Thursday, August 22, 2013

NFL Preview: AFC North

Today we return to the AFC and take a look at the division that produced last season's Super Bowl Champion. The AFC North has seen every team not named Cleveland win the division in recent memory. Last season it was the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh, despite looking like they'll have a down year, is never a team to count out. Cincinnati has one of the best wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green. And Cleveland...well, they're still Cleveland, despite having a promising running back in Trent Richardson. Who will take the division crown this season? Let's find out:

Baltimore Ravens: It's not very often that you see a defending Super Bowl champions' roster undergo as much change as this year's Ravens. It's even more rare to see a roster undergo so much change and be able to say that they're actually better than they were the previous season. Yet you could absolutely make the argument that that's exactly what has happened in Baltimore. The Ravens have lost two sure-fire Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (now in Houston), but have replaced them with guys who are just as talented and, most importantly, younger. Elvis Dumervil has been a superb pass-rusher during his time in the NFL and the Broncos did not want to see him go. Matt Elam, the rookie safety from the University of Florida, has all the talent to become the next great safety in this league. It remains to be seen if the new additions can replace the leadership that Lewis and Reed provided, but from a pure talent standpoint, the defending champs have upgraded.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Cincinnati Bengals have also improved their standing in this division during the off-season. In April's draft, the Bengals brought in two weapons that should greatly improve their offense. Tight end Tyler Eifert should be a threat right away down the seam and in the red zone. More importantly, though, he will give opposing defenses another person to concentrate on, which should open up opportunities for the aforementioned A.J. Green. The Bengals also drafted Giovani Bernard, a big running back from the University of North Carolina. Paired with "the lawfirm" (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), Cincinnati's run-game should be improved from last year, which will also free things up for both Eifert and Green. While the Bengals have certainly improved, I don't think it's enough to overtake the Ravens for divisional supremacy.

Pittsburgh Steelers: While the Steelers seem to be at or near the top of this division every single year, it's hard for me to picture them doing it again this year. They lost a lot of production in free agency with the departure of their top receiver, Mike Wallace, and one of their defensive leaders in James Harrison. The drafting of Le'Veon Bell should work to sure up their running game, but a recent injury may jeopardize that potential for the first half of the season, if not the entirety of it. They did nothing of note in the draft or free agency to replace what they've lost in Wallace. Instead they are relying on guys like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to step up and fill the void. I don't think I see that happening and am looking for a considerably down season this year in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland Browns: Then there's Cleveland. Another candidate for the NFL's worst roster. Other than Trent Richardson, the cupboard is pretty bare for the Browns. Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden has shown some significant improvement during this preseason, but he's still not at a level comparable to the other QB's in his draft class (Luck, RG3, Wilson, and Tannehill), and, despite only being in his second season, will turn 30 the day after their week six match-up with Detroit. Why Cleveland drafted him to be the face of the franchise is beyond me, but I'll save that tirade for a different article. Weeden doesn't have much to throw to in Cleveland, leaving the bulk of the offensive responsibilities to Richardson. While Richardson is more than capable of carrying the load in Cleveland, you have to have more than a running back to be successful in this league (unless you're the Minnesota Vikings). When the front office decides to get an actual franchise quarterback and some weapons for him to throw to, they might be able to field a competitive team. Until then, the Browns will continue to be cellar-dwellers in both this division and the AFC as a whole.

Only two more divisions to go. Stay tuned for my previews of the AFC South and the AFC West!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

NFL Preview: NFC South

Often overlooked, the NFC South has been one of the strongest conferences in the NFL for the last decade and a half. Every team in the division has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl at least once since 1999. Atlanta very nearly continued that trend last season, falling just short of making their second appearance in that span. New Orleans, always a strong contender, should field a much more complete team this year and make a run at continuing the NFC South dominance as well. Even teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay should be better off this year than last. Let's take a look:

Atlanta Falcons: The Atlanta Falcons look to be unquestionably the cream of the crop in this division. With two of the top 10 WR's in the game in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and a Hall of Fame-worthy TE in Tony Gonzalez, quarterback Matt Ryan has more than his fair share of toys in this offense. Add to it the acquisition of Steven Jackson in the off-season (a substantial upgrade from Michael Turner), and it's hard for me to see anyone overtaking Atlanta in this division for many years to come, much less this one.

