It’s waaaay too early to be projecting teams’ records, finishes, sleepers or over-the-hill teams since the OTA/minicamp season has just begun. Every roster has new faces and lost guys from last season, and chemistry takes a while to gel. That said, we can still make some educated guesses on which divisions will be tough and which ones should be pansies…and those with a bit of both.
Since it’s a Sunday morning, I decided to make this article much longer than usual. Think of it as being like an insert into your Sunday morning newspaper and pour a cup of java, sit down, and enjoy.
Toughest division: NFC East
With the reigning Super Bowl Champions and no obvious weak teams, the NFC East is the toughest division top to bottom. The Giants shine in the playoff spotlight irrespective of their regular-season record. They were 9-7 last season and a Miami Dolphin 4th-quarter collapse away from losing that game and missing the playoffs entirely. The threads can be tenuous in the NFL, so you have to maximize results whenever you’re given a chance. The Giants do this year in and year out under Head Coach Tom Coughlin, who now has to be considered one of the top NFL head coaches. He was rewarded as such just this week with a 2 year contract extension.
The Cowboys improved their secondary to ostensibly be able to hold 4th-quarter leads. The Eagles are as talented as anyone and added some good players and rookies in key need areas. The Redskins have a very good defense in place that should help erase some rookie errors by RG3, and Shanahan has done a good job of adding pieces around the young signal caller. Now, if the OL will only hold up enough that he doesn’t get killed, they could have their moments. I’d be surprised if they can climb out of the cellar in 2012 with RG3 or R2D2.
2nd toughest division: AFC North
The AFC North should be interesting to watch especially early as a changing of the guard might be in the making. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have been the two teams battling, one for the division crown and the other usually getting a Wild Card slot. However, changes on defense on both teams could spell trouble. For instance, star linebacker Terrell Suggs injured his knee in a pickup basketball game and Canton-bound ILB Ray Lewis’ age actually will be an issue in his play one of these years. In addition, the Steelers are looking to start 2 rookies on the OL (albeit very good ones) and will be without star RB Reshard Mendenhall for a good part of the start of the year. Neither team may quite be the physically dominating ones they’ve been in the past.
Then, you’ve got to look at the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns and what they’ve done. The two Ohio teams couldn’t be much more different. Cleveland’s strength lies in their defense and with Trent Richardson toting the rock, they’ll have an ability to shorten games and help their other first-round pick, Brandon Weeden, face “honest” defenses. Cincinnati’s strength lies in the passing game and young, proven nucleus of QB Andy Dalton, TE Jermaine Gresham and WR A.J. Green. This division has been a two-team show for years and is threatening to become an all-out scrum in 2012.
3rd toughest division: NFC South
The Falcons should make the playoffs as at least a Wild Card and the other 3 teams all seem to have legitimate shots at a playoff spot going in. This division is up for grabs nearly as much as any with the Falcons having the early advantage with a good combination of veteran leadership and young talent at key positions. The Saints, as we all know, have had a number of off-season issues and probably will slide without their head man, Sean Peyton, calling the shots. He’s a genius at what he does and his absence will necessarily show. Few teams lean on their Head Coach/QB combination as much as the Saints do. The season should expose how much (or little) Drew Brees is a coach on the field.
The Panthers have as explosive an offense as any and are a team nobody wants to get into a shootout with. If the Panthers’ run defense improves to just average, they’ll be one of the more difficult teams to game-plan for and, along with the Buccaneers, appear poised to be a team on the rise. Cam Newton’s combination of size, athleticism, arm strength and overall raw talent puts him squarely as #1 on the radar as “Most Feared Enemy” by 31 Defensive Coordinators. It’s not just his ability, it’s the unknown factor of what he might be capable of with a season and a REAL NFL training camp and OTAs behind him. When teams face a Brady, AR-12, Brees or either Manning, they know what they’re getting. Lots of trouble, for sure, but Cam’s ceiling has yet to be found. Rest assured, it’s a very, very tall building.
Tampa Bay’s roster looks so much better than last season’s did and they’ve gotten a LOT faster on the defensive edges. They’ve bolstered their own running game, WR corps, and changed coaches so they’ll likely have some growing pains to shake off early. In fact, due to circumstance, the only team I see being a possible pushover might well be the Saints in a worst-case scenario. This division is the one to keep an eye on overall in September with again the Falcons being the most stable from last year.
4th toughest division: NFC North
Only the Vikings are a “shoo-OUT” for the playoffs this year. They’ll finish a distant 4th again while they hopefully lay some rubber on the second year of their rebuilding race, and doing so with Adrian Peterson in iffy health due to his ACL injury in week 17 last year. The Packers have AR-12, thousands of suitable targets, and a defense just good enough to keep them winning. They are the NFC version of the Patriots as far as general team style, strengths and weaknesses, and are still the team to beat in the NFC North.
