Articles By Braden Gall

All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Tennessee Titans, NFL
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Tennessee Titans check in at No. 17.

Peyton Manning’s Tennessee homecoming parade has been cancelled, and Vince Young is on his second team since being booed off the stage in Music City following the 2010 season. It is up to either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker to win the Super Bowl that has eluded 89-year-old owner Bud Adams, who founded the Houston Oilers (and co-founded the AFL) in 1960.

Second-year coach Mike Munchak will have an open competition to determine the Titans’ starting quarterback. Entering his 14th season, the 36-year-old Hasselbeck is an above-average passer who can beat bad teams and keep it close against superior competition — which, in a mediocre AFC South, may be all Tennessee needs to do to sneak into the playoffs with a wild card berth. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Locker heads into his second season with the type of big league arm (MLB’s Angels own his rights until 2015), mobility and moxie not seen in Nashville since Steve ­McNair’s co-MVP, Super Bowl runner-up heyday.

With the Colts starting No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck (a Pac-10 rival of Locker) and the Jaguars turning their team over to Blaine Gabbert (a 2011 draft classmate of Locker), now is a perfect time to go with the young gun — who threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 99.4 rating, along with a highlight-reel diving score on the ground, in limited action (66 pass attempts) as a rookie. The loser of the Locker-Hasselbeck showdown will be arguably the best backup in the league.

Offense

Whoever plays quarterback will have the luxury of a loaded arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Chris Johnson follows in the footsteps of former franchise workhorse runners Eddie George and Earl Campbell. But not since the days of Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins and Drew Hill have the Oilers-Titans had a fleet of receivers like 6'3", 215-pound athletic freak Kenny Britt, 1,000-yard wideout Nate Washington, first-round pick Kendall Wright and 6'5" rising star tight end Jared Cook. That doesn’t mean Warren Moon’s Run ‘n’ Shoot offense is making a comeback, but second-year coordinator Chris Palmer will have options.

Still, the Titans are coached by a Hall of Fame O-lineman in Munchak — whose right-hand man, O-line coach Bruce Matthews, is a fellow Hall of Famer and former Oiler-Titan — and will remain a ball-control offense. Johnson is the straw that stirs the drink. The Tennessee faithful are eager to see the track star formerly known as CJ2K return to his All-Pro form and earn the $53 million deal he signed last offseason. The perfect storm of NFL lockout, contract holdout and new coach-coordinator-QB slowed Johnson out of the gate. But the interior of the offensive line was arguably the biggest problem with the running game last season. The signing of 11-year veteran guard Steve Hutchinson will help solidify the line — which boasts strong bookend tackles Michael Roos, a dancing bear on the blindside, and David Stewart, a nasty mauler on the right side as well as the team’s resident enforcer. The line did suffer a significant loss at the start of training camp, however, when center Eugene Amano suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Right guard Fernando Velasco has slid over and it appears the job is his to lose.

The return of a reliable ground game will open up the play-action passing attack, which could be especially dangerous depending on the health and behavior of Britt, who tore his ACL and MCL in Week 3 last season after posting 14 catches for 271 yards and three TDs the first two weeks. Although Britt required multiple surgeries this offseason, including two different procedures since May alone, his continued off-the-field trangressions may end up being the biggest hurdle to overcome. After being arrested and charged with another DUI in July, Britt could be subject to punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which could delay his return to the lineup further. Between questions about his health and his behavior, it's becoming clearer why the Titans drafted Wright in the first round.

Related: Top Tennessee Titans Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The losses of scrappy corner Cortland Finnegan and versatile lineman Jason Jones will hurt, but maybe not as much as many believe. The secondary is led by safety Michael Griffin — who signed a new five-year contract in June after getting the franchise tag — and talented young corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty (twin brother of the Patriots’ Devin McCourty). Second-year coordinator Jerry Gray mixed and matched his base 4-3 with a slew of nickel packages last year, which will mean plenty of playing time for veteran safety Jordan Babineaux as well as rookies Coty Sensabaugh and Markelle Martin.

Up front, tackle Jurrell Casey enters his second season riding a wave of positive momentum. The 22-year-old 300-pounder flashed signs of stardom as a rookie and is being counted on to anchor the D-line, a unit that lacks the luxuries of proven depth or a dominant Albert Haynesworth or Jevon Kearse-caliber playmaker. Free agent Kamerion Wimbley and high-intensity hustler Dave Ball are both predictably solid pros at end. The spotlight is on 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, a high-profile underachiever who has compiled nearly as many injuries as sacks (four) over his first two years. Karl Klug, Sen’Derrick Marks and rookie Mike Martin headline the rotation of big bodies set to line up next to Casey inside.

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy wears No. 52 and thinks he’s Ray Lewis. As long as no one tells him otherwise, expect the young tackling machine out of Miami to continue to run through brick walls in search of the football. McCarthy’s toughness is contagious, but his wrecking ball style of play may impact his long-term durability. On the outside, Akeem Ayers looks the part and runs well but had a knack for missed tackles and poorly timed mental mistakes as a rookie. Fans are concerned that second-round pick Zach Brown may be a less physical version of Ayers. The fastest linebacker in the draft (4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine), Brown was accused of being “allergic to contact” by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock.

The creative Gray may also implement a few 3-4 hybrid looks with Wimbley — who was an outside backer in Oakland — standing up to rush the passer. 

Specialists

A fan favorite, kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business, hitting 29-of-32 field goals, including 6-of-7 from over 50 yards out. Punter Brett Kern had a career year in 2011, with a 43.6-yard average and 31 kicks downed inside the 20. Return specialist Marc Mariani was hurt by kickoff rule changes but had a 79-yard punt return to the house.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC South

The Titans were the only team with a winning record (9–7) to miss the postseason in 2011. A Week 15 loss at Indy — which was the Colts’ first win of the season — was essentially a playoff-elimination game. Munchak’s second campaign should run much more smoothly, at least after the dust has settled on the quarterback competition in camp.

Houston is the overwhelming favorite in the AFC South, while Indianapolis and Jacksonville appear to be two of the least talented teams in the league. Tennessee is flying under the radar but has a chance to win its way into the playoffs. A front-loaded schedule includes four 2011 playoff teams in the first six weeks. If the Titans can survive early on, they could thrive once the season heats up — especially if CJ-barely-1K plays closer to the CJ2K level he’s proven capable of.

Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Big Orange vs. Orange Crush
The Titans came painfully close to signing Peyton Manning, a former All-American at the University of Tennessee and Titans owner Bud Adams’ top offseason priority. “He is the man I want. Period,” said Adams. “I will be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.” It ­didn’t happen, but the state’s hopes were high after Manning was seen wearing a UT-orange shirt on his visit to Nashville. But Manning picked the Rocky Mountains over Rocky Top.

Emerald City South
New GM Ruston Webster is the latest in a growing line of key Titans who have roots in the Seahawks’ organization. The list includes Webster’s predecessor, new senior executive VP and COO Mike Reinfeldt; quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; guard Steve Hutchinson; and safety Jordan Babineaux. Even quarterback Jake Locker hails from Ferndale, Wash., which is about 100 miles north of Seattle.

Gotta Be the Shoes
@ChrisJohnson28 teased his Twitter followers in late May, tweeting: “I wish I can post these new CJ2K cleats for this year but I can’t yet y’all gonna see the fye.” Along with building suspense for the unveiling of his new shoes, Johnson also let his Tweeps know he bowled a 177, made a YouTube video stir-frying Ramen noodles with Orlando rapper Pressure Dommer and told USA track star Tyson Gay that he wanted to be on the 4x100 relay team at the London Olympics. Who knows? Maybe the gold-grilled runner would have worn Michael Johnson-style gold cleats?

Comeback Kid
Jake Locker nearly pulled off a pair of come-from-behind wins after coming off the bench to replace an injured Matt Hasselbeck at Atlanta and against New Orleans. The Locker-led Titans scored 14 unanswered points in the Georgia Dome and were a late-fourth quarter third down stop away from getting the ball back with a chance to win before ultimately losing 23–17. Locker was one play away from upsetting the Saints but failed to pull the trigger on 3rd-and-goal as time expired on a 22–17 defeat. Overall, the Titans were plus-12 on the scoreboard with Locker in the game in 2011.

Locker vs. Luck
Jake Locker and Andrew Luck played against each other twice in college, with Luck’s Stanford Cardinal owning a 2–0 edge — winning 41–0 in 2010 and 34–14 in 2009 — over Locker’s Washington Huskies. Locker and Luck have yet to make their first NFL starts, but the duo already has a history in what could be a long AFC South rivalry.

Doctor Bud
Owner Bud Adams received an Honorary Doctorate of Business from his alma mater Menlo College on May 5. Adams graduated from the small Atherton, Calif., private school in 1942 and established the K.S. Bud Adams Jr. Endowed Scholarship, which “provides assistance for nearly 20 Menlo students each year.”

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: Fri., Aug. 10

Order your 2012 Tennessee Titans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Tennessee Titans Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Titans 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 05:39
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Tennessee Titans, NFL
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Tennessee Titans official Twitter account:

@TennesseeTitans (Followers: 88,662)

Top Titans To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, August 9, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Chris Johnson RB @ChrisJohnson28 711,470
2. Will Witherspoon LB @willwitherspoon 134,788
3. Matt Hasselbeck QB @Hasselbeck 128,400
4. Jason McCourty* CB @McCourtyTwins 38,450
5. Michael Griffin S @MikeGriff33 24,458
6. Rob Bironas K @RobBironas 18,342
7. Shaun Smith DT @autumnsjs90 15,407
8. Mike Martin DT @GoMikeMartin 14,811
9. Marc Mariani WR @MarcMariani83 12,498
10. Kenny Britt WR @KennyBritt_18 12,205
11. Damian Williams WR @DwillOne7 11,474
12. Jared Cook TE @JaredCook89 11,152
13. Akeem Ayers LB @Akeem_Ayers 10,523
14. Kameiron Wimbley DE @Mr_Wimbley96 10,477
15. Alterraun Verner CB @Alvern_1 10,360
16. Colin McCarthy LB @COLINMcCARTHY52 9,714
17. Derrick Morgan DE @dmorg91 7,500
18. Jordan Babineaux DB @jordanbabineaux 7,271
19. Robert Johnson S @Robertjohnson32 6,595
20. Brett Kern P @brettkern6 5,668
21. Gerald McRath LB @4everUSM24 5,523
22. Javon Ringer RB @JavonRinger23 5,230
23. Tim Shaw LB @TShawsTruth 4,538
24. Jamie Harper RB @Newbreed23 4,228
25. Michael Roos OT @MichaelRoos 3,693

*Jason McCourty shares a Twitter account with his twin brother, Devin, who plays strong safety for New England.

Eddie George (@EddieGeorge27), the franchise's all-time leading rusher, and recently retired Titan, Keith Bulluck (@kbull53) are two franchise greats that Titans fans can follow if they wish to.

The Titans Beat:

Jim Wyatt, Titans beat writer for The Tennessean: @jwyattsports (16,158)

John Glennon, Titans beat writer for The Tennessean: @glennonsports (4,917)

Terry McCormick, co-owner of TitanInsider.com/AFC blogger for the National Football Post: @terrymc13 (3,131)

Teresa Walker, covers Titans for the Associated Press: @TeresaMWalker (2,241)

Titans Blog Roll:

Titans Insider is The Tennessean's blog for Music City's home team.

Music City Miracles is SB Nation's Titans blog.

TitanInsider.com is part of 247Sports' network of sites.

Titan Sized, Total Titans and Titans Gab are some others out there.

The ESPN AFC South blog is run by Paul Kuharsky and you can follow him @espn_afcsouth.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: Fri., Aug. 10

Order your 2012 Tennessee Titans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Season Preview
Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

- By Braden Gall and Mark Ross, published on August 9, 2012

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Titans Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 05:29
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Buffalo Bills, NFL
Path: /nfl/buffalo-bills-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Buffalo Bills check in at No. 18.

The Buffalo Bills enter the 2012 season with the dubious distinction of having missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons. In the era of unrestricted free agency and advancements in scouting college players, NFL teams almost have to try to miss the postseason for that many years. But Buffalo has had only one winning season since 1999. Is this the year the drought finally ends?

While last season’s second-half swoon — a 1–8 finish after starting 5–2 — was painful, it did reveal areas the Bills needed to improve most, starting with a pass rush. The Bills addressed that aggressively, making headlines with the signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. With a better defense helping out a vastly improved offense under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo may be able to re-ignite some of that magic it had early in 2011. But if you’re a Bills fan, you’ve learned not to get your hopes up.

Offense

Even with their struggles in the second half of last season, the Bills made noticeable strides in operating coach Chan Gailey’s creative offensive schemes. Gailey favors spreading out defenses and running the ball, keeping opponents guessing with non-traditional sets.

The key to making it work, of course, is a smart, savvy quarterback. The Bills have that in Fitzpatrick, who came to Buffalo as a backup to the long-forgotten Trent Edwards in 2009 and found a permanent, well-paying home. Fitzpatrick, who operates like a faucet — hot and cold — still has a lot to live up to in justifying the six-year, $59 million contract he received during last season’s hot start, particularly after throwing 16 of his league-leading 23 interceptions during the club’s 1–8 skid.

Working in his favor was the club’s decision to retain two of his favorite targets, free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler. Johnson, who was given a $36.25-million deal, is the only Buffalo receiver ever to notch consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but the team is still without an undisputed No. 2 wideout, and deep speed is a concern. There is no shortage of candidates who will try to complement Johnson in some form. Those to watch include David Nelson, Donald Jones, Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, Brad Smith, third-round pick T.J. Graham and speedy free agent David Clowney.

The team’s most consistent strength, though, is the run game. Veteran Fred Jackson and emerging C.J. Spiller form a strong tandem. Spiller averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry after Jackson missed the final six games with a fractured fibula. Buffalo led the league in yards-per-rush on first down at 5.46, setting up advantageous second and third down situations.

It’s up to the pass-happy Gailey to commit to Jackson and Spiller even more behind a developing line that needs to replace left tackle Demetress Bell, who signed with the Eagles. Chris Hairston or second-round pick Cordy Glenn are the likely candidates.

Related: Top Buffalo Bills Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Bills allowed a club-record 5,938 yards last season along with 434 points, the second-most ever. Needless to say, Gailey was left with little choice but to fire defensive coordinator George Edwards and hand the reins to assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, the well-respected and well-traveled former boss of the Bears and Dolphins. But even a coach as good as Wannstedt needs players, and he was given two early Christmas presents in the form of Williams and Anderson, who bring 88.5 career sacks to the shores of Lake Erie.

Williams, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, was the most prized free agent pass-rusher on the market, and Buffalo scored a coup by selling him on the joys of a small city and an end-friendly 4-3 scheme. Anderson, who had 10 sacks for rival New England, arrived a week later. Considering the Bills had a paltry 29 sacks last year — with 10 coming in one game — this was their biggest area of need, and they filled it with gusto.

With Williams and Anderson on the outside and stalwart defensive tackles Kyle Williams, a 2010 Pro Bowler, and Marcell Dareus, last year’s first-round pick, in the middle, Buffalo will field one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts without question (provided Williams recovers fully from foot surgery). The hope is that those four players make a decent linebacker and secondary corps better; last season opposing quarterbacks completed a shocking 63.3 percent of their throws and threw 30 touchdown passes.

The three starting linebackers are expected to be Kelvin Sheppard in the middle flanked by Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, with rookie Nigel Bradham in the mix. Shawne Merriman, a former All-Pro with San Diego, will make yet another attempt to shake years of injury problems in a hybrid end-linebacker pass-rushing role.

Top draft pick Stephon Gilmore, meanwhile, has a shot at earning a starting cornerback job along with veteran Terrence McGee, though former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin and second-year man Aaron Williams will have a say in the matter. Safety is well staffed with Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Da’Norris Searcy and the re-signed Bryan Scott.

Specialists

With free agent kicker Rian Lindell back in the fold and recovered from a broken shoulder, the Bills’ special teams will be formidable again. Lindell and punter Brian Moorman are battle-tested in the challenging weather conditions of Western New York. As for their return game, the Bills overflow with options. Spiller and McKelvin will handle punts and ease the loss of team record-holder Roscoe Parrish to the Chargers. Justin Rogers, meanwhile, emerged as the club’s top kickoff return specialist as a rookie, averaging 28.7 yards.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC East

After three offseasons of work, GM Buddy Nix says it’s time for the Bills to become “relevant" again. And he means for an entire season, not two months.

Buffalo deserves kudos for addressing their defensive shortcomings. Landing Williams with a $100 million contract re-energized the fan base, and taking a cornerback No. 1 in the draft was widely applauded as a sound move. Offensively, money was spent freely to retain the services of core players Johnson, Chandler, Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. But wide receiver depth and left tackle remain areas of concern, unless rookie picks Graham and Glenn make instant impacts.

Buffalo wasn’t that far from being a .500 team a year ago, and if it can avoid the injury bug that took down 17 players, including seven starters, and if Fitzpatrick can justify his contract and stay in one piece, the Bills might flirt with a wild card spot into December.

The Bills haven’t made that leap from “hoping” to win to “expecting” to win under Gailey. There can be no overtaking Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the AFC East until that happens.

Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Ralph’s Cheap?
Ralph Wilson often gets criticized for being frugal, but at various times in his 50-plus years as owner he has spent big. He made O.J. Simpson the game’s highest-paid running back, Jim Kelly its highest-paid quarterback, and now Mario Williams its highest-paid defensive player. Williams’ six-year, $100 million deal eclipses the six-year, $91.5 million deal Julius Peppers inked in Chicago.

Kelly On Target
Pro Football Hall of Famer Kelly played a major role in recruiting Williams to Buffalo, hosting the Houston free agent with small-town roots at his house and eagerly pointing out the deer in his backyard. Williams is a big hunter. “He did some heavy recruiting. He showed me some of his hunting pictures,’’ Williams says.

Target Brady
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was stating the obvious when analyzing Buffalo’s signing of Williams and Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks for his team last season. He said the Bills made those moves to “come after our boy, No. 12.” That would be three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who has lost to the Bills only twice in his career. “Well, he’s right. He’s exactly right,” coach Chan Gailey says.

Run it, Guys
It’s no secret Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick like to live by the pass, but too often in 2011 they died by it. Over the final nine games (1–8), Fitzpatrick threw 24 times on 3rd-and-short (four yards or less) and completed only five of those passes.

Nice Catch
Pete Metzelaars, the greatest tight end in club history, has returned to coach that position on Gailey’s staff. Metzelaars, 51, played on all four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo, catching 302 passes good for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns. “It’s a little bizarre,” says Metzelaars, a Colts assistant for eight seasons. “It’s been 18 years or so since I’ve really been back here so to come back it’s neat. It’s neat connecting with good friends.”

QB Parade
Buffalo will face all four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — Robert Griffin III (No. 2 overall to Washington) in the preseason and Andrew Luck (No. 1 to Indianapolis), Ryan Tannehill (No. 8 to Miami) and Brandon Weeden (No. 22 to Cleveland) in the regular season.

Appreciative Star
Fun-loving Stevie Johnson has drawn penalties and critics for his end zone celebrating, but nobody can say the guy doesn’t appreciate being a well-paid NFL player. During a news conference to announce his five-year, $36.25 million contract, Johnson thanked no fewer than 30 people and saved his mom for last: “I want to say ‘Mom, look at your son now, look at your son.’ I can take care of you guys now. Thank you. Once again to all my fans who showed support throughout my career, thank you.’’