New Orleans Saints: The biggest move for the Saints this off-season is getting their head coach Sean Payton back for the full season. His departure last year was certainly cause for more than a couple of the Saints losses. Having him back in the fold with Drew Brees undoubtedly makes them a better team. Will they be able to get back to where they were when they themselves were in the Super Bowl? That remains to be seen, but with as much talent as Drew Brees has, I wouldn't be all that surprised.

Carolina Panthers: Although they have been at or near the bottom of the division for years (though to be fair, they technically finished second in the division las year, as every team other than Atlanta finished 7-9), I can't see the Panthers not improving this year. Cam Newton is supremely talented, and with the pass-catching abilities of wide-out Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, it's really had for me to see them finishing last again. I don't think they've made enough improvements to overtake Atlanta or New Orleans yet, but if they manage to find a way to fix their running back issues, this is a team that in a couple of years could be one of those teams that we talk about as a perennial playoff team.

Tampa Bay Bucs: Quarterback is far and away the most important position in the NFL, if not the entirety of sports. With very few exceptions (like the Trent Dilfer-era Ravens), if you want to make it to and win the Super Bowl, you have to have a very good, if not elite, guy at that position. A great quarterback can make deficiencies in other offensive positions disappear (look at the WR position on the Patriots, for example. With the exception of Wes Welker, now in Denver, they're consistently terrible, but Tom Brady masks that fact quite successfully). I'm just not convinced that Josh Freeman is the type of quarterback that can lead the Bucs to the playoffs. Fran Tarkenton recently commented that Freeman plays "god awful", and I'm inclined to agree with the Hall of Fame QB's assessment. The Bucs have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball (Darrelle Revis, Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, just to name a few), but until they get a solid QB, they aren't going anywhere.

That does it for the NFC. Stay tuned later this week as I go back to the AFC. Until next time!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

NFL Preview: NFC East

With just about two weeks to go until the start of the 2013 season, we come to the halfway point in my preview of every division. Today, we move on to the NFC East. The Washington Redskins came out of nowhere last season to take the division crown, and with a healthy RG3 (Robert Griffin III) returning to the team, they are poised to repeat. But both the Cowboys and Giants seem to have better all-around teams and the Philadelphia Eagles have made large strides towards competing with the rest of the division. This division, much like the rest of the divisions in the NFC should be up for grabs and come down to the final weeks of the season. Let's take a look:

Dallas Cowboys: Against my better judgment, and contrary to things that I've said in the last couple weeks, I'm actually picking the Dallas Cowboys to win the division this year and end their playoff drought. Tony Romo, for all the bashing that he takes in the media, actually is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and with all the talent around him (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, DeMarco Murray, etc), there's no reason why this team can't be a double-digit win team. The moves that they made in the off-season with regards to their coaching staff should make a huge difference with this team. They brought in one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the game with Monte Kiffin, probably the best defensive line coach today in Rod Marinelli, and, in possibly the most impactful move, have taken the play-calling responsibilities away from head coach Jason Garrett and given them to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. These moves should be a huge upgrade on the defensive side, and take some of the pressure off the offense to outscore opponents.

New York Giants: I want to pick the Giants to win this division. I'm honestly not really sure why I'm not, other than the fact that I've been talked into thinking that the coaching staff moves are going to drastically improve the Cowboys. The Giants missed the playoffs last year, but if history is any indication, that probably means that the Giants are poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning gets all the publicity, but Eli makes a strong case for being the better Manning brother. He has all the statistical markers of an elite quarterback, and he has one more ring than his older brother. The biggest move for the Giants this off-season isn't a move at all, it's getting a healthy Hakeem Nicks back to the team. The tandem of Nicks and Cruz has the potential to be the best 1-2 punch in the entire NFL, and paired with possibly the best QB in the NFL, it's hard to picture the Giants missing the playoffs for a second straight year.