The Chicago Bears may well push them, however, with a retooled offense, new and like-new targets (Brandon Marshall) for League Crybaby Jay Cutler to throw to and sacks should be down. With their O-line, depth is key at QB and DAAAA Bearsssss MVP could possibly wind up being QB Jason Campbell. Chicago does have one of the best QB tandems in the league, if not the best. Certainly, having a veteran starter like Campbell is a nice luxury to have backing up the most important position.
Detroit has been pushing with a monstrous (in more ways than one) defensive line and a freakish (in a good way) WR with Calvin Johnson. Their running game is once again grounded (in a bad way) due to health and character concerns. The Lions are suffering somewhat for taking a number of players of questionable character and that ALWAYS comes back to bite you. Sure, one player here or there will grow up, but leopards, lions, and other 4-legged creatures don’t change their markings overnight. QB Matt Stafford finally stayed upright for a full season and responded with 5,000+ yards and 41 TDs – just about the 5th or 6th best season EVER for ANY QB, but overshadowed by the overinflated numbers of several others like Brees and Brady. The league wants CBs only to be observers, apparently, and the rules have swung so far to the offensive side’s favor it’s not hard for a well-run offense to score points. Green Bay should once again win, with Detroit and Chicago fighting for 2nd. The Vikings should become relevant by season’s end and woe to the last 5 or 6 teams on their schedule. They could be one of those “trap-game” teams late in the season.
4th weakest division: AFC East
It’s kind of funny how things work. The NFC has the better top teams but the AFC has the same perennial good ones. Pittsburgh, New England, and Indianapolis (up until 2011) were the class of the conference all century so far. However, the chinks are showing for the remaining two. New England hasn’t won a Super Bowl since before “Spygate” but have given the Giants some great Super Bowl highlight reel footage with David Tyree’s helmet/stickum catch and last year with Ahmad Bradshaw’s “backing in” for the game-winning score.
The issue with the AFC East has been that none of the other 3 teams can stay consistent. The Jets got hot 2 years running in the playoffs, but as a wild card. None of the other 3 teams besides New England even have really a proven quarterback. It’s true that Mark Sanchez took the Jets to the AFC Championship in both of their deep playoff runs, but that was due more to him not screwing up and being loaded at all other positions than him doing anything wonderful. He’s an average QB who was exposed last year. The Bills could well take over 2nd place from the Jets this year and appear to be building a team through the draft that is designed to beat New England. When you add free agent Mario Williams from Houston at the weakside DE spot in their new 4-3 and CB Stephon Gilmore from South Carolina as their top selection overall in the draft on the other end, and Tom Brady’s actually got some things to worry about now.
As for the Miami Dolphins, Lauren Tannehill (1st-round pick Ryan Tannehill’s wife) should be the biggest attraction the franchise has to offer for this season at least. She’ll get her exposure through HBO’s “Hard Knocks” on the Boob Tube (sorry…had to go there). Hubby’s the starter-in-waiting but there’s not so much pressure to play him immediately with Matt Moore being a competent, perhaps even underrated player. While the team still lacks WR targets for now, they do have a nice mix of proven and young legs in the backfield and all bring something different to the table. The team needs more explosiveness on both sides of the ball. They also have a rookie head coach so they appear to be behind the others in their evolution. Don’t be surprised to see Chad “Press 1 for English” Ochocinco in the Aquaman colors come opening day now that the Pats released him.
3rd weakest division: NFC West
The NFC West is probably going to be the hardest for most to prognosticate. The San Francisco 49′ers will pull another 13-3 or so season and take home the division crown again. The difference is in the other teams.
The Arizona Cardinals added speedster WR Michael Floyd, hoping to wind up with the most dangerous WR duo in the NFL. With Larry Fitzgerald a part of that mix, they already have half of it in place. The troubling part is that journeyman signal caller John Skelton played better than did the pricey and fragile Kevin Kolb. They may as well invest the $6 million dollars to make Kolb a bionic man if only to keep him healthy. He gets paid $8 million-plus yearly as it is! Their OL has been retooled, especially inside, so there are lots of questions still.
The same can be said for the Rams with new Head Coach Jeff Fisher. He’s as well-respected as a non-Super Bowl winning coach can be and generally fields teams with fairly high “floors.” That is to say, he usually has teams with any talent at all playing .500 at worst, but achieving that top goal has always been elusive. Instead of eggshell-egoed Vince Young, he’s got a better block of clay to work with in Sam Bradford. They’ve also added OL help, receiving weapons, and improved the DL and secondary in the offseason. They could be a surprise team, coming up from a 2-14 fiasco last season. I think they’ve got the best shot at being the “surprise” team of the NFC this season. Do not underestimate Fisher’s stable influence on this young team.
