Despite the fact that week one is more or less in the books, I’m still rolling out the projections. Here are the final two divisions, saved because half of the remaining teams play tonight. Here is part I and part II of the preview.
LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:
Patriots 10.9 wins
Jets 7.8 wins
Dolphins 7.3 wins
Bills 6.9 wins
Like the NFC North and the AFC West alike, the AFC East is a division where there is a “winner”, and then there’s everybody else. As fans, we do not think of the New York Jets as an afterthought, but a lot of systems do. Whether or not a system that involves an inconsistent passing game can lead the Jets to a title remains to be seen, but it’s hard to act like it’s likely they’ll be able to win 9 or more games on a year to year basis. What the Patriots can do with Tom Brady allows them to be much more stable team atop the division year to year. Rex Ryan’s public call to beat the Patriots is a good example of why the Jets aren’t ever likely to go and win the super bowl despite the fact that they’ve been to two straight AFC Championships: they can hang with anybody, but no game is too easy.
The Dolphins and Bills each have interesting longshots at being the second best team in the division. The Bills are a much improved team, as yesterday’s massacre of the Chiefs showed. The Dolphins will play tonight, and they’re better than their record (particularly their home record) showed last year. I don’t know how much they actually improved in the offseason, most of the time they seemed to be shooting themselves in the foot with their personnel moves. Either would be a full on even match for the Jets in their four head to head games.
Are the Patriots a true super bowl contender? Well, they are not as good as the Steelers, but I’d take even odds between the Chargers and Pats as the second best team in the conference, with the Texans a not-so-distant fourth. And so through that lens, the Patriots look really good as a super bowl pick, which I suppose is why they are so popular. People have memories long enough to remember 2006 when the Pats used to have success in the playoffs and 2004, when they last won the super bowl. The Chargers (and really, to be blunt, Steelers) are not getting the benefit of the doubt the way the Patriots are.
Chargers 10.0 wins
Raiders 7.5 wins
Broncos 7.1 wins
Chiefs 6.4 wins
Norv Turner seems to take a lot of flak for the way the Chargers are treated by random fluctuations of luck: this is still a really good team after all — one that many are taking to win the super bowl. But because the Chargers have Turner in tow, its more difficult to view their week one nailbiter with the Vikings at home as something that should have happened in a football season. Instead it feels like the same old Chargers, a notion bolstered by the images of Philip Rivers screaming at his head coach in the first half trailing by ten points.
Of course, if we ignore the images of failure that seem to stick to Turner better than other coaches, we can see that Donovan McNabb, who was on pace to break the Redskins single season passing yardage record before being benched last season, was held to 39 yards passing in this game on 15 attempts. Greg Manusky is going to be just fine as Chargers defensive coordinator. With that said, the special teams, which could not have possibly started off this season worse than they finished last year, managed to allow a kick return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and have their kicker, Nate Kaeding, knocked out for the rest of the game. So basically, the impossible task of getting worse on special teams…it may have only been one play, but the Chargers were able to do it.
I like the Raiders and Broncos a lot more than the Chiefs this year. Kansas City looked worse than expected yesterday at home against the Bills, and I didn’t expect very much at all from them. Sure, the Bills may have something going, but this particular result had far more to do with the Chiefs being a dreadful team. Even with competition like the Raiders and Broncos, this is a last place team.
We will learn plenty about the Raiders and Broncos tonight. The Broncos will need to transition from a team that threw it around under Josh McDaniels to a team that is balanced under John Fox, and Kyle Orton looked very comfortable in going back to his roots from his Chicago days. It’s a nice start, but it’s just that, a start. And the longer the Broncos keep Tim Tebow on their roster, the hotter Orton’s seat will get when the team doesn’t win. And Orton’s defense still isn’t very good.
Jason Campbell might not have much of a defense either in Oakland, I guess we’ll know more after tonight. The Raiders will need to exploit Broncos rookie RT Orlando Franklin with DE Lamarr Houston, really the only strong match-up they have on defense. The Raiders could have a great defensive year with the talent on their front seven, but it relies almost exclusively on the ability of second year players Houston and LB Rolando McClain. The offense could shine this year, if only they can keep Campbell upright against speed rushers. But with that running game, head coach Hue Jackson should be able to scheme around his offensive weakpoints on the line. There’s a lot of ifs in Oakland to project a great season, but a return to last year’s mark of 8-8 should not be entirely unexpected.
We’re going to start with the NFC South and NFC North predictions, to ensure that those picks are out by the time the Saints and Packers play this evening. By Friday, the rest of the season preview will be written.
Liveball Sports QDS Projections:
Saints 10.0 wins
Falcons 8.7 wins
Panthers 7.2 wins
Bucs 7.2 wins
The NFC South is one of the better divisions out there, but tonight’s game is going to mean a lot. Consider: I have the Saints finishing far enough ahead of the Falcons where head to head and divisional tiebreakers should not be a major issue in the outcome of the division. Should the Saints lose tonight, that would drop their season projection by about half a win, and now they’re close enough to the Falcons where a tiebreaker could mean the difference between division champs and the wild card. Of course, if the Bears beat the Falcons on Sunday, their projection drops by over a third of a game, and then the Falcons might just be an 8-8 team.
Of course a loss for the Falcons has perhaps even larger ramifications. They are the sixth playoff team in right now in the NFC according to the QDS probabilities (which are equation based, not simulation based, in terms of how the factor in strength of schedule). The difference is going to be mostly reflected in the NFC East win probabilities, because the division expectation for the NFC West is so low this year. The equation gives a solid win boost to all four NFC East teams, which is really a .500 division in terms of talent, I have them going a combined 34-30, which has a large affect on the NFC playoff projections versus a simulation which would likely pick just one playoff team from the NFC East and not project the NFC West to have four teams finish below .500 again.
If the Falcons lose to the Bears on opening day, the Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Falcons for the rest of the year, giving them a legitimate shot to make the playoffs at 8-8 by merely knocking off the Cowboys and the Falcons. It also opens up a spot for the Bucs or even Panthers to make a run.
This is maybe a bit optimistic on the chances of the Panthers to be a factor in the NFC South this year, projecting them within 3 wins of the division title, that is, but the drivers behind this prediction is that the Panthers have strong recent history, averaging 7.33 wins per year while being quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, and Jimmy Clausen. The expectation that the Panthers can win an average of as many games as they have averaged over the past three years with a fourth place schedule even with Cam Newton at quarterback is not all that optimistic. It would be a surprise if Carolina won 8+ games, just like it would be a surprise if Atlanta won 11 games. The Panthers have a pretty good team, outside of the quarterback.
Tampa Bay’s projection is really just the play of quarterback Josh Freeman staving off a lot of regression factors from a team that won 4 games two years ago. This is a young team that could classically go from 10 wins to 5 wins in the blink of ones eye, but because of Freeman as a stabilizing presence, the Bucs are likely to fall out of playoff contention early, but will be able to rally and win games late. I have them at seven wins, but a margin of at least two on either side would be nice because the team is so young.
How can the Falcons and Bucs make the playoffs? The Bucs have the most room to improve from last year on the defensive side of the ball while the Panthers are not expected to have an above average offense. It would be a surprise if those units led the NFC in a bunch of categories, and would probably drive a playoff run for either team.
LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:
Packers 11.3 wins
Vikings 7.8 wins
Bears 7.5 wins
Lions 6.2 wins
I would bet a lot of money on the Lions exceeding my win projection for them of 6.2 wins, because the primary factor dragging them down is their recent performance: 2.67 wins per year, lowest among any team of the last three years. While the predictive value of this is useful for determining that this is probably not the year the Lions will Restore the Roar (3 years removed from an 0-16 season), it’s not fair to the Lions to assume that just because they’ve been the NFL’s worst team over the last three seasons, that the gains they made last season cannot be real. I think they’ll get closer to 8 wins this year than 5. And if Matt Stafford really is as good as he appears when healthy, they have no limits on offense (which, of course, makes 8-8 the target given the weaknesses in their secondary.
The Vikings in second place is a big surprise, but there’s no real difference in the projection between the Vikings and the Bears. Recent history is pretty much identical, and even though the Bears have a first place schedule and the Vikings have a fourth place schedule, the Bears will draw the Seahawks because of it while the Vikings get the Cardinals. The Bears and Vikings will be able to play it out on the field as relative equals this year. And the Lions will be more in the mix than my projections suggest.
