The NFL, with so many moving parts per team, comes down to the basic DNA of a team. How the pieces were picked, how everyone fits together, and how that assembly can win football games. Some teams have built great squads, and contend for years, as other teams go on rudderless, with a bunch of players that either don’t fit or don’t play at a NFL level. At the end of the day, the core of a football team can win or lose games for seasons to come, depending on the quality of that group.
With this preview, I’ll try to explain how teams are built, the best players to watch for, and where that team is going in 2012. Sometimes, this core is a certain group of players, sometimes it’s the coaching staff, and sometimes it’s something off the field entirely. Whatever the that foundation is, that will be what defines the 2012 season for this team, and what will come up as the biggest force in the weeks to come.
The listing of players is from NFL.com’s Mike Lombardi, the only writer to accurately rank players as “blue-chip” or “red-chip” players. A blue chipper is essentially in the top 5 at his position, and a red chipper is in 6-10 at their position. By including those players by team, you can see the big names on each team and also see how many truly great players each team has. The more guys listed, the better a team probably will be. Check out Lombardi’s columns on offensive players and defensive players at the links. A B before a player’s name means he is a blue-chip player, and a R precedes red-chip players.
Every team is listed below, with my playoff picks at the very bottom. Enjoy!
The team of Yoopers, and small-town America, the Green Bay Packers thudded to a disappointing end last season. After a Super Bowl win in 2010, and a 15-1 record in 2011, the Packers were bumped from the playoffs by the New York Giants in their first playoff game. The Packers had a dominating team for 12 months, but that ended in one bad game.
This year, the Packers will be back, as their core group of players is in the park of their careers. Green Bay has always drafted well under GM Ted Thompson, and the successes from 2005 on brought them one Super Bowl already, with potentially more to come. From QB Aaron Rodgers and DB Nick Collins in 2005, to WR Randall Cobb last year, the Packers always get great players in the first two to three rounds of the draft, and them add in productive depth or specialty players in later rounds. Green Bay does play in a very small market, and while revenue sharing and league contracts pay for a lot, Thompson’s ability to build through the draft has created the league’s strongest and youngest contender.
This current Packers squad is loaded on both sides of the ball. On offense, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, and weapons like WR’s Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings can spread the field for other stars like TE Jermichael Finley. The Packers have a lot of depth on offense, so Rodgers is always working with a lot of playmaking options. When that many great players can hit the field, someone has to be open at any given time. On defense, the Packers have a strong linebacking duo in AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews, and Michigan man Charles Woodson at safety, solid units that can get the job done. New this year is rookie DE Jerel Worthy from Michigan State, taken in the 2nd round of the draft. Worthy could be another big playmaker on defense, especially if other teams try to test him early.
Green Bay has more than enough to return to the playoffs, and repeat as division champions. The Packers have the most complete team in the NFC North, and they will have another successful year. Maybe not 15-1 good, but still a 12 to 13 win season.
B Aaron Rodgers Packers QB
B Jordy Nelson Packers WR
R Greg Jennings Packers WR
R Jermichael Finley Packers TE
R Bryan Bulaga Packers T
B Josh Sitton Packers G
B Charles Woodson Packers S
B Mike McCarthy Packers Coach
LAST YEAR – 15-1, NFC North champions, lost in divisional playoffs to New York
While the Lions will get a full column, here’s the rough take on Detroit:
– The Lions are building things right – from the ground up, through draft picks, and through patience. Detroit will take another step forward this year, and with the Lions’ playmakers, anything can happen in the playoffs.
– The Lions’ offense will be close to unstoppable, especially with the amount of great wide receivers that will get openings as defenses swarm Calvin Johnson. On the other hand, the Lions will have a major problem covering opponents’ wideouts, which was apparent in the playoff game against New Orleans last year.
– Everything will be good this season. Much of the national media has taken shots at the Lions, but most of that is just to create controversy out of nothing. The Lions will be alright this season, and will live up to most of the hype.
R Matthew Stafford Lions QB
B Calvin Johnson Lions WR
R Brandon Pettigrew Lions TE
R Cliff Avril Lions DE
B Ndamukong Suh Lions DT
B Louis Delmas Lions S
R Jim Schwartz Lions Coach
LAST YEAR – 10-6, wild card in the playoffs, lost in the wild-card round to New Orleans
The Chicago Bears have been contending for a couple years now, and are the surprise pick of many around the country. I don’t get it. The Bears are still quite flawed, and aging quickly. Chicago will finish below where they were last year, because the big names on Chicago’s defense just won’t hold up any more, as the Bears are built around players with bigger names than talent.
Over the last couple of seasons, the Bears have placed a lot of their team into expensive acquisitions. QB Jay Cutler, who Chicago got in a trade with Denver, cost the Bears two first-round picks and a third-round pick. WR Brandon Marshall, coming from Miami, cost the bears two second-round picks. DE Julius Peppers was a free-agent, getting paid over $91 million over six years. Those three players cost the Bears in salary cap space, and severely crippled the team in draft picks. By not having those five draft picks, the Bears essentially traded five starters for two. By giving Peppers that giant contract, along with many other big deals, the Bears were putting all their faith into those players.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the team is getting old, and not all of those players have been as good as needed. After making the NFC championship game in 2010, the Bears barely missed the playoffs in 2011. This year, the Bears will fall further out of the playoff picture. And hopefully, Chicago can start obtaining the players necessary to build around their core.