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Thur., Aug. 9

Order your 2012 Buffalo Bills Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Buffalo Bills Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Buffalo Bills 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Buffalo Bills, NFL
Path: /nfl/buffalo-bills-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Buffalo Bills official Twitter account:

@BuffaloBills (Followers: 103,711)

Top Bills To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, August 8, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Shawne Merriman LB @shawnemerriman 416,836
2. Nick Barnett LB @NicKBarnett 406,332
3. Kirk Morrison LB @kirkmorrison 358,826
4. Vince Young QB @VinceYoung 143,226
5. Stevie Johnson WR @StevieJohnson13 104,533
6. Tashard Choice RB @tchoice23 90,513
7. C.J. Spiller RB @CJSPILLER 61,990
8. Fred Jackson RB @Fred22Jackson 46,938
9. Marcell Dareus DT @marcelldareus 32,204
10. David Nelson WR @DavidNelson86 29,153
11. Mario Williams DE @bbwolf94 28,412
12. Stephon Gilmore CB @BumpNrunGilm0re 26,463
13. Aaron Williams CB @ajwilliams23 24,515
14. T.J. Graham WR @SpeedBi11s 21,747
15. Brad Smith WR @RealBradSmith 21,541
16. Jairus Byrd FS @jairusbyrd 21,535
17. George Wilson SS @GWilson37 20,222
18. Kelvin Sheppard LB @KelvinSheppard 16,906
19. Eric Wood OL @EWood70 12,820
20. Brian Moorman P @brianmoorman 12,065
21. Mark Anderson DE @Manderson_95 11,508
22. Arthur Moats LB @dabody52 10,727
23. Scott Chandler TE @scottchandler84 10,539
24. Donald Jones WR @Dajones19 10,490
25. Andy Levitre OL @LevitreAndy 9,888

While it apears that quarterback and cover boy Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't on Twitter, you can follow the Bills' equipment managers. That's right, diehard Bills fan can follow either equipment manager Jeff Mazurek (@jeffmazurek) and assistant equipment manager Moose Haws (@moose_eq) or both. And if jerseys, pads, helmests, shoes and such aren't your thing, you can follow Bills CEO Russ Brandon (@RussBrandon) to get your news and information straight from the top.

And if you are a diehard Bills fan chances are you are already following the Buffalo Jills (@BuffaloJills10) and are probably card-carrying members of the official Buffalo Bills Booster Club (@BillsBoosters), who have been supporting their beloved team since 1961.

For the fifth straight season, the Bills will head north to Toronto to play a home game, this time hosting Seattle in Week 14 on Dec. 9. Even though the game is still four months away, it has its own Twitter feed (@billsintoronto) with more than 2,500 followers and counting.

Those fans who wish to relive the glory days of the Bills teams that made it to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93 are also in luck as they have the opporunity to follow Jim Kelly (@JimKellyInc), Thurman Thomas (@thurmanthomas), Andre Reed (@Andre_Reed83), Cornelius Bennett (@realcbennett97), Steve Tasker (@SteveTasker89) and/or Darryl Talley (@DarrylTalley) if they so choose.

The Bills Beat:

Tim Graham, Bills' beat writer for The Buffalo News: @ByTimGraham (12,152)

Joe Buscaglia, WGR550's Bills reporter, Bills Radio Network sideline reporter: @JoeB_WGR (11,708)

Chris Brown, lead reporter for team's official Web site, www.buffalobills.com/Bills Radio Network analyst: @ChrisBrownBills (8,429)

Sal Maiorana, covers the Bills for the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.): @salmaiorana (5,348)

John Murphy, Bills radio reporter/host of "The John Murphy Show": @JohnMurphyShow (4,964)

Mark Gaughan, covers the Bills for The Buffalo News: @gggaughan (3,091)

Jeff Russo, Sports Director for WKBW-TV Buffalo/host of "The Thurman Thomas Show": @JeffRussoWKBW (2,779)

Jay Skurski, sportswriter for The Buffalo News: @JaySkurski (1,684)

Bills Blog Roll:

Press Coverage is The Buffalo News' Bills blog.

Three Point Stance is the Democrat and Chronicle's Bills blog.

Buffalo Rumbings is SB Nation's Bills blog.

BuffaLowDown is where you can get the low down on the Bills.

Bills Daily has been "Serving Buffalo Bills Fans Since 1998."

Bills Gab is simply "The Definitve Buffalo Bills Blog."

The ESPN AFC East blog is run by James Walker and you can follow him @espn_afceast.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Thursday, Aug. 9

Order your 2012 Buffalo Bills Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Season Preview
Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis

- By Braden Gall and Mark Ross, published on August 8, 2012

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Buffalo Bills Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 05:59
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, New York Jets, NFL
Path: /nfl/new-york-jets-2012-nfl-team-preview
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The New York Jets check in at No. 19.

Rex Ryan will never admit it, but the Jets may well be in a rebuilding mode despite the presence of veterans such as running back Shonn Greene and linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott.

That comes as a result of last year’s 8–8 debacle that ostensibly cost offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer his job for trying to turn Mark Sanchez into Peyton Manning. Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano now takes the offensive reins and will attempt to bring back the ground-and-pound attack that took the Jets to two straight AFC title games (2009 and ’10).

The biggest area of improvement needs to come off the field, however. Reconstructing locker room unity, which didn’t just disintegrate but exploded all over MetLife Stadium, will be a major undertaking and involve all of Ryan’s motivational skills — especially with wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who remains unrepentant for becoming the team’s biggest divisive force.

Ryan believes he has enough veteran talent to take the Jets back into the postseason. But after taking Brandon Jacobs’ advice to “Shut up, fat boy,” Ryan’s laying low on the rhetoric. But we all know how he feels. It’s up to the Jets to have his back — something they failed to do last season.

Offense

Sanchez has come perilously close to coach-killer status, as he showed an inability to control the game in 2011. Some of that was due to a shaky line that allowed 40 sacks, a dozen more than in 2010. Sanchez did throw 26 touchdowns, but he lost eight fumbles and tossed 18 interceptions as he was asked to throw way too much for his level of experience. This year, he should get back to being more of a game-manager with Sparano’s plans for a return to the physical running game. That should help his confidence. The addition of 236-pound quarterback Tim Tebow will make the Wildcat a more prominent part of the playbook.

Holmes will still be the No. 1 option in the passing game, but the Jets have high hopes for second-round pick Stephen Hill. If Hill can establish himself as a viable weapon, Holmes should thrive against single coverage — something that didn’t happen enough in 2011. After catching 52 passes for a 14.3-yard average in 12 games in his first season with the Jets, Holmes had only 51 receptions for a 12.8 average a year ago. Sanchez reached out to Holmes in the offseason to repair their working relationship. Both parties are saying all the right things, but the real test will come when the regular season begins.

Tight end Dustin Keller caught a team-high 65 passes last season working the short and medium routes over the middle of the field.

The passing game won’t be effective without a productive running attack in Sparano’s system. That means Greene, who had 1,054 yards last season despite topping the 100-yard mark only two times, must return to his 2010 form when he teamed with LaDainian Tomlinson to form one of the league’s best 1-2 backfield punches. With Tomlinson retired, third-year pro Joe McKnight will take over as the No. 2 back. A former fourth-round pick out of USC, ­McKnight has averaged 3.9 yards on his 82 rushing attempts.

The offensive line still needs proven upgrades on the right side, but 335-pound sixth-round pick Robert T. Griffin of Baylor could replace right guard Brandon Moore if he progresses quickly enough. The battle between shaky right tackle Wayne Hunter and 2010 second-round bust Vladimir Ducasse may be a matter of taking the lesser evil. The Jets acquired tackle Jeff Otah from Carolina via trade in late July, but the 2008 first-round pick was returned to the Panthers after failing his physical.

Related: Top New York Jets Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Jets had the fifth-best defense in terms of yardage last year, but their 363 points allowed (22.7 per game) ranked 20th in the NFL. Their run defense was just okay, ranking 13th in the league at 111.1 yards per game. All in all, the stats could have been worse. But specific situations consistently let down the Jets, and that’s what Ryan has to fix.

He started with the draft, taking Quinton Coples with the 16th pick. Ryan says that Coples will play as a 3-4 defensive end, even though the former North Carolina star has the speed and hands to play outside linebacker. Coples will battle Mike DeVito for the starting spot opposite Muhammad Wilkerson. The Jets can go with a 4-3 look, as well, with Wilkerson, Coples and DeVito lining up alongside nose tackle Sione Pouha.

Aaron Maybin proved to be the only linebacker with the ability to rush the quarterback in 2011. He had six sacks in 13 games, being used primarily on third downs. Maybin, who is working on his run-stopping, has positioned himself for a bigger role. Pace and Scott, two constants on defense last year, should be even more productive thanks to the upgraded line.

Safety remains a big issue, however. When Jim Leonhard went down last year, the pass defense in the middle of the field went with him. The free agent additions of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell should provide an upgrade. Landry, who has played in only 17 games over the last two seasons, must prove that he can remain healthy. Strong safety Eric Smith is the team’s only other experienced safety.

The corners are fine, however, with shutdown cover man Darrelle Revis and the physical Antonio Cromartie returning. Revis and Cromartie had four picks each.

Specialists

Jeremy Kerley finished last year as the team’s leading punt returner with a 10.1-yard average and will likely handle those duties again. In fact, most of the special teams players from last year return, including kicker Nick Folk, who hit 19-of-25 field goals. 

McKnight, who suffered some fumbling issues both in the backfield and as a punt returner, proved to be a weapon returning kickoffs with a very healthy 31.6-yard average on his 34 attempts. He had a 107-yard return for a touchdown against the Ravens. If McKnight can duplicate that type of production, he will put the Jets’ offense in advantageous positions — and take pressure off of Sanchez.

T.J. Conley, who had a 38.8-yard net punting average, has the ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory. Over 65 percent of his 92 punts were not returned, and he had only six touchbacks while putting 32 inside the 20.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the AFC East

The idea of going back to the ground game and limiting Sanchez’s passing is a good one. But a tough opening schedule that includes 2011 playoff teams Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston, and New England in four of the first seven weeks will be difficult to navigate. The Jets have talent, but too many things will need to go well — including improving team chemistry — for the team to return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus. Another .500 record could be in the cards.

Related: 2012 New York Jets Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Beefy QB
The Wildcat hasn’t packed a punch since Brad Smith left the team after the 2010 season. But now, Tim Tebow’s in town, and he could be the ideal Wildcat quarterback. Tebow rushed for 660 yards on 122 attempts last season with the Broncos, and he gained 2,947 yards on the ground during his collegiate career at Florida. If offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is smart — and he is — he’ll tell Tebow to hang onto the football at all costs, since the 236-pounder’s throwing accuracy and mechanics in the short passing game are lacking.

More Tebow
Tebow, the Jets’ No. 2 quarterback, made the list of the NFL’s top 100 players as voted by players around the league; starter Mark Sanchez didn’t. Sanchez didn’t seem to be miffed by the slight, but it should provide motivation for him to prove his worth. It will also be interesting to see how long of a leash Rex Ryan gives his starter if the Jets get off to a slow start. Big storyline here.

WR Option?
There were some who questioned whether wide receiver Stephen Hill, the Jets’ second-round pick, would be able to make the transition to an NFL offense after playing in Georgia Tech’s option attack for three seasons. Well, take a look at Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos. The former Yellow Jacket had 35 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns in the final seven games last year (including two playoff games).

Breaking Even
Here’s a stat that aptly fits in with the Jets’ 8–8 season. They gained 4,989 yards on offense and gave up 4,993 yards on defense.
Sack challenged The Jets might think about ramping up their cornerback and safety blitzes, as defensive backs recorded only four of the team’s 35 sacks last year. Safety Eric Smith was the high man with 2.5 sacks.

Unrepentant
Santonio Holmes doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the hubbub he caused in the Jets’ locker room at the end of last season. “Why should I?” was his response. Oh, boy. And the fans aren’t particularly happy with him or quarterback Sanchez. The duo was loudly booed when flashed on the Madison Square Garden video board while attending a Knicks game together.

Terminator Terminated?
Tebow’s arrival as a running option at the quarterback position could mean a reduced role for fullback John Conner. The Jets could elect to get by with either Bilal Powell or Joe McKnight in situations that call for a fullback. However, Ryan seemed to indicate that Conner would stick with the team. “Clearly, there’s a role for a traditional fullback (in Sparano’s offense),” Ryan says.

NO TACKLE
Talk about faith. The Jets failed to draft a right tackle, which means they’re staking their hopes again on Wayne Hunter, who at times looked more like a swinging gate than a pass-protector. But Ryan believes in the veteran from Hawaii. “I think Wayne will play better this year,” Ryan says. “I believe Wayne will have a big year for us.” 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Wed., Aug. 8

Order your 2012 New York Jets Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top New York Jets Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 New York Jets Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> New York Jets 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-bests-busts-and-waiver-wire-aug-6
Body:

Stay tuned each week to Athlon Sports for a 2012 Fantasy Baseball Weekend Waiver Wire every Monday.

Top 25 fantasy baseball hitters of last week (7/30-8/5):

  Name Pos. Team R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Albert Pujols 1B LAA 9 6 13 1 .424 1.565
2. Mike Trout OF LAA 11 3 9 2 .300 1.038
3. Adam LaRoche* 1B WAS 6 4 10 0 .478 1.563
4. A.J. Pierzynski C CHW 6 5 11 0 .333 1.567
5. Drew Stubbs OF CIN 10 2 2 3 .348 1.032
6. Matt Holliday OF STL 6 3 10 0 .400 1.284
7. Buster Posey C/1B SF 4 3 9 0 .500 1.558
8. Carl Crawford OF BOS 7 2 8 1 .345 1.057
9. Chase Headley* 3B SD 4 3 9 1 .333 1.175
10. Paul Goldschmidt 1B ARI 5 3 7 0 .435 1.288
11. Jarrod Dyson* OF KC 3 0 2 5 .526 1.263
12. Melky Carbrera OF SF 10 1 5 1 .345 1.096
13. Kendrys Morales* 1B/OF LAA 5 3 8 0 .391 1.288
14. Chris Johnson* 3B ARI 3 3 10 0 .382 1.292
15. Jose Reyes SS MIA 7 0 1 3 .429 1.073
16. Prince Fielder 1B DET 6 2 7 0 .421 1.362
17. Ian Kinsler 2B TEX 8 2 4 0 .393 1.112
18. Angel Pagan* OF SF 7 1 4 2 .350 1.085
19. Yadier Molina C STL 4 0 3 3 .500 1.091
20. Omar Infante* 2B DET 5 1 6 1 .471 1.362
21. Alex Rios OF CHW 7 2 4 0 .407 1.074
22. Scott Hairston* OF NYM 7 2 3 1 .333 1.035
23. Ryan Ludwick* OF CIN 2 2 11 0 .364 1.144
24. Carlos Beltran OF STL 6 2 4 1 .333 1.037
25. Ben Revere* OF MIN 5 0 2 3 .407 .874

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Opportunity Knocks

If you need a late season push in stolen bases, it appears that there are plenty of names to be had on the waiver wire. Ben Revere was a highly-touted prospect who gets on base with regularity and will make plenty of things happen when he gets on (61 career SB in 781 ABs). Jarrod Dyson, Angel Pagan, Rajai Davis and Juan Pierre (especially, if he gets moved to a contender) are all owned by less than 70% of leagues.

I am not buying into the Chase Headley surge but I do like what Yonder Alonso has been able to do of late. He has two homers and eight doubles over his last 41 at-bats and has dual 1B-OF eligibility.

The entire Diamondbacks line-up appears to be blossoming finally. Justin Upton is showing signs of life and Paul Goldschmidt has been smacking the ball around. Aaron Hill shouldn't be on your waiver wire either. Chris Johnson, however, might be the sneaky pick-up at one of the worst positions in the game. He has three dingers and 10 RBIs over the last week and could be on the team that wins the NL West.

Some other call-ups to watch are Texas do-everything infield slugger Mike Olt, Cleveland outfielder Ezequiel Carrera (7-12 over the weekend) and the Phillies' Dominic Brown (5-18 since being called-up). The Cubs' Brett Jackson made his major league debut on Sunday and the outfielder could be an intriguing power-speed option, and teammate and hot corner prospect Josh Vitters should also take his first hacks in the big leagues at some point this week. Monitor closely and don't be afraid to add quickly.

Top 20 fantasy Starting Pitchers of last two weeks:

  Name Team IP W K ERA WHIP
1. A.J. Burnett PIT 25.0 3 20 1.44 0.56
2. Josh Johnson MIA 19.2 2 22 0.92 0.71
3. Chad Billingsley LAD 20.1 3 13 0.89 0.89
4. Scott Feldman* TEX 22.2 3 14 1.19 0.93
5. Felix Hernandez SEA 23.1 2 16 1.54 0.77
6. David Price TB 22.0 1 26 1.64 0.86
7. Wei-Yin Chen* BAL 19.1 2 21 1.40 1.03
8. Adam Wainwright STL 22.1 2 19 2.01 0.90
9. Doug Fister* DET 24.0 2 19 1.88 0.96
10. Mike Minor* ATL 18.2 1 14 1.45 0.75
11. Matt Latos CIN 20.1 3 16 1.77 1.18
12. Jason Vargas* SEA 15.0 2 9 1.80 0.67
13. Tim Hudson ATL 20.0 3 10 2.25 0.95
14. Hiroki Kuroda NYY 21.1 1 17 1.69 0.94
15. Jake Peavy CHW 14.0 2 14 1.29 1.07
16. Paul Maholm* ATL 21.2 1 20 2.08 0.97
17. Ian Kennedy ARI 20.1 3 17 3.10 1.08
18. Scott Diamond* MIN 16.1 1 9 1.65 0.67
19. Matt Moore TB 11.2 2 12 0.00 1.29
20. Bartolo Colon* OAK 13.2 2 8 0.00 1.17

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Top 5 Spot Starts for the Week (Mon. - Sun.):

1. Jonathon Niese, NYM: Miami (Tues.) 54% owned
One of the worst offenses in the majors will face one of the NL's pleasant surprises. He has gone at least 7.0 IP in six of last seven starts (five quality starts) and has six walks over that span. 

2. Ben Sheets, ATL: New York Mets (Sun.) 62% owned
The former Brewer who hasn't pitched in two years has been a god-send for the Braves. He's throwing in the lower 90s, gone at least 6.0 IP in all four starts and has allowed a total of 4 ER.

3. Ross Detwiler, WAS: at Houston (Tues.) 30% owned
Tossed a gem the last time out against the Phillies (W, 7.0, 0 ER, 3 K) and when he is on, he can be elite. And the Astros can't beat Stony Brook.

4. Paul Maholm, ATL: at New York Mets (Fri.) 46% owned
Has been lights-out since moving south to the A.T.L. Is the No. 16-rated SP over the last two weeks and has a 2.08 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 20 Ks over his last 21.2 IP.

5. Erik Bedard, PIT: San Diego (Sun.) 27% owned
Before his blow-up on Tuesday, he had two elite starts in a row (15 K, 2 ER). He has basically a 9.0 K/9 rate and has a 1.63 career ERA against the Fathers of Southern Cal.

Top 20 fantasy Relief Pitchers of last month:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Aroldis Chapman CIN 16.1 0 16 34 0 0.00 0.55
2. Craig Kimbrel ATL 11.0 0 8 21 0 0.82 0.45
3. Fernando Rodney TB 13.0 0 8 12 0 0.00 0.92
4. Huston Street* SD 10.0 0 5 13 0 0.00 0.40
5. Kenley Jansen LAD 12.1 1 6 16 0 1.46 1.05
6. Jonathan Papelbon BOS 13.2 1 6 18 0 1.98 1.10
7. Jason Motte STL 9.2 1 5 14 0 0.93 0.83
8. Tom Wilhelmsen* SEA 10.1 0 8 12 0 2.61 0.87
9. Joel Hanrahan PIT 9.2 0 10 15 0 3.72 1.34
10. Joel Peralta* TB 12.1 1 0 18 7 1.46 0.57
11. J.J. Putz ARI 8.0 0 5 10 0 0.00 0.63
12. David Phelps* NYY 9.0 1 0 13 0 0.00 0.33
13. Vinnie Pestano* CLE 14.0 0 0 18 8 0.00 0.71
14. Greg Holland* KC 15.0 3 1 17 1 2.40 1.20
15. Kevin Jepsen* LAA 11.0 2 1 9 4 0.82 0.82
16. Brad Lincoln* TOR 15.1 0 1 13 3 0.59 0.72
17. Rafael Soriano NYY 10.1 0 6 13 0 2.61 0.97
18. Steve Cishek* FLA 8.2 0 5 9 1 0.00 0.92
19. Casey Janssen* TOR 10.0 0 3 12 0 0.90 0.70
20. Sean Marshall* CIN 11.1 2 0 12 7 0.79 1.06

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Keep up to date all season long with Athlon Sports' Fantasy Baseball Closer Grid

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Baseball Bests, Busts and Waiver Wire: Aug 6</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 10:51
All taxonomy terms: Carolina Panthers, NFC, NFC South, NFL
Path: /nfl/carolina-panthers-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Carolina Panthers check in at No. 20.

