe Shiancoe) to Arizona (Jared Allen) to Oklahoma (Phil Loadholt) to Arkansas (Kevin Williams).
The football network
Twitter is part of the fabric of the sports-fan experience, and the Vikings are no exception. At least 28 players from last year’s roster regularly update a Twitter account. Tweeters include Adrian Peterson, Harvin and Bernard Berrian.
Minnesota Vikings Fantasy Football Team Breakdown
Athlon Sports' second post-lockout mock draft is here. This week, we cater to the old school players — those in leagues with no flex, no PPR and four points for passing touchdowns. This format, however, did not seem to stop our staff from jumping on QBs early as one went in the first round, six in the second and one in the third before slowing down. Whether it is four points or six points, elite QBs are still a hot commodity.
Check out last week's 10-team, two-quarterback, 16-round mock draft.
Mock Draft League Scoring: 1 pt = 25 pass yds, 1 pt = 10 rush/rec yds, 4 pts passing TDs, 6 pts all other TDs, -2 pts = INT, -1 pt = fum. lost, 1 pt = 40 ret. yds
Roster: QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, TE, K, DST, 8 Bench Spots
Athlon Sports Non-PPR, No-Flex Position Fantasy Mock Draft (12 teams, 16 rounds)
|1||Braden Gall||Adrian Peterson||RB||MIN|
|2||Patrick Snow||Arian Foster||RB||HOU|
|3||Mitch Light||Jamaal Charles||RB||KC|
|4||Steven Lassan||Chris Johnson||RB||TEN|
|5||Charlie Miller||Ray Rice||WR||BAL|
|6||Rob Doster||Andre Johnson||RB||HOU|
|7||Corby Yarbrough||LeSean McCoy||RB||PHI|
|8||Tim Clark||Roddy White||WR||ATL|
|9||Mark Ross||Rashard Mendenhall||RB||PIT|
|10||Matt Taliaferro||Frank Gore||RB||SF|
|11||Nathan Rush||Maurice Jones Drew||RB||JAC|
|12||Mark Malone||Aaron Rodgers||QB||GB|
|13||Mark Malone||Larry Fitzgerald||WR||ARI|
|14||Nathan Rush||Michael Vick||QB||PHI|
|15||Matt Taliaferro||Steven Jackson||RB||STL|
|16||Mark Ross||Calvin Johnson||WR||DET|
|17||Tim Clark||Philip Rivers||QB||SD|
|18||Corby Yarbrough||Matt Forte||RB||CHI|
|19||Rob Doster||Greg Jennings||WR||GB|
|20||Charlie Miller||Michael Turner||RB||ATL|
|21||Steven Lassan||Drew Brees||QB||NO|
|22||Mitch Light||Tom Brady||QB||NE|
|23||Patrick Snow||Peyton Manning||QB||IND|
|24||Braden Gall||Matt Ryan||QB||ATL|
|25||Braden Gall||DeSean Jackson||WR||PHI|
|26||Patrick Snow||Hakeem Nicks||WR||NYG|
|27||Mitch Light||Darren McFadden||RB||OAK|
|28||Steven Lassan||Mike Wallace||WR||PIT|
|29||Charlie Miller||Tony Romo||QB||DAL|
|30||Rob Doster||Ahmad Bradshaw||RB||NYG|
|31||Corby Yarbrough||Vincent Jackson||WR||SD|
|32||Tim Clark||Dwayne Bowe||WR||KC|
|33||Mark Ross||Peyton Hillis||RB||CLE|
|34||Matt Taliaferro||Reggie Wayne||WR||IND|
|35||Nathan Rush||DeAngelo Williams||RB||CAR|
|36||Mark Malone||Miles Austin||WR||DAL|
|37||Mark Malone||Ryan Mathews||RB||SD|
|38||Nathan Rush||Dez Bryant||WR||DAL|
|39||Matt Taliaferro||Knowshon Moreno||RB||DEN|
|40||Mark Ross||LeGarrette Blount||RB||TB|
|41||Tim Clark||Jahvid Best||RB||DET|
|42||Corby Yarbrough||Antonio Gates||TE||SD|
|43||Rob Doster||Felix Jones||RB||DAL|
|44||Charlie Miller||Jeremy Maclin||WR||PHI|