If all three teams are in a bitter fight for second place and a potential wild card, it is only because the Packers figure to be so far ahead of the rest of the, er, division. The Pack is poised for a repeat run at the title, and should get better positioning via a division championship. The expectation is because of a tough schedule early for the Bears and Vikings, the Lions and Packers will run stride by stride for eight or ten weeks, but then the roster weaknesses of the Lions will slowly get exposed while the Packers should finish strong, drawing the Lions twice at the end of the season, beginning with Thanksgiving day.
The race to keep an eye on in the division, barring an early season Aaron Rodgers injury (or late season, given the ease of the Lions early schedule) is the one for second place. The Lions will have the upper hand early, but the gap will close late. A playoff spot rests in the balance. And my money, all else equal, is on the Chicago Bears for second place in the NFC North.
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Philadelphia Eagles (projected finish: 11-5)
Team synopsis: The Eagles made the biggest offseason acquisition of any team in the league, but you’ll have to scroll down to see who I’m talking about. The story here isn’t about additions, it’s about subtractions. Donovan McNabb is out. Draft picks are in. Kevin Kolb is the quarterback. Michael Vick is old. These are great stories! A rejuvenated defense should lead the Eagles back to the playoff where Kolb will enter the uncharted waters where McNabb excelled. Kolb is going to be a piece of something great on this offense, but is going to be reliant on development from his young receivers, who in turn will rely on Kolb’s passes to develop. McNabb is gone, yet, the circle of life continues.
- FB Leonard Weaver (signed — Seattle/2009 free agent)
- WR DeSean Jackson (drafted — Cal/2008 2nd round pick)
- WR Jason Avant (drafted — Michigan/2006 4th round pick)
- TE Brent Celek (drafted — Cincinnati/2007 5th round pick)
- C Jamaal Jackson (signed — Delaware State/2003 undrafted free agent)
- DE Trent Cole (drafted — Cincinnati/2005 5th round pick)
- DT Brodrick Bunkley (drafted — Florida State/2006 1st round pick)
- LB Stewart Bradley (drafted — Nebraska/2007 3rd round pick)
- CB Asante Samuel (signed — New England/2008 free agent)
- S Quentin Mikell (signed — Boise State/2003 undrafted free agent)
- QB Kevin Kolb (drafted — Houston/2007 2nd round pick)
- RB LeSean McCoy (drafted — Pittsburgh/2009 2nd round pick)
- WR Jeremy Maclin (drafted — Missouri/2009 1st round pick)
- DE Brandon Graham (drafted — Michigan/2010 1st round pick)
- DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (drafted — Washington/2010 3rd round pick)
- CB Macho Harris (drafted — Virginia Tech/2009 4th round pick)
- FS Nate Allen (drafted — USF/2010 2nd round pick)
Donovan McNabb has been Andy Reid’s quarterback since Reid started as Eagles head coach in 1999. It wasn’t initially clear if McNabb or Daunte Culpepper had been the best quarterback in the class, but by 2006, Culpepper was ineffective and it was clear that McNabb was the best quarterback picked that year. In some ways, the post-2004 Donovan McNabb was the best McNabb. McNabb has offered many different variations of himself over the years, but the post-Owens leader that helped lead the Eagles to the division title in 2006, then back from the dead (a tie with the Bengals) to the playoffs in 2008, and out to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the wide open NFC East in 2009. But when the Eagles coughed up that lead and got punched out of the playoffs in the first round, suddenly, everyone was expendable.
Everyone, that is, except for center Jamaal Jackson who missed the final regular season game and the playoff game, and the Eagles offensive line just couldn’t sort out the blitzes to protect McNabb. When the Eagles brought in Michael Vick, they were able to create misdirection action and find the holes in the swiss cheese Cowboys secondary that were there the whole time, as Vick threw a long touchdown pass. That’s long been McNabb’s specialty, and in a way, announced the changing of the guard. Though, Vick will merely maintain the status quo as a package player, it’s Kolb’s team now.
The Eagles have a good line in front of Kolb, so long as Jackson is healthy. Todd Herremans is an above average left guard, and Jason Peters is an average left tackle. Winston Justice is an improved pass protector, but perhaps the weakest run blocker on the line. RG Stacey Andrews is the weakest link, and he once held the franchise tag from the Bengals. This is a good group that should allow fewer hits on the QB than last year. But they need to get a healthy Jamaal Jackson back in the middle.
They should also open up a bunch of running lanes for 22-year old LeSean McCoy, the Eagles new featured runner. He’s a run and a pass threat in the mold (but not at the level) of Brian Westbrook. The Eagles brought in Mike Bell from New Orleans to back him up, and run between the guards. Eldra Buckley is the team’s third RB, but he will see fewer carries than pro bowl FB Leonard Weaver, who has a package in the offense as a single back. Weaver is, pound for pound, the best player in the backfield.
Kolb will throw to four different number one type targets: WRs DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, and Jeremy Maclin, and TE Brent Celek. Jackson is the explosive athlete who can outrun defensive backs, Avant is a possession target, with run after catch ability. I’m a bit skeptical of Maclin’s long term potential, but he’s a true technician for such a young receiver. Celek is averse to blocking, but has few weaknesses as a receiver. If the Eagles have a problem here, it’s that there’s little depth beyond these four. The Eagles like their young TEs, Clay Harbor and Cornelius Ingram, who are both unproven, and Ingram has had issues staying healthy. Depth comes in the form of guys like Hank Baskett and Kelley Washington, with rookie Riley Cooper as a long term project. Chad Hall, a first year player out of Air Force, is a darkhorse to make the roster.
This is a group more prepared to run the west coast offense than last years offense was. Likewise, the defense is better suited to pressure the quarterback than last years. The difference is a focus on the pass rush. Right end Trent Cole might be as strong as any pass rusher in the league, and is a good name to throw out there as most underrated. Left end Juqua Parker is a very good player and is likely to start again, but doesn’t have elite pass rushing skills. That was clearly the focus of a draft where the Eagles added three defensive ends, and traded for another, Darryl Tapp of Seattle. All four are likely to make the roster, specifically, that includes Brandon Graham (Michigan), Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (Washington), and Ricky Sapp (Clemson), a converted linebacker. That means that they will keep six DEs and that Victor Abiamiri needs to beat out Parker to make the team.
The interior is less muddled, with Trevor Laws backing up two very good interior players, Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson. Behind him is a camp battle between 7th round rookie Jeff Owens, and Antonio Dixon, who was picked up on waivers after the Redskins released him last camp.
Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan are the returning Eagles linebackers, and Bradley’s return should indicate more success with pressure schemes; the Eagles missed him in the middle last season. Ernie Sims came over in a trade from the Lions, and he and Moise Fokou will battle for the weak side linebacker position. If rookie Keenan Clayton (Oklahoma) sticks as the other OLB, that means that veterans Omar Gaither and Tracy White will battle to back-up Bradley in the middle, and coming off an injury, that could be one of the more important decisions the Eagles will make.
Asante Samuel, now 30, returns as the number one corner, coming off a 9 INT season. His opposite in New England, Ellis Hobbs is likely to start across from him again. Joselio Hanson is battling with Macho Harris at nickel back, and Dimitri Patterson has really impressed in this camp. He was on the team at the end of last season for his first pre-season action after a cup of coffee with the 2005 Redskins and their issues with corner depth. He’s been much more impressive than rookie Trevard Lindley, who might have trouble making this roster. Nate Allen, the player selected with the draft pick received for Donovan McNabb, is on the fast track to start at free safety, but Quentin Demps and Anthony Scirrotto are in the running to hold that position down on opening day. I can safely say that despite their best efforts, this team would be better off with Brian Dawkins this year (to be fair, they offered him a market value contract in 2009 free agency, and were simply outbid).