The Carolina Panthers became an entertaining team in 2011. This year they hope to become a good one. The Panthers played and lost a lot of games of the 30–27 variety in 2011 en route to a 6–10 season. Their offense was dramatically improved thanks to quarterback Cam Newton, who won all sorts of rookie of the-year awards while accounting for an astonishing 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing). It was perhaps the best rookie year ever at any position, rivaling those of players like Lawrence Taylor and Gale Sayers.

But the Panthers’ defense will need a serious upgrade this year if Newton is to lead the team into the playoffs in what will be both his and head coach Ron Rivera’s second season in Charlotte. In 2011, Carolina allowed franchise highs in points, yards and passing yards as one quarterback after another eviscerated its defense. The return of linebacker Jon Beason and the arrival of first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly offer some hope, but this is a team that still has major defensive questions.

Offense

The Panthers’ offense is led by the three players who represented the team in the Pro Bowl after last season — Newton, wide receiver Steve Smith and center Ryan Kalil.

Smith, 33, signed a new contract in the offseason after rejuvenating himself in 2011 with Newton as his quarterback (1,394 receiving yards). Still the team’s most explosive player, Smith remains the club’s primary deep threat. Has he lost a step in the past decade? Certainly. But his route-running, elusiveness and toughness remain exceptional, and he has flourished in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s imaginative offense. The Panthers need a strong No. 2 receiver to emerge. Brandon LaFell has shown signs of doing so but isn’t great at going over the middle. David Gettis returns from injury and will be a factor.

Kalil anchors an offensive line that received a youth injection in the draft with Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Division II Midwestern State who may plug in immediately at left guard. Left tackle Jordan Gross is the team’s most respected veteran and still one of the NFC’s best. Right tackle is iffy as Jeff Otah has been injury-plagued and could be replaced by Byron Bell again.

Otah was traded to the Jets for a conditional seventh-round pick in late July. However, the trade was rescinded after Otah failed his Jets' physical. The 2008 first-round pick was returned to the Panthers, who terminated his contract after he failed their physical as well. Otah's fate as of the start of Panthers' training camp was uncertain.

Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target near the goal line and has some of the best hands on the team.

Running back is a major strength. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — aka “Double Trouble” — share the load as primary ball-carriers. Since Newton also frequently runs, none will have eye-popping numbers, but all three went over 700 yards rushing last season (the first time that has happened in NFL history).

New fullback Mike Tolbert gives the offense one more significant weapon — he’s good out of the backfield as a receiver and also will get a few carries on quick hitters.

But Newton is undoubtedly the key. In his second season, he needs to cut down on interceptions (17 in 2011) and become a better team leader (he had a tendency to pout after bad plays or close defeats). His ability is remarkable, however — his 14 rushing TDs were a record for an NFL quarterback. Veteran backup Derek Anderson has a good arm, but the Panthers would have to run a much more conventional offense if he is forced into action.

Related: Top Carolina Panthers Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Panthers are counting on the return of several injured players to shore up this unit, but that’s a dangerous presumption. Linebacker Thomas Davis is trying to return from three ACL tears in the same knee — no NFL player has ever done so. Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are coming back from more traditional injuries. They both missed almost the entire 2011 season, which hurt the Panthers badly up the middle. Edwards, 33, will be counted on to anchor the inside positions as a space-eater.

Kuechly’s sideline-to-sideline ability should pair well with Beason’s — one will likely play middle and one weak side. James Anderson led the Panthers in tackles last season and should provide a good third option if Davis can’t return.

But the front and the back of the Panthers’ defense remain suspect. Their best pass-rusher is Charles Johnson, who had nine sacks last season off the edge, but no one else had more than four. Out of Greg Hardy, Antwan Applewhite and fourth-round draft choice Frank Alexander, someone must emerge as a significant threat to opposing quarterbacks.

The Panthers would like to replace Sherrod Martin as their free safety starter. He’s one of the worst tacklers on the team. They signed and drafted a number of low-profile players to provide competition. Starting cornerback Chris Gamble and strong safety Charles Godfrey are probably safe — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn less so. All of them will look better, though, if the opposing quarterback doesn’t have time to look for his fifth option, something that happened all too often last season.

Specialists

The Panthers weren’t very good on special teams and invested some draft resources to get better. Fourth-round pick Joe Adams will immediately become the punt returner. He averaged a whopping 16.9 yards per return at Arkansas last season. His arrival likely spells the end of Armanti Edwards’ time with the Panthers. Edwards, a converted college quarterback, couldn’t figure out a way to break punt returns and can’t seem to get on the field as a receiver either. Kealoha Pilares will likely handle the kickoff returns after setting a team record with a 101-yarder last season.

New punter Brad Nortman will replace Jason Baker. If the punt coverage is better — and it should be, as the Panthers put a big emphasis on that in the offseason — he should do fine.

The biggest questions will revolve around veteran kicker Olindo Mare, who enters his second season as a Panther. He replaced the popular John Kasay last season and missed two critical fourth quarter field goals. Panther fans still don’t quite trust him, and the team signed Justin Medlock to compete for the job.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC South

Assuming Newton stays healthy — and that’s not an entirely safe assumption given how much he runs — the Panthers’ offense may be better than it has ever been. There are playmakers everywhere at the skill positions. It’s likely Carolina will rank in the top five NFL offenses in numerous categories this season.

But will the defense hold up? The Panthers invested some resources there in the offseason but could have done more. They are hoping that the return of several key injured players helps the problem considerably. The Panthers have the talent to contend for their first playoff spot since 2008, but they are going to need to stop people to do it.

Related: 2012 Carolina Panthers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Cam-paign 
Cam Newton really, really wanted to be on the cover of the “Madden 13” video-game franchise. Although the player on the cover is subject to the “Madden Curse” — typically falling off in production or getting hurt the next season — Newton loves to play “Madden” and campaigned for the spot. Newton filmed a seven-minute homemade video and posted it online, trying to get more votes in the fan voting that determined the outcome. Newton made it to the finals but lost out in April to Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson in a decision announced live at Times Square with both players in attendance. Some Panther fans, concerned about the curse, said they actually voted against Newton.

Kalil Country
Center Ryan Kalil was at the NFL Draft in April, cheering on his younger and bigger brother Matt Kalil — picked No. 4 overall by the Minnesota Vikings. Both Kalils showed up sporting beards that looked like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Ryan says the primary difference between the two is that he’s better-looking.

Explosive
The NFL keeps a statistic for plays that gain 20 or more yards, calling them “explosive plays.” The Panthers led the NFL in that category with 90 such plays in 2011, or slightly more than five per game. That helped the Panthers score 48 touchdowns, second-most in franchise history (after a franchise-low 17 during their 2–14 season of 2010).
The Pres and the Panthers The Panthers’ home stadium will be used for the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6, most notably for an address by President Obama. Because of that, the Panthers will open the season on the road (against Tampa Bay on Sept. 9) and will likely face a number of security and logistical issues in the two weeks before their opener.

A Different Person
Panthers coach Ron Rivera made an interesting comment in the offseason about Newton. “He seems like a different person,” the coach said. “He seems more mature, in terms of ready to take some leadership roles.” Rivera wants Newton to become more of a team leader. Newton has the charisma to do so, but often took a back seat to veterans like Steve Smith and Jordan Gross last year.

14 Straight and Counting
While Newton throws a lot of deep balls, the Panthers’ offense is still built around the run. Carolina will enter the 2012 season with a franchise-record streak of 14 straight games of 100 yards or more rushing. The Panthers were third in the NFL last season in rushing yards per game (150.5) and first in yards per attempt (5.4). And you can bet they will run a ton in that opener at Tampa Bay; the Panthers rushed for 270 yards on Christmas Eve the last time the two teams played.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: Tues., Aug. 7

Order your 2012 Carolina Panthers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Carolina Panthers Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Carolina Panthers Bucs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Carolina Panthers 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC West, Seattle Seahawks, NFL
Path: /nfl/seattle-seahawks-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Seattle Seahawks check in at No. 21.

The Seahawks, in Pete Carroll’s third season of rebuilding, have one of the league’s most physical running backs in Marshawn Lynch. They’ve invested a number of high draft picks on offensive linemen. Their secondary is surprisingly good. They made inroads on the road last year, namely upsetting the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in New York. Yet until Carroll unearths an able-bodied quarterback, the Seahawks are no better than the two 7–9 teams he’s fielded.

After getting nowhere — not even a courtesy interview — in the Peyton Manning quarterback sweepstakes, the Seahawks turned to Matt Flynn, hoping he’s the second coming of Matt Hasselbeck: A learned Packers backup capable of invigorating the Seattle franchise. Flynn had two starts on his Green Bay résumé, including a record-breaking 480-yard, six-touchdown passing effort against Detroit that showed he had game. Otherwise, Flynn was asked to be patient as Aaron Rodgers’ stand-in for four seasons, making him virtually untested.

Hasselbeck, pulled from the shadow of Brett Favre 11 years earlier, eventually led the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL. More patience will be required with Flynn at the helm. There are far too many defensive shortcomings to expect more than gradual improvement. 

Offense

Flynn should be an upgrade over returning starter Tarvaris Jackson, who struggled to move the team after replacing the iconic Hasselbeck. Jackson threw nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (14), and Seattle ranked among the bottom third of the NFL in most major offensive categories. The worst stat: 28th in total offense, at just 303.8 yards per game. Jackson, while highly mobile, showed a tendency to get jumpy in the pocket and struggled with his reads, whereas Flynn’s supposed strengths are his cool demeanor and field vision.

Seattle’s second offseason priority was re-signing Lynch, and that process went more smoothly than settling on a quarterback. Lynch wanted to return to a team that has helped him resurrect his career. He finished seventh in the league in rushing, churning out 1,204 yards. He further established himself as a player wholly capable of running inside and getting the tough yards. “He’s definitely one of the top two or three running backs in the National Football League,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh says. “He’s a violent runner.”

For two consecutive years, Seattle put an emphasis on upgrading the offensive line, but the Seahawks still don’t really know what they have. They used their top two 2011 draft picks on immediate starters up front, James Carpenter at right tackle and John Moffitt at right guard, only to have the newcomers tear up knees within four days of each other at midseason and head for surgery. Left tackle Russell Okung, the sixth overall pick of the 2010 draft, has been injury-prone since arriving in Seattle. He was lost last Dec. 1 with a torn pectoral muscle. Center Max Unger was the lone offensive line starter who played close to a full schedule. With so much lineup churn, the Seahawks were poor pass-protectors, which didn’t bode well for Jackson. A healthy Okung and Carpenter, guys with great feet and athleticism, will open a lot of holes for Lynch and give Flynn a chance to settle in.

The Seahawks’ receiving corps remains mediocre at best. There’s no established deep threat. There’s no draft help. Reserve Doug Baldwin, as an undrafted rookie, led the team with just 51 catches, ranking him 62nd in the league. Sidney Rice, signed as a free agent before the 2011 season, caught only 32 passes in nine games. He is coming off double shoulder surgery, putting his effectiveness in question. The team released Mike Williams, who caught only 18 passes in 12 games last season after catching 65 in 14 the year before, and signed free agent Braylon Edwards right before the start of training camp. This could be Edwards' last shot in the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick in 2005 has never played like a first-rounder, with the exception of one season (2007). He also finds himself on his third team in three seasons after wearing out his welcome with the Jets and catching a total of 15 passes in only nine games with the 49ers last season.

The tight end should become a bigger part of the offense in 2012. Zach Miller, who had a career-low 25 receptions last season, will be joined by veteran Kellen Winslow, acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay in late May.

Related: Top Seattle Seahawks Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Seahawks’ secondary is young and promising, not to mention huge at nearly every position, and it is the strength of this team. There are unusually big and strong cornerbacks in 6'3", 195-pound Richard Sherman and 6'4", 221-pound Brandon Browner, All-Pro selections in 6'3", 232-pound strong safety Kam Chancellor and Browner, and a reliable free safety in Earl Thomas. They were largely responsible for Seattle ranking fourth in the NFL in interceptions with 22. None of the starters has been in the league for more than two years, leaving plenty of room for advancement. The oversized corners are especially good at jamming receivers at the line and disrupting routes.

Up front, Seattle still needs help. Defensive end Chris Clemons, who had 11 sacks, was the only adequate pass-rusher, compelling the Seahawks to use their first-round draft pick on speed-rusher Bruce Irvin, who still is strictly a situational player. Seattle’s inside guys often were overmatched, leading to an urgent free agent pick-up in defensive tackle Jason Jones, another speed guy. “Jason has unusual quickness for a long, tall guy,” Carroll says.

Where the Seahawks really need help defensively is at linebacker. This is a patchwork outfit. Free agent signee Barrett Ruud is the team’s third middle linebacker in as many seasons, and a step back in talent from the departed David Hawthorne. On the outside, veteran Leroy Hill is an aging player whose coverage skills are eroding, while K.J. Wright was forced to step in as a rookie and learn under fire. Each seems to be holding down a position by default. Second-round draft pick Bobby Wagner, fast and physical and capable of playing all three positions, should become a starter fairly quickly, likely in the middle.

Specialists

The Seahawks mix the good and bad here. Returner Leon Washington, with seven career kickoff runbacks for touchdowns, and Aussie-style punter Jon Ryan, with a 46.6-yard average and more kicks downed inside the 20 (34) than anyone in the NFL, are among the league’s best. However, placekicker Steven Hauschka has limited range, and the Seattle return teams allowed three opposing scores, two on punts.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC West

If Flynn can deliver consistently and the offensive line can stay healthy for a change, the Seahawks will be an improved team. A good goal for them is .500. Seattle should be able to put plenty of points on the board, especially through Lynch in a grind-it-out manner. Defensively, the Seahawks have reason to be encouraged by their secondary, but the lack of a big-play linebacker leaves them highly vulnerable. Plus, a testy schedule that includes Green Bay, New England, Detroit and Dallas as non-division opponents will keep this team from putting together win streaks of any substance.

Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Candy Man
After he scores a touchdown, Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch celebrates on the sideline by eating a handful of Skittles, those chewy and brightly colored candy balls. The company since has given him a free two-year supply and a dispenser for the locker room. On top of that, Seattle fans shower him with Skittles whenever he scores.

Dressed For Success
The Seahawks have the most radical uniform change of any NFL team, with Nike altering the color scheme some, adding a stripe here and there, and introducing a feather design, all changes readily endorsed by the players who will wear them and those who will try to tackle them. “Why do the Seahawks get the cool uniforms?” Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson asked.

Take A Number
In signing with Seattle, quarterback Matt Flynn asked if he could wear his college No. 15 (LSU), and Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks’ leading returning receiver, was willing to give it up and switch to 89, his college number (Stanford). “I couldn’t wear it in Green Bay because of a little guy named Bart Starr,” jokes Flynn, referring to the Packers’ Hall of Famer. Flynn wore No. 10 in Green Bay.

Return Trip
Leon Washington, second in NFL history with seven kickoff returns for touchdowns, needs just one more to tie the all-time leader, Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs. Washington had three runback scores for the Seahawks in 2010 but was held without one last season.

Secondary Role
Cornerback Marcus Trufant enters his 10th season in Seattle having started all but one of the 124 games he’s played in. However, the former All-Pro player and Super Bowl XL remnant is now a sub behind Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and seems OK with that. “So I’ve got a role to play,” Trufant says. “I’m going to always compete, but I have a role to play and that’s what I plan to do.”

Reunion Plans
The Seahawks will host Green Bay on Sept. 24 in a Monday Night Football game, permitting Flynn an immediate opportunity to show up his old team. Three weeks later, Pete Carroll will coach against the New England Patriots for the first time since that team fired him in 1999.

Welcome
Matt Carroll, in hoping for the best from Flynn, has had pretty good luck with quarterbacks named Matt: At USC, he recruited and signed future successes such as Leinart, Cassel and Barkley — all guys with that first name.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Mon., Aug. 6

Order your 2012 Seattle Seahawks Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Seattle Seahawks Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Seattle Seahawks 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 05:20
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC East, Washington Redskins, NFL
Path: /nfl/washington-redskins-2012-nfl-team-preview
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Washington Redskins check in at No. 22.

Mike Shanahan believes he identified the Redskins’ biggest problem, and he tried to solve it by trading three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to select Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III out of Baylor. Shanahan finally has at his disposal an electrifying playmaker who dazzled at the collegiate level. Not only should Griffin inject life into an offense that ranked 20th in the NFL in yards per play (5.2) last season, but he also buys Shanahan some time following consecutive last-place finishes.

It might not come to that, though. The Redskins return everyone in the defensive front seven, which was their biggest strength in 2011. Washington also upgraded a punchless receiving corps in free agency. Considering that they lost six games by only one possession last season, don’t be surprised if the Redskins compete for a playoff spot.

Offense

Shanahan normally restrains himself when praising players, but he was giddy when discussing Griffin following rookie minicamp in May. He believes Griffin’s combination of speed and arm strength will allow him to challenge defenses on the perimeter in unprecedented ways. Shanahan will trim the playbook this season and tailor it to ease Griffin into the NFL, but expect plenty of the misdirection and play-action that have been characteristic of Shanahan’s offenses over the years. The biggest questions surrounding Griffin involve his ability to master footwork and read defenses. His work ethic is as strong as it gets, though, so he’ll exert whatever effort it takes to fix any shortcomings. Consider that incumbent starter Rex Grossman turned the ball over 25 times in 13 starts last season. It shouldn’t be difficult for Griffin to improve in that category.

Griffin can’t do it alone, of course. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, want the running game to be the offense’s driving force. Tim Hightower is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, but he’s the best-suited running back for the outside zone scheme. His speed, vision, blocking skills and ability to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and burst up field give him an edge over Roy Helu, who capably filled in after Hightower was hurt last Oct. 23. Expect both to contribute significantly.

Washington’s offensive line, however, is not a strength, even though last season’s entire first string returns. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger tore multiple right knee ligaments last Oct. 16. That could reduce the speed that makes him so valuable. Right tackle Jammal Brown, 31, resorted to yoga in the offseason to improve the range of motion in his left hip that was surgically repaired three years ago.

Griffin has some pass-catching weapons at his disposal. Coaches last season lamented a dearth of playmakers, so they signed free agent receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Garcon’s speed provides the Redskins a deep threat and a player who can gain yards after the catch. Morgan will do a bit of everything, including play the slot in three-receiver sets. Second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson is coming off surgery to repair the labrum in his right hip, but coaches love his speed and how he uses his 6'2", 209-pound frame. Tight end Fred Davis is back following a four-game drug suspension that cost him the team lead in receptions.

Related: Top Washington Redskins Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Shanahan wanted a formidable defense in place when he drafted his franchise quarterback, and the Redskins aren’t far off. A unit that often played from behind last season ranked 17th in yards allowed per play (5.5) but kept Washington competitive in many games.

The Redskins re-signed inside linebacker London Fletcher and left defensive end Adam Carriker to keep intact a front seven that was the team’s greatest strength. Bringing Fletcher back was essential. The defensive captain led the NFL with 166 tackles. More important, he sets the front seven after the huddle, and the Redskins had no replacement for him.

Up front, Barry Cofield promises to be a savvier nose tackle in his second season playing the position. He has seen how divisional opponents want to block him. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins’ return should be a major boost. Before he lost his entire rookie season to a torn ACL in his right knee, he had some coaches calling him the team’s best lineman because of his speed and power.

The secondary challenges the offensive line for the area of greatest weakness. Safety is a major concern. Free safety Brandon Meriweather, a Pro Bowler as recently as 2010, is on his third team in three seasons. Oft-injured strong safety LaRon Landry, a first-round pick in 2007, signed with the New York Jets, leaving a hole that likely will be filled by committee. Josh Wilson was Washington’s best cover corner last season, better than three-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially with a lack of quality cornerback depth. The Redskins need more plays on the ball from the back end.

Specialists

Kicker Graham Gano enters his third full season still needing to prove himself. Five of his 10 missed field goals last season were blocked — most in the NFL. Coaches desire improved mental toughness from him. Veteran Neil Rackers will compete with Gano in training camp. Rackers’ field goal percentage has decreased each of the last two seasons. Gano has the advantage partly because he excels at the directional kickoffs the Redskins employ. Sav Rocca last season was the best punter the Redskins have had in years. His 28 punts inside the 20 tied for the eighth-most in the NFL.