Washington Redskins: In spite of winning the division last year and having a healthy RG3 returning to the team, it's hard for me to envision the Redskins repeating the success of last year. From purely a talent standpoint, Griffin may have the least around him of any of the quarterbacks in this division. Pierre Garcon is their only wide receiver of note, and on most other teams he would be a second or third option. At running back they have one of the biggest surprises from last season in Alfred Morris, but it's hard for me to imagine him having another year like he had last year. This combined with the talent the other team possess make it impossible for me to see the Redskins finishing any better than third in the NFC East this year.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Philadelphia Eagles are my pick to finish last in this division, but make no mistake about it, they are going to be a much-improved team this season. The hiring of Chip Kelly means that the Eagles are going to have a much more frenetic pace on offense, and the players seem to have bought into his scheme completely. Michael Vick, named as the starter today after a heated camp battle with Nick Foles, seems to have a renewed passion for the game and Kelly's system seems to be ideally suited for a guy of Vick's athletic ability. The loss of Jeremy Maclin is big, but with LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson still in the fold, I don't think that it's going to impact them as much as you might think. Philly should finish the year around the .500 mark, but are still not in a position to challenge for the playoffs. Yet.

Come back tomorrow as I round out the NFC with my look at the NFC South.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Clint Eastwood

Football season has officially begun. Preseason games are underway and if you're anything like me, you've already run through about a thousand mock drafts in anticipation of the regular season, when the games actually matter. As a fan, it's easy to watch these preseason games and over-react to the limited amount of time we see our starters on the field. But after seeing both of Miami's games so far, I feel like I've been watching a Clint Eastwood movie. There's been some good. There's been some bad. But mostly, there's been a lot of ugly.

The most important thing for every team coming out of preseason is to remain relatively healthy. Injuries are a part of the game, and we've already seen a number of players going down with season-ending injuries. So far this preseason, Miami has been able to dodge the injury bug fairly well, with only a few players going down due to injury (most notably a shoulder injury to offensive lineman Nate Garner and a season-ending ACL tear to wide receiver Armon Binns). If the Dolphins can maintain their health through their final three games, this will, in my opinion, be the biggest take away from the preseason. Other than the ability to stay healthy, I haven't seen a whole lot of bright spots from the Dolphins so far, but the biggest one to me would have to be the play of Matt Moore. Moore was the starter before we brought in Tannehill, and this preseason he has shown that he is a more-than-capable backup should something happen to Tannehill this season. Every year teams hopes are derailed by an injury to the QB, so it's comforting to know that Moore can step up if need be.

Unfortunately, that seems to be where the positives end for this team so far. We've only played two games thus far, and it is only the preseason, but there have been a number of alarming things I've seen. Tannehill seems to have all the talent in the world, and should be able to make all the throws on the field. But he hasn't looked very well yet. He doesn't seem to have much confidence, and he's missing a lot of throws that a second year quarterback should be making. I'm willing to make some concessions due to the fact that he's throwing the ball to guys like Marvin McNutt, Chad Bumphis, and Brian Tyms, but there have been several times already that Tannehill has made throws that even the Larry Fitzgerald's or Calvin Johnson's of the league wouldn't be able to catch. Hopefully he settles down when Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace are back on the field full-time. Almost as troubling to me as Tannehill's struggles are the ones that I have seen from the defense and special teams. The tackling by the defense in the Hall of Fame game against the Dallas Cowboys was absolutely atrocious. To the coaching staff's credit, the tackling was considerably better in the second game versus Jacksonville, but the special teams squad seemed to take a step backwards. There were several missed tackles by the coverage team, and a muffed punt by Chad Bumphis (who otherwise has had a stellar camp) that need to be addressed before the start of the season if Miami wants to be successful.