R Matt Forte Bears RB
R Brandon Marshall Bears WR
B Julius Peppers Bears DE
R Lance Briggs Bears ILB
LAST YEAR – 8-8, missed playoffs
The Vikings are a team that should be in the middle of a rebuild, but just don’t know it yet. Minnesota has a lot of questions to answer this year, and it might be a couple seasons before all those problems can be solved.
Problems like this are many years in the making. A couple seasons ago, the Vikings were riding high, but on the arm of Brett Favre. Minnesota signed Favre as their QB, and had enough pieces that he could take them to the NFC championship. Unfortunately for them, Brett was pretty old. And when Brett got old, the Vikings went downhill quickly, finishing out of the playoffs in 2010, and falling far in 2011.
Since then, the Vikings have made many bizarre personnel decisions. Minnesota drafted Christian Ponder as their quarterback in the first round of the 2011 draft, despite Ponder appearing to be a second or third round pick. The Vikings also drafted a lot of busts in recent years, eroding the team’s overall skill. Like most of the other teams in this league, the Vikings need to build around the draft, then sign free agents to augment that. That plan starts with good drafting. If the Vikings can’t begin to draft well, Minnesota will stay in the range of 3rd to 4th place, and the range of 4-7 wins per season.
B Jared Allen Vikings DE
R Kevin Williams Vikings DT
LAST YEAR – 3-13, missed playoffs
Believe it or not, the New York Giants are the reigning Super Bowl champions. Quietly, the Giants have built themselves into one of the most solid contenders in the NFL, by simply making sound decisions as the circus surrounding the Jets fights for the tabloid backpages, and the endless drama of New York’s other teams continues to play out around the country. The Giants simply draft well, re-sign necessary players, and build around a great QB in Eli Manning and a strong defense.
Eli Manning best symbolizes the Giants’ personality. The little brother of Peyton, Eli has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league, with more championships than Peyton already. Eli does a lot outside of football, from hosting SNL, to having some ads here and there. Eli has the genetic talent to be a great quarterback, combined with a humble attitude. And yet, when you think of great NFL quarterbacks, Eli Manning isn’t necessarily in the discussion. There’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and a bunch of others, until Eli comes up, and has to be vaulted ahead of many players that have already been named, despite all the accomplishments
That’s how the Giants will play in 2012. They aren’t necessarily the flashiest team, or the loudest. But each week, the Giants can win, and as the wins pile up, there will still be little buzz nationally for this team. Eventually, the Giants will win their division, and the national media will have to recognize that New York is secretly built to win another Super Bowl. It’s just how they like it, a quiet anomaly in the attention-grabbing city of New York.
B Eli Manning Giants QB
B Victor Cruz Giants WR
B Chris Snee Giants G
B Jason Pierre-Paul Giants DE
R Justin Tuck Giants DE
R Mathias Kiwanuka Giants OLB
B Tom Coughlin Giants Coach
LAST YEAR – 9-7, won NFC East, won Super Bowl over New England
The Eagles, like much of the NFL, is built around the proven formula of drafting well, signing necessary free-agents when available, and having long-term coaching that builds the team into a strong unit. However, the Eagles have slipped in recent years as draft picks have gotten injured, free agents haven’t lived up to their potential, and too many new pieces haven’t gelled into the Eagles’ system.
Let’s start with the quarterback. When healthy, Michael Vick can be a dynamic player, with games where he is simply unstoppable. But Vick regularly gets injured, and his scrambling style does not help things. If Vick is alright, the Eagles are alright. But rookie Nick Foles, and former Bills QB Trent Edwards as the backups? Both guys have or had great potential, but they are question marks.
Or, much of the defense. Philadelphia is stacked with former college stars, from Michigan man and Detroiter Brandon Graham, LB Casey Matthews (brother of the Packers’ Clay, third-generation NFL’er), and CB Nmandi Asomugha, last year’s biggest free agent. However, all have not players as well as they could, for whatever reason. If players like this start to develop, on both sides of the ball, the Eagles will be a contender. Until then, they are a question mark.
B LeSean McCoy Eagles RB
B Trent Cole Eagles DE
R Jason Babin Eagles DE
R Nnamdi Asomugha Eagles CB
R Andy Reid Eagles Coach
LAST YEAR – 8-8, missed playoffs
The Dallas Cowboys are owned by a guy named Jerry Jones. Jerry was born in Arkansas, and got into the natural gas and oil business. After many flops, Jerry finally had a company strike it rich, and Jerry bought the Dallas Cowboys.
Since then, Jerry Jones has fulfilled the Texas stereotype of the rich idiot businessman. For over two decades, Jerry Jones has made an utter fool of himself, constantly trying to put himself in the spotlight, and running the Cowboys into mediocrity in the meantime. Every year, the story of the Dallas Cowboys always has to be about Jerry, on a day in, day out basis. Jerry always puts himself as the face of the franchise, acting like he is this great football man despite an utter lack of recent success.
Jerry, despite a lack of football management success, has made himself the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. After lucking into a massive trade with Minnesota (where Dallas gave up a star running back for a cornucopia of draft picks) and having those picks work out into a great team, the Cowboys went into a sharp decline that they’ve never come out of. And the reason for that is Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys GM. Every year, Dallas signs a couple boneheads, who proceed to blow a couple games, which turn out to be the deciding factor in the year. And every year, Jerry’s hand-picked players recommit that same failure.
Of course, Jerry Jones is a proud guy. Jerry refuses to ever admit he isn’t a great football mind, so he continues to shuttle in new coaches, new players, and the same results. Jerry will point to his new stadium, a monstrosity that seems to be overcompensating for so many things. Jerry will act like the Cowboys are still America’s Team, despite a lack of any playoff relevance in years. Same old, same old.