Return specialist Brandon Banks must prove his worth after failing to score last season. He suffered from the new kickoff rules and averaged only 9.1 yards per punt return.

Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC East

Too many turnovers and too few playmakers relegated the Redskins to a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East. Griffin should help both of those problems. Every rookie quarterback is going to throw picks, but Griffin only has to average fewer than 1.5 per game to improve on what Grossman and John Beck did last season. The Redskins finally have some skill-position players for whom opponents have to game-plan. If the offensive line holds up, this group could rise from the doldrums and be a pleasant surprise.

A solid defense needs to sustain the status quo in order for the offensive upgrades to make a difference. The defense was remarkably healthy in 2011, and there is formidable talent in the front seven. An improved offense must take some pressure off the defense in terms of field position and playing with a lead.

The Redskins swept the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants last season, so there are signs of quality. Shanahan is capable of coaching this group to the playoffs, but even if they fall short, expect a major step forward and a more exciting brand of football.

Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Run, Robert, Run
Robert Griffin III ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. More impressive, perhaps: He missed the national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles by one hundredth of a second during his junior year. He did not break it the next year because he enrolled early at Baylor.

Wise Guy
RG3’s off-the-field makeup impressed the Redskins as much as his on-field talent. He graduated high school in three-and-a-half years, finishing seventh in his class. He then graduated from Baylor in three years with a degree in political science. He’s closing in on a master’s degree in communications.

Alone At The Top
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett begins his third season in an awkward spot. He did not hire any of Washington’s defensive assistants. Line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Bob Slowik are Mike Shanahan’s guys. New defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was with Tampa Bay under Redskins general manger Bruce Allen. Keep an eye on Haslett’s status this year.

Where’s Niles?
The Redskins converted second-year receiver Niles Paul to tight end during the offseason. With the numbers Washington has at wide receiver, the switch might help Paul, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska, see the field. The move could affect the status of Chris Cooley, who finished last season on injured reserve (left knee).

Let It Rain
The Redskins in the offseason opened an indoor practice facility, a grassy turf field covered by an inflated bubble. In recent seasons, they held practices on stormy days inside a local airplane hangar or basketball gym. That’s not exactly how Mike Shanahan wants to prepare for game conditions.

Play Day
Dozens of players turned out in May for the Leukemia Golf Classic, hosted by linebacker Brian Orakpo. The fundraiser, which used to be hosted by quarterback Jason Campbell, has become something of a Redskins tradition. To encourage attendance, Shanahan gave players that day off but counted it against the number of workout days the NFL permits.

Going Old School
The Redskins will wear throwback uniforms for two home games this season as part of celebrating the franchise’s 80th anniversary. The uniforms, with burgundy jerseys and gold pants, are replicas of ones worn in 1937. The coolest touch? The helmets appear as though they’re made of brown leather.

Twitter King
Defensive end Adam Carriker has emerged as the most entertaining Redskin on Twitter. Among the gems from @BigPoppaPump94: “Boy, TSA workers sure don’t like it if you moan while they pat you down.”

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Fri., Aug. 3

Order your 2012 Washington Redskins Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Washington Redskins Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Bucs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Washington Redskins 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-awards-top-return-specialists
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Football is a game of field position. Other than huge turnovers and big offensive plays, special teams is the best way to tilt the field in your favor. A huge return can also get the crowd riled-up and back into the game.

Additionally, some of the most electric and dynamic players in the history of college sports were human joysticks on special teams. Devin Hester, Reggie Bush, Ted Ginn Jr., and, of course, Prime Time are just a few of the names who have made quite a living simply on special teams. Some of the most exciting and ridiculous plays each season will come from returnmen. Just ask the Tennessee Vols about trying to stop Joe Adams. And if you can perform on both the punt and kick return teams, you are that much more valuable.

So who are the college football's most exciting return men in 2012:

1. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon (SO)

There may not be a more explosive, more dynamic player in all of the nation. Aside from playing both running back and wide receiver, Thomas excelled as a return man. He scored twice on kick returns against Washington State and then again in a clutch performance against USC. He finished with 983 yards on 36 kicks. He only had three punt returns, but averaged 17.3 yards per clip.

2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (SO)

Another sophomore who is simply unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He runs, catches and returns kicks with ease. He returned 33 kicks a year ago for 826 yards and one huge score in the improbable road comeback against Maryland. His talents may be too great to use him in the punting game, but make no mistake, few players can take it the distance like Watkins.

3. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (JR)

The diminutive Heisman finalist got to New York based mostly on his play as a punt returner. He is likely the top player at that position nationally and his two scores against Arkansas and Georgia shifted momentum in LSU's favor a year ago. His skills as a coverman are overrated but his ability to slide past oncoming traffic and change a game on one special teams play is undeniable.

4. Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (SO)

This freshman was hampered by injury a year ago and missed the final four games of the year. He might also have been underused to start the year or else his 35.2 yards per kick return would have ranked as the best in the nation. He also scored twice and will see more touches in 2012.

5. Tavon Austin, West Virginia (SR)

His 14.1-yard punt return average was good for sixth in the nation last fall and his 26.1 kick return average placed him in the top 20 nationally. He scored twice on special teams, taking a kick back for six points against both Marshall and South Florida. He led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2011.

6. Raheem Mostert, Purdue (SO)

As only a freshman, Mostert got 25 kick returns under his belt and he ended-up leading the nation with a 33.5 yards per return clip. He took one back to the house in Purdue first bowl win since 2007 and should return in 2012 with a year's worth of experience under his belt.

7. Quandre Diggs, Texas (SO)

Another sophomore, Diggs has NFL pedigree and NFL talent. He posted an absurd 20.1 yards per punt return on nine tries and didn't even get the job until halfway through the season. His explosive, big-play talent was evident the second he stepped onto the 40 Acres as he performs double-duty on both kick and punt returns. Special teams coaches better beware in 2012.

8. Jamal Miles, Arizona State (SR)

There were his two kick return touchdowns on 30 attempts that gave the Sun Devil a healthy 26.3 per return average. And then there was his punt return touchdown and 16.6 per return average. Had Miles qualified at punt returner (he had 14 attempts), he would have finished third nationally. 

9. Tracy Lampley, Southern Miss (SR)

Another guy who is used in every aspect of the game, Lampley performed well as both a punt and kick specialist last fall. He returned one punt for a score against East Carolina and finished with per touch averages of 11.5 yards on punts and 21.3 yards on kicks. He also got 91 carries and 47 receptions. He will be used once again in 2012 in all phases of the game. 

10. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin (JR)
Sure-handed receiver was leading the nation in PR until final weekend. Should be a bigger factor on Wisconsin's offense and special teams in 2012.

The Best of the Rest:

11. Darryl Surgent, UL Lafayette (JR)
Really came on as the year went along as dual-threat: 27 PR (11.9) and 37 KR (20.9)

12. Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Led the nation in punt returns at 18.6 yards thanks to Kansas game (3-162-1).

13. Andre Booker, Marshall (SR)
Works double duty on both kicks (24.8) and punts (10.8).

14. Nick Hill, Michigan State (SO)
Stellar freshman season returning kicks (26.3) will add punt returns to resume this fall.

 

Others to Consider:

Branden Smith, Georgia (SR)
T.J. Thorpe, North Carolina (SO)
Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati (SO)
Nick Williams, UConn (SR)
Isaiah Burse, Fresno State (SO)
Rannell Hall, UCF (SO)
Derrick Strozier, Tulane (JR)
Christian Jones, Alabama (SO)
Adrian Bushell, Louisville (SR)
Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)

-by Braden Gall

 @bradengall

2012 College Football Awards:

Top 25 Heisman Candidates

The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners

The Nation's Top Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Ranking the Nation's Top Pass Rushers for 2012

Who are the Nation's Top Return Specialists?

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Awards: Top Return Specialists</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 04:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC West, Oakland Raiders, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/oakland-raiders-2012-nfl-team-preview
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Oakland Raiders check in at No. 23.

The Raiders’ 2011 season will be remembered most for the Oct. 8 death of iconic team owner Al Davis, which rocked the franchise and set off a series of aftershocks that continue to reshape the organization.

Shortly after the season ended, new owner Mark Davis (Al’s son) hired long-time Packers personnel man Reggie McKenzie as general manager. The no-nonsense McKenzie quickly fired coach Hue Jackson and replaced him with Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, a 39-year-old, demanding coach who had helped turn around the Broncos’ defense and vowed to transform the Raiders into a smart and disciplined team. McKenzie then went to work getting the Raiders’ fiscal house in order and ridding the team of some contracts he called “out of whack.” Cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, tight end Kevin Boss and outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley were released.

From the day he was hired, McKenzie has worked to remake and modernize a Raiders franchise that had been ruled by Al Davis for over four decades. The question now is whether all those changes will help the Raiders make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Offense

When McKenzie fired Jackson, the Raiders lost their offensive architect and play-caller. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will fill those roles in his second stint running Oakland’s attack. Knapp spent the past two seasons as Houston’s quarterbacks coach, working under Gary Kubiak. Knapp will install a version of the West Coast offense and use the zone blocking scheme that helped the Texans’ running attack rank No. 2 in the NFL last season.

Quarterback Carson Palmer, a classic drop-back passer, faces the challenges of learning a new system and adapting to a scheme that requires him to roll out and throw on the run more than he ever has in his career. That’s nothing compared to what he went through last year. He basically went from his couch to the huddle after an Oct. 18 trade between the Raiders and Bengals that came two days after starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone. Palmer passed for 2,753 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 10 games, but he was intercepted 16 times and needs to cut down on those killer turnovers.

Running back Darren McFadden remains the key to Oakland’s offense, but the question is whether he can avoid the type of toe, foot and knee injuries that have hampered his career. ­McFadden rushed for 614 yards in just seven games last year before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his right foot. Valuable backup Michael Bush signed with Chicago as a free agent. Mike Goodson, acquired from Carolina in a trade, and speedster Taiwan Jones will battle for playing time behind McFadden. Fullback Marcel Reece, a converted wide receiver, gives the Raiders a matchup nightmare out of the backfield.

The Raiders’ receiving corps boasts a wealth of speed and potential but little experience. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, is coming off a career year, but the Raiders’ most skilled receiver is Denarius Moore. He averaged 18.7 yards per catch last season as a rookie. Jacoby Ford, who missed six of the final seven games last year with a sprained foot, is another game-breaker with good hands.

Tight end is a big question mark after the Raiders cut Boss. Brandon Myers, a fourth-year pro, has never caught more than 16 passes in a season. As rookies last year, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry combined for three catches.

Last year, the Raiders’ offensive line allowed just 25 sacks and opened enough holes for Oakland to rank seventh in the NFL in rushing. Four of the five starters return — tackles Jared Veldheer and Khalif Barnes and guards Stefen Wisniewski and Cooper Carlisle. Center Samson Satele left as a free agent, but Wisniewski will move to center, and former Texans guard Mike Brisiel, a key free agent pickup, will join the starting five. Barnes could face a challenge from Joe Barksdale, a third-round pick in 2011.

Related: Top Oakland Raiders Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver are installing an aggressive 21st century defense, complete with multiple fronts, coverages, schemes and blitzes. Gone are the days when the Raiders relied on simple man-to-man coverage and a four-man pass rush.

The strength of Oakland’s defense remains its line, particularly tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. The return of end Matt Shaughnessy from a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3 should provide a huge boost to this unit. End Lamarr Houston, like Shaughnessy, is a high-energy lineman with a mean streak. Desmond Bryant and former New York Giant Dave Tollefson add quality depth inside and outside.

Strong safety Tyvon Branch, free safety Michael Huff and backups Mike Mitchell and Matt Giordano give Oakland an experienced quartet of safeties. Huff has also proven to be a quality nickel corner. McKenzie signed a pair of experienced corners in free agency, ex-Ram Ron Bartell and former 49er Shawntae Spencer. They’ve combined for 137 NFL starts. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, a pair of 2011 draft picks, and free agent pickup Pat Lee will battle for time in the nickel.

Third-year middle linebacker Rolando McClain, the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft, has yet to live up to that billing. What’s more, he faces potential jail time and a possible NFL suspension stemming from an altercation last November in Alabama. Outside linebacker Aaron Curry, acquired from Seattle in an October trade, was the fourth overall pick in 2009 but has struggled in the NFL and could get pushed by rookie Miles Burris, a fourth-round pick. Outside linebacker Philip Wheeler, a free agent addition, is coming off a career year at Indianapolis and is slated to replace Wimbley.

Specialists

Punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski are entering their 13th seasons, but neither one has showed any signs of slowing down. If anything, they’re getting better. Lechler is coming off his seventh Pro Bowl season, and Janikowski his first. Ford has returned a franchise-record four kickoffs for touchdowns. If he’s back to full speed, Ford will give Oakland one of the NFL’s most dangerous return men. Moore handled most of the punt return duties last season, but that job could be up for grabs if he starts at wide receiver.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the AFC West

The Raiders have gone 8–8 in back-to-back seasons, but they could be hard-pressed to match that record this year after so many changes. Not a single team in the AFC West finished above .500 last year, but the competition should be tougher this year with quarterback Peyton Manning in Denver and both Kansas City and San Diego poised for bounce-back seasons. McKenzie is building a solid foundation, but his job has only begun.

Related: 2012 Oakland Raiders Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Family Affair
When outside linebacker Aaron Curry was traded to the Raiders from Seattle in October, he relished the chance to play for the team that drafted his older brother, former NFL linebacker Eric Barton, in 1999. Barton played five seasons for Oakland. It wasn’t until 2010 that Curry and Barton, who had been put up for adoption as an infant, learned they were brothers and met each other.

Bigfoot
The shoe that Sebastian Janikowski used to kick an NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal in the 2011 season-opener at Denver is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Janikowski tied Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam with his 63-yarder. “I’d prefer to break the record, but being with Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam, that’s a big honor for me,” Janikowski says.

Reunited
Former Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman played six seasons with the Raiders before retiring after the 2000 campaign to pursue a career in the ministry. Kaufman rejoined the Raiders this year as the team’s chaplain. He has served as the pastor of the Well Christian Community in Livermore, a Bay Area city. Kaufman rushed for a Raiders single-game record 227 yards against Denver on Oct. 19, 1997.

Circle The Date
Rookie guard Tony Bergstrom, a third-round pick from Utah, wasted no time before looking up the Raiders’ 2012 schedule after being drafted to see if his new team would face Baltimore. Bergstrom’s brother-in-law, Paul Kruger, is a fourth-year defensive end for the Ravens. Sure enough, Oakland is set to face the Ravens on Nov. 11 in Baltimore. 

Wolf’s Impact
New GM Reggie McKenzie, a former Raiders linebacker, can thank ex-Raiders personnel chief Ron Wolf for launching his NFL front office career in 1994. McKenzie was coaching at the University of Tennessee when Wolf, then the Packers’ general manager, offered him a scouting job with Green Bay. After 18 seasons with the Packers, McKenzie returned to the Raiders this year as their general manager. Wolf played a big role again. Wolf gave McKenzie a strong recommendation to new Raiders owner Mark Davis. McKenzie was the only candidate Davis interviewed.

Infamous Records
The Raiders set NFL single-season records for total penalties (163) and penalty yards (1,358) last season. They broke the old marks of 158 and 1,304 set by the 1998 Kansas City Chiefs.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Thur., Aug. 2

Order your 2012 Oakland Raiders Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Oakland Raiders Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Oakland Raiders Bucs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Oakland Raiders 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, News, Big East
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-awards-sack-masters
Body:

History, and most every rational brain in sports, indicates that the quarterback position is easily the most important and valuable on any football roster. In order to protect the most valued member of the team, the NFL has proven that the left tackle is the second most important position on the field.

Therefore, any player who can neutralize and defeat said bookend tackle immediately becomes the third most important player, correct? Just ask the New England Patriots and Tom Brady about whether or not a truly elite defensive line can stop a historic passing attack? In 2007 or 2011?

The ability to pressure the quarterback and disrupt the offense by only using the defensive line can be the difference between victory and defeat. A dynamic pass rusher must be accounted for on every play, because if he is not, the entire offensive rhythm can be shattered.

So after watching third-down specialist Bruce Irvin get drafted in the first round this spring, Athlon thought it would rank the top sack masters in college football for 2012:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (SO)
There is no player in the nation with more raw upside than Clowney. He posted 8.0 sacks and five forced fumbles as only a true freshman who, frankly, didn't even know where to lineup at times. An advanced understanding of the game is the only thing left for this freak of nature to accomplish in his journey towards the NFL. Should he continue to develop his pass-rush repertoire and fine tune his skills, Clowney will find himself as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. And it might not even be close. He could easily turn into the most dominate defensive player in the game by the end of the year. Or maybe by Week 1 against Vanderbilt.

2. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (JR)
The 3-4 scheme is designed with players like Jones in mind. Todd Grantham has done a masterful job with the Georgia front seven and the biggest beneficiary has been Jones. A Butkus finalist, the in-state product led the SEC in sacks with 13.5 sacks and also posted 19.5 tackles for a loss. The only thing keeping this speedy edge rusher off the top slot is his lack of overall size. He isn't a traditional pass rusher and his scheme helps him more than most on this list.

3. Sam Montgomery, LSU (JR)
As only a sophomore, Monty landed on the All-American team after leading LSU in sacks. He may not be as quick as the much smaller Jarvis Jones and he may not have the eventual upside of a Jadeveon Clowney, but Montgomery might be the most complete defensive end in the nation. He is being projected as a top ten pick by NFL scouts for next year's draft and has proven to be one of the nation's most disruptive players. His 9.0 sacks were fourth-best in LSU history last fall and his 13.5 tackles for a loss further indicate his talent. And he was only a sophomore.  

4. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas (JR)
There isn't a more prepared and fundamentally sound player in the game today. His NFL pedigree and up-brining shines through on every play and helped him lead his team in sacks (8.0) and tackles for a loss (16.5). Of course, his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame doesn't hurt much either. The Longhorns were — and will be again this fall — easily the most dominate defense in the Big 12 thanks in large part to Jeffcoat's ability to get into the backfield.

5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State (JR)
The Big Ten's version of Jones doesn't have the benefit of playing in a 3-4 scheme where he is allowed to blitz on a regular basis. That said, his quickness and explosiveness allowed him to get to the quarterback 11.0 times last fall, good for second in the Big Ten. His 18.5 tackles for a loss also led the team and placed him fourth in the conference. He is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, but he gets every ounce of energy out of his frame. 

6. Barkevious Mingo, LSU (JR)
Mingo is a near carbon copy of his end counterpart Montgomery. He might be a bit quicker and a bit more explosive than Montgomery, so if he can refine his craft to the fullest, he could end up much higher on this list. As only a sophomore, he finished with 8.0 sacks, 11 hurries and 15.0 tackles for a loss on a defense that led LSU to an unbeaten regular season record.

7. Corey Lemonier, Auburn (JR)
As only a sophomore with little help around him, Lemonier finished with 9.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Much like the rest of the SEC names on this list, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound rush end has first-round NFL potential and won't be around much longer should his success continue. His role in Brian VanGorder's system might be slightly different and it is unsure as to how it will effect his statistical production. But make no mistake, he is the best Tiger defender on the roster.

8. Alex Okafor, Texas (SR)
Certainly, both Texas ends benefit from each other, but Okafor is not slouch on his own. Like Jeffcoat, he is a projected first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and his stats nearly mirror his counterparts. The local product finished just behind Jeffcoat in sacks (7.0) and tackles for a loss (12.0) last fall. Again, this is the best unit in the Big 12 and Okafor is a huge reason why.

9. Trevardo Williams, UConn (SR)
Williams is undersized for the true defensive end position, but he certainly makes it work. His 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame isn't ideal but he still managed to lead the Big East in sacks. In fact, his 1.04 sacks per game was good for second nationally and his 12.5 total QB takedowns finished fifth nationally. He also posted 15.0 tackles for a loss and helped the Huskies finish No. 1 against the run in the Big East.

10. Aaron Donald, Pitt (JR)
As only a sophomore, Donald registered 11.0 sacks to finish second in the Big East. His 16.0 tackles for a loss were tied for fourth in the league. He isn't as tall as most traditional ends (6-0), but uses excellent leverage and a powerful, 275-pound frame to get the edge.