The best acquisition made by the Eagles, and perhaps any team this year, was when they brought in special teams coordinator Bobby April to remake their special teams. The Eagles have utilized their extra draft picks to earn a competitive advantage over other NFC East teams on offense and defense, but they didn’t have a special teams advantage. Now, they most certainly do, and even though Sav Rocca and David Akers aren’t the best specialist tandem in the league, the Eagles have to be an early favorite to have the best offense, defense, and special teams in the NFC East. Because of April, they are the LiveBall Sports pick to be above the rest at the end of the year.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
The Eagles will likely keep three quarterbacks again, with fourth round pick Mike Kafka holding McNabb’s spot on the roster this season.
JJ Arrington is battling Eldra Buckley to be the third running back on the Eagles. If Arrington doesn’t make it, the Eagles receive a draft pick from the Broncos, a pretty good deal if Buckley proves to be worthy of his spot.
At receiver, the Eagles have the ability to hold six players. On a pure talent level, Kelley Washington would be the fourth receiver. But both Hank Baskett and Chad Hall offer more value to April special teams’ units, and coaches just love Hank Baskett’s, um, attitude. Riley Cooper has looked sharp enough to win a spot on this team, in my humble opinion. I do think that Washington is ultimately the cut here, which thins the Eagles offense to a level I would not feel comfortable with if I was a fan.
Clay Harbor could overtake Corneilus Ingram on the depth chart before the first game as the no. 2 TE. The fourth round pick from Missouri State has had a really fantastic camp. But for Ingram, he’s healthy for the first time since before the 2008 season at the University of Florida, and good for him that he can now get his career started on an offense that loves to throw the ball.
There’s a lot of focus in the preseason about who is handling the Center role. A.Q. Shipley, a Steelers pick of a year ago, hasn’t been much competition for Nick Cole, a guard by trade, but the man who handled Jackson’s role in his absence against the Cowboys last year. Those cleat marks on his chest belong to Jay Ratliff. Mike McGlynn, a 4th round pick from two years ago, has also received snaps there in the preseason. He might be the best option. Max Jean-Gilles is the backup for Stacey Andrews, and could see playing time as the right guard this year if for nothing other than a motivational tactic. King Dunlap and Fenuki Tupou are in a camp battle to win the third tackle spot. Tupou might be better, but he’s a guard by trade. Dunlap played tackle in college, which could give him the edge.
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Indianapolis Colts (projected finish: 12-4)
Team synopsis: Someday, Peyton Manning might not be the most valuable player in professional football. I’ll believe it when I see it.
- QB Peyton Manning (drafted — Tennessee/1998 1st round pick)
- RB Joseph Addai (drafted — LSU/2006 1st round pick)
- WR Reggie Wayne (drafted — Miami/2001 1st round pick)
- TE Dallas Clark (drafted — Iowa/2003 2nd round pick)
- C Jeff Saturday (signed — North Carolina/1999 undrafted free agent)
- DE Dwight Freeney (drafted — Syracuse/2002 1st round pick)
- DE Robert Mathis (drafted — Alabama A&M/2003 5th round pick)
- LB Gary Brackett (signed — Rutgers/2003 undrafted free agent)
- CB Kelvin Hayden (drafted — Illinois/2005 2nd round pick)
- RB Donald Brown (drafted — Connecticut/2009 1st round pick)
- WR Anthony Gonzalez (drafted — Ohio State/2007 1st round pick)
- WR Austin Collie (drafted — BYU/2009 4th round pick)
- OG Jacques McClendon (drafted — Tennessee/2010 4th round pick)
- DE Jerry Hughes (drafted — TCU/2010 1st round pick)
- DT Fili Moala (drafted — USC/2009 2nd round pick)
- LB Pat Angerer (drafted — Iowa/2010 2nd round pick)
- LB Philip Wheeler (drafted — Georgia Tech/2008 3rd round pick)
- CB Jerraud Powers (signed — Auburn/2009 undrafted free agent)
- CB Jacob Lacey (signed — Oklahoma State/2009 undrafted free agent)
- CB Kevin Thomas (drafted — USC/2010 3rd round pick)
This is a pretty important season for the Colts, because even though this team is the same Colts team of the last six or seven years, and this team might be better built to weather losses in free agency when it is inevitably re-established by the new CBA, the Colts of 2012 are going to be a team with very different strengths and weaknesses. Peyton Manning should still be effective at age 36, but I’m doubtful that Reggie Wayne will still be effective at age 34. I’m confident that Jeff Saturday will not be an NFL starter at age 37. Joseph Addai does have an expiring contract at the conclusion of 2010, Anthony Gonzalez’ expires after 2011. And so much of the Colts’ success last year was built on the backs of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, who will be 31 and 32 in that 2012 season.
Plus the Colts have given out a share of bad contract extensions on the defensive side. Bob Sanders, for one. Kelvin Hayden has now missed a full seasons worth of games in the last two years. Gary Brackett was given 30 million dollars to stay in Indianapolis through age 34, and that’s just not a very good bet to work out. Both Hayden and Brackett are worth the money now, but that the think: even if they weren’t on this year’s team, would the Colts not be an 11-14 win team? The Colts have done just fine choosing who not to keep on their team, and should continue to do so, and they’ve done even better finding undrafted free agents who play at a high level. But the revenue sharing plan is a big obstacle in the new CBA negotiations, and the Colts can’t count on being able to pay cash over cap to keep all the players they want to.
And, you know, one of those players who is going to get paid — more than anyone else in NFL history — is quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is so good, so refined, that as long as he’s throwing the ball well, he will be worth every penny of the richest contract in NFL history. But, I’m told, that Manning won’t be an elite quarterback forever. And so there will probably come a day where Peyton Manning is still playing for the Colts, and playing well, but not carrying the Colts as his contract will suggest he needs to. And that Colts team likely won’t be very good.
But that’s an issue for another day, another team. The 2010 Colts may struggle to stop the run consistently, but again, with the proficient passing attack they sport, that won’t matter. The Colts are one of about nine teams that is consistently strong in pass defense, even as personnel changes. They are better with Bob Sanders in the line-up, but are better than most other teams even without their star safety. Kelvin Hayden is very good when healthy, but even when he is not, having Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and rookie Kevin Thomas at the position is a pretty good situation. And this team can get after the passer, with Freeney, Mathis, and rookie first round pick Jerry Hughes.
Perhaps a better question is whether or not they can fix the rushing attack. I think Peyton Manning has played phenomenally in the absence of a rushing attack, so why bother? Well, put simply, the rushing attack makes Peyton Manning a better quarterback. He’s going to wow you no matter what, and certainly, part of his MVP honors the last two seasons have taken into account that the Colts put up big offense while being a terrible rushing team. But those MVP years have been relatively down years for Manning. And certainly a big part of the reason is that Mike Hart and Donald Brown combined for more than 100 sub-replacement value carries in 2009. But certainly, it was due in part to Addai’s performance in 2008 that caused the Colts to draft Brown in the first place. Of course, Manning keeps finding new ways to re-define career year, so part of me wants to strand him on a desert island in early September and see how many touchdowns he can throw under those conditions.
Donald Brown might still end up being a big time contributor, but I think the Colts took their biggest step towards running respectability when they drafted TE Brody Eldridge in the fifth round out of Oklahoma. The fullback/tight end hybrid should function like an offensive lineman on the outside, and help Addai and Brown get on the edges where the Colts were downright terrible last year.
Dallas Clark is an able blocker against a safety out of the slot, though when you put a linebacker on him, or bring him in-line, he has a tendency to get overpowered. Clark, though, is the engine of the Colts offense with Manning as the driver. He alone gives the singleback offense it’s versatility, as he is equally dangerous in-line, in the slot, and flexed by himself as an isolated receiver.
Reggie Wayne is the Colts’ best non-Manning player. Wayne runs precise routes, catches the ball with skill paralleled by only the best receivers in history (except, seemingly, in the playoffs). Wayne, even at 31, can still get beyond the safety level and make a play for Manning. He’s even more dangerous when Anthony Gonzalez is at his best. Gonzalez was blocked by Marvin Harrison and Clark as a rookie, but had a breakout season as the Colts no. 2 WR in 2008. Or so we thought. Gonzalez injured his knee in the first game of the season last year, and was not targeted. The Colts didn’t forget about him — they never put him on IR instead lying about the seriousness of the injury, but he never played again that year. He’s back, and health(ier?)y, but now finds himself in a position battle with another precise route runner who lacks his speed (Austin Collie), and an unrefined burner who doesn’t have great hands (Pierre Garcon). Gonzalez is still likely the number two receiver, but may not be able to replicate 2008 because of the rapport that Manning has with Collie. Garcon is likely just a fourth receiver from here, not much different from Devin Aromashadu or Aaron Moorehead. He might still be good for a deep ball or two a season.