B Jason Witten Cowboys TE
B Sean Lee Cowboys ILB
B DeMarcus Ware Cowboys OLB
LAST YEAR – 8-8, missed playoffs
The Washington Redskins are owned by a guy named Dan Snyder, a petulant, whiny baby of a man who has also spent the last 13 years running his once-proud franchise into the ground, ever since he bought the team.
Jerry Jones is everything Dan Snyder hopes to be, and everything that Snyder regrets he is not.
The Redskins drafted Heisman-winning QB Robert Griffin III this year, and tragically, he will be ruined by Dan Snyder.
R London Fletcher Redskins ILB
R Brian Orakpo Redskins OLB
LAST YEAR – 5-11, missed playoffs
2012 is the year for the Falcons to figure out what they have. This team has been good since 2009, with the first consecutive winning seasons in team history. Atlanta has won a division title in 2010, and qualified for the playoffs in the last two seasons as well. But both of those playoff appearances were losses, and the Falcons are wondering if this squad can turn into a great team.
Personally, I think so. The Falcons have a very strong group of players, and the most consistent management in the team’s history. It’s nowhere near time to press the panic button in Atlanta. Sure, they lost two playoff games, but they lost to the eventual champions in both years. That’s just bad luck, and not being the absolute best. With QB Matt Ryan (the player picked with Atlanta’s top selection in 2008, the year where the team struggled after Michael Vick got caught dogfighting), Atlanta has an excellent young quarterback for the future. The Falcons have built well around Ryan, with a strong running game (led by Michael Turner) and a good group of receivers (including last year’s top rookie, Julio Jones) on offense. The defense can be improved some, but the Falcons have a well-established group of good players. Not great, but good, good enough to win games.
Atlanta will win the NFC South in 2012, and possibly go on a nice run in the playoffs. They still might be a year or two away from Super Bowl contention, but that’s not a bad thing. That is just the growing process, which will come to fruition if the Falcons allow it to happen.
R Michael Turner Falcons RB
R Sean Weatherspoon Falcons OLB
R Brent Grimes Falcons CB
R Mike Smith Falcons Coach
LAST YEAR – 10-6, made playoffs as a wild-card, lost in wild-card round to New York
The NFL is all about safety these days. The league produces ads to encourage safe play, cheap shot artists have been cracked down on, and a lot of resources have been spent on teaching kids the right way to play.
Over the off-season, the New Orleans Saints were found to have had a bounty program for their defense, where players got cash under the table for hits that injured opponents. The defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was basically taken out of the NFL, and head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the year. Williams was found to have given a pregame speech centered on “taking the head out” of opposing stars, and Payton had emails from convicted felons on how those guys wanted to chip in for the bounty pool. Both of those are among other things, and among the many long suspensions handed out to members of the Saints’ defense.
The Saints still have many playmakers, like QB Drew Brees. Brees and the offense will keep the team respectable, but nothing will go the Saints’ way this season. It’s not a conspiracy, but when you’re found to have a bounty program, penalties for unnecessary roughness will come fast and furious in the Superdome this year.
B Drew Brees Saints QB
R Darren Sproles Saints RB
R Marques Colston Saints WR
B Jimmy Graham Saints TE
B Jahri Evans Saints G
R Ben Grubbs Saints G
R Brodrick Bunkley Saints DT
LAST YEAR – 13-3, won NFC South, lost in divisional round to San Francisco
When motivated to do so, the Carolina Panthers are the best new franchise in football. Since they came into the league in 1995, the Panthers have almost always built a contender, from taking advantage of a generous expansion process in 1995, to spending most of the last decade in general contention, the Panthers have always done well for themselves.
Unfortunately, they are another team with a problem owner. Jerry Richardson has had a tempestuous relationship with pro football. Despite playing for the world champion Baltimore Colts, he quit the team after not getting a slight pay raise. Richardson went on to found the fastfood outlet Hardee’s, and made a ton of money that way. Once he got the expansion Panthers, Richardson has been a key figure in so many negotiations within the NFL, most notably in last year’s lockout. That lockout is the reason for the Panthers’ quick decline, and year two of this rebuilding plan. Richardson wanted to send the players a message, so he gutted his own team just to prove that point. Carolina went from 8-8 to 2-14, received the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, and used it on star QB Cam Newton.
One year later, the Panthers are back to where they left off, as a couple seasons of bad football replenished the team with draft picks, and the holdovers from the old core of players fit in nicely with the new system. It will still be another year of improvement in Carolina, and the Panthers will come close to the playoffs. But they just don’t have enough to clinch a playoff berth in 2012.
R Cam Newton Panthers QB
R DeAngelo Williams Panthers RB
R Steve Smith Panthers WR
R Jordan Gross Panthers T
B Ryan Kalil Panthers C
LAST YEAR – 6-10, missed playoffs
Tampa Bay is a team in full rebuilding mode. Yes, the Buccaneers have a potential franchise QB in Josh Freeman. And they do have a couple other nice pieces, like their good wide receiver corps. But in total, the Bucs have at least one more year before becoming a contender. New coach Greg Schiano was hired this off-season, after the team ended 2011 with a ten-game losing streak. Schiano has been about consistency, and doing things “the Buccaneer way”. While all of that sounds good, the Bucs will need a year or so to build up.
Schiano will eventually build this team into a contender, especially if Atlanta and New Orleans begin to break down. It just won’t happen this year, in all likelihood. Sometimes, you just need better players, and Tampa Bay will have to work hard in the next year or so to get those necessary parts. In the meantime, Schiano will install his philosophy and gameplan, and start weeding out the good players from the bad. As we’ve seen here, that might take another season of rough losses.