The Best of the Rest:

11. Sean Porter, Texas A&M (SR)
Posted 9.5 sacks a year ago but change in scheme could limit his totals this fall.

12. Josh Shirley, Washington (SO)
Looking for the next Bruce Irvin? This former linebacker could easily be the guy.

15. John Simon, Ohio State (SR)
Works harder, is stronger and tougher than maybe anyone in the nation. A terror in 2012.

14. Michael Buchanan, Illinois (SR)
Learned from nation's top sack artist last year (Whitney Merclius), had 7.5 of his own too.

15. Brandon Jenkins, Florida State (SR)
Stepped back last fall due to double-teams, so All-American needs to prove it once again.

16. Dion Jordan, Oregon (SR)
Freakish size and ability for the hybrid role. Needs to add consistency to his game.

17. Devin Taylor, South Carolina (SR)
Huge prospect (6-7, 265) could explode with Clowney on opposite side.

18. Bjoern Werner, Florida State (SR)
More consistent and dependable than Jenkins but also not as physically gifted.

19. Stansly Maponga, TCU (JR)
Registered 9.0 sacks and 13.5 TFL, but can he handle step up in competition?

20. James Gayle, Virginia Tech (JR)
Landed 7.0 sacks last fall as only a sophomore and could be on the nation's best defense.

Others to consider:

21. Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
22. Travis Johnson, San Jose State
23. Margus Hunt, SMU
24. Wes Horton, USC
25. Art Laurel, Hawaii

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

2012 College Football Awards:

Top 25 Heisman Candidates

The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners

The Nation's Top Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Ranking the Nation's Top Pass Rushers for 2012

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Awards: Sack Masters</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 04:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC West, Kansas City Chiefs, NFL
Path: /nfl/kansas-city-chiefs-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Kansas City Chiefs check in at No. 24.

The chaos calmed finally, and when it did, the Chiefs were eager to return to football — with one of the NFL’s more talent-rich rosters. The 2011 season was stained by injuries to key players, disagreements between former coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli, and ultimately the replacement of Haley with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel late in the season. The Chiefs hope 2012 will be a calmer time, a period that finally sees permanent results from four years of rebuilding.

Quarterback Matt Cassel is seen in Kansas City as one of the few unproven pieces, and the grousing was highlighted when the Broncos signed former Colts star Peyton Manning — and likely shot to the top of preseason AFC West predictions. 

In the meantime, the Chiefs spent their offseason building around Cassel. They fortified a weak offensive line, brought in veteran running back Peyton Hillis, and gave Cassel one more vote of confidence that, if all goes right, he can be the quarterback to lead the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl in more than four decades. Even with better days seemingly on the horizon, this could be Cassel’s last chance. 

Offense

After missing on Manning, the team signed veteran Brady Quinn, an assertion that Cassel was still the Chiefs’ man. Cassel is an average NFL quarterback under most circumstances, but the Chiefs seemed to realize that his best chance at being something more — like he was in 2010, when he led the team to a division title and earned a Pro Bowl nod — was by surrounding him with solid pieces. The free agent acquisitions of right tackle Eric Winston, tight end Kevin Boss and running back Hillis give Cassel more talent to work with.

Still, there remains uncertainty even beyond quarterback. Running back Jamaal Charles, one of the NFL’s most electric rushers, and tight end Tony Moeaki suffered torn knee ligaments early last season, and it’s unclear if they’ll return with the same explosion and quickness. Charles is still seen as one of the league’s most talented rushers, but there will be no relief in Kansas City until he breaks his first long run, like those reminiscent of the 2009 and ’10 seasons. Charles estimated in April that he was “80 percent” healthy, admitting that the assessment was partly a motivational ploy. Hillis will be used in power running situations, making occasional appearances at fullback. Dexter McCluster and rookie Cyrus Gray also could get carries.

Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also could be a mystery entering his sixth season. The Chiefs made him their franchise player, but he refused to sign his tender, skipped offseason practices and didn't report at the start of training camp. The Chiefs are in a pickle: Do they hand Bowe, an occasionally immature but supremely talented wideout, a huge contract and hope he handles it well, or simply hope that he signs his franchise tender, risking the absence of a player who had more than 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last two years?

The Chiefs spent two of their eight draft picks on receivers Devon Wylie and Junior Hemingway, possibly as a backup plan if things don’t work out with Bowe. Steve Breaston is a solid second receiver, and second-year wideout Jon Baldwin will need to show growth from a rookie season plagued with injuries and poor decision-making.

Cassel will work behind a line with two new faces: Winston and second-year center Rodney Hudson, who’s expected to take over for Casey Wiegmann.

If Cassel plays close to his 2010 form, the Chiefs should be able to return fire against a division that’s suddenly full of star power. It won’t hurt if Charles and Moeaki are healthy.

Related: Top Kansas City Chiefs Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Crennel was giddy after the first round of the draft, when his team gambled and took nose tackle Dontari Poe with the No. 11 overall pick. Poe has a high ceiling but a low floor, and some fans booed the pick at a team-hosted draft party, simply because Poe was seen as a college underachiever who excelled at the NFL combine. Crennel is confident that Poe, a 346-pounder with uncanny quickness, will be a perfect fit in the center of his three-man front.

If Crennel’s vision comes true, the Chiefs will have a solid line that opens playmaking opportunities for a terrific group of linebackers. Outside backer Tamba Hali has emerged as one of the league’s best pass-rushers, and inside backer Derrick Johnson, strong against the run and the pass, made his first Pro Bowl last season. The team has high hopes for second-year pro Justin Houston. The former third-round pick was a liability against the run last year, and he’ll have to improve in that area in order to realize his potential.

The strong play from the linebacking corps helped mask the troubles at safety last season. Eric Berry, one of the game’s top young defensive backs, tore his ACL in Week 1. Berry is terrific against the run but will need to improve in coverage to become an elite safety. Brandon Flowers, a terrific cover corner, is back for his fifth year as a starter. He will joined by Stanford Routt, signed to a three-year contract in the offseason after spending seven years with the Raiders. Third-year free safety Kendrick Lewis rounds out what should be a strong secondary.

That leaves the defensive line, and Poe won’t be the only question. His neighbors, ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, were both high draft picks who have yet to live up expectations. Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2009, has shown a slow reaction time and an inability to absorb blockers. Dorsey has improved each year, if slightly, but at 6'1" and 297 pounds, he’s still an uncomfortable fit as a 3-4 end. 

Crennel will continue coordinating the defense.

Specialists

Kicker Ryan Succop will return in his role a season after making 24-of-30 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards. He’s strong, cool and reliable enough to someday join Jan Stenerud and Nick Lowery as the most accomplished kickers in team history. Dustin Colquitt will remain the Chiefs’ punter.

The Chiefs have plenty of options for kick returners, but none has scored a touchdown since McCluster reached the end zone in the 2010 regular-season opener. Javier Arenas is the team’s primary punt returner, and Breaston, Wylie and rookie safety DeQuan Menzie also could get chances in the return game. McCluster remains a big threat, but the team is hesitant to use him on special teams when he is needed to contribute on offense. 

Final Analysis: 4th in the AFC West

The Chiefs have a favorable schedule and improved depth at key positions. The barometer for the 2012 season should be a winning record; anything better will be a bonus and anything less will be a disappointment. But with Kansas City’s top playmakers on both sides of the ball coming off season-ending injuries, the dark cloud of doubt hangs over this year’s club.

Related: 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Berry Suspects Bounty
Safety Eric Berry, one of the team’s more talented and intense players, tweeted in March that he suspected the Buffalo Bills might have a bounty on him on the day Berry suffered a season-ending ACL tear on a low block from the Bills’ Stevie Johnson. After the Saints bounty scandal broke, Berry took to Twitter: “Sometimes I sit n wonder if they had a bounty out on me ... oh well ... who cares. Either way u can’t hold me down.” Berry later backed off his assertion, saying it was “pretty much a joke,” before encouraging others to watch video of the play and develop their own opinions.

More Focus
Dexter McCluster, the Chiefs’ multipurpose player, spent his offseason making music and opening a sports bar in his native Florida. But his most important offseason goal was to improve his focus and cut down on fumbles, a continual problem in 2011. He said he re-evaluated how he finished the “last three inches” of each play, protecting the ball on his way to the turf.

The Switch
Rookie offensive lineman Jeff Allen is expected to move to guard after playing tackle throughout his high school and college career. It’s the opposite move made by Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert, who played guard before arriving in Kansas City. Allen said he would lean on his former teammate at Illinois, Jon Asamoah, for advice through the transition. Asamoah is the Chiefs’ starting right guard.

Coordinator Carousel
Brian Daboll became the Chiefs’ sixth offensive coordinator in as many years when he joined the team during the offseason. Daboll replaces Bill Muir, whose unit ranked 27th in the NFL in total offense with 310.8 yards per game. The constant changes have been most difficult on Cassel, who hasn’t had the same coordinator in two consecutive seasons since becoming a starter in 2008, at the time for the Patriots. The good thing for Cassel, though, is that Daboll was a Patriots assistant in the quarterback’s first two seasons.

Not A Spy
Running back Peyton Hillis, who signed a free agent deal with the Chiefs, has said a report that he considered retirement to pursue a job with the CIA was false — and meant to devalue his market price. Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards in 2010, is eager to bounce back after a tumultuous final season with the Browns. He rushed for only 587 yards in 10 games last season. 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Wed., Aug. 1

Order your 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Kansas City Chiefs Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Kansas City Chiefs 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - 05:00
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-awards-dual-threat-quarterbacks
Body:

Dual-Threat feels like a relatively modern term used to define college quarterbacks. Certainly, the proliferation of zone read options and Mike Leach spreads has created greater dychotomy within the offensive playbook than ever before. 

This trend of electric athletes who really aren't quarterbacks in the truest NFL sense of the word excelling in college is nothing new. Charlie Ward and Tommie Frazier made the quarterback position incredibly dynamic 20 years ago. And the triple option, wing-T offense has been churning across the college landscape for nearly a century.

However, when Michael Vick burst onto the scene with a rocket right arm packaged with an initial burst that would make Usain Bolt jealous, the game changed forever. The ability to be an efficient, consistent, down the field passer as well as an explosive running back has stretched the defense both vertically and horizontally. Since Vick, names like Vince Young and Tim Tebow have led teams to championships based on the ability to throw and run with equal effectiveness.

So who are the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation for 2012:

1. Denard Robinson, Michigan (SR)
Certainly, Shoelace has some holes in his throwing game — and has missed some key snaps in key games. Yet, there is no better pass-run combination in the game today than Mr. Robinson. And as he proved at Big Ten Media Days, he is a true leader and role model for us all. The numbers very plainly speak for themselves: 4,931 yards passing, 3,229 yards rushing and 75 total touchdowns. He is the only player in history to be a part of the 2,500/1,500-yard club and returned Michigan to a BCS bowl last year. If he can stay healthy in 2012, he should be in New York come December.

2. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech (JR)
From an NFL perspective, there is no better dual-threat talent in the nation than Thomas. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, few defensive ends are as big as Thomas, much less guys under center. He may be the most powerful QB sneak-er in history (did you see the Georgia Tech game last year?). In his first season as a starter, he set a Virginia Tech single-season total yards record with his 3,482 yards of offense. This at a school with an incredible track record with dual-threats — Michael Vick, Marcus Vick, Bryan Randall, Tyrod Taylor. With question marks at offensive line and running back, Thomas will be called upon to carry even more of the offensive load in 2012.

3.  Braxton Miller, Ohio State (SO)
Urban Meyer isn't mixing words about his sophomore signal caller. He referred to Miller as the best athlete he has ever coached at quarterback, and this, obviously, includes names like Tim Tebow and Alex Smith. The game slowed down for Miller in the second half of 2011 and he nearly pulled-off a huge upset of Michigan in the Big House. As a true freshman, he threw only four interceptions (1,159 yards, 13 TD) and led the Buckeyes in rushing (715 yards, 7 TD). He has an electric first step and down the field potential that will remind people of Robert Griffin III.

4. Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State (SR)
Gus Malzahn couldn't not have asked for a better quarterback to be ready and waiting when he arrived in Jonesboro. And Aplin couldn't have asked for a better scheme for his dual skillset. En route to a Sun Belt championship, Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and 19 scores while leading his team in rushing (588 yards, 10 TD). Now, the power speed spread will only futher enhance Aplin's ability to punish defenses both on the ground and through the air.

5. Collin Klein, Kansas State (SR)
Klein clearly lacks the true pocket passing ability to be any higher on this list. That said, he might be the best running back on this list. His gritty, toughness and hard-nosed style is a pleasure to watch each Saturday. And it led to an NCAA record-tying 27 rushing touchdowns (by a quarterback) and Cotton Bowl berth last season. He completed only 57.3% of his passes for 1,918 yards, 13 TD and six INTs. Should he improve his ability to stretch the field with his arm, he could end up as the nation's top dual-threat QB. 

6. James Franklin, Missouri (JR)
In his first season under center, Franklin didn't disappoint. From a yardage standpoint, few players posted bigger numbers than his 2,865 yards passing and 981 yards rushing. He scored 15 times on the ground and 21 times through the air. The key, as Mizzou transitions into the SEC, will be his health. His throwing shoulder was badly injured in the spring, and while he is healthy now, will be facing some of the top defensive fronts in the nation this fall.

7. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska (JR)
Martinez needed to show mental toughness and maturity last season and it appears that he has finally mastered the huddle. The final step in his development will be the ability to complete passes accurately and consistently down the field in key situations. Otherwise, the raw talent is obvious. His first 10 yards go by as quickly as any runner in the nation as his 874 yards and 9 TD indicate. He managed 2,089 yards through the air, and with what could be the best receiving corps in the Big Ten, Martinez needs to show improvement in efficiency — i.e., a 13:8 TD:INT ratio and 56.3% passing clip. The upside is painfully obvious for Huskers fans.

8. Tyler Tettleton, Ohio (JR)
Fantasy players know all about the Bobcats quarterback, but the rest of the nation is only just now catching on. As only a sophomore, Tettleton threw 3,306 yards and 28 scores against only 10 interceptions while adding 10 more scores on the ground and 666 yards rushing. On a team that could be the MAC frontrunner in 2012, Tettleton is the star.

9. Kain Colter, Northwestern (JR)
Few players have ever had the statistical season that Colter produced last fall. No one number stands out, but his diversity and versatitlity were extremely rare. He led the Wildcats in rushing with 654 yards and nine touchdowns, finished with 43 receptions for 466 yards and three more scores as a receiver and completed over 67% of his passes for 673 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception. In an offense known for overachieving signal callers, Colter has a chance to be the most talented and productive of the bunch.

10. Brett Smith, Wyoming (SO)
Dave Christensen has been known for his work with quarterbacks both at Missouri and Wyoming. And Smith could be his best pupil yet. As only a freshman, Smith lit-up boxscores to the tune of 2,622 yards passing and 710 yards rushing. He added 30 total touchdowns (20 pass, 10 rush) as he led the Cowboys to an eight-win season and bowl bid. He works hard and should only be that much better in his second season.

The Best of the Rest:

11. Cody Fajardo, Nevada (SO)
The WAC Freshman of the Year posted 694 yards rushing and 1,707 passing and 17 total TDs.

12. Bryan Bennett/Marcus Mariota, Oregon (SO/FR)
Mariota has drawn Dennis Dixon comparisons and Bennett averaged over 10 yards per carry with six passing TDs and no INTs in spot duty last year. Both have electric dual-threat skills in a system perfectly suited for both.

13. B.J. Daniels, USF (SR)
Four years of starting should produce best season yet. 2011 featured 2,604/601 yardage splits.

14. Matt Scott, Arizona (SR)
Rich Rodriguez' zone-read scheme is a perfect fit for 6-3, 200-pounder.

15. Connor Shaw, South Carolina (JR)
Posted 1,448/525 yardage split to go with 22 TDs — and that was with Stephen Garcia hanging around.

16. Blaine Gautier, UL Lafayette (SR)
Awesome 2,958-23-6 passing line to go with 486 yards and three more scores on the ground.

17. Alex Gillett, Eastern Michigan (SR)
Led the improved Eagles in rushing (736) while adding 1,504 yards and 14 TDs through the air.

18. Riley Nelson, BYU (SR)
Threw 19 TDs and got 88 rushing attempts in first year as the starter. Forced Jake Heaps to Kansas. 

19. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois (JR)
Takes over for Chandler Harnish in elite dual-threat scheme. Rushed for 246-3 in back-up duty last fall.

20. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota (SR)
Elite athlete (966 yards rushing last year) who is finally starting to develop as a passer.

Others to consider:

21. Nathan Scheehaase, Illinois (JR)
22. C.J. Brown, Maryland (JR)
23. Tevin Washington, Georgia Tech (SR)
24. Tre Roberson, Indiana (SO)
25. Kolton Browning, UL Monroe (JR)

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

2012 College Football Awards:

Top 25 Heisman Candidates

The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners
The Nation's Top Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Awards: Dual-Threat Quarterbacks</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - 04:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-awards-best-lockdown-cornerbacks
Body:

Darrelle Revis was a superstar do-everything athlete at Pitt. He was an electric punt returner and team leader. But what got him paid in the NFL is his ability to smother the opposition's best receiving weapon.

A truly great lockdown corner can completely change the complexion of a defensive scheme. Safeties only need to worry about half of the field. Linebackers play with more freedom. And quarterbacks have less fewer options. The bottom line, a pure coverman not only negates one of the top offensive playmakers for the other team, but he opens up the rest of his defense to make things happen. 

Here are college football's best pure lockdown cover corners in 2012:

1. David Amerson, NC State (JR)
Few corners have the 6-foot-3, 194-pound frame that Amerson brings to the outside. His range and size allowed him to shatter an NC State single-season record for interceptions last fall. In fact, his 13 picks also set an ACC single-season record. He claimed the Jack Tatum Award and was a finalist for the Thorpe Award as well as landing on multiple first-team All-Amercan squads. He is projected by many as the top defensive back for the 2013 NFL Draft. The Greensboro, N.C. product has never missed a game in his 26-game career and is the nation's best — and fans can bet quarterbacks will stay away Amerson Island in 2012.

2. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State (SR)
From Maben, Miss., Banks enters his final season as a preseason first-team All-American. He is one of the best tacklers at his position in the nation, as his 71 stops a year ago indicate. Banks also plays in the opposition's backfield with 8.0 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks a year ago. Like Amerson, his size, and physical style of play, is what makes him special at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds. And like Amerson, has been tabbed by prognosticators as a first-round NFL talent. He led the Dawgs with five interceptions a year ago, bringing his career total to 12, and also returned 16 punts (166 yards). His three INT TD returns are tied for the NCAA's active career lead — two shy of the NCAA mark.

3. Nickell Robey, USC (JR)
In only two seasons at USC, Robey has quickly established himself as one of the nation's best. He has six career picks and has returned at least one for a touchdown in each of his two seasons. The track star from Frostproof, Fla., also returns punts and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors a year ago. He enters his third year with 111 career tackles and hasn't missed a start (24 games). He is a preseason second-team All-American this fall.

4. Quandre Diggs, Texas (SO)
As only a true freshman, the younger brother of former Longhorn star corner and NFL defensive back Quentin Jammer earned 11 starts in 2011. He posted 51 total tackles, four interceptions and averaged 19.5 yards per kick return en route to freshman All-American honors. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Diggs had size, the pedigree and the production needed to be a star for the next two seasons before moving onto Sundays. Diggs turned heads the second he stepped onto campus and could be a national star before 2012 is over.

5. Carrington Byndom, Texas (JR)
While Diggs may have more upside and raw talent, a case could be made that the 6-foot-0, 180-pound Byndom is the top shutdown corner in the Big 12. The Lufkin, Texas prospect earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after 58 total tackles, 8.0 tackles for a loss and two picks. It will be interesting to see how Manny Diaz deploys his two elite covermen in 2012. 

6. Johnny Adams, Michigan State (SR)
The veteran of this list, the fifth-year senior enters his third season as the top coverman for Michigan State. The Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart named him the top defensive back in the Big Ten and the league's "Best Cover Corner" for 2012. From Akron, Ohio, the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder has a knack for making big plays (3.0 sacks, three INTs for 141 yards) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last fall.

7. Jordan Poyer, Oregon State (SR)
The big-play corner from Astoria, Ore., has proven to be one of the nation's best without much acclaim. He has scored three times in his career, twice on interception returns and once on a punt return. At 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds, Poyer has is beginning to get plenty of NFL draft buzz. His 16 total passes defensed (4 INT, 12 PBU) placed him eighth nationally. His special teams skills are amongst the nation's best as well — he ranked second on the team in all-purpose yards in 2010 and 2011.