The offensive line is a serious area of concern. Manning may not allow himself to take sacks, and Jeff Saturday still does a fantastic job sorting protections, probably better than any other center in the league, but the other lineman are guys like Charlie Johnson, Mike Pollak, Kyle DeVan, and Ryan Diem. Of that group, only Pollak was drafted in the first three rounds of the draft. Beyond that, Pollak actually lost his job to DeVan last year, so he needs to win the LG spot from Andy Alleman. Adam Terry comes over from the Ravens to provide depth, and the team still has Tony Ugoh, who hasn’t developed. 4th round rookie Jacques McClendon is also in that mix at LG as the team tries to get bigger. Jamey Richard, the team’s 7th round pick from 2008, is still with the team, though perhaps not for much longer. The theme is that the Colts are trying to get bigger and more physical to help the running game, so the McClendons and Alleman’s are in, and the Pollaks and Richards are out. Clearly, the guards are of bigger concern to the team than the tackles.
Dwight Freeney may have tore an ankle ligament in the AFC Championship and STILL sacked Drew Brees in the super bowl, but that doesn’t really do justice to how good of a player — how complete of a player — Freeney has become. He’s too quick to run against these days, and he almost never fails to sniff out a screen pass in his direction. Isn’t Dwight Freeney still the best defensive player in football? Robert Mathis may think so, and he’s got to be up on that list as well, at least in the top 25. He’s not quite as complete a player as Freeney, but he’s almost as dangerous a pass rusher, and was long thought to be the better of the two against the run. Credit Freeney for continuing to work on his weaknesses until he became the most dangerous defensive lineman in the game.
Gary Brackett may be one of the best coverage ‘backers in the league, but Clint Session does seem to be the more dangerous player of the two top Colts LBs, and has the higher upside. Brackett is a poor-man’s London Fletcher, a guy who always finds a way to be around the ball. Sessions ends plays earlier. The third LB, Philip Wheeler, got seven starts last year and really solidified that position in the defense. The team’s selection of Pat Angerer from Iowa in the second round of this past draft suggests that the team is not planning on sticking with Session past this season. Angerer will get a shot to compete with Wheeler to start this year.
The safety level is always a concern. With Sanders in, he and Antoine Bethea are one of the better combinations of safeties in the NFL. Melvin Bullitt is a more than capable backup for Sanders, but Bullitt and Bethea are a significantly weaker tandem than Bethea and Sanders. A healthy Sanders helps Bethea with tighter coverage windows. Jamie Silva will miss the year with a knee injury. The Colts will stay in character and try to replace him cheaply, possibly with seventh round pick Ray Fisher, primarily a return man, or any number of undrafted converted corners, including but not limited to: Notre Dame’s Ty Lambert, Purdue’s Brandon King, North Carolina’s Jordan Hemby, Buffalo’s Mike Newton, or even a converted WR; Maryland’s Terrell Skinner.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
Backup quarterback is a hot topic in Indy, mostly because 2009 6th rounder Curtis Painter continues to make a mockery of the position. Tom Brandstater hasn’t been much better (though clearly, he has been better), which opens the door for undrafted Tim Hiller (Western Michigan) to make the team as Peyton Manning’s backup. He would be the second QB from a state college in Michigan to come from the ranks of the undrafted to win a spot as a backup QB in as many years — the other being New England’s Brian Hoyer (MSU).
Devin Moore and Javarris James are both going to push Mike Hart to be the Colts third running back, though it hardly makes sense for a team that hardly runs the ball to commit to more than three RBs on the roster. Brody Eldridge can function as a lead blocker in the singleback offense, which frees up the Colts to keep him and three other TEs. Clark, obviously, but Jacob Tamme has worked his way into the offense as the number two TE. If the Colts keep another, Gijon Robinson would have the inside track, but he figures to be inactive on most days even if he makes the team.
The Colts only have eight receivers in camp, and can keep up to six. Blair White, the undrafted rookie from Michigan State, seems like a very good bet to make the roster in this system. Taj Smith can run, making him a good bet to hold on to his spot on special teams. Last year the Colts roster Hank Baskett, so guys who can run will be an improvement at the back end of the roster.
I think the Colts are going to keep five guards, with what most of them having the ability to slide over to center in a pinch. I also don’t think that number includes Charlie Johnson, starting left tackle. Barring something unforseen, I think Tony Ugoh is going to be retained as the backup left tackle — you’d think that’s something they would have touched in the draft if the Johnson/Ugoh status quo wasn’t acceptable. I also think the Colts would love to have Ugoh win that job, but think that they believe it’s doubtful that will happen. Anyway, I have the five guards as: DeVan, Alleman (as starters), McClendon, Terry (as backups), and Pollak, who slides inside to back up Saturday on the second team.
Keyunta Dawson should round out the depth at DE behind Hughes, though he’ll have to beat out Ervin Baldwin to do so. Fili Moala and Daniel Muir could start at the defensive tackles, with Eric Foster as a backup, and Antonio Johnson battling with Ricardo Matthews and Marlon favorite (both rookies) for the final spot on the defensive line.
The Colts don’t have a lot of linebacker depth. Angerer is the first guy off the bench. Cody Glenn is an able special teamer. Then Kavell Connor has the inside track for the final spot as a seventh round pick of the team out of Clemson.
That’s only 14 defensive front players, and the Colts can keep between 25 and 26 defensive players, which means the team is going to be loaded with defensive backs, mostly of the cheap, undrafted sort. The way they operate in picking these guys is fascinating. So many teams struggle in pass defense, and the Colts don’t even attempt to draft the guys that those teams are interested in: they know they can do better at a fraction of the cost. The Colts are currently rostering 16 active defensive backs. We’ve identified four corners and three safeties who will make the team above. Then four other players will be added, but the only two that have NFL experience are Marcus McCauley (on his third team this offseason), and Deshea Townsend. Townsend likely makes it for his cover skills, but I have a feeling McCauley misses. Then, just to venture a guess on the final three, I’ll say: Ray Fisher, Brandon King, and Terrell Skinner. That’s based on, not much, except an irrational love by Polian for Purdue players (King), and Fisher playing college ball at Indiana.
The Colts have Brandon James, a kick returning specialist trying to make the cut, and they badly need the special teams boost. If that only means holding 11 DBs…well, James was a DB in college, I guess. The more interesting thing is whether the Colts will extend an olive branch to Garrett Lindholm, the kicker from Tarleton State. Adam Vinatieri cannot handle kickoff duties anymore, but last year, punter Pat McAfee had the job, and Indy had plus kickoff value as a team. This likely makes him the kickoff guy again, and Lindholm just another camp leg.
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Pittsburgh Steelers (projected finish: 12-4)
Team synopsis: The Steelers are quarterback-less for the first four games of the season. Kind of. There’s a mini-QB competition brewing in Steelers camp between Byron Leftwich and third year developmental prospect Dennis Dixon to start these four games. It’s not really a competition in that Leftwich has already been named the starter for these games, but Dixon could find himself as the no. 2 QB when Roethlisberger comes back if Leftwich doesn’t play well. Regardless of if the Steelers start 2-2, 3-1, or 4-0, there are going to be a lot of wins this season for this team, who can stretch the field with the best of them. And, oh yeah, that defense will be back.