R Vincent Jackson Buccaneers WR
B Carl Nicks Buccaneers G
LAST YEAR – 4-12, missed playoffs
Under new coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers started to recapture the glory of past decades. The 49ers have had a remarkable run of drafting players in the last couple of seasons, going deep into the draft to find top players at their position. That acumen has led to a balanced and cheap roster, built to improve in 2012 after a division title and playoff win last season.
Even with the dominating 49ers defense, San Francisco also has a lot of offensive playmakers. Unlisted below but still quite good include RB Frank Gore, and WR’s Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, and the team drafted RB LaMichael James from Oregon this year. The offense will be just as strong as the defense at this time next year. In the meantime, the 49ers’ defense will shut down almost all opposition as the offense develops.
The 49ers are one of the most complete teams in the NFL, and are just now reaching their potential. Each side of the ball is excellent, and the relatively weak NFC West can allow the 49ers to rack up victories for home-field advantage in the playoffs. With so much of the NFL coming down to luck with injuries and so forth, the 49ers might have a big leg up on the rest of the NFC elite.
B Vernon Davis 49ers TE
R Joe Staley 49ers T
R Mike Iupati 49ers G
B Justin Smith 49ers DT
B Patrick Willis 49ers ILB
B NaVorro Bowman 49ers ILB
B Aldon Smith 49ers OLB
B Carlos Rogers 49ers CB
R Dashon Goldson 49ers S
B Jim Harbaugh 49ers Coach
LAST SEASON – 13-3, won NFC West, lost in NFC Championship to New York
The Seahawks are quietly becoming a sleeper favorite in the NFC, as they have quietly built a team loaded with potential. And they did so quickly, again with every weapon to upgrade at their disposal. Unique to Seattle though, is that most of their free-agent were cast-offs from other teams. The Seahawks take a lot of fliers on once-great players with the chance that they might become great again, or develop into a more complete player. While this strategy can backfire, buying up great players for relatively cheap is still a bargain in the long run. Seattle tried to make cornerstones out of leftovers, and that might work in this weak division.
With free agents, the most prominent example is RB Marshawn Lynch. Lynch, the 12th-overall draft pick by Buffalo in 2007, was beaten out for the starting job and suffered some injury problems in 2010. The Seahawks swooped in, offered a couple late-round draft picks, and traded for Lynch, who quickly became a star in Seattle. The scouting report on Lynch turned out to give Seattle far more value for their money than the two draft picks. This year, Seattle is trying the same strategy with former Michigan WR Braylon Edwards, a free agent. Braylon has bounced around the league recently, and Seattle signed him to a minimal one-year deal. If he works out, that’s great. If not, the Seahawks lost very little to try.
Within the draft, Seattle has picked up a lot of unheralded weapons over the last couple of seasons. The Seahawks have picked up great players in later rounds in the last couple of years, from C Max Unger to S Earl Thomas. This year, Seattle might have found the top rookie QB in Russell Wilson. Wilson, a QB from Wisconsin, played one year as a Badger after graduating from NC State. He quickly picked up the offense and led Wisconsin to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. It looks like Wilson can do the same in Seattle, as he is now the team’s starting QB after the team dumped their other major quarterback. If everyone develops as expected, Seattle will contend for a playoff spot this season.
B Marshawn Lynch Seahawks RB
B Max Unger Seahawks C
B Red Bryant Seahawks DE
R Earl Thomas Seahawks S
LAST SEASON – 7-9, missed playoffs
Like many third-place teams, the Arizona Cardinals have a lot of talent but not enough to crack that next level of success quite yet. The Cardinals have stabilized after many decades of terrible football, recently winning the NFC in 2008. Since then, the team has built around WR Larry Fitzgerald, with a lot of rookies around him, along with veteran free agents to help bring the new guys along.
That plan worked very well in the late-2000’s, as the Cardinals picked QB Kurt Warner off the scrap heap, built with Warner and young wide receivers Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and ultimately turned the franchise around. Arizona tweaked their logo, moved into a modern stadium, and actually had a winner. The mission now is to do it again, and Arizona is using the same formula. Kevin Kolb is the latest cheap QB prospect to take the role of Arizona starter, and the team has a lot of top rookie talent on offense and defense. From running backs like Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams on offense, to Patrick Peterson and Adrian Wilson in the backfield, the Cardinals have the pieces of a great team. Now, they need to fill in the blanks, with improvement or acquisition.
B Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals WR
B Darnell Dockett Cardinals DT
R Adrian Wilson Cardinals S
LAST SEASON – 8-8, missed playoffs
The Rams are in a state of disarray. On one hand, the team drafted Sam Bradford in 2010 with the #1 overall pick, and have a lot of young players that can develop. On the other hand, this is still a pretty bad football team, and the existing parts need to improve for this team to do anything. The Rams fired their GM and coach after last season, signaling the rebuilding process to come. But issues on the field might take a backseat this season to the drama off the field.
The Rams weren’t always the St. Louis Rams. Until 1994, the Los Angeles Rams were one of the oldest NFL franchises, with decades of heritage in Southern California. Once their owner passed away, his notoriously nutty widow moved the team to St. Louis, for a better stadium deal. That stadium, now the Edward Jones Dome, was always somewhat of a white elephant, and it has not aged gracefully. Despite its flaws, the city of St. Louis does not want to renovate the dome, going against the team’s wishes. Sat what you will about public money going to stadiums, but the Rams are now looking elsewhere.