8. Bradley Roby, Ohio State (SO)
Like Diggs, Roby has elite level upside. From Suwanee, Ga., the 5-foot-11, 190-pound corner played in all 13 games as a freshman, registering 47 total tackles and three interceptions last year. The Buckeye coaching staff is touting Roby as the most talented player in the defensive backfield and his emergence as a lockdown corner has allowed names like C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant to make big plays. 

9. Xavier Rhodes, Florida State (JR)
The most noticeable attribute NFL scouts first mention with the Miami, Fla., prospect is his superior size. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, few players possess the speed, agility and quickness needed to play true cornerback. At first, Rhodes was overshadowed by the more hyped Greg Reid, but opposing quarterbacks learned quickly that throwing at No. 27 was much more difficult.

10. Dee Milliner, Alabama (JR)
NFL scouts drool when they watch Milliner on film. His 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame is a rarity at his position and with another great year could easily himself in the first round of the draft next spring. He made six starts last year on what many believe is the greatest modern defense ever assembled. He led the national champions in interceptions with three, including one in which he returned one for a touchdown.

The Best of the Rest:

11. Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State (SR)
Preseason third-team All-American, Brown lacks the NFL upside to land in the top 10.

12. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (JR)
Makes his biggest impact on special teams. His size hinders his ability to lockdown bigger wideouts.

13. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech (JR)
Could be the best player on the ACC's best defense after All-ACC sophomore season.

14. Logan Ryan, Rutgers (JR)
Big East's top coverman posted 67 tackles and three interceptions on the league's best defense last fall.

15. Ricardo Allen, Purdue (JR)
Has started all 25 games in his career and led the team with three interceptions last year.

16. Nigel Malone, Kansas State (SR)
A junior college transfer, Malone made a instant impact in his first year with seven interceptions in 2011.

17. Micah Hyde, Iowa (SR)
Versatile prospect has played multiple positions and earned All-Big Ten honors last year.

18. Greg Reid, Florida State (SR)
Undersized return man is very similar in skillset to that of Mathieu. Including, minor off the field issues.

19. Desmond Trufant, Washington (SR)
Younger brother of Marcus, Desmond has started the every game (26) over last two seasons.

20. Demontre Hurst, Oklahoma (SR)
Rebuilt Sooners coaching staff will allow veteran DB to achieve up to his potential in 2012.

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

2012 College Football Awards:

Top 25 Heisman Candidates

The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Awards: Best Lockdown Cornerbacks</p>
Post date: Monday, July 30, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC South, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, NFL
Path: /nfl/tampa-bay-buccaneers-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers check in at No. 25.

The mutiny that nearly occurred last season when the Buccaneers lost their final 10 games resulted in a 26-day head coaching search and the hiring of Rutgers boss Greg Schiano, who definitely runs a tight ship.

In the first voluntary veteran minicamp, Schiano barked orders at his new players during the first series of drills. “Football is a game of details,” Schiano shouted. “Toes on the edge!”

How well the Bucs toe the line under Schiano will determine whether he can avoid becoming just another college head coach who struggles making the transition to the NFL. To that end, he hired Butch Davis as special assistant to the head coach. Davis, the former North Carolina and University of Miami head coach, knows the trap doors to avoid, having coached the Cleveland Browns from 2001-04.

“I think a lot is made about college coaches that haven’t done well,” Schiano says. “But if you look at it, there are a lot of coaches who haven’t done well. It’s a pretty high turnover rate in this business. Throw the pro coaches in there as well.”

The changes didn’t stop with the coaching staff. The Bucs committed $140.5 million in free agent contracts, adding players such as Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints guard Carl Nicks. The draft netted three more projected starters. Now Schiano needs to get them all rowing in the same direction.

Offense

Quarterback Josh Freeman has re-dedicated himself this offseason, losing 15-20 pounds. Along with the shrinking waistline, Freeman hopes to reduce the number of interceptions he threw last season — 22, with only 16 touchdowns.

Freeman will have new weapons and a new voice in his helmet. Former New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who did a pretty good job with Eli Manning, takes over as the Bucs’ offensive coordinator. Both Sullivan and Schiano are proponents of a ground-and-pound offensive attack that sets up big plays on play-action.

The Bucs added some weapons that should make Freeman’s job a little easier. Jackson, who signed a five-year, $55.555-million deal (the fives are a nod to Freeman’s jersey number), will help stretch the field and give the Bucs a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Mike Williams, who was among the league leaders with seven dropped passes a year ago and saw his TDs fall from 11 to three, should thrive with the defense rolling coverage toward Jackson. The Bucs parted ways with tight end Kellen Winslow for a seventh-round pick in 2013. Dallas Cark, who missed 15 games in his final two years with the Colts, is the new starter.

Schiano prefers a ‘bell cow’ running back who can play all three downs. That’s why the Bucs traded back up in the first round to take Boise State running back Doug Martin 31st overall. The 5'9", 223-pounder is a good route-runner, can pass-protect and should emerge as a starter. LeGarrette Blount, who has been mostly a one-dimensional, inside runner, will still have a big role with the offense. But he has to eliminate turnovers, having fumbled nine times in two seasons, losing six.

Nicks is a road-grader who will team inside with another Pro Bowl guard, Davin Joseph. Jeremy Zuttah moves from center to guard.

Freeman improved in some areas last season, posting career highs in completions (346), completion percentage (62.8) and passing yards (3,592). But he admits he made bad decisions with the football. “Really, it was just pressing too hard,” Freeman says. “Sometimes you just try to force things.” Remember, Freeman is only a year removed from leading a much less talented offense to a 10–6 record with 25 TDs and only six INTs.

Related: Top Tampa Bay Buccaneers Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Under fired coach Raheem Morris, who doubled as defensive coordinator, the Bucs allowed a franchise-worst 494 points, ranked last in rush defense and allowed 30 touchdown passes. The collapse after a 4–2 start can partially be explained by injuries. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick in 2010, has played a total of 19 games in two seasons while producing four sacks. He tore his right biceps last season (after tearing the left biceps a year earlier) after six games and finished the season on injured reserve.

Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn led the Bucs with 7.5 sacks, but his draft classmate, end Da’Quan Bowers, tore his Achilles tendon in May. He could be lost for the season.

Among the Bucs’ worst decisions was to go with rookie Mason Foster at middle linebacker, coming off the NFL lockout without the benefit of an offseason. Tampa Bay wasn’t much better in the secondary.

Obviously, an overhaul was in order. Schiano hired Dolphins linebackers coach Bill Sheridan as defensive coordinator. Sheridan’s first shot at that job, as the Giants defensive coordinator in 2009, was a mess. The Giants gave up the second-most points in club history.

The Bucs have added talent. They traded down two spots to take Alabama safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in the draft. In the second round, they netted Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, who should start at weak-side linebacker.

The Bucs signed Lions free agent cornerback Eric Wright and coaxed 37-year-old Ronde Barber to return for a 16th season. Barber may be ticketed for a position change at free safety.

Specialists

The Bucs can play the field position game with the best. Michael Koenen averaged 45.1 yards per punt and pinned 24 inside the 20-yard line (35.8 percent). He also is among the league’s best on kickoffs.

Placekicker Connor Barth set club records by connecting on 26-of-28 field goal attempts (92.9 percent), with half coming from 40-49 yards. No wonder the Bucs made Barth their franchise player, although he is hoping for a long-term contract and has not signed the tender.

The Bucs’ return game could be much better. Sammie Stroughter averaged 27 yards on kickoff returns while Preston Parker averaged 9.1 yards per punt return. The Bucs failed to produce a special teams touchdown.

Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC South

The Bucs were the youngest team in the NFL the past two seasons and needed discipline and direction. They will get that from Schiano and his staff. More important, the Glazer family decided to re-invest in their product, as witnessed by the large free agent spending spree. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay plays NFC East teams in three of their first four games, so a fast start will be needed. But if Freeman can return to his 2010 form, and the defense rises to the middle of the pack, a .500 or better record is not out of the question.

Related: 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Grand Signing
Eric LeGrand watched the NFL Draft from his motorized wheelchair at his home in New Jersey. The former Rutgers defensive tackle, paralyzed trying to make a stop on special teams against Army in 2010, was excited to see his Scarlet Knights teammate, receiver Mohamed Sanu, selected in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals. “This was his class; he would’ve been in this draft,” said his mother, Karen LeGrand. “He watched the draft. He didn’t let it get to him. But he said to me at one time, ‘That could’ve been me.’” More than 1,100 miles away to the south, Bucs coach Greg Schiano was thinking the same thing. That’s why the former Rutgers coach telephoned LeGrand and offered him a contract with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance,’’ Schiano said in a release by the team. LeGrand announced his retirement on July 26 at the start of Tamapa Bay's training camp.

If You Can’t Beat ’em…
The Bucs spend thousands on their scouting department, scouring the nation in a search for talent. But this year, they found two of their draft picks in the same apartment. West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy, who are roommates in Morgantown, were the fifth- and sixth-round picks of the Bucs, respectively. Schiano never beat the Mountaineers in 11 seasons at Rutgers. “Obviously, I know a lot about both the West Virginia kids playing against them for four years,” Schiano says. “They were both a royal pain in the rear.”

Slippery Fingers
Running back LeGarrette Blount will have a hard time holding onto his starting job, especially if he doesn’t get a handle on the football. Blount has fumbled nine times, losing six in his two pro seasons, something Schiano won’t tolerate. “No one who touches the football will get touches if they don’t protect the football,” Schiano says. “That is one of our core covenants — the ball. It’s so important, they named the game after it.” 

Cheap Shots
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman says he wasn’t surprised to learn about the NFL’s investigation into the Saints’ bounty system administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in which players were paid for hits that forced opponents off the field or out of the game, along with fumble recoveries and interceptions. “We just knew every time we played the Saints, they were going to take some cheap shots,” Freeman says. “I mean, it was always something we acknowledged. We knew Gregg Williams’ defenses were physical and they were going to get after you. Knowing what we know now, it’s not surprising that was the system that was set up for them.”

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Tues., July 31

Order your 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Tampa Bay Bucs Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Monday, July 30, 2012 - 07:35
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC South, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, NFL
Path: /nfl/tampa-bay-buccaneers-top-twitter-accounts-follow
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Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Tampa Bay Bucs official twitter account:

@TBBuccaneers (Followers: 71,675)

Top Bucs To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, July 30, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Arrelious Benn WR @ArreliousBenn 34,460
2. Gerald McCoy DT @Geraldini93 29,751
3. Ahmad Black S @AhmadBlack35 28,388
4. Vincent Jackson WR @VincentTJackson 25,048
5. Adrian Clayborn DE @AJaClay 23,632
6. Lavonte David LB @Braska_4 13,846
7. Amobi Okoye DT @AO_Fasho 7,564
8. Davin Joseph OL @DavinJoseph75 6,690
9. Doug Martin RB @DougMartin22 6,614
10. Preston Parker WR @PrestonParker87 6,577
11. Keith Tandy DB @kytandy 3,540
12. Jeremy Trueblood OL @JeremyTRUEblood 2,891
13. Najee Goode LB @All_Goode 2,735
14. Dan Orlovsky QB @DanOrlovsky7 929
15. Drake Dunsmore TE @D_Duns9 576

Keep up with the New Sombrero, Raymond James Stadium, @RJStadium (1,904)

The Buccaneers Beat:

Rick Stroud, Writer for Tampa Bay Times: @NFLSTROUD (8,037)

Stephen Holder, Writer for Tampa Bay Times: @HolderStephen (5,122)

Ira Kaufman, Tampa Tribune, also covers Bucs: @IKaufmanTrib (4,752)

Jenna Laine, Sports Xchange/Reuters: @JennaLaineBucs (3,043)

Roy Cummings, Tampa Tribune: @RCummingsTrib (2,306)

Buccaneers Blog Roll:

The Tampa Bay Times has its own beat blog here, the Lakeland Ledger's beat here and SB Nation's blog at BucsNation.com.

ThePewterReport.com has a large following @PewterReport (7,404).

Follow the cleverly named What the Buc? blog, home of passionate, honest and direct fan-based Tampa Bay Buccaneers coverage.

There are plenty of of Bucs blogs to track: BuccaneersGab.comThePewterPlank.com as well as the @BucsBuzztap account as well.

The ESPN NFC South blog is run by Pat Yasinskas and you can follow him @ESPN_NFCSouth

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Tues., July 31

Order your 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Tampa Bay Bucs Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Schedule Analysis

- by Braden Gall and Mark Ross

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Tampa Bay Buccaneers Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Monday, July 30, 2012 - 07:30
All taxonomy terms: Arizona Cardinals, NFC, NFC West, NFL
Path: /nfl/arizona-cardinals-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Arizona Cardinals check in at No. 26.

There’s only one storyline for the Arizona Cardinals this season: Can Kevin Kolb play? The Cardinals have the pieces in place — an emerging defense, a dynamic receiving combo, two quality backs — to challenge the San Francisco 49ers for supremacy in the NFC West. But none of that will matter if Kolb isn’t the quarterback the Cardinals thought he was when they acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2011 season. It’s not that the Cardinals have lost faith in Kolb; they just haven’t seen enough to know whether he’s the long-term answer at quarterback or the embodiment of a disastrous trade.

If Kolb can play like he did when he outperformed Michael Vick to be the Eagles’ opening day starter in 2010, the Cardinals have the talent around him to be a playoff team. If he’s the skittish, injury-prone quarterback he was last season, the franchise will be set back five years.

Offense

With the exception of the unproven Kolb, the Cardinals certainly have the skill players to be a force in the NFC. The first-round selection of Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd gives Arizona a much-needed No. 2 receiver and, more important, should provide Larry Fitzgerald more room to operate in the middle of the field. The Cardinals didn’t have anyone who could stretch a defense, so opponents would simply shift a safety to Fitzgerald’s side and double-team him every play. Floyd’s presence should counter that gambit.

The one-two punch also exists in the backfield. Beanie Wells is a powerful runner who played through pain to rush for 1,047 yards last season. He can make tacklers miss and is a powerful goal line threat. He might not get as many carries this year, however, because of the presence of second-year pro Ryan Williams, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Cardinals were raving about Williams’ home run ability during training camp. He and Wells give Arizona the best running back combination in the NFC West.

The questions, of course, are whether Kolb can get the ball to Fitzgerald and Floyd, and whether the much-maligned offensive line can keep the quarterback upright and open enough holes for Wells and Williams.

Kolb has the talent. But he needs to stay in the pocket longer rather than run at the first sign of trouble. He also needs to be more accurate with his throws. In his first season as a starter, Kolb completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,955 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games.

Of course, Kolb’s skittishness is also due to the fact the line provided him little protection. Arizona should be solid up the middle, but Levi Brown has to provide better protection at left tackle, and the Cardinals have to hope fourth-round draft pick Bobby Massie can play immediately at right tackle. Otherwise, Kolb will be running for his life again, and the talents of Fitzgerald, Floyd, Wells and Williams will go to waste.

Related: Top Arizona Cardinals Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Few people outside of Arizona may have noticed, but the Cardinals were one of the better defenses in the league the second half of the 2011 season. They didn’t allow more than 23 points in any of the final eight games after giving up 20 points or more in six of the first eight games.

The transformation, which occurred when the players became more comfortable playing the blitzing, pressure schemes of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, is why Arizona went 7–2 over its final nine contests.

Arizona has deluxe playmakers at all three levels: Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell up front, soon-to-be-All-Pro Daryl Washington at inside linebacker, and safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Patrick Peterson in the secondary.

There are a couple of concerns on the defensive side of the ball. Nose tackle Dan Williams has yet to play up to his status as the club’s first-round pick in 2010. He has the talent to be an elite run-stuffer, but he needs to lose weight and take the game more seriously.

Also, the Cardinals didn’t have a single player with double-digit sacks in 2011, so it’s imperative young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield provide some pressure. Acho could have a breakout year. He had seven sacks as a rookie, and the coaching staff raves about his intelligence and approach to the game.

The Cardinals also need to force more turnovers, which should happen naturally as the defense matures. Arizona had just 10 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles.

Specialists

The Cardinals have arguably the best return game in the NFL. The new kickoff rules somewhat negated the impact of LaRod Stephens-Howling, but he’s still a threat to go long every time he touches the ball.

There’s no arguing the point that Peterson is the best punt returner in the world. All he did as a rookie was return four punts for touchdowns, tying an NFL record. Peterson has no fear — one of his returns was a 99-yarder in overtime to beat the St. Louis Rams — and if he makes the first tackler miss, watch out. It will be a shock if teams punt the ball to him this year.

Arizona’s kicking game isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s solid. Dave Zastudil averaged 45.2 yard per kick and dropped 24 punts inside the 20. Veteran placekicker Jay Feely made 19-of-24 attempts, but he missed two of six from 30-39 yards. That shouldn’t happen.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC West

It’s almost impossible to predict how the Cardinals will fare, because the uncertainty at quarterback is so great. But in some ways, this is a make-or-break year for Arizona. If Kolb performs well, Arizona should make the playoffs and challenge the 49ers for first place in the NFC West. If he doesn’t, Arizona likely will release him after the season and start anew its search for a franchise quarterback.

There’s also some question whether the regime of coach Ken Whisenhunt will survive if the Cardinals stumble to a third straight non-winning season. Whisenhunt is a quality coach and has brought some much-needed stability — and success — to the organization, but it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and team president Michael Bidwill isn’t the most patient of men.

Here’s the best-case scenario for this season: Kolb settles down, Arizona’s offensive line is just good enough to give him time to get the ball to Fitzgerald and Floyd, and the Cardinals make the playoffs as a wild card.

Related: 2012 Arizona Cardinals Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Tweet This
The Cards never know what defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will say on his Twitter account, which is why it’s so fun to follow. In 140 characters, he’ll ruminate about the Cardinals, the NFL, social issues, his body, fashion, etc. His Twitter isn’t for the politically correct crowd, but for a few laughs — and groans — @ddockett is the place to be.

Growing Up
First-round draft pick Michael Floyd was suspended from the Notre Dame football team after a drunk driving incident. But by all accounts Floyd learned from his mistake and matured both as a person and a leader. Rather than enter the supplemental draft, he stayed in school for his senior year and earned his degree in sociology.

Role Model
Floyd couldn’t have found a better home than the Cardinals. Arizona desperately needed a No. 2 receiver, and he already had formed a tight bond with wideout Larry Fitzgerald. Both players are from Minnesota, and the two have worked out together. Fitzgerald will take Floyd under his wing and give him a place to live: Fitz has let several teammates stay with him in the past.

What Did They Talk About?
In April, former Soviet Union head of state Mikhail Gorbachev was in the Valley to speak at a fundraiser for the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Gorbachev needed to get to New York after the speech, and lo and behold, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, who’s a licensed pilot, was heading there in his private plane. So, he gave Gorbachev and his party a lift.

Favorable Slate
The Cardinals should send a bouquet of roses to the NFL schedule-maker. Arizona plays three of its first four games at home; it has consecutive road games just once; and it caught favorable dates for two possible cold-weather games: It’s at New England on Sept. 16 and at Green Bay on Nov. 4. The only downside to the schedule: Only three of the final eight games are at home.

Levi’s Coming
Fans were surprised when the Cardinals re-signed left tackle Levi Brown in the offseason. Brown hasn’t lived up to expectations since being selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, and the prevailing wisdom was both sides needed to part ways. But Arizona didn’t think there was a better option in free agency, and Brown said there was “unfinished business” in Arizona.

A “Big” Steal?
The Cardinals may have lucked out when Ole Miss tackle Bobby Massie fell to them in the fourth round. Massie was projected to be a second-round pick. The 6'6", 316-pound Massie will get every opportunity to be the starting right tackle, and he’ll have plenty of motivation. He was mystified by his drop in the draft and said, “It just makes me hungry.”