- QB Ben Roethlisberger (suspended 4-6 games) (drafted — Miami (OH)/2004 1st round pick)
- RB Rashard Mendenhall (drafted — Illinois/2008 1st round pick)
- WR Hines Ward (drafted — Georgia/1998 3rd round pick)
- TE Heath Miller (drafted — Virginia/2005 1st round pick)
- NT Casey Hampton (drafted — Texas/2001 1st round pick)
- LB James Harrison (signed — Kent State/2001 undrafted free agent)
- LB Lamarr Woodley (drafted — Michigan/2007 2nd round pick)
- S Troy Polamalu (drafted — USC/2003 1st round pick)
- S Ryan Clark (signed — Washington/2006 free agent)
- QB Dennis Dixon (drafted — Oregon/2008 5th round pick)
- WR Mike Wallace (drafted — Ole Miss/2009 4th round pick)
- WR Emmanuel Sanders (drafted — SMU/2010 3rd round pick)
- C/RG Maurkice Pouncey (drafted — Florida/2010 1st round pick)
- DE Ziggy Hood (drafted — Missouri/2009 1st round pick)
- LB Jason Worilds (drafted — Virginia Tech/2010 2nd round pick)
- LB Thaddeus Gibson (drafted — Ohio State/2010 4th round pick)
Dennis Dixon is in an odd, but favorable, place for a developmental quarterback. He’s behind Ben Roethlisberger, a franchise quarterback who has both lead great offenses and super bowl teams (though strangely never in the same year). But Roethlisberger has worn patience in Pittsburgh away to the point where neither of his super bowl rings can shield him from criticism for his behavior or his play. He may have an $100 million contract, but he’s in the third year of that deal, and when base salaries start to get expensive, Roethlisberger will have to remain a good soldier and an even better quarterback to justify that kind of money after 2010. Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco aren’t the only AFC North quarterbacks on the hot seat in 2010.
Roethlisberger’s career has been wildly inconsistent. He’s played six NFL seasons and has started 86 NFL games. Only twice has he thrown more than 18 TDs in a season. Those years, he threw 32 and 26 TDs. He failed to complete 60% of his passes two separate years, this despite being a 63.3% career passer. The only constant in Ben’s career is that he gets sacked at Carrian rates. In many ways, Roethlisberger’s career was in the basement between 2006 and 2008. He won a super bowl at the end of those seasons, but Ben is a career 6.7 NYPA guy, and his NYPA figures declined each year from 2005 through 2008, first to 6.3, then 6.2, then a below league average 5.9. But in 2009, for all the off the field trouble he caused, Ben Roethlisberger had his best season on the field since he was a complementary part on the 2005 super bowl team, and considering he was the best player on the offense this year, it was probably his best season in his career.
The tricky part is, Roethlisberger’s best years would seem to be two to four years in his future. And Dennis Dixon’s best years would seem to be beyond that. Yet, there’s a realistic scenario where Leftwich and Roethlisberger are elsewhere in 2011, and Dixon is the Steelers quarterback. I’m not sure that even in that situation, that Dixon is a long term solution, but that scenario gives credence to a 2010 QB competition that otherwise would not be one.
That’s because Byron Leftwich is a much better quarterback than he’s given credit for. Leftwich was below average in three starts last season, but much better than you would think: he did, after all, put up 41 points against Dallas and Buffalo. And while a zero spot against the Giants the following week got him benched, Leftwich made only one crucial mistake in that game, or about five less than the Tampa secondary. Before last season, he was a well-above backup QB for the Steelers, following a short, mildly successful career as the Jags starting quarterback. The only year Leftwich ranked as a below average passer between 2004 and 2009 was in 2007, when he was released by the Jags before the first game, and signed with the hapless Falcons, where he was badly outplayed by Joey Harrington. He was acquired in the offseason for a 7th round pick.
Whoever quarterbacks the Steelers this year can simply hand the ball to Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall rushed for 1108 yards on 242 carries (4.6 YPC average) in 2009, which, if you are keeping count is 400+ yards more than Felix Jones had last year, and Jones went one pick before Mendenhall in the 2008 draft. He’s also a gifted receiver out of the backfield, with 25 receptions last year that went for more than 260 receiving yards. Perhaps the best part of a Rashard Mendenall carry is that the play almost never results in a Ben Roethlisberger sack. While Mewelde Moore has long been an undervalued third down back, and he will likely carry the no. 2 RB role this year, most fans are excited to see how 6th round pick Jonathon Dwyer does in the backfield this year. Dwyer can play a FB/HB combo role, and his upside looks something like Baltimore’s LeRon McClain. He’s an upback in the I-backfield, but also has vast experience playing out of a singleback look for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
The receivers are the strength of the offense. Santonio Holmes has been jettisoned, some think, for Ben Roethlisbergers indiscretions. Holmes was moved for Holmes’ mistakes. If a double standard exists, it’s because Roethlisberger is an $100 million quarterback, and Holmes is a receiver on his rookie contract. Not because of a preference for an alleged rapist over a pain-in-the-ass with an assault charge and a marijuana possession charge. There was just little indication that the Steelers were going to keep Holmes beyond this year. Like Roethlisberger, Holmes has been inconsistent. Unlike Roethlisberger, he didn’t rebound to have a great 2009 season. Hines Ward is nothing if not a consistent pro bowl performer. He’s a card holding member of the “Tony Gonzalez age curve” club, which means that Ward’s 2010 season should look like his 2004, 2006, and 2008 seasons. He’s the same player.
But what gets you excited about the Steelers is a prospect like Mike Wallace, the second year player out of Ole Miss who was outstanding last season. He was one of three Pittsburgh receivers with better than 200 receiving DYAR, and did his damage in about half the attempts of Holmes and Ward. This year he will be more targeted, and better covered. The Steelers like the upside of their third round pick, Emmanuel Sanders, but I’m more excited about the potential of Antonio Brown, a three year starter at CMU who is just 21 years old, can return punts, and could beat out Arnaz Battle for a spot on the Steelers. Another dependable target, Antwaan Randle El returns to the team after four mostly productive years in Washington — unless you want to talk about the punt returns (let’s not).
Heath Miller returns as the tight end. Matt Speath is the other blocking tight end, but I’m guessing we’re going to see less of him. The Steelers run a lot of three WR stuff, and even when they do run two TEs, David Johnson is the tight end who adds another element to the passing game. It will be interesting whether Johnson’s downfield ability allows him to get more yards this year than Miller, as he certainly will not be targeted more often.
The running game with Mendenhall should assist Flozell Adams, who replaces the injured Willie Colon at RT, to feel like he still belongs in the NFL. Adams is at his best when going forward — and when his offense “goes on one.” In the Steelers preseason opener, he let Lions DE Cliff Avril run right around him for a vicious sack on Leftwich. Right now, Trai Essex is another weak Steelers lineman placeholding at RG until Maurkice Pouncey is deemed ready to take over at that position. Chris Kemoeatu is solid when healthy at LG, Max Starks can handle the LT position, and I think Jeff Hartwig is better than he gets credit for at Center, at least since coming over from Carolina. The weakness here is on the right side, where Pouncey seems close to ready to jump in.
The big question on defense is the three guys up front. Casey Hampton got an extension to remain the nose, and he’s got the best backup nose in the league in Chris Hoke, who has been backing up Hampton professionally for seven years now. Aaron Smith is still a top 3-4 defensive end, but has now suffered season ending injuries in two of the last three seasons. Ziggy Hood is next in line to get his shot. Brett Keisel, another veteran, plays on the opposite side, with Scott Paxson holding a utility role on the DL Hood is the entire concept of youth on this defensive front, so it will be interesting to see what becomes of 7th round pick Doug Worthington (Ohio State), in a direct competition with Nick Eason — who was brought back for depth purposes — for the last spot on the roster. This seems to be the most settled position from a roster standpoint (even if the production is the largest question mark), so this is a classic case of veterans placeholding until the youngsters are ready.
The Steelers also graduate their linebackers from the bench to the starting lineup. This year, it’s Lawrence Timmons moving on up, starting alongside James Farrior, and being pushed from behind by Larry Foote, back after a one year trip to the Lions. Fourth round pick Thaddeus Gibson might not have tremendous upside, but can play either inside or outside after playing DE for the Buckeyes last year. Second round pick Jason Worilds is a player who the Steelers are really excited about, as he was taken to be the replacement for James Harrison two or three years from now. There’s a spot on the roster at ILB for both Keyaron Fox and Stevenson Sylvester, but Patrick Bailey was impressive last year in limited time, so for Sylvester, this is his best chance to prove he belongs in the NFL.