Out west, in Los Angeles, multiple groups are fighting to build a state-of-the-art stadium, to host a future NFL team. The leading stadium candidate, Farmers Field, is planned for construction in downtown Los Angeles, next to the Staples Center (home of the Kings, Lakers, and Clippers) and the theatres for all the major awards shows. AEG, a giant entertainment company, owns the whole stretch, and they want to put a football stadium at the very end. Between the Rams’ stadium issues, and their history in LA, this franchise is the leading target to go back west. As this situation develops, the team on the field will be affected. And with the team already struggling for talent, these other issues will only hurt.
R Scott Wells Rams C
LAST SEASON – 2-14, missed playoffs
Year in and year out, the Pittsburgh Steelers are always contenders. Consistently, Pittsburgh finds great players in the draft, coaches them into the Steeler mold, and wins football games. It’s that consistency, from the organization’s top to bottom, that forms the core of successful Pittsburgh football.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three coaches since 1969. Chuck Noll, coach from 1969 to 1991, won four Super Bowls in the 1970’s. Bill Cowher, coach from 1992 to 2006, won the Super Bowl in 2005. Mike Tomlin, the present coach since 2007, won the Super Bowl in 2008. It’s that kind of long-term organizational thinking that has led to successful transitions on the team, as the closeknit team brings in quality players, and develops a great team. The Steelers almost always build through the draft, finding undervalued talent in each round, and then coaching that into the most consistent football team in the league.
That philosophy has led to a great team in all facets of the game. On offense, young WR’s Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders have deftly replaced the retired Hines Ward as deep threats. On defense, solid drafting brought a strong group of players that hasn’t lost a step yet. Those guys include Saginaw/Michigan’s LaMarr Woodley, remarkable sately Troy Polamalu, and depth at positions which can overcome most injuries. Pittsburgh can lose a player or two – even a big playmaker – and still come close to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh will win the AFC North, and given the nature of their team, is a very strong contender to win the Super Bowl.
B Ben Roethlisberger Steelers QB
R Mike Wallace Steelers WR
R Antonio Brown Steelers WR
B Maurkice Pouncey Steelers C
B LaMarr Woodley Steelers OLB
R James Harrison Steelers OLB
B Troy Polamalu Steelers S
R Mike Tomlin Steelers Coach
LAST YEAR – 12-4, made playoffs as wild-card, lost in wild-card round to Denver
Building a team like their rivals in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens have had great success in a long stretch of recent seasons, centered around great drafting and building a tough, defensive team. Unfortunately, the Ravens have gotten older, and this will be a down year as they reload.
The Ravens still have a great team, no question. They have a strong offense, built around RB Ray Rice and one of the best offensive lines in the league. Baltimore has a strong defense, with stars like ILB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed. However, the team will decline just enough for Pittsburgh to pass them in the divisional race. Lewis and Reed have gotten older, and will start to decline this season.
Baltimore will still have a great year, but it will be one of minor transition. The core group of stars, starting with the offensive and defensive lines and moving outward, is still there. It’s just that some of Baltimore’s most well-known faces are starting to make their exits.
R Joe Flacco Ravens QB
B Ray Rice Ravens RB
R Michael Oher Ravens T
R Marshal Yanda Ravens G
B Haloti Ngata Ravens DT
R Ray Lewis Ravens ILB
B Lardarius Webb Ravens CB
B Ed Reed Ravens S
B John Harbaugh Ravens Coach
LAST YEAR – 12-4, won AFC North, lost in AFC Championship to New England
Cleveland is a team on the upswing, believe it or not, kind of. The Browns’ fans have suffered through years of mediocrity after they got a team back in 1999, with only one playoff game in 2002 to show for it. Cleveland will improve this season, but not by much.
Almost by default, the Browns will have a good young quarterback. Sure, it could be Colt McCoy, or it could be rookie Brandon Weeden. Weeden was named the starter, but critics are out on how well he will do in the NFL. As one example, he’s 28 years old, and just a rookie. (This is due to pursuing a baseball career for a couple years. He was once traded for Kevin Brown!) Can he hold up to the NFL? The Browns think so, as they spent a 1st-round draft pick on him. By default, the Browns will have an improved year, as Weeden and star rookie RB Trent Richardson were brought in to anchor the offense, to complement an alright defense. They’ll get better, but not by that much, as Cleveland and its football team continue to tread water in the NFL.
The wild-card in all of this is that the Browns were recently sold, for $1 billion, to Jimmy Haslam III, who built his empire around Pilot Flying J truck stops. Will Haslam want to bring in his own picks as football staff? Most likely, unless Cleveland absolutely shines this year. If Haslam does make changes, the current group of Browns will be shaken up quickly.
B Joe Thomas Browns T
B Alex Mack Browns C
R D’Qwell Jackson Browns ILB
B Joe Haden Browns CB
LAST YEAR – 4-12, missed playoffs
Every year, there is at least one team that has a ridiculously disappointing season, after the expectations raised and the schedule toughened. In 2012, that team is Cincinnati. The Bengals snuck into the playoffs as a wild-card last year, with a 9-7 record that included an 0-7 record against eventual playoff teams. Cincinnati played exactly as they should have, winning and losing with no upsets either way. The Bengals rode rookie QB Andy Dalton, and rookie WR AJ Green to last year’s great season, as the new guys on offense could score just enough to beat bad teams. That task will be harder this year, as teams can better prepare for these players, and won’t get suckered into taking them lightly.