|45||Steven Lassan||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||RB||NE|
|46||Mitch Light||Mike Williams||WR||TB|
|47||Patrick Snow||Santonio Holmes||WR||NYJ|
|48||Braden Gall||Wes Welker||WR||NE|
|49||Braden Gall||Mark Ingram||RB||NO|
|50||Patrick Snow||Brandon Lloyd||WR||DEN|
|51||Mitch Light||Steve Johnson||WR||BUF|
|52||Steven Lassan||Marques Colston||WR||NO|
|53||Charlie Miller||Dallas Clark||TE||IND|
|54||Rob Doster||Shonn Greene||RB||NYJ|
|55||Corby Yarbrough||Matt Schaub||QB||HOU|
|56||Tim Clark||Jason Witten||TE||DAL|
|57||Mark Ross||Mario Manningham||WR||NYG|
|58||Matt Taliaferro||Anquan Boldin||WR||BAL|
|59||Nathan Rush||Kenny Britt||WR||TEN|
|60||Mark Malone||Jonathan Stewart||RB||CAR|
|61||Mark Malone||Ryan Grant||RB||GB|
|62||Nathan Rush||Percy Harvin||WR||MIN|
|63||Matt Taliaferro||Brandon Marshall||WR||MIA|
|64||Mark Ross||Jermichael Finley||TE||GB|
|65||Tim Clark||Cedric Benson||RB||CIN|
|66||Corby Yarbrough||Austin Collie||WR||IND|
|67||Rob Doster||Sidney Rice||WR||SEA|
|68||Charlie Miller||Daniel Thomas||RB||MIA|
|69||Steven Lassan||Vernon Davis||TE||SF|
|70||Mitch Light||Fred Jackson||RB||BUF|
|71||Patrick Snow||Marshawn Lynch||RB||SEA|
|72||Braden Gall||Johnny Knox||WR||CHI|
|73||Braden Gall||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||PIT|
|74||Patrick Snow||A.J. Green||WR||CIN|
|75||Mitch Light||Joseph Addai||RB||IND|
|76||Steven Lassan||C.J. Spiller||RB||BUF|
|77||Charlie Miller||Ryan Williams||RB||ARI|
|78||Rob Doster||Pierre Garcon||WR||IND|
|79||Corby Yarbrough||Julio Jones||WR||ATL|
|80||Tim Clark||Santana Moss||WR||WAS|
|81||Mark Ross||Eli Manning||QB||NYG|
|82||Matt Taliaferro||Chad Ochocinco||WR||NE|
|83||Nathan Rush||Josh Freeman||QB||TB|
|84||Mark Malone||Owen Daniels||TE||HOU|
|85||Mark Malone||Beanie Wells||RB||ARI|
|86||Nathan Rush||Marcedes Lewis||TE||JAC|
|87||Matt Taliaferro||Kellen Winslow||TE||TB|
|88||Mark Ross||Matthew Stafford||QB||DET|
|90||Corby Yarbrough||Mike Tolbert||RB||SD|
|91||Rob Doster||Joe Flacco||QB||BAL|
|92||Charlie Miller||Michael Bush||RB||OAK|
|93||Steven Lassan||Plaxico Buress||WR||NYJ|
|94||Mitch Light||Brandon Jacobs||RB||NYG|
|95||Patrick Snow||Sam Bradford||QB||STL|
|96||Braden Gall||Steve Smith||WR||CAR|
|97||Braden Gall||Green Bay||DST||GB|
|98||Patrick Snow||Rob Gronkowski||TE||NE|
|99||Mitch Light||Malcom Floyd||WR||SD|
|100||Steven Lassan||Tim Hightower||RB||WAS|
|101||Charlie Miller||Jacoby Ford||WR||OAK|
|102||Rob Doster||Pierre Thomas||RB||NO|
|103||Corby Yarbrough||Roy Williams||WR||CHI|
|104||Tim Clark||Michael Crabtree||WR||SF|
|105||Mark Ross||New York Jets||DST||NYJ|
|106||Matt Taliaferro||Jay Cutler||QB||CHI|
|107||Nathan Rush||Lance Moore||WR||NO|
|108||Mark Malone||Mike Thomas||WR||JAC|
|109||Mark Malone||James Starks||RB||GB|
|110||Nathan Rush||Danny Woodhead||RB||NE|
|111||Matt Taliaferro||Donald Driver||WR||GB|
|112||Mark Ross||Robert Meachem||WR||NO|
|113||Tim Clark||Jerome Harrison||RB||DET|
|114||Corby Yarbrough||New England||DST||NE|
|115||Rob Doster||Brandon Pettigrew||TE||DET|
|116||Charlie Miller||Roy Helu||RB||WAS|