Troy Polamalu is back, and with Ed Reed not quite back, this changes the landscape of the AFC North more than any suspension to Roethlisberger. Polamalu and Ryan Clark make the best safety duo in the NFL, and after adding Will Allen from Tampa Bay, they also have the best 1-2-3 punch at safety of any NFL team. Corner is still a little think behind Ike Taylor, but the Steelers traded for Bryant McFadden from Arizona just one year after he signed a multi-year deal with Arizona to leave Pittsburgh. Joe Burnett played well last year by most measures, but William Gay really did not.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
Roethlisberger’s suspension throws an issue into the quarterback situation with regards to keeping Charlie Batch. Batch served as the second QB since 2006, following Tommy Maddox’ release. He was on IR all of 2008, and played a little bit in the loss at Kansas City last year, but left that game with an injury and was placed on IR again. Roethlisberger’s suspension triggered the Leftwich trade, and unless they keep four QBs, Leftwich is getting Batch’s roster spot. However, if there was ever a circumstance for keeping 4 QBs, a four game suspension to your franchise QB would be it. That, or having Jon Gruden as your head coach.
The Steelers will keep four RBs, nominally, at least. The fourth is Stefan Logan, who is the team’s return specialist. He wears number 11. The only fullback on the roster is Dwayne Wright, a second year back from Fresno State.
If Brown and Battle are, uh, competing for the same spot, that might give Brandon London an opening to make the team as a fourth or fifth receiver. But Battle might be on the team regardless, depending on his role. In that case, if the Steelers keep Brown, there is no room for London.
Trying to figure out who will be a backup Steeler lineman is difficult. Essex/Pouncey is obvious. The team’s backup Center, Doug Legursky, isn’t as critical now that Pouncey, who played Center in college, is capable of sliding over due to injury. He’ll probably still make it. Between those 2.5 backups, they can cover the entire right side of the line. Kraig Urbik, a third round pick of two years ago, is very much on the bubble, and could lose his spot to veteran Adrian Jones, or just to another position. Then with room for up to two tackles, the Steelers have to choose between Tony Hills, Ramon Foster, Jonathon Scott, and 5th round pick Chris Scott out of Tennessee. I feel Chris Scott would have to be very good to make the roster, because Jonathon Scott was a higher pick of two years ago, Foster can play inside, and Tony Hills was a higher pick just two years ago.
Crezdon Butler, the team’s fourth round pick out of Clemson, was almost certainly taken with fixing the CB situation in mind. If he starts his career as the fifth corner, William Gay would battle to hold the nickel position, and hold of Joe Burnett. Then either Keenan Lewis or Gay would be the release that opens a spot for Butler on the Steelers pressure-first defense. Ryan Mundy has the inside track as the fourth safety, and the backup for Will Allen, should he have to play. Competition for Mundy may come in the form of undrafted rookies Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, and/or Justin Thornton. Yes, there are more Cromartie’s in this world than you thought.
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Dallas Cowboys (projected finish: 11-5)
Team synopsis: The Cowboys are already dealing with multiple injuries on their offensive line. LG Kyle Kosier is out for the season opener vs. Washington, and RT Marc Columbo might be as well. Will this mean anything? It might, if more hits on QB Tony Romo result in missed games for the quarterback. We saw that happen in 2008, and that year’s 9-7 record was not good enough to make the playoffs. Provided that Romo stays healthy, the Cowboys should have just enough depth on the OL to overcome rampant injury and muster some semblance of a running game to help Tony Romo complete downfield passes. The Cowboys can win a lot of games this year with Romo, but the dropoff to backup Jon Kitna is greater than the dropoff between any non-Peyton Manning starter in the league. And if there’s anything that is certain this year, it’s that Romo is going to get hit, and often.
- QB Tony Romo (signed — Eastern Illinois/2003 undrafted free agent)
- RB Marion Barber (drafted — Minnesota/2004 2nd round pick)
- WR Miles Austin (signed — Monmouth/2006 undrafted free agent)
- TE Jason Witten (drafted — Tennessee/2003 3rd round pick)
- LG Kyle Kosier (signed — Detroit/2006 free agent)
- C Andre Gurode (drafted — Colorado/2002 2nd round pick)
- RG Leonard Davis (signed — Arizona/2007 free agent)
- NT Jay Ratliff (drafted — Auburn/2005 7th round pick)
- LB DeMarcus Ware (drafted — Troy/2005 1st round pick)
- LB Anthony Spencer (drafted — Purdue/2007 1st round pick)
- CB Mike Jenkins (drafted — USF/2008 1st round pick)
- RB Felix Jones (drafted — Arkansas/2008 1st round pick)
- RB Tashard Choice (drafted — Georgia Tech/2008 4th round pick)
- WR Dez Bryant (drafted — Oklahoma State/2010 1st round pick)
- WR Kevin Ogletree (signed — Virginia/2009 undrafted free agent)
- TE Martellus Bennett (drafted — Texas A&M/2008 2nd round pick)
- LB Sean Lee (drafted — Penn State/2010 2nd round pick)
- S Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (drafted — Indiana (PA)/2010 4th round pick)
The Cowboys’ prospects are made up of players from this draft, and undeveloped players from the 2008 draft. In between, there was the 2009 draft, or more specifically, Roy Williams, who came over from Detroit in 2007 for a first, third, and a sixth round pick. Fantastic. Now, just to get two players to develop a year, they need 5 out of those 7 prospects to become quality starters. And Martellus Bennett is blocked by one of the league’s best TEs.
Fantasy owners and league executives alike are really excited about Felix Jones’ potential, especially after averaging 5.9 yards per carry last year. I can say this about Felix Jones: here’s a guy who has really been given every possible opportunity to make a difference for the Dallas Cowboys in the last two years. For all of his promise, Jones has yet to rush for 700 yards in a season. Here’s a guy who I think might fail to rush for 1,000 yards at any point in his career, and six or seven years down the road, people will still be espousing about his great promise. Jones sets up his blocks well, and he’s very dangerous on the edge, and he makes people miss — but Jones can’t really stay healthy, and both Marion Barber and Tashard Choice strike me as the kind of guys you’d want in the backfield as more complete players anyway.
Choice might be the best of the three. He doesn’t run as violently as Marion Barber, but like him, he’s a threat out of the backfield, and he seems to be a lot quicker in and out of his cuts. The fact that Choice is only relevant when others are hurt is emblematic of the big issue with the Cowboys: when Jerry Jones makes the decisions, the team is built in his image. It’s loaded with talent, and the most marketable players will play, if not necessarily the best.
Along these lines, the Cowboys spent their first overall pick on a college Cowboy, Dez Bryant, the best wide receiver in the draft. That’s unquestionably a good pick by Jones and his staff. But Bryant will be buried this year, because the Cowboys aren’t ready to part ways with Roy Williams, now in his third season with the team, and no closer to working positively with Tony Romo to help win games. Miles Austin clearly emerged as the number one receiver last year, but only because he emerged so obviously and forcefully that the Cowboys couldn’t possibly bury him any more. It would have been easy and beneficial for the Cowboys to take Williams’ reps and give them to Austin, but Williams didn’t lose nearly as much of his role in the offense as did Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton. The fact that Williams is back should scare Cowboys fans. Romo has a great rapport with Witten, Crayton, and Austin. Passes to Roy Williams always seem to be uncatchable and off the mark. Williams isn’t ready to blame Williams just yet for that, but he might be the only one left.
The team was also trying to work TE John Phillips into the offense before he was lost for the season with an ACL tear. That’s a blessing for Martellus Bennett, who is quickly falling out of favor with Romo and Jason Garrett. He’s now still in the plan, as the Cowboys love to use multiple TE sets. But Bennett may just have this season to make good on the promise he displayed as a rookie. There’s only one football, and you know, Austin, Williams, Bryant, Crayton, Ogletree, Sam Hurd, Witten, and three running backs to feed. Bennett cannot afford to stay 11th on the Cowboys offense pecking order, and still make a difference, especially when Austin is the only one making the most of his plays. Jason Witten is still very, very good, but his role is being cut by pure circumstance, not by a decline in skill.
And then theres the offensive line, where Doug Free is drawing plenty of acclaim and criticism for his job replacing Flozell Adams on the front line. Free’s not the problem here, he’s just a guy who will line up at left tackle and need help against the best pass rushers in the division: Brian Orakpo, Trent Cole, Andre Carter, and Matthias Kiwanuka. The problem is on the other side, where 6th round rookie Sam Young is stepping in for Marc Columbo at RT right now. That, and the left guard while Kosier is out is Montrae Holland, who was freely available for any team after the draft who wanted to sign him. No one did. He’s back with the Cowboys, and now could potentially start on a playoff team. The Cowboys OL depth is better than last year, but more importantly, four of the five starters are a year older, and that depth which was irrelevant last year — except for Free — is going to play a lot this year.