Cincinnati has had historically up and down teams, generally focusing on the down. They simply pay very little for scouting, very little into team investments like equipment and facilities, and are generally run by the Brown family as a miserly group. Even when Cincinnati gets good players (like Dalton and Green), they will wear out them with cheapness and frivolous arguments, over things that shouldn’t come up in the prosperous NFL. The Bengals did very little to improve their 2011 team, as a result of the same cheapness. No big free agents, nothing to improve on 9-7. So, instead of going forward, Cincinnati will go back down again, until they can get lucky with a weaker schedule.
B A.J. Green Bengals WR
R Andrew Whitworth Bengals T
R Kyle Cook Bengals C
R Geno Atkins Bengals DT
LAST YEAR – 9-7, made playoffs as a wild-card, lost in divisional round to Houston
Once again, the Patriots are the class of the AFC. Since Tom Brady’s ascendance to the starting quarterback role in 2001, the Patriots have been one of the NFL’s best teams, and have three Super Bowl rings to show for it. In recent years, the Patriots have always been one of the top couple team, but never the very best. That will change this year.
The Patriots, are fundamentally built around a great coach and a great quarterback. Like the great coach-QB combinations of years past, the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have won consistently despite a young and rotating surrounding cast. Over the last couple of seasons, the Patriots finally started to find great receivers for Brady, from wide receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss in 2007 to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. The Patriots will be building on that offensive experience this year, as the team has not lost any major parts, and will be gaining some emerging young talent like WR Taylor Price and the running back combination of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. The Patriots spent all but their last draft pick on defense this year, as the Patriot offense will have had a full offseason together to gel.
Combine that with a strong and improving defense, and the Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC. If everything clicks, New England could be a dominant team, but even if the offense outpaces the defense, New England will still win the vast majority of their games. And by playoff time, the defense should have enough experience to be a vastly improved unit by then. With Tom Brady leading the offense, and Bill Belichick on the sidelines, the Patriots are a strong favorite to win it all.
B Tom Brady Patriots QB
R Wes Welker Patriots WR
B Rob Gronkowski Patriots TE
B Aaron Hernandez Patriots TE
B Logan Mankins Patriots G
B Vince Wilfork Patriots DT
R Jerod Mayo Patriots ILB
B Bill Belichick Patriots Coach
LAST YEAR – 13-3, won AFC East, lost Super Bowl to New York
Between smart draft picks, good free-agents, and constructing a strong team for the long run, the Bills are finally in a position to get back to the playoffs. Much like the Lions, the Bills stunk from 2000-2009, with one half-season of deceivingly good football. And much like the Lions, the Bills are building a smart winner, that will turn around a historically disappointing franchise in a beloved blue-collar town.
I love the Bills, much like I love the Lions. Buffalo has always been my second team and city, as summer vacations to see relatives made Buffalo and the Niagara region a highlight of every year. Each summer, just like how Detroiters talked themselves into the Lions, Buffalo went crazy for the Bills. For the entire last decade, the Bills were far out of the playoffs, and always trying to patch an existing roster that could not win. Since the Bills made Buddy Nix their GM in 2010, Buffalo has rapidly improved. The draft picks have gotten better, the Bills finally have a lot of great offensive players on each position, and the signing of DE Mario Williams appears to be the anchor up front on a defense with the best backfield in football.
The core of Buffalo comes down to these draft picks. From RB CJ Spiller in 2010, to DE Marcell Dareus in 2011, the Bills are building a group of consistently improving players. If the Bills continue to grow from the great draft picks within, anything is possible. However, not many of their later-round picks have panned out to great success lately. The Bills need to keep getting consistent starters in the first couple rounds of the draft to succeed in the long run. It’s worked out so far, but it must continue.
In the meantime, Buffalo is hungry for a contender, with either the Bills or Sabres. This year, the Bills will make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and the Buffalo crowds will be the loudest in the league as the season winds down. Buffalo’s schedule has more home games towards the end of the year, and that cold home-field advantage might give the Bills an extra win or two in the playoff chase.
R Steve Johnson Bills WR
B Jairus Byrd Bills S
LAST SEASON – 6-10, missed playoffs
The New York Jets still haven’t decided of they are competing for Super Bowls or back pages. The Jets have gotten into a lot of random controversies since Rex Ryan came to town, ranging from bad playcalling to Ryan and his wife appearing in some homemade foot fetish videos online. (I’m serious, this happened.) In each season, no team gets talked about more in the off-season than the Jets, and that leads to expectations constantly going unfulfilled.
This year, the controversy came with a clean edge – the arrival of Tim Tebow to the Jets. Tebow, last year’s golden child in Denver, has been a publicity magnet, as his Christian faith and good works prompt a ton of coverage by ESPN and the usual sources. By bringing Tebow in, regardless of talent, the Jets got a lot of column inches this off-season. It was another weird off-season in New York, coupled with the struggles of current QB Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has been very inconsistent over his three-year career, and any flaws in 2012 will bring the media around to calling for Tebow. We’ll see how Sanchez responds, but Tebow might have gotten himself another starting job by default, once again.
Sanchez/Tebow masks another major problem of this Jets team: they aren’t that good. The wide receivers have degraded, the defense has a couple great players and not much else, and the coaching staff is still a circus. The Jets have talked their way into the spotlight, but don’t have the talent to actually deliver. It will be a somewhat rough year for New York, once again.
B Nick Mangold Jets C
B Darrelle Revis Jets CB
LAST SEASON – 8-8, missed playoffs
In Miami, the Dolphins are being built from the linemen out. After using the #1 overall draft pick in 2008 on Michigan’s Jake Long, the Dolphins have slowly built themselves up around their offensive and defensive lines. Everywhere else is a real work in progress. Ultimately, the Dolphins will sink this year, but with some good young playmakers, this team could make some noise next season. Unfortunately, the Dolphins’ picks don’t look that NFL-ready, and most of these picks look like future busts.