The Nickname
Running back/kickoff returner LaRod Stephens-Howling has one of the coolest monikers in the NFL. He’s known as The Hyphen. Simple, but sweet.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Mon., July 30

Order your 2012 Arizona Cardinals Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Arizona Cardinals Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Arizona Cardinals Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Arizona Cardinals 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, July 27, 2012 - 08:05
All taxonomy terms: Arizona Cardinals, NFC, NFC West, NFL
Path: /nfl/arizona-cardinals-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Arizona Cardinals official twitter account:

@AZCardinals (Followers: 19,285)

Top Cardinals To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, July 27, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
  Larry Fitzgerald WR @LarryFitzgerald 1,322,050
  Alfonso Smith RB @FonzoAZ46 162,491
  O'Brien Schofield DE @Ob_Scho 153,734
  Darnell Dockett DT @DDockett 111,283
  Jay Feely K @JayFeely 61,365
  Patrick Peterson DB @The_Real_P2 50,641
  Beanie Wells RB @BeanieWells26 46,493
  William Gay CB @WilliamGay23 38,959
  Kevin Kolb QB @KevinKolb_4 20,435
  Stewart Bradley LB @StewBradley 20,008
  Adrian Wilson S @Adrian_Wilson24 19,088
  Calais Campbell DE @Campbell93 17,332
  Adam Snyder OL @ASnyds68 12,811
  Ryan Williams RB @LilSweetness34 12,675
  Sam Acho LB @TheSamAcho 10,996
  Todd Heap TE @ToddHeap86 10,187
  Quentin Groves LB @QuentinGroves 9,915
  James Sanders S @JamesSanders36 8,815
  Daryn Colledge OL @DarynColledge71 8,771
  Crezdon Butler CB @ButlerBoy28 6,932
  Stephen Williams WR @SteveWill_14 5,465
  Rashad Johnson S @49foyamind49 5,286
  Dan Williams DT @MrDanWilliams 4,941
  Andre Roberts WR @ARob12_Cards 4,444
  Michael Adams CB @MeezyBaby27 3,431
  A.J. Jefferson CB @AJJefferson 2,450

In case you wanted to follow arguably the greatest Cards QB in history, Kurt Warner, check him out @Kurt13Warner. His 265,845 followers tops the current roster.

Additionally, if you Cardinals fans want to keep up with the University of Phoenix Stadium, check out @UOPStadium.

The Cardinals Beat:

Darren Urban has covered the Arizona Cardinals for 13 seasons: @Cardschatter (23,562)

Kent Somers, Beat writer for The Arizona Republic: @kentsomers (12,567)

Arizona Sports 620, flagship radio station of the Arizona Cardinals: @AZSports620 (9,387)

Dave Pasch, ESPN & Arizona Cardinals broadcaster: @DavePasch (2,783)

Jody Jackson, Sports reporter and anchor for Fox Sports Arizona: @Jody_Jackson (3,002)

Craig Morgan, Fox Sports Arizona: @cmorgancbsfoxaz (1,263)

Cardinals Blog Roll:

Check the SB Nation's Cardinals site RevengeOfTheBirds.com.

A couple of other must-bookmarks are RaisingZona.com, CardinalsGab.com and @AZCardsBuzzTap.

The ESPN NFC West blog is run by Mike Sando and you can follow him @ESPN_NFCWest

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Mon., July 30

Order your 2012 Arizona Cardinals Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Arizona Cardinals Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Arizona Cardinals Schedule Analysis

- by Braden Gall and Mark Ross

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Arizona Cardinals Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Friday, July 27, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/college-football-national-champions-do-preseason-rankings-matter
Body:

Who is the sleeper team to watch in 2012? Who is a national title darkhorse? Who can come out of nowhere and shock the college football world?

Every year, college football analysts and experts at Athlon Sports rank all 124 teams and project how we feel the final standings will look. This year, the USC Trojans are our pick to beat the LSU Tigers for the 2012 BCS National Championship.

We also compile our list of potential national championship sleepers each year. Teams who are built to potentially run the table and surprise the preseason pollsters.

But when trying to pick your national title winner — or pinpoint those capable of making a historic run — there are a few figures to consider. Preseason rankings may seem arbitrary to some of you, but every BCS National Champion has been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. And it has been nearly three decades since an unranked team won the AP national title.

Be Ranked In the Preseason Top 20
Only one team ranked outside of the AP Top 20 has ever won a BCS National Championship. The Auburn Tigers of 2010, behind junior college transfer and relative unknown commodity Cam Newton, began the year ranked No. 22 in the nation. The Tigers are the lowest ranked preseason team in the BCS era to win the title and are the first team outside of the top since 1990 to even clinch a share of the title. Additionally, Oregon began 2010 outside of the top 10 at No. 11 — making the 2010 BCS National Championship game the only national title contest in the last 30+ years to features two teams that began outside of the top 10 in the preseason polls.

Really Though, Be Ranked In The Top 10
Four times in 14 years has the national champ come from outside the preseason Top 10. In addition to Auburn, Oklahoma in 2000 was ranked 19th, LSU in 2003 was ranked 15th and Ohio State was ranked 13th. Only three additional teams since 1984, Notre Dame in 1988 (13th) and Michigan in 1997 (14th) and Georgia Tech in 1990 (UR), have won the national title starting outside of the top 10. And Tech didn’t claim the AP title in 1990.

Unranked Champions Don't Happen
Since 1982, the year I was born, only twice has a team unranked in the preseason gone on to win the AP/BCS national championship. The 1984 BYU Cougars and the 1983 Miami Hurricanes are the only champs to start the year outside of the Top 25 and finish on top since 1982. Technically, Georgia Tech claimed a share of the national title in 1990 after beginning the season unranked. However, it didn’t claim the AP title that year, preseason No. 5 Colorado did.

The Top 5 Is the Place To Be
Four of the last five national champions were ranked in the top five in the AP preseason poll. Alabama in 2009 and Florida in 2008 were No. 5 — although, it should be noted that Athlon Sports had the Gators No. 1 in 2008 — while LSU in 2007 and Alabama in 2011 both began No. 2.

In fact, 16 times in the last 32 seasons has the national champion begun the year in the top five. This means, according to Athlon Sports’ rankings, that there is a 50% chance that Alabama, LSU, USC, Oregon and Oklahoma will win the title. It also means there is only a 50% chance that the champion comes from the other 119 teams. Both the 2003 and 1997 split champs were outside of the top five and both the 1991 champs were inside the preseason top five. The 1990 championship featured one unranked team (Georgia Tech) and one top five team (Colorado).

No. 1 Is Good, But Not That Good
So where is No. 1 in all of this you ask? The USC Trojans in 2004 were the last AP preseason No. 1 team to claim the national championship. In fact, since 1982, only three preseason No. 1 teams have gone on to win the title. Florida State in 1999 and 1993 were the only two other teams to match the ’04 Trojans of wire-to-wire dominance. In fact, the preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll hasn't even played in the national title game since 2006 when Ohio State lost to Florida. More teams have lost the national title game as preseason No. 1's than have won it in the BCS era. Yes, six trips (of 14) to the BCS title game is extremely accurate — and obviously most fanbases would take a guarenteed trip to the title game — but more times than not that team loses (2-4). Which, frankly, is all that matters.

No. 2 Is the Spot
Four of the last 12 national champions began the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason, more than any other preseason rankings by a wide margin. Eight times has the No. 2 team played in the BCS National Championship game, more than any other slot. Of the 28 total BCS title game teams, nearly 30% have started the season as the No. 2 team in the AP poll. And who is likely to be preseason No. 2 this fall? Either LSU or Alabama is a pretty good guess. And yes, that would give the SEC a seventh straight championship as well as a second

Where Not To Be?
The preseason number you don’t want your team to be? Third or fourth. No team in the BCS era has won a title beginning the year ranked No. 3 or No. 4. Florida in 1996 was the last preseason No. 4 team to claim the title and Miami in 1991 was the last team ranked No. 3 in the preseason to win the big prize. So for Athlon, this knocks out Alabama (No. 3) and Oregon (No. 4). Elsewhere inside the top 10, sixth hasn't won a title since 1997 and ninth hasn't clinched the championship since 1992. For good measure, eleventh hasn't won a title in the last 32 seasons.

What do all these numbers mean for college football in 2012? Maybe not much. But the stats do indicate that preseason polls are extremely accurate measuring sticks when attempting to pinpoint the quest for the Crystal Ball. So buy your Athlon Sports College Football preview magazine here!

Here is a quick list of how each of the national champs have ranked in the preseason:

Year Team AP Rank BCS Runner-Up AP Rank
2011 Alabama No. 2 LSU No. 4
2010 Auburn No. 22 Oregon No. 11
2009 Alabama No. 5 Texas No. 2
2008 Florida No. 5 Oklahoma No. 4
2007 LSU No. 2 Ohio State No. 10
2006 Florida No. 7 Ohio State No. 1
2005 Texas No. 2 USC No. 1
2004 USC No. 1 Oklahoma No. 2
2003* LSU No. 15 Oklahoma No. 1
2003* USC (AP) No. 8 -- --
2002 Ohio State No. 13 Miami No. 1
2001 Miami No. 2 Nebraska No. 4
2000 Oklahoma No. 19 Florida State No. 2
1999 Florida State No. 1 Virginia Tech No. 11
1998 Tennessee No. 10 Florida State No. 2
1997* Michigan (AP) No. 14 -- --
1997* Nebraska No. 6 -- --
1996 Florida No. 4 -- --
1995 Nebraska No. 2 -- --
1994 Nebraska No. 4 -- --
1993 Florida State No. 1 -- --
1992 Alabama No. 9 -- --
1991* Miami (AP) No. 3 -- --
1991* Washington No. 4 -- --
1990* Colorado (AP) No. 5 -- --
1990* Georgia Tech Unranked -- --
1989 Miami No. 3 -- --
1988 Notre Dame No. 13 -- --
1987 Miami No. 10 -- --
1986 Penn State No. 6 -- --
1985 Oklahoma No. 2 -- --
1984 BYU Unranked -- --
1983 Miami Unranked -- --
1982 Penn State No. 8 -- --

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> College Football National Champions: Do Preseason Rankings Matter?</p>
Post date: Friday, July 27, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Miami Dolphins, NFL
Path: /nfl/miami-dolphins-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Miami Dolphins check in at No. 27.

After another uninspiring season, owner Steve Ross initially sought to snare the biggest fish in order to create a splash in the fragmented South Florida sports market, while placating a fan base angry about his retention of unpopular general manager Jeff Ireland. He recruited free agent coach Jeff Fisher, who turned him down as Jim Harbaugh had the offseason before. He made a pitch to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, but Manning never seemed to take the Dolphins’ situation seriously. And so, instead, Ross had to settle for a ripple, with the hiring of former Green Bay offensive guru Joe Philbin to pace the sidelines, the drafting of Ryan Tannehill to someday take the snaps, and the re-signing of Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake to anchor the defense.

“What we talked about was building a foundation, building a program, building a football team that could deliver sustained success over a period of time,” Philbin says of interviewing with Ross. “I’ve coached in the National Football League for nine years and college for 19. I don’t know if you ever go into a game where you don’t feel like you have a chance to win.”

The Dolphins have a chance to win a couple more games this season, but due to the limitations of the offensive talent base, grander accomplishments will have to wait.

Offense

While he wasn’t the primary play-caller, Philbin did design the offensive gameplans for a Packers team that led the NFL in points scored en route to a 15–1 regular-season record. Now he takes over a team that finished 20th in the NFL in scoring.

Clearly there is work to do, especially after the Dolphins dumped their leading receiver, talented but troubled Brandon Marshall, for two third-round choices. Marshall’s statistics were misleading — his 1,214-yard total could have been higher if not for plenty of critical drops. Still, his departure leaves Brian Hartline, who has good hands and decent speed, and solid slot man Davone Bess as the most experienced returnees. Neither will have defenses sweating.

The Dolphins added another wide receiver in June when they signed Chad Johnson (who is no longer Chad Ochocinco after legally changing his last name, again) to a one-year deal. Johnson gets the chance to not only play for his hometown team, as he was born and raised in Miami and played at Miami Beach High School, he also will get a chance, perhaps his last one, to resurrect his NFL career. Johnson, 34, appears to be on the tail end of a productive career, as he caught only 28 passes for 329 yards and one touchdown in 12 forgettable games with New England last season.

Philbin has made it clear that he would prefer to spread the ball around rather than be reliant upon one receiver. That means opportunities for raw second-year speedster Clyde Gates, holdover tight end Anthony Fasano, promising H-back Charles Clay, rookie tight end Michael Egnew and even Reggie Bush split wide.

Bush will work plenty out of the backfield as well, after proving skeptics wrong with a strong season as a feature back. Rather than wearing down, Bush played better as the season progressed, finishing with a 5.0-yard average. Ideally, he’ll get more help this time from Daniel Thomas, the 2011 second-round pick who had trouble staying healthy as a rookie. Lamar Miller, a natural runner from Miami, also could get a look.

They will work behind an offensive line that needs a full return to health for cornerstone left tackle Jake Long and continued development from second-year center Mike Pouncey. The other three spots are somewhat in flux. Veteran Richie Incognito will get the first look at left guard, and second-round pick Jonathan Martin has a chance to step into the right tackle spot voided by long-time (but declining) fixture Vernon Carey.

So who will they protect? Matt Moore returns as the stopgap starter, after relieving the ineffective and injured Chad Henne and then outperforming expectations in 2011. The Dolphins were 6–6 under the mobile journeyman. His inaccuracy makes him a less than an ideal fit for Philbin’s style of offense, so the Dolphins will also open the competition to David Garrard, a Pro Bowler in 2009 who sat out last season with a back injury.

Eventually, Miami will turn to the rookie Tannehill, who has the skill set to become a franchise quarterback. Tannehill has an advantage in that he will be learning under his college coach, Mike Sherman, the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator. Several factors make it possible that he plays early — his familiarity with the system, his ability to make short and intermediate throws on the move and Dolphins fans’ desperation for a savior.

Related: Top Miami Dolphins Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Miami’s defense deserved better in 2011, consistently keeping the score close only for the offense to squander chances. Much of the unit is back, though it will often be aligned differently, as new coordinator Kevin Coyle brings more of his 4-3 schemes from Cincinnati.

That change will affect several key players — Wake will move from linebacker to defensive end and Soliai from nose tackle to defensive tackle. In any case, it’s critical for the Dolphins to find and develop more playmakers.

Vontae Davis and Sean Smith will each enter their fourth seasons at cornerback, and while they combined for six interceptions, Miami is searching for more consistency, especially from Smith. Richard Marshall takes over in the slot for Will Allen, but the Dolphins may have some issues at safety without Yeremiah Bell, who had slowed some but was considered a team leader. Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones still have much to prove at safety.

Up front, Miami should be solid, at least in terms of its starters. Wake’s sack total slipped, but he remains one of the NFL’s most dynamic pass-rushers. Soliai is a run-stuffer. Randy Starks is a solid all-around player. And Jared Odrick, in his first full season, had moments where he lived up to his first-round selection. 

The linebackers are led by Karlos Dansby, who is adept in coverage and made a lot of tackles but not as many game-turning plays as his contract suggests. Kevin Burnett played well after a slow start, and former Patriot Gary Guyton joins the group. This is a big year for Koa Misi, another Ireland draft choice who hasn’t made much impact.

Specialists

For several years, this has been both a compliment of an individual and a criticism of an organization: Punter Brandon Fields, at times, has been the Dolphins’ most dangerous player. He turned in another excellent year, repeatedly flipping field position. Kicker Dan Carpenter was spottier at times, but he did connect on 13-of-16 from beyond 40 yards. Miami has several options to take back kicks, with Bess and occasionally Bush in line to return punts.

Final Analysis: 4th in the AFC East

Hopes were high when Bill Parcells arrived in 2008, bringing Ireland and Tony Sparano with him, and winning the AFC East with an 11–5 record. Miami is 20–28 since, and only Ireland remains, though he’s been hearing “Fireland” chants for quite a while. The fan base may have lost patience with him, but it is likely to give Philbin some leeway, as he tries to implement an exciting offense to go with an already-decent defense. He promises that he and his staff will teach “with enthusiasm, with clarity, with simplicity and accuracy.” The most accurate prediction for this team? That would be something around six or seven wins.

Related: 2012 Miami Dolphins Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Reggie Takes Manhattan
Reggie Bush finally emerged into the feature back spotlight in 2011, rushing for 1,086 yards. During the offseason, he happily shared the spotlight, not with another runner, but with Kelly Ripa. Bush twice appeared as a guest host on LIVE! With Kelly, interviewing the likes of Tom Selleck.

Mourning A Friend
By the time Junior Seau signed with the Dolphins in 2003, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas were already established stars. Still, both admired and followed their new teammate. So it was no surprise that, in the wake of his suicide, both released statements saying they were “devastated.”

Exciting Addition
On its own, drafting a quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) in the first round for the first time since 1983 (Dan Marino) would have created a buzz. Then Tannehill appeared with his wife Lauren at the press conference. Lauren, a beautiful blonde, is a former Texas A&M cheerleader and a model.

Pulling Right
Steve Ross, like the man from whom he bought the Dolphins (H. Wayne Huizenga), has made no secret of his political preferences. During the offseason, Ross and his wife Kara hosted a $2,500 per person fundraiser for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at Ross’ Palm Beach, Fla., home.

Um, No Pressure
Ross once said at a high school event that Chad Henne “has been the greatest quarterback the University of Michigan has had, and I’m sure that I’m hoping, as is everyone else, that he goes down as the greatest quarterback in Miami Dolphins history — and you know what that will mean.” At Tannehill’s press conference, Ross said, “Let’s hope that someday we can retire this number.”

Down To One
Bill Parcells came to the Dolphins as a supposed savior. The failure of his tenure is best embodied by his first draft. After the recent offseason, which was run by Jeff Ireland (who collaborated with Parcells on that draft), eight of the nine players picked are no longer with the team. The only exception is Jake Long, taken first overall.

New Leaf
­The Dolphins have been secretive and combative in recent years where the media is concerned. This offseason, though, chief executive officer Mike Dee, new coach Joe Philbin and Ireland made introductory stops at several local outlets. That’s what happens after your season ticket sales plunge, and two other local teams (Heat and Marlins) start stealing attention and sponsors

Revolving Door
Don Shula coached 392 regular-season games over a 26-year period. Since he was forced out at the end of the 1995 season, six different full-time coaches have coached the last 256 games over a 16-year period. And now Miami turns to Philbin, the seventh coach.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Fri., July 27

Order your 2012 Miami Dolphins Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Miami Dolphins Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Miami Dolphins Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Miami Dolphins 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, July 26, 2012 - 08:01
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Miami Dolphins, NFL
Path: /nfl/miami-dolphins-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Miami Dolphins official twitter account:

@MiamiDolphins (Followers: 143,800)

Top Dolphins To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, July 26, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Reggie Bush RB @Reggie_Bush 2,524,123
2. Vontae Davis DB @VontaeDavis21 126,546
3. Tony McDaniel DT @TonyMcDaniel78 107,353
4. Mike Pouncey OL @MikePouncey 101,560
5. Nolan Carroll CB @CarrollCity 60,253
6. Reshad Jones S @ReshadJones9 41,179
7. David Garrard QB @DavidGarrard9 33,698
8. Ryan Tannehill QB @RyanTannehill1 28,133
9. Brian Hartline WR @BrianHartline 25,642
10. Davone Bess WR @DavoneBess 22,638
11. Josh Kaddu LB @JoshKaddu 22,169
12. Sean Smith CB @SeanSmith24 21,817
13. Cameron Wake DE @Kold91 20,134
14. Guy Guyton LB @GaryGuyton59 19,991
15. Lamar Miller RB @MillerTime_6 13,317
16. Jamaal Westerman DE @JamaalWesterman 12,705
17. B.J. Cunningham WR @BJCunningham 12,273
18. Anthony Fasano TE @Anthony_Fasano 8,252
19. Randy Starks DT @Starks94 7,838
20. Clyde Gates WR @EdmondGates 6,184
21. Roberto Wallace WR @Roberto_Wallace 5,735
22. Legedu Naanee WR @Naanee11 4,871
23. Kheeston Randall DT  @KRan409 3,037
24. Rishard Matthews WR @_RMatthews 1,720
25. Jonathan Martin OL @J_Martin71 996

The quarterback issues for the Dolphins since Dan Marino have been very well documented. But you can still keep up with the Hall of Fame quarterback and Miami Dolphins legend: @DanMarino (78,520).