The Seattle Seahawks also are a big question mark. Odd that the Miami Dolphins didn’t ante up for Matt Flynn under the circumstances, but he’s never been known for his outstanding physical qualities and has but two NFL starts. It’s a lot of money to hand someone unproven, especially after seeing how Kevin Kolb faceplanted in Arizona. Flynn’s a system QB going to a similar system, but without the heightened skill position talent the Packer offense has. Seattle is nearly always hard to forecast anyway because of the logistics and unique nature of Seattle – they always seem to enjoy a nice home field advantage, win or lose.
Other than San Fran being on top, I have no idea how the division will pan out. I will say that SF is 2 or 3 levels better than the next best team, and the other 3 are all more or less equals.
2nd easiest division: AFC South
Houston and Tennessee will be the ones fighting it out this year. The two biggest questions really in the NFL off-season as far as team leaders go are Is Jake Locker ready to start yet, and if not, when? Matt Hasselbeck is a cagey veteran but his best days are behind him. The Titans at least are a team well-prepared for an injury at the position, should one force Locker to be the starter if he’s not yet ready. Somehow I think he’d easily be better than the preteen-style of play offered by Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert. He was awful. If not for a much better than average (if unspectacular) defense, the Jags would be lucky to have one win on the board. The sooner they replace Blaine Gabbert with Any Warm Body, the better off they’ll be.
That reminds me, QB Chad Henne is now officially a not-so-deep mega fantasy sleeper.
Now that Gabbert has a season under his belt and Indianapolis will be starting a rookie, Blaine won’t have ANY excuses for STILL being a distant 32nd in the NFL for passing. He is the one and only case where an unfortunate injury would actually help all involved, and I hate even thinking about something like that.
The Colts are rebuilding nearly everywhere except for MLB and split end (weakside WR) but should be entertaining enough to watch. Their first two picks, Luck and fellow Stanford graduate TE Coby Fleener, already have a chemistry from college, which should also translate into some production. The Colts were obviously following the New England model for offense when they took TE Dwayne Allen from Clemson. At least they got the top QB and the top two TEs with their top 3 picks, but the team still has a very long road ahead. Still, it would seem the Colts got a very nice trio of rookies to build an offense around.
Easiest Division: AFC West
The Denver Broncos should be, well…the “runaway” winners of this division in 2012. Having added Peyton Manning to a team that used Tim Tebow to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs last year is like dropping a water pistol and picking up a rocket launcher. The organization strengthened the defense up the middle where it was soft last season and the only real concern is the running game now…but Peyton hasn’t had a running game behind him since Edgerrin James. If anyone can craft a game plan, it’s John Fox. He adapted his team to Tebow’s style last year and won that playoff game nobody thought they’d win. I think he can deal with having Peyton Manning steer the ship just fine.
It’s not something to worry about – especially in a division with the Carson Palmer-led Raiders, the Matt Cassel-led Chiefs, and the Philip Rivers-led Chargers. Of those 3 QBs, Rivers is the most dangerous, but they lost WR Vincent Jackson to free agency. If the Chargers are going to power up, they’re going to have to lean more on Ryan Matthews as a runner, on screens, and use a balanced attack. The ‘bolts will need a lot of new players to emerge if they’re going to compete with Manning’s Broncos.
Reminds me again: Ryan Matthews looks to be a very nice fantasy player that could slide – keep an eye on things there. You can possibly get him for an RB2 price and wind up with RB1-like production. No Mike Tolbert this year, either.
I get the feeling there is a fine razor’s edge with the Chargers and the Chiefs, both. 11-5, 5-11, or anything in-between is possible for either squad. San Diego will need their young defense to step up if they’re going to make any noise, and KC needs to stay healthy. Eric Berry shows the promise to become a dominant safety if he can stay healthy. All teams except the Chargers should benefit from more stability in their organizations; the Chargers lost their most productive receiver and TE Antonio Gates’ foot hasn’t been right in years. They’ll need every new player to produce to have a chance but the Broncos are the only playoff team in this division. KC could back into a wild card somehow as they seem to do once about every 5 years.
The Raiders best weapon is still fragile Darren McFadden. Darius Heyward-Bey has blinding speed and ten thumbs, but their OL and DL in general are pretty good these days. Ironically, it’s the most expensive players and highest picks that are going to be the biggest questions again. Carson Palmer appears to have “jumped the shark” with his playoff knee injury about 5 years back. I don’t see the Raiders being much more than a .500 team.
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