The biggest example is that of Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ first-round draft pick this year. Tannehill was a quarterback at Texas A&M, and spent much of his time playing other positions. In late 2010, Tannehill led the Aggies to a couple big victories, after originally losing the starting job. In 2011, Texas A&M started the season ranked #8, and fell to an unranked 7-6 finish. Like the preseason ranking, Tannehill was a #8 overall pick, this past spring in the draft. Nothing about that story says to me that he can be an NFL quarterback. Tannehill was given many chances for longterm success in college, and typically fell on his face. (Even with other longshot QBs, those guys had some growth and success.) And, if you’re going to take a risky player, why not take him later on in the draft? Tannehill is now projected to be the first starting QB to be benched this season, and the bust label will come out quickly.
Teams that can’t draft talent are doomed to failure. And even if a team can pick the best lineman, and the best defense, someone will have to score to win the game. Miami does not seem capable of picking offensive playmakers, and that’s why they will finish 4th. Maybe next year, they can pick a winner.
B Jake Long Dolphins T
R Mike Pouncey Dolphins C
R Cameron Wake Dolphins DE
R Paul Soliai Dolphins DT
R Sean Smith Dolphins CB
LAST SEASON – 6-10, missed playoffs
By default, the Houston Texans will win this division. Slowly, surely, the Houston Texans are the best team in the AFC South.
It took Houston ten seasons to finally reach the playoffs, but they did get there in 2011. This year, they will return, without much change from last year. The Texans are a model of how a team can build quickly, as draft wisdom, well-scouted free agents, and a lot of then-unknown rookies can win within a couple of seasons.
Houston’s core centers around good picks at every level, from the #3 overall pick in 2003 (star WR Andre Johnson), to a late 1st-rounder (C Chris Myers), down to solid free agents (QB Matt Schaub), great trades (T Duane Brown), and even signing undrafted free agents (RB Arian Foster).
What makes Houston’s success so unique is that every level of the team building process yielded tangible results. The Texans made their team better with every possible chance to succeed, and this shows that any team can quickly turn itself around. There’s no one path to success. There’s no reason why it has to take that long. If a team can make smart moves throughout the year, the wins will come.
R Matt Schaub Texans QB
B Arian Foster Texans RB
R Andre Johnson Texans WR
B Duane Brown Texans T
R Chris Myers Texans C
R J.J. Watt Texans DE
B Brian Cushing Texans ILB
B Johnathan Joseph Texans CB
R Gary Kubiak Texans Coach
LAST YEAR – 10-6, won AFC South, lost in divisional round to Baltimore
In Tennessee, the Titans are on the rise. The players are mostly there, and so are the coaches. All that’s needed is time for young players to develop.
The Titans are an alright team this year, but the main focus is on young QB Jake Locker. Last season, with Locker as the team’s #1 pick, the team rested their prized rookie on the bench to develop behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck. This year, we’ll see if Locker will develop into the quarterback that many expect him to be.
That’s the story with so many of the Titans. The team is full of potentially great young players, and now they just need the experience to mature into a great team. Younger players will be the core of this team, and many of the draft picks have the potential to produce results quickly (like rookie DT, and Michigan man Mike Martin). It might happen this year, or it might happen next year. But it will happen.
R Chris Johnson Titans RB
R Jared Cook Titans TE
B Michael Roos Titans T
R Steve Hutchinson Titans G
R Michael Griffin Titans S
LAST YEAR – 9-7, missed playoffs
The Jaguars are in an interesting position. Like Cleveland, they have a new owner in Shahid Khan, an auto parts magnate. Khan took over towards the end of last season, and has had full control of the team for this entire off-season. Already, he has presided over the hiring of new coach Mike Mularkey, and the team will start to take shape this season. Khan left some of the management team intact, like the general manager and defensive coordinator, so he might not be looking for a full rebuild.
However, the Jagaurs are not expected to do that much in 2012, despite a lot of potentially good young talent. QB Blaine Gabbert, drafted in 2011’s first round, will hopefully develop a quick connection with this year’s #5 overall pick, Justin Blackmon. If star RB Maurice Jones-Drew can have a good year, the rest of the offense might develop around him. On defense, the Jaguars have nothing special, and will need to develop that in the years to come. Jacksonville has enough talent to stay out of the absolute bottom, but it will still be a long year in Jacksonville.
B Maurice Jones-Drew Jaguars RB
R Marcedes Lewis Jaguars TE
LAST YEAR – 5-11, missed playoffs
The Colts are a team that is on the rebuild. For the last decade, Indianapolis had its strong core. That core, all acquired through great drafting and smart re-signing, produced a Super Bowl champion, two Super Bowl appearances, seven AFC South division titles, nine straight playoff appearances, and the only seven-year stretch in NFL history with 12-plus wins per season. Those guys, like QB Peyton Manning, RB Joseph Addai, WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and DE Dwight Freeney, all came together for a ton of success. Unfortunately, all of those guys have left, save for Wayne and Freeney. Manning was injured all of last season, and the freefall began.
Now, much like how Manning was the #1 pick in 1998, the Colts used this year’s #1 pick to select quarterback Andrew Luck from Stanford. Luck, the most-hyped quarterback prospect in years, will be the new anchor of the Colts. Indianapolis drafted Luck’s college teammate, TE Coby Fleener, with their second-round pick, and these two guys will hopefully start to form the next great Colts nucleus.
In the meantime, this year will be very rough for Indianapolis. If things go according to plan though, help will be on the way in the years to come.