By far the most unsettling thing for Miami fans this preseason is the play of the offensive line. The defense will be okay, and Tannehill won't continue to miss receivers like he's been doing so far. The line issues; however, seem like they are going to persist throughout the year if the front office doesn't do something about it soon. It hasn't only been Johnathan Martin either, which to me is the ugliest, most disappointing aspect of Miami's performances so far. For all the trouble that Martin has had adjusting to protecting the blindside in the NFL, the right side of our line seems to be having significantly more trouble. In the game against Jacksonville, the trio of Josh Samuda, Richie Incognito, and Tyson Clabo seemed to fail in pass protection on almost every dropback. This against statistically one of the worst pass rushes in the league last season. This lackluster performance from the line doesn't just mean that Tannehill is under pressure every time he throws, it also seems to have negatively impacted his confidence. Tannehill hasn't looked comfortable in the pocket, partially because he's been under a lot of pressure, but also because he doesn't appear to feel comfortable in the belief that the guys in front of him will be able to hold their blocks and give him the time to throw. This has led to a lot of unnecessary scrambling and some throws that have been terribly off target. I can only hope that this lack of confidence does not carry into the regular season. There is a lot of promise with this team, but it all hinges on Tannehill being able to grow and develop as a quarterback.

Our next game is the ever-important third preseason game. The game where the starters traditionally play at least into the third quarter. Hopefully the added time and having Hartline and Wallace on the field with him will improve Tannehill's play and confidence. If not, it won't matter if the other issues are fixed, the season will be a disappointment to all of us fans and we'll be left with a bad taste in our mouths for yet another year.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

NFL Preview: NFC West

Arguably the best division at the top, the NFC West has come a long way from where it was just a few short years ago when the "winner" of the division finished with a 7-9 record. Today, the NFC West boasts two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the 49ers and the Seahawks. Both teams will make the playoffs this year, but don't be surprised to see the other two teams make a push either. Let's take a look:

San Francisco: The 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last season, and are an early favorite to get back there this year. With a training camp and preseason under his belt as the starter, Colin Kaepernick should only improve upon his breakout season last year, and with the addition of Anquan Boldin to his wide receiver corps, it should only improve his down-field numbers. The loss of his favorite target, Michael Crabtree, for the season is a big loss, but the 49ers should have the weapons to overcome.

Seattle: The Seahawks were arguably just a play or two away from being right there with the 49ers last season, and made several moves in the off-season with the hopes of getting over the hump and taking the division crown. The addition of Cliff Avril should give an already elite defense even more pop. The Seahawks boast the best secondary corps in the league and the addition of Avril will only work to make them better. Avril is a pass-rush specialist who should finish the year with double-digit sack numbers. A scary thought on a great defense already.

Arizona: The Arizona Cardinals have been a bottom feeder in this division for quite a while (really since their Super Bowl appearance in 2008), but the addition of Carson Palmer should give a huge boost to this offense. Though he is on the downward slope of his career, Larry Fitzgerald is still an elite receiver in this league, but has been toiling way with mediocre (at best) quarterback play in Arizona. Bringing in Palmer should go a long way towards boosting Fitz's numbers and giving him a rejuvenation. I expect the Cardinals to surprise some people this year, and am looking for a huge season from Fitzgerald.

St. Louis: The St. Louis Rams actually finished with the best record inside the NFC West last season, going 5-0-1 (yes people, THERE ARE ties in the NFL), with the lone blemish coming in their first match-up against San Francisco. They brought in former Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long to bolster their offensive line in hopes of keeping the oft-injured Sam Bradford on the field. When on the field, Bradford has shown that he can be a very good quarterback in this league and gives the Rams a chance to win every week. It's going to be a tough season in St. Louis, though, as I think they are clearly a level below the other three teams.