That’s a lot of words on what is wrong with the Cowboys. I still have them winning 11 games and making the playoffs. So there’s plenty that is right with the Cowboys, namely, Tony Romo. Romo is on a loaded offense, and yet, he’s the best player on it at any position. As long as Romo is in the lineup, the Cowboys go into every game with a good chance to win. When he’s out, they would not be favored over any team in the division, and perhaps not any game on the schedule.
The defense also appears to be something that is right. It’s a watered down version of the Ravens defense. The front seven is it’s strength, the secondary is a weakness. The Cowboys have two good cover corners, Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, and a good nickelback in Orlando Scandrick, so corner is not an issue. Safety, however, is a big issue. Neither Gerald Sensabaugh or Alan Ball is a league average player. They have a single prospect in Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, the team’s fourth round pick, a college corner being converted to safety in the pros. That’s a large learning curve that puts his career in doubt, even if the player is more that talented enough to make the jump. Michael Hamlin is the backup strong safety, and could be in the mix to start for Sensabaugh around mid season. Pat Watkins is just a special teamer, and wouldn’t play defense before someone the Cowboys might sign due to injury.
This whole defensive group should remain pretty healthy. Marcus Spears does appear to be spending his final year on the Cowboys as a backup, with Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher battling for one spot, Spears will back up Igor Olshansky on the other side. An undrafted rookie from Illinois, Josh Brent has been making noise in camp, and could beat out Marcus Dixon for the last spot on the defensive line. The Cowboys will back up Jay Ratliff with Junior Siavii at nose tackle. These guys simply aren’t the same body type or player. If DeMarcus Ware got hurt, the Cowboys would replace him with Victor Hobson, play the same scheme, and accept the loss of an elite player. If Ratliff gets hurt, the entire Cowboys base defense changes. They cannot afford to lose him.
Speaking of Ware, his sack totals dropped to 11.0 after leading the league with 20.0 in 2008. If 11 sacks is a down year, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. His sack totals should see a bump this year thanks to a full season contribution from Anthony Spencer on the other side. The Cowboys moved Greg Ellis out last offseason to try to spur Spencer’s growth, and it didn’t work out at first. Ware didn’t have a sack in his first four games. Spencer didn’t have one in his first ten. But from that point, they were a great complement for one another. They combined for 10 sacks in the final six games, 6 of which were actually Spencer’s. And one of those six games, Ware left with a neck injury, and neither had a sack. If Spencer and Ware can somehow muster a two sack per game pace over the season, they will split 32 sacks, and once you add in Ratliff’s contribution Dallas will have their best defense since the Parcells days.
A lot of responsibility in the run game relies on inside linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James to be stout at the point of attack. They were in 2009, after a down year from James and Zach Thomas in 2008. Brooking is unlikely to have such a season again, but the Cowboys added Sean Lee, a linebacker in the same mold, in the draft.
The defensive weakness is against the pass, particularly in the middle of the field. Neither ILB is much of a pass coverage player, and neither safety is really going to challenge opposing tight ends and receivers down the field. With strong corners, teams will likely go to this well again and again against the 2010 Cowboys. There may not be a better option.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
Receiver on the Cowboys may be the most tightly contested roster position in the entire NFL this summer. If Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree split fourth receiver duties this year (Bryant will likely also split third receiver duties with Crayton, and second with Roy Williams), then Sam Hurd is pushed to the bubble. This season, Jesse Holley, who once won this competition, has really shown a knack for making plays on special teams. That’s what you want from your sixth receiver. The Cowboys have already tried to aggressively trade Hurd — who is a good player, by the way — so he could be a late release or trade. Though, the Cowboys have plenty of special teamers, so they might keep Hurd as the sixth receiver.
Phillips’ injury has opened up a new hole at third TE, where undrafted TE Scott Sicko is now competing with Jason Pociask and DajLeon Farr to make the Cowboys.
The Cowboys could keep up to five offensive tackles. Last year’s third rounder, Robert Brewster, hasn’t impressed. Neither has Alex Barron, who came over in a trade with the Rams. Sam Young has impressed, and appears to be safe as the backup RT. The big hole on the offensive line appears to be depth at center. It is unclear who would play if Andre Gurode could not. Travis Bright is listed as the first backup on the depth chart. If he makes the team, that is. Perhaps the Cowboys could try Brewster inside? Pat McQuistan could be a two position backup, but would need to beat out Bright to make the roster. Phil Costa, an undrafted rookie from Maryland, is in the mix as well.
Behind Ware, Spencer, and Butler, Steve Octavian and Brandon Williams, the latter a rookie from Texas Tech, are locked in a position battle for the fourth OLB spot. Jason Williams, an inside linebacker from Western Illinois, has rare straight line speed, and will take that speed to special teams, and could hold off Sean Lee as the backup ILB this season.
The Cowboys like CB Cletis Gordon as their fourth corner, which puts corner Jamar Wall in a bit of a bind. The 6th round pick from Texas Tech is in a tight battle with undrafted rookie Bryan McCann (SMU) for the final roster spot in what appears to be a ten-man secondary.
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Baltimore Ravens (projected finish: 10-6)
Team synopsis: Were the Ravens among the best teams in football last season? In their division, they were just a win over the Bengals away from tying atop the division, and the game at Baltimore is one they just simply weren’t able to close out over Cincinnati. If the Ravens weren’t already thought to be the best team in the AFC North, they certainly took a step to prove as much when they blew out the New England Patriots in Foxborough in the AFC playoffs, while the AFC East runner up Jets physically decimated the Bengals in Cincinnati. The Ravens likely weren’t a better team than the Colts, as they were never really in the AFC Divisional playoff game against the high powered offense of the Colts, but a conclusion that suggests that Baltimore was one of the two best teams in the AFC, as they probably were, suggests that the team could get a little worse on both sides of the football, and still improve on last years 9-7 record. That’s the prediction here.
- RB Ray Rice (drafted — Rutgers/2008 2nd round pick)
- WR Anquan Boldin (trade — Arizona/2010 3rd round pick)
- TE Todd Heap (drafted — Arizona State/2001 1st round pick)
- OT Michael Oher (drafted — Ole Miss/2009 1st round pick)
- LG Ben Grubbs (drafted — Auburn/2007 1st round pick)
- OT Jared Gaither (drafted — Maryland/2007 5th round supplemental draft pick)
- NT Haloti Ngata (drafted — Oregon/2006 1st round pick)
- LB Terrell Suggs (drafted — Arizona State/2003 1st round pick)
- LB Ray Lewis (drafted — Miami/1996 1st round pick)
- S Ed Reed (drafted — Miami/2002 1st round pick)
- TE Ed Dickson (drafted — Oregon/2010 3rd round pick)
- TE Dennis Pitta (drafted — BYU/2010 4th round pick)
- OT Ramon Harewood (drafted — Morehouse/2010 6th round pick)
- NT Terrence Cody (drafted — Alabama/2010 2nd round pick)
- LB Sergio Kindle (drafted — Texas/2010 2nd round pick)
- LB Dannell Ellerbe (signed — Georgia/2009 undrafted free agent)
- LB Tavares Gooden (drafted — Miami/2008 3rd round pick)
- CB Lardarius Webb (drafted — Nicholls State/2009 3rd round pick)
- S Tom Zbikowski (drafted — Notre Dame/2008 3rd round pick)
QB Joe Flacco is in his third season with the Ravens. In his last three seasons, Flacco has appeared in nine postseason games. That’s four college games with the Delaware Blue Hens in 2007, three more with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, and two more last year. Flacco has more postseason experience than any quarterback in the same timeframe, pro or college.
That’s a good thing. His personal accomplishments are more middle of the road. Flacco improved in most statistical categories as a passer in 2009 from below average in 2008 to above average (his sack rate was unchanged). However, Flacco was done in by the quality of his skill position players over the course of the year, and if you break down his production by game, Flacco’s improvements occurred in the first five games. After that, he was pretty much the same quarterback from his rookie year.