You can also follow Mike Dee, Miami Dolphins CEO: @MikeDeeFins (3,485)

The Dolphins Beat:

Omar Kelly, Columnist, blogger for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: @OmarKelly (20,099)

Armando Salguero, Miami Herald columnist: @ArmandoSalguero (16,878)

Ethan Skolnick, Palm Beach Post: @EthanJSkolnick (16,679)

Izzy Gould, Beat writer for Sun Sentinel: @IzzyGould (12,284)

Ben Volin, Beat writer for The Palm Beach Post: @BenVolinPBP (9,519)

Mike Berardino, Beat writer for Sun Sentinel: @MikeBerardino (7,674)

Ken LaVicka, Beat reporter for ESPN 760: @KLV760 (3,137)

Brian Biggane, Palm Beach Post sports writer who covers the Miami Dolphins: @bbiggane (1,572)

Jesse Agler, Miami Dolphins radio host: @finsjesse (5,911)

SunSentinel Dolphins, Sun-Sentinel Dolphins reporters: @SSMiamiDolphins (2,958)

Dolphins Blog Roll:

The Daily Dolphin, The Palm Beach Post's Dolphins blog

Sun Sentinel's Miami Dolphins blog

The SB Nation site covering Miami, The Phinsider, is run by Kevin Nogle and he can be followed @ThePhinsider   

Follow the Dolphins Buzz every day @DolphinsBuzzTap and visit DolphinsGab.com as well as PhinPhanatic.com.

The ESPN AFC East blog is run by James Walker  and you can follow him @ESPN_AFCEast

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Fri., July 27

Order your 2012 Miami Dolphins Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Miami Dolphins Season Preview
Related: 2012 Miami Dolphins Schedule Analysis

- by Braden Gall and Mark Ross

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Miami Dolphins Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Thursday, July 26, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Cleveland Browns, NFL
Path: /nfl/cleveland-browns-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Cleveland Browns check in at No. 28.

Losing takes a toll — on everyone. Players, fans, the front office, everyone. In Cleveland, an angry and frustrated fan base wanted offseason action. It didn’t get it in free agency, where the Browns bypassed the quick — and expensive — fix. It might have gotten it on draft night, when the Browns cast their lot with a new running back and a new quarterback, both of whom are expected to start immediately.

One trade and two picks left the Browns with a new offense and a new approach. Running back Trent Richardson is expected to provide the steady, tough, dependable play the team lacked last season. At 28, quarterback Brandon Weeden became the oldest player ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Immediately the team talked about Weeden starting, and an offense that was miserable in 2011 was betting its chances for revival on two draft picks. The schedule and division are brutal, but the Browns believe a top runner and new passer will bring them closer to competitive than they’ve been in a long time.

Offense

The Browns were woeful in 2011, scoring only 13.6 points per game and finishing 29th in total yards per game (288.8). The league’s top two offenses — Green Bay and New Orleans — outscored them by three touchdowns per game. That’s bad.

Something had to be done, and the team identified four areas that needed fixing: running back, receiver, right tackle and quarterback. The quarterback situation was an endless offseason debate, with a good portion of the fan base believing a better supporting cast would help last year’s starter, Colt McCoy.

The organization did not agree. Despite professing fondness and appreciation for McCoy, the Browns first tried to trade up not with Washington but with Indianapolis for the pick that would be Andrew Luck. The Colts quickly rebuffed that effort. Then the Browns tried to acquire the draft pick that would be Robert Griffin III, but could not finish the trade. Then it took a 28-year-old rookie with the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft.

It’s a measure of the Browns’ struggles that the team looked on Weeden’s age not as a weakness — like most of the league — but as a strength. While most teams saw a guy who would be 29 in October and perhaps 31 by the time he “got it,” the Browns saw an experienced and mature player more capable of stepping in right away than a 21- or 22-year-old coming out of college. That’s how badly they wanted someone who could play right away.

The Browns believe that Weeden’s experience in minor league baseball taught him a lot about being a pro. They believe that will translate into on-field success sooner than the normal rookie learning curve would indicate.

Weeden’s every measurable is better than McCoy’s. He threw for 71 touchdowns the last two season while completing just under 70 percent of his throws at Oklahoma State. But he will face a difficult task, with six in-division games against the defenses of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. He’ll also travel to face the Giants and Broncos. 

One advantage Weeden will have that McCoy did not: Weeden will hand off to a talented and gifted running back in Richardson, who is also a rookie. The Browns liked the former Alabama star enough to give up three late-round picks to move up from fourth overall to third to ensure his selection. It was a smart move — especially after they didn’t get their guy from the Colts or Redskins.

Weeden’s biggest challenge: Learning a new offense while adjusting from a shotgun-spread to working under center. He will have a rookie right tackle in second-round draft pick Mitchell Schwartz of Cal and the same group of receivers that led the league in drops a year ago.

Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and the rest will have to do better. The Browns believe experience and a better quarterback will help the receivers. They also believe a better running game will help the quarterback. Coach Pat Shurmur calls it synergy, something the Browns lacked almost completely last season.

The Browns are asking a lot of three rookies by expecting them to step right in and change the offense. But things were going nowhere fast with the folks from last season. Results may not be immediate, but this was an offense that needed a drastic overhaul, and it got one.

Related: Top Cleveland Browns Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Because the Browns were so focused on the offense in the offseason, their moves to improve the defense were more, shall we say, subtle. Basically the Browns added two players to a defense that gave up 147.4 rushing yards per game but still ranked 10th overall.
In free agency, the Browns added two journeymen defensive ends — Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Rucker is penciled in to start opposite Jabaal Sheard. Parker will fit in a rotation. Same with third-round pick John Hughes, a surprise choice out of Cincinnati. In the three linemen, the Browns wanted to add depth to a unit that has three legitimate starters — Sheard and tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. Whether that makes for great improvement is up for debate.

The Browns’ linebackers are solid, but not spectacular. Cornerback is a concern. Joe Haden’s play dropped off noticeably as 2011 progressed, and it’s very possible Dimitri Patterson could push aging veteran Sheldon Brown to safety.

The Browns’ defense felt pretty good about itself in 2011, primarily because of its overall ranking and because it only allowed 19.2 points per game. But the run defense numbers seem to undermine the overall rankings. It’s tough to be an effective defense without stopping the run. How this group improves at that facet of the game will determine how it fares in 2012.

Specialists

The Browns’ tradition of having outstanding specialists continues. The team has placed the franchise tag on placekicker Phil Dawson two years in a row for good reason. He is one of the finest, most dependable kickers in the league. While others work in domes or warm weather, Dawson succeeds in the cold, wind and elements on Lake Erie. The punting competition will be settled in preseason camp. Josh Cribbs is an outstanding returner, but he’s also 28. Rookie Travis Benjamin could challenge Cribbs in the return game.

Final Analysis: 4th in the AFC North

The Browns will go as far as a 28-year-old rookie quarterback can take them, but it won’t be far. The mountain Cleveland has to climb within the division is enormous — Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati were all playoff teams last season. The Browns have the third-toughest schedule in the league and an opening six games that would make a veteran worry. The Browns could be improved in 2012, but they still might not win seven games.

Related: 2012 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Brown and Out
Rarely has one team done so little for so many. Since the expansion Browns started play in 1999, they have won a total of 68 games. That’s an average of only 5.2 wins per season. Is it any wonder the fan base is beyond frustrated?

Next Man Up
If Brandon Weeden is the opening-game starter for the Browns, he will be the fifth different starter on opening day in the past five years. The list reads this way: Weeden, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Weeden also will be the 16th player to start at quarterback for the Browns since 1999. That list includes Ty Detmer, Tim Couch, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Anderson, Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and McCoy.

The Rookie
Weeden is not just old; he’s the oldest player ever drafted in the first round. His age when selected: 28 years and 195 days. Nobody counted the hours.

Proud Legacy
Trent Richardson joins a team with a history of backs that includes Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Marion Motley. But no Browns back has ever been taken as high as Richardson was in the draft, when he went third overall. Jim Brown weighed in on the possible selection of Richardson before the draft with some words of serious caution. Said Brown of Richardson: “I think he’s ordinary.” OK, then.

No Luck
Team president Mike Holmgren admitted that he talked to the Colts twice to see if they might trade out of the first spot so the Browns could draft Andrew Luck. The Colts declined. Holmgren said talks were brief. “I believe I was in the swimming pool at the owners meetings and I had a drink in my hand,” he said. No word on whether the drink had an umbrella. For the record, Holmgren was joking.

Former Bosses
It’s unclear what it means, but the Browns may have more former head coaches on their staff than any other team. Pat Shurmur’s staff includes offensive coordinator Brad Childress (Minnesota), defensive coordinator Dick Jauron (Chicago, Buffalo) and senior defensive assistant Ray Rhodes (Philadelphia, Green Bay).

No Offense
Statistics sometimes tell the story. The past four years, the Browns offense has ranked 29, 29, 29 and 31 in a 32-team league. In scoring, the Browns the past four years have ranked 30, 31, 32 and 30.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Thur., July 26

Order your 2012 Cleveland Browns Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Cleveland Browns Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Cleveland Browns 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Cleveland Browns, NFL
Path: /nfl/cleveland-browns-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Cleveland Browns official twitter account:

@OfficialBrowns (Followers: 97,795)

Note: Followers as of date of publication, July 25, 2012

Top Browns To Follow:

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Josh Cribbs WR @JoshCribbs16 116,330
2. Colt McCoy QB @ColtMcCoy 101,897
3. Joe Haden CB @JoeHaden23 91,514
4. Brandon Weeden QB @BWeeden3 54,516
5. T.J. Ward S @BossWard43 32,338
6. Mohamaed Massaquoi WR @MoMass11 26,422
7. Carlton Mitchell WR @C_Mitch18 23,091
8. Phil Taylor DT @PhilTaylor98 22,140
9. Usama Young S @Usama_Young28 20,761
10. D'Qwell Jackson LB @DQ52 19,180
11. Brad Smelley TE @BradSmelley 18,053
12. Dan Gronkowski TE @DGronko 17,126
13. Evan Moore TE @EvanMoore89 13,990
14. Travis Benjamin WR @TravisBenjamin3 13,556
15. Chris Ogbonnaya RB @ChrisOgbonnaya 11,035
16. Jordan Norwood WR @JordaNorwood 10,738
17. Brandon Jackson RB @BJackson32 9,631
18. Buster Skrine CB @BusterSkrine 8,969
19. Frostee Rucker DE @FrostRuck 7,191
20. Reggie Hodges P @Reggie_Hodges 6,882
21. Chris Gocong LB @ChrisGocong 5,699
22. Emmanuel Acho LB @TheManAcho 5,076
23. Mitchell Schwartz OL @M_Schwartz72 4,090
24. Brian Schaefering DE @BSchaefering 3,833
25. Trevin Wade CB @TwoStarWade 2,995
26. Eddie Williams FB @RealEWilliams 2,446
27. Billy Winn DL @Billy_Boi_90 1,798

The Browns Beat:

Mary Kay Cabot, Beat writer for Cleveland Plain Dealer: @MaryKayCabot (29,977)

Tony Grossi, Analyst for ESPNCleveland.com, ESPN 850 WKNR, 1540 KNR2: @TonyGrossi (21,996)

Daryl Ruiter, Beat reporter for 92.3 The Fan: @RuiterWrongFAN (4,585)

Nate Ulrich, Beat writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio.com: @NateUlrichABJ (4,527)

Tom Reed, Cleveland Plain Dealer sports writer: @treedPD (3,528)

Pat McManamon, Writer for FOXSportsOhio.com: @PatMcManamon (2,998)

Scott Petrak, Writer Elyria Chronicle-Telegram and the Medina Gazette: @ScottPetrak (1,634)

Browns Blog Roll:

Dawgs By Nature, SB Nation's Browns Blog: DawgsByNature.com

Fresh Brownies, blog by Steve Doerschuk, sports writer for The Canton Repository

A few others to check out: Orange and Brown Report, Dawg Pound Daily.com, BrownsBuzzTap and BrownsGab.com

The ESPN AFC North blog is run by Jamison Hensley and you can follow him @ESPN_AFCNorth

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Thur., July 26


Order your 2012 Cleveland Browns Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Cleveland Browns Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Cleveland Browns Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-bests-busts-and-waiver-wire-july-24
Body:

Stay tuned each week to Athlon Sports for a 2012 Fantasy Baseball Weekend Waiver Wire every Monday and a Weekend Rundown every Thursday. We took a week off due to All-Star festivities, but we are back and better than ever.

Top 25 fantasy baseball hitters of last week (7/16-7/24):

  Name Team Pos. R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Jason Kubel ARI OF 8 6 11 0 .346 1.508
2. Ryan Zimmerman WAS 3B 8 4 10 0 .406 1.301
3. Mike Trout LAA OF 10 3 5 1 .448 1.397
4. Buster Posey SF C/1B 5 2 13 0 .517 1.378
5. David Wright NYM 3B 5 4 8 1 .379 1.303
6. Melky Cabrera SF OF 11 2 4 0 .448 1.322
7. Brandon Phillips CIN 2B 6 2 8 2 .357 1.010
8. Miguel Cabrera DET 1B/3B 7 3 5 1 .381 1.292
9. Albert Pujols LAA 1B 6 3 7 0 .370 1.211
10. Carlos Gonzalez COL OF 4 3 7 2 .292 1.081
11. Carlos Gomez* MIL OF 4 1 3 5 .286 .944
12. Cody Ross* BOS OF 5 3 9 0 .320 1.106
13. Michael Morse WAS 1B/OF 7 2 7 0 .324 .910
14. Ryan Doumit* MIN C/OF 5 3 7 0 .320 1.066
15. Yoenis Cespedes OAK OF 4 2 3 1 .455 1.293
16. Aaron Hill ARI 2B 7 1 4 1 .345 .923
17. Adrian Gonzalez BOS 1B/OF 4 2 8 0 .357 .928
18. Danny Espinosa* WAS 2B/SS 5 1 5 1 .375 .960
19. Jesus Montero* SEA C 4 1 9 0 .385 1.029
20. Matt Kemp LAD OF 5 2 6 0 .357 1.043
21. Carlos Beltran STL OF 5 2 6 1 .273 .897
22. Brandon Crawford* SF SS 4 2 9 0 .304 .969
23. Lorenzo Cain* KC OF 3 2 9 0 .348 .972
24. Ryan Howard PHI 1B 3 3 7 0 .333 1.357
25. Chris Young ARI OF 4 1 5 2 .333 1.151

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Strange But True

Watching Ichiro take at-bats in a Yankee uniform  — against his old team at that — was one of the more surreal sights I've seen on a baseball diamond in years. While he is a huge intangibles pick-up for the Yankees, one has to believe that he will turn his fantasy season around too now that he is within the Pinstripers line-up. He played right field and batted eighth in his Yankee debut Monday night. He wen 1-for-4 with a stolen base. He will shift to left when Nick Swisher returns. One can only expect his production to go up hitting in front of Russell Martin, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson. Without the pressure of having to carry an offense, Ichiro is all but certain to boost his career-low .261 batting average with plenty of runs and stolen bases. He might be worth trading for if you are in need of those two categories.

The Waiver Wire

The Reds' Todd Frazier has delivered a tasty .882 OPS all season and is getting playing time for Joey Votto at the moment. He has the versatile 1B/3B/OF eligbility and was my pick-up of the week on a team that needs help at 3B and in the power column. The Nats' Danny Espinosa added SS to his title as he fills in for Ian Desmond. His roto line is always enticing with the big hit always coming in the BA category. Yet, he is on fire over his last eight games getting 14 hits in 31 ABs. He is the top add in most leagues currently. Looking for some more pop? Cody Ross has 16 bombs in 238 at-bats and has eight homers since returning from the DL. The .892 OPS plays in any format. Looking for a sneaky call-up? Danny Hultzen has been solid for Triple-A Tacoma and could be in a Mariner uniform soon, while Travis Snider will get the call for Toronto now that Ben Francisco is in Houston. He is a career .308 minor league hitter with a career .910 OPS. The Angels should be calling-up prized prospect Jean Segura as well after his .294/.346/.404 season in Double-A Arkansas. He will provide speed in place of Erick Aybar.

Top 20 fantasy Starting Pitchers of last two weeks:

  Name Team IP W K ERA WHIP
1. Doug Fister* DET 15.0 2 18 1.20 0.47
2. Jordan Zimmerman WAS 18.0 2 16 0.50 0.72
3. Felix Hernandez SEA 17.0 2 15 0.53 0.71
4. Justin Verlander DET 16.0 2 14 1.13 0.69
5. Hiroki Kuroda NYY 21.1 2 20 2.53 0.80
6. Ben Sheets* ATL 12.0 2 11 0.00 0.92
7. David Price TB 14.1 2 15 1.26 0.98
8. Madison Bumgarner SF 14.0 1 13 1.93 0.50
9. Tim Lincecum SF 15.1 1 17 1.20 0.87
10. Jeff Samardzji* CHC 13.0 1 14 0.69 0.85
11. Paul Maholm* CHC 15.0 2 9 1.20 0.87
12. Lance Lynn STL 13.0 1 15 0.69 1.00
13. Johnny Cueto CIN 13.0 2 12 0.69 1.31
14. Barry Zito* SF 14.0 1 11 1.93 0.71
15. Clayton Kershaw LAD 14.0 1 13 1.29 1.00
16. Carlos Villanueva* TOR 12.1 2 13 2.19 1.14
17. Wade Miley ARI 12.2 2 15 2.84 1.11
18. Matt Garza CHC 10.0 1 10 0.00 1.00
19. Ryan Vogelsong SF 13.0 1 13 1.38 1.00
20. Erik Bedard* PIT 13.2 1 15 1.32 1.17

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Top 5 Spot Starts for the Week (Tues. - Sun.):

1. Ivan Nova, NYY: Seattle (Wed.)
Posted eight quality starts in nine trips to the bump and has 36 K and 13 ER over his last six starts.

2. Michael Fiers, MIL: Washington (Sat.)
Has allowed 3 ER in last five starts with 34 Ks. Shut down the Reds and Cards in last two.

3. Jarrod Parker, OAK: at Baltimore (Fri.)
Just tossed 8.0 with one run against Yankees. Won four of last five starts.

4. Jonathon Niese, NYM: at Arizona (Fri.)
Posted 5 quality starts in last six with three wins and 11:0 K:BB rate over last two.

5. Ben Sheets, ATL: Philadelphia (Fri.)
Has yet to allow a run in two starts with only seven hits and 11 K in 12.0 innings.

Keep a close eye on the Mets-Diamondbacks Thursday affair as top pitching prospect Matt Harvey will make his major league debut. He has posted 268 Ks in 245.2 career minor league innings.

Top 20 fantasy Relief Pitchers of last month:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Huston Street SD 12.1 1 7 18 0 0.00 0.41
2. Aroldis Chapman CIN 11.1 0 9 27 0 1.59 0.62
3. Rafael Soriano NYY 12.2 0 11 17 0 1.42 0.95
4. Craig Kimbrel ATL 11.0 0 7 20 0 1.64 0.36
5. Ryan Cook* OAK 10.2 2 6 11 0 1.69 0.66
6. Kenley Jansen LAD 13.1 0 7 18 0 0.68 0.83
7. Fernando Rodney TB 11.0 0 7 12 0 0.00 0.64
8. Joel Hanrahan PIT 10.1 1 9 8 0 1.74 1.16
9. Jason Motte STL 8.1 1 7 10 0 1.08 0.96
10. Casey Janssen TOR 10.0 0 6 14 0 1.80 0.80
11. Tom Wilhelmsen SEA 12.2 0 5 12 0 0.71 1.03
12. Kyle Kendrick* PHI 19.2 2 0 16 0 2.29 0.97
13. Brad Lincoln* PIT 13.0 0 1 15 3 0.69 0.62
14. JJ Putz ARI 9.0 0 5 8 0 0.00 0.89
15. Dale Thayer* SD 12.1 2 0 10 3 0.73 0.89
16. Sergio Romo* SF 8.2 1 2 7 4 0.00 0.58
17. Sean Doolittle* OAK 12.1 0 1 15 2 0.00 0.73
18. Jerry Blevins* OAK 9.1 2 0 9 4 1.93 0.64
19. Octavio Dotel* DET 11.0 2 0 16 1 2.45 1.00
20. Steve Cishek* MIA 10.2 0 2 11 5 0.00 0.75

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Keep up to date all season long with Athlon Sports' Fantasy Baseball Closer Grid

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Baseball Bests, Busts and Waiver Wire: July 24</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 - 10:00

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