Prediction: The Cardinal did a lot for their chances in the division by bringing in a competent quarterback for Larry Fitzgerald, but it's not going to be enough to overtake either San Francisco or Seattle. The Rams are looking at a fourth-place finish in the division as they just haven't done enough in the off-season to be able to compete week after week. I'm torn as to who I think is going to win this division, but I think I have to give a slight edge to the 49ers, if only because they are the defending champs and they have earned that respect. Seattle should easily make the playoffs as a Wild Card though, and as we've seen time and again recently, once you get into the playoffs...anything can happen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

NFL Preview: NFC North

It's been a long time since I've had the ability to make a post. Before I get to the meat of this article, I would like to take a moment to thank all of the readers who have continued to visit this page in my absence. It means the world to me that I have the support that I do, and I promise that regular posts will resume immediately. Now that I have gotten that out of the way, on to the subject of this post, the continuation of my NFL season previews. In an effort to save time and get everything wrapped up before the season starts, the rest of these previews are going to take a slightly different approach, being more succinct and encompassing entire divisions, rather than team-by-team. In today's post, we jump to the NFC North division.

Green Bay: The Green Bay Packers have been the class of this division for several years now, being led by arguably the best quarterback in the game today, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers will have a harder time of things this year though, with the departure of one of his favorite targets, Greg Jennings. While the departure of Jennings is a significant loss for the team, the additions of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in this year's draft should give the Packer offense an added dimension it has been lacking for several years now, a solid running game. This should soften up defenses and make Jennings' departure less noticeable.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings offense has been sputtering for years, despite Adrian Peterson's best efforts to take the team upon his shoulders. Peterson, and the whole Vikings organization, hope that the maturation of quarterback Christian Ponder and the addition in the draft of wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings in free agency will work to make the offense more balanced, taking the pressure off of Peterson to reproduce his phenomenal 2012 performance. The departure of an electric playmaker in Percy Harvin, however, may be a significant set-back in the Vikings efforts to make a repeat appearance in the playoffs.

Detroit Lions: In what turned out to be one of the sadder stories of the NFL off-season, the Detroit Lions cut starting receiver Titus Young, who would go on to be arrested three times in the span of a month and who's career looks to be all but over. While the young man is clearly in need of some serious help, the Lions were right to cut ties with the receiver, and although it gives star quarterback Matthew Stafford one less target to throw to on Sundays, the man's mental health is of far more importance. With all that said, the Lions offense shouldn't struggle in Young's absence, especially with the off-season addition of Reggie Bush. Bush, an electric running back who comes over from the Dolphins, should open up the offense in much the same way that Lacy and Franklin will for the Packers. Add this to the historic season that Calvin Johnson put up last year and the Lions could be one of the surprise teams this season.

Chicago Bears: The Chicago Bears have undoubtedly been the most consistently disappointing team in this division. It seems like every year they come out swinging, looking like a real contender, only to fade into obscurity as the season reaches an end. With all the talent that this team has, they rival the Dallas Cowboys as the most disappointing team in the NFL. A big part of that disappointment has been the beating that Jay Cutler has taken due to his porous offensive line. The addition of Jermon Bushrod should go a long way to sure up that line and keep Cutler upright to lead the team. Adding Martellus Bennett to the fray in Chicago should do wonders for that offense as well, giving opposing defenses someone to worry about other than Brandon Marshall or Matt Forte. Having a target down the seam in the middle, as well as a big target in the red zone, should go a long way towards Chicago finally living up to their potential.

Prediction: The NFC North (that still sounds weird to me. After all these years, I still want to say NFC Central) should be the most competitive division in the NFL this year. I think that all four teams have the potential to go to the playoffs and make a significant run. With that being said, I think that Green Bay is still clearly the class of the division, despite not winning the division crown last season. I think they return to form and represent the NFC North this season. After that, it's pretty much a crap-shoot for positions 2-4. Even though they won the division last year, I think it's a real possibility that Minnesota ends up finishing last in this division, with the Chicago Bears finishing right behind Green Bay and Detroit finishing a game or two ahead of Minnesota for third.