That’s a problem. Flacco has enjoyed unparalleled amounts of team success for a quarterback in his first two seasons, but he has to find a way to lead his passing game to the next level. The Ravens believe that it wasn’t Flacco’s fault that the passing game declined into a fancy way to set up blocks for Ray Rice in the open field. So as soon as the season ended, and before free agency opened, the Ravens added Donte Stallworth after the Browns released the troubled receiver who missed the 2009 season after pleading guilty to one count of DUI, and one count of Manslaughter. Stallworth isn’t necessarily a character concern for the Ravens, as his troubles appear to be a thing of the past. But he did miss last season, and he might not be the deep threat the Ravens require.
The good news is that Mark Clayton should be able to hold off Stallworth and provide the field-stretching ability that the Ravens need. Clayton was miscast as a multi-purpose player: he dropped a fourth down pass in the regular season loss to the Patriots that would have given the Ravens a critical first down. But Clayton was asked to run the window routes and timing patterns across from Derrick Mason because the Ravens didn’t have anyone else to play.
The big acquisition, of course, was Anquan Boldin. Boldin is going to take over Derrick Mason’s role in the offense. Mason is back, and his new role will be as the complementary target that uses his superior route running against the weaker side of the coverage offers Joe Flacco his favorite receiver in outlet receiver form. The problem comes if Flacco throws to Mason even more often than he did last year. Moving on from Mason would have been risky, but taking away Flacco’s safety valve could have opened up the offense in a way that simply adding Boldin and Stallworth never could have.
Those weren’t the only moves made by the Ravens, who added two TEs in the draft: Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Dickson is the speed-route running-pass catching combo who probably works as a short term complement to Todd Heap, not an eventual replacement. Pitta is that replacement.
The Ravens’ RB trio of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain was so good in 2008 and 2009 that they brought them back for another run in 2010. But credit must go to the offensive line of the last two seasons, with Jared Gaither and Ben Grubbs the anchors of it. In 2008, right tackle Willie Anderson and center Jason Brown were significant parts of the success the Ravens had. Neither returned for 2009. Brown left in free agency, taking the big bucks to help fix the interior of St. Louis’ OL, and Anderson retired. But the replacements the Ravens found for them were even better. They got Matt Birk to leave his hometown Minneapolis to come to the east coast and help them. And with the 23rd pick in the 2009 draft, they were somehow lucky enough to land Michael Oher out of Ole Miss. Marshall Yanda came off the bench to replace Chris Chester at right guard, and the 2009 Ravens line was born. Birk signed a three year contract, so these guys will all return for 2010, a major strength for their team.
Still, commenting on the Ravens means talking about defense. And while the offense may have received most of the offseason headlines, Baltimore will still call somewhat conservative offensive gameplans as not to take the game out of the hands of said defense, which is again loaded, at least in the front seven. 35 year old Ray Lewis is in his fifteenth NFL season, and doesn’t look a day over 30. Lewis’ leadership is legendary, but nowhere else is this more impactful (aside from the standings, of course) than for what it allows them to do with the rest of their linebackers. They go young every year, and they don’t hand out big contracts to linebackers who aren’t pass rushers.
This year, that means that Dannell Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden, and Jameel McClain will split the inside linebacker duties next to Lewis, maybe the easiest position to play in all of football. Antwaan Barnes, Paul Kruger, and Jarrett Johnson are in the mix to play opposite Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker. Suggs is still just 27 years old, and now in his eighth NFL season. Then theres the Ravens first round pick from this year, Sergio Kindle, who hasn’t signed his contract yet due to a non-football related head injury suffered in the offseason. When Kindle is cleared for football, the Ravens are expected to sign their second rounder. He is versatile enough to play at any of the four linebacker positions, and excel.
Another reason the Ravens LB are so dominant is the great talent in front of them. Between Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, the Ravens can play nearly 800 pounds of beef in an even front at any time. They overshadow the contributions of Kelly Gregg, who has long been an excellent nose tackle for Baltimore. Trevor Pryce — who is here as much to make Lewis look youthful as anything — is still in the lineup here and is still a starter, while Cory Redding will try to make the transition from the 4-3 defense he played in college and again with the Lions and Seahawks, to the 3-4 front preferred by the Ravens. One thing that’s clear is that if the Ravens wanted to be a 4-3 team, they wouldn’t have to change personnel to do it.
In any variation of the Ravens defense, an already thin secondary really was hurt when they lost CB Dominique Foxworth for the season. A preseason trade of QB John Beck to the Redskins for CB Doug Dutch brought depth, but a lot of teams wouldn’t have even seen Dutch as a practice squad player. On this team, he’s a fifth corner. Both Fabian Washington and LarDarius Webb are coming off season ending injuries; Webb in particular is an important player for the Ravens to have. He’s now the best healthy cover corner on the team, and perhaps it’s best kick returner. It’d be surprising to see him in that role this year, with the team woefully thin at his position.
Safety is believed to be thin with Ed Reed on the mend, potentially for a few games of the regular season, but I’d argue it’s a team strength. The Ravens have a pair of 2008 draft picks, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, who fit better in the Ravens pressure schemes than even Ed Reed is. Right now, Dawan Landry is playing with the first team ahead of Ken Hamlin. That’s not good for Hamlin’s chances of making the team, considering just how poor Landry was last season.
Clearly, the solution for the Ravens sans Ed Reed is to bring pressure from every angle, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is a fairly important figure in the NFL this year. His predecessor, Rex Ryan, gets a lot of publicity to more or less be himself, but Mattison’s defense did not disappoint in his first year. Still, getting them back to an elite level this year will be a great challenge, as will continuing to mask signs of age in Ray Lewis. His guys will still lay the lumber for him when they hit, so that aggressive mentality and physical dominance does take a lot of pressure off of the scheme caller.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
The Marc Bulger signing didn’t go over well for the team. Multiple players, including Reed, spoke out against the Bulger addition. For good reason to, he takes John Beck’s spot on the roster, but Bulger is a sub-replacement quarterback at this point who just doesn’t study opponents like he used to back in the day. Bulger blocks Troy Smith from the no. 2 spot on the depth chart. Smith is clearly not NFL starter material, but he’s probably better than Bulger.
Curtis Steele is battling with Jalen Parmele for the third running back spot. Essentially, with McClain taking snaps as tailback, this position is mostly a special teams position, which is why most expect Parmele to win it. Right now, Mike McLaughlin, a rookie from Boston College, is the only other fullback on the roster. It’s a position that the Ravens require.
Demetrius Williams will battle 5th round rookie David Reed for the fifth wide receiver spot. Williams has height on his side, but little else: if he was a little-used target last year, a team that added Stallworth and Boldin in the offseason has little use for him. Davon Drew could be the odd TE out. He made last years team as the 3rd TE and played some short yardage downs.
While the Ravens starting OL remains unchanged, the backups have overgone significant change, with Ramon Harewood replacing Adam Terry, who is now a Colt. Chris Chester returns for another season in his utility backup role. Oniel Cousins can play both guard and tackle, which should keep him safe for another season. David Hale has the inside track to be the ninth lineman.
The Ravens have three versatile nose tackles, plus now Arthur Jones, a fifth round rookie from Syracuse. Redding and Pryce are the first DTs on the roster, but both will have to beat out Brandon McKinney, who has developed in the Ravens system, and looks like he has the ability to start at defensive end this year.
Keeping just eight or nine linebackers is going to be a difficult task. There are eight guys just in the running for starting jobs on this team. But also, the Ravens have Jason Phillips at inside linebacker, along with Brendon Ayanbadejo, their special teams ace who is going to make the team. That doesn’t even count Kindle, who is obviously going to make the team. That’s 11 LBs the Ravens want to keep, which means one, and probably two, aren’t going to make the team.
Even if Ken Hamlin is released and the Ravens do not keep five safeties, there’s still a depth crunch at corner. Chris Carr could be out of a job if he loses his kick return duties, as his coverage skills are sub par. Cary Williams is playing great in the preseason, and could open as the team’s nickel, forcing Travis Fisher off the roster. Prince Miller, a rookie from Georgia, could win that return job, and also provide depth as a fourth or fifth corner; he has been impressive in camp thus far.