None listed, but most likely Andrew Luck.
LAST YEAR – 2-14, missed playoffs
Sometimes, a winning team comes down to luck. The Kansas City Chiefs did everything right before 2011, building a solid group around QB Matt Cassel, RB Jamaal Charles, LB Tamba Hali, and CB Eric Berry. The Chiefs won the AFC West in 2010, and were expected to repeat. Everything was set up according to a strong plan.
Then, in the second game against Detroit, Jamaal Charles injured his ACL and was out for the year. Berry injured himself later on, and the Chiefs season was pretty much over. Coach Todd Haley became the fall guy, and Romeo Crennel was brought in as the replacement. The Chiefs rallied around Crennel to go 2-1 in his games as coach, and management dropped the interim tag. Crennel will succeed in Kansas City, especially with a full complement of players.
If anything, Kansas City will have the luck swing back in their favor in 2012. Everything that went wrong last year did, and this year has to even that out some. Look for young talent like WR Jonathan Baldwin and RB Dexter McCluster to emerge more in 2012. Those players are good second-year guys who came into a rough year. With more consistency, that young talent will improve into solid playmakers for Cassel and Crennel.
B Derrick Johnson Chiefs ILB
B Tamba Hali Chiefs OLB
R Brandon Flowers Chiefs CB
LAST YEAR – 7-9, missed playoffs
The Chargers have been a second-tier power for much of the last eight years, since drafting QB Philip Rivers in 2004. San Diego has almost always been in the division hunt, and has had many seasons of big win totals with very little to show for it in the playoffs. Unfortunately, their window is starting to close, as their division-winning teams have slowly departed in free agency. Players have been drafted as replacements, but the verdict is still out on their value.
San Diego spent most of the last decade as contenders, but never broken through in the playoffs. Since drafting Philip Rivers in 2004, the Chargers have won five division titles, three playoff games, and finished above .500in every season except the last one. And after picking fights with guys like Vincent Jackson in contract negotiations, I think the Chargers’ decline will continue this season. Barring breakout years from a lot of new pieces, the Chargers will struggle again this year. Eventually, an aging core has to be replaced, and it can either come with quick replacements on the fly (like New England) or a complete rebuild (like Detroit). If the Chargers don’t watch out, the window for quick replacements is closing.
R Philip Rivers Chargers QB
R Antonio Gates Chargers TE
R Nick Hardwick Chargers C
R Eric Weddle Chargers S
LAST YEAR – 8-8, missed playoffs
The Broncos were the most-talked about story in 2011, due to QB Tim Tebow. Tebow led the Broncos to some unbelievable wins, each one more amazing than the last. Denver ended up winning a playoff game, thanks to a Tim Tebow pass that went for 80 yards in overtime. While Tebow was a developing story, the big question was to see what Denver would do next. Sure, it wasn’t just Tebow (it was also WR Demaryius Thomas, LB Von Miller, and more), but it just seemed that way…and team exec and franchise legend John Elway didn’t seem too happy with what’s going on.
Elway decided to go in a completely different direction. The Broncos decided to sign Peyton Manning to a huge deal. Instantly, the team’s makeup had changed entirely. Manning is a system quarterback, incredibly precise, the opposite of Tebow’s more freewheeling game. Manning is incredibly demanding of his teammates, and it may take years to fully develop chemistry with the Broncos’ young receivers. Oh, and Peyton Manning just missed a season due to complex and severe neck-fusion surgery. That too.
The Broncos could be a great team with Peyton Manning, if things came together. But Manning’s neck is a ticking time-bomb, and one hit could knock him out for good. Then, the Broncos will be set back even further. The building looks nice in the mountains, but the foundation is as fragile as Peyton’s neck.
B Ryan Clady Broncos T
B Von Miller Broncos OLB
R Elvis Dumervil Broncos OLB
R Champ Bailey Broncos CB
LAST YEAR – 8-8, won AFC West, lost in divisional round to New England
For virtually their entire history, the Raiders were run by owner/GM Al Davis, a true legend of the game. Literally embodying the pirate spirit of the Raiders, Davis led his team for many glorious decades. Sadly, Al Davis died in late-2011. And in the last decade of his life, along with the first year since he’s been gone, the Raiders are trying to find an identity.
It’s really hard to quantify how much Al Davis meant to this team. He was a football man for his entire life, running the Raiders to success, always in charge. This organization, an anomaly for so many years with Davis in charge, will now have to figure out a way to adapt to the modern game.
Oakland will take some time to find out where they are going, and who will lead them. Draft picks have been used on a trade for aging QB Carson Palmer, DE Richard Seymour, and a supplemental draft claim of embattled Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor. It might be a couple more years before Oakland has a soul again.
R Richard Seymour Raiders DT
LAST YEAR – 8-8, missed playoffs
NFC – Lions beat Packers
NFC – Falcons beat Eagles
AFC – Bills beat Texans
AFC – Ravens beat Chiefs
NFC – 49ers beat Lions
NFC – Giants beat Falcons
AFC – Steelers beat Bills
AFC – Patriots beat Ravens
NFC – 49ers beat Giants
AFC – Patriots beat Steelers
Super Bowl XLVII
Patriots beat 49ers
The Lions are good enough to win a playoff game, and good enough to beat the Packers in Green Bay…but not good enough yet to defeat the 49ers in a playoff game.
Gordon Fall has been around the Detroit sports scene for his entire life and even entered the world with a Red Wings hockey stick in hand. With a variety of connections around the Detroit area, Fall will be presenting the unspoken, yet optimistic truth of our city’s sports scene.