|118||Mitch Light||LaDainian Tomlinson||RB||NYJ|
|120||Braden Gall||Davone Bess||WR||MIA|
|121||Braden Gall||Tony Gonzalez||TE||ATL|
|122||Patrick Snow||Jordy Nelson||WR||GB|
|123||Mitch Light||Aaron Hernandez||TE||NE|
|124||Steven Lassan||Matt Cassel||QB||KC|
|125||Charlie Miller||Willis McGahee||RB||DEN|
|126||Rob Doster||Kevin Kolb||QB||ARI|
|127||Corby Yarbrough||Reggie Bush||RB||MIA|
|128||Tim Clark||Lee Evans||WR||BAL|
|129||Mark Ross||Braylon Edwards||WR||NYJ|
|130||Matt Taliaferro||Jimmy Graham||TE||NO|
|131||Nathan Rush||James Jones||WR||GB|
|132||Mark Malone||Hines Ward||WR||PIT|
|133||Mark Malone||Javon Ringer||RB||TEN|
|134||Nathan Rush||Jerome Simpson||WR||CIN|
|135||Matt Taliaferro||Mark Sanchez||QB||NYJ|
|136||Mark Ross||Mike Williams||WR||SEA|
|137||Tim Clark||Devin Hester||WR||CHI|
|138||Corby Yarbrough||Danny Amendola||WR||STL|
|139||Rob Doster||Deion Branch||WR||NE|
|140||Charlie Miller||Ryan Torain||RB||WAS|
|141||Steven Lassan||Heath Miller||TE||PIT|
|142||Mitch Light||Jason Campbell||QB||OAK|
|143||Patrick Snow||Delone Carter||RB||IND|
|144||Braden Gall||Arrelious Benn||WR||TB|
|145||Braden Gall||Thomas Jones||RB||KC|
|146||Patrick Snow||Shane Vereen||RB||NE|
|147||Mitch Light||Mike Sims-Walker||WR||STL|
|148||Steven Lassan||Eric Decker||WR||DEN|
|150||Rob Doster||Darren Sproles||RB||NO|
|151||Corby Yarbrough||Ryan Fitzpatrick||QB||BUF|
|152||Tim Clark||Donovan McNabb||QB||MIN|
|153||Mark Ross||Brandon Jackson||RB||CLE|
|155||Nathan Rush||Kyle Orton||QB||DEN|
|157||Mark Malone||Josh Brown||K||STL|
|158||Nathan Rush||Nate Kaeding||K||SD|
|159||Matt Taliaferro||Rob Bironas||K||TEN|
|160||Mark Ross||Stephen Gostkowski||K||NE|
|161||Tim Clark||Marion Barber||RB||CHI|
|162||Corby Yarbrough||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||PIT|
|163||Rob Doster||Steve Breaston||WR||KC|
|164||Charlie Miller||Rashad Jennings||RB||JAC|
|165||Steven Lassan||Jordan Shipley||WR||CIN|
|166||Mitch Light||Mason Crosby||K||GB|
|167||Patrick Snow||Jason Snelling||RB||ATL|
|168||Braden Gall||Montario Hardesty||RB||CLE|
|169||Braden Gall||Matt Bryant||K||ATL|
|170||Patrick Snow||Sebastian Janikowski||K||OAK|
|171||Mitch Light||Ronnie Brown||RB||PHI|
|172||Steven Lassan||Alex Henery||K||PHI|
|173||Charlie Miller||Garrett Hartley||K||NO|
|174||Rob Doster||Adam Vinatierri||K||IND|
|175||Corby Yarbrough||Greg Little||WR||CLE|
|176||Tim Clark||Bernard Scott||RB||CIN|
|177||Mark Ross||Derrick Mason||WR||NYJ|
|178||Matt Taliaferro||Jonathan Baldwin||WR||KC|
|179||Nathan Rush||Ben Tate||RB||HOU|
|180||Mark Malone||Anthony Dixon||RB||SF|
|181||Mark Malone||DeMarco Murray||RB||DAL|
|182||Nathan Rush||New York Giants||DST||NYG|
|183||Matt Taliaferro||Kendall Hunter||RB||SF|
|184||Mark Ross||Jacoby Jones||WR||HOU|
|185||Tim Clark||Nick Folk||K||NYJ|
|186||Corby Yarbrough||Neil Rackers||K||HOU|
|187||Rob Doster||San Diego||DST||SD|
|188||Charlie Miller||Nate Burleson||WR||DET|
|189||Steven Lassan||Mike Goodson||RB||CAR|
|190||Mitch Light||New Orleans||DST||NO|
|191||Patrick Snow||Earl Bennett||WR||CHI|
|192||Braden Gall||Cadillac Williams||RB||STL|