Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NFC North

1. Chicago Bears (12-4)

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (3rd year)
2005 Record: (11-5)
Key Acquisitions: QB Brian Griese, CB Ricky Manning Jr.
Key Departures: CB Jerry Azumah, PK Doug Brien

The Bears are returning with their division champs team almost intact. In fact, they are returning all 22 starters. And Chicago should be able to feast on what promises to be a weak NFC North.

For the Bears, it all starts with defense. The unit ranked first in the NFL last year, and looks to be even deeper this year. Like all great defenses in the league, the Chicago is very strong all along the defensive line. It starts at defensive end with Adewale Ogunleye. Ogunleye missed 4 games with injuries last year, but still racked up 10.0 sacks. He is the prototypical DE: very fast, strong, with long arms. At the opposite side, veteran Alex Brown starts. Brown does not get as many sacks as Ogunleye, but he is stouter against the run. Inside, Tommie Harris has matured very nicely as the ‘under’ tackle. Harris isn’t overly big, but he is very quick and he can get to the quarterback in a hurry. Alfonso Boone, who is 6’4” and 320 lbs, will line-up beside Harris. Boone will play the NT position. His role consists in occupying blockers, allowing Harris and the linebackers to make plays. Last year, he performed quite well, but durability is a concern. To keep him fresh, look for the Bears to rotate him with rookie Dusty Dvoracek.

While the defensive line is solid and deep, linebacker is the true position of strength on this defense. The big name, of course, is Brian Urlacher. When healthy, he is a player that has no real flaw. Urlacher was healthy for a full season last year, and he finished with 122 tackles and 6 sacks. He has great range and covers a lot of the field. He is quite adept at rushing the QB on the blitz, and he is fast enough to go around blocks and strong enough to run through them. Simply, he is a nightmare for opposing coaches. Urlacher is joined on the weak side by another superior player, Lance Briggs. Briggs does not get the recognition Urlacher does, but he makes just as many big plays on the field, and he might be a surer tackler as well. Hunter Hillenmeyer joins them on the strong side.

The Bears’ defense features quality starters at every position, but its greatest strength might be its depth. Nowhere is this more true than in the secondary. At one corner we find Nathan Vasher, who is coming off a Pro Bowl year in which he snagged 8 interceptions. Vasher is big enough (5’10” 180lbs.) to hang with the bigger receivers in the league and he has great recovery speed too. His counterpart on the left side is Charles Tillman. Tillman had his problems in coverage last year, but he has apparently made some changes in his technique that have worked well so far. The nickel corner is new addition Rickey Manning Jr., who comes over from Carolina. Manning is a tough corner who likes to play bump-and-run a lot and get into wide receivers’ faces. He will help solidify an already very good defensive backfield. Mike Brown, who missed the last 4 games of the year in 2005, is back at free safety. Brown is injury-prone, but when healthy ranks amongst the best safeties in the league, and he is a tremendous leader for this defense. Chris Harris, who started at strong safety as a rookie last year, is back alongside Brown. That being said, people around the club are raving about Danieal Manning, the Bears’ first of 2 second round picks this year. He seems poised to overtake Harris for the starting job, even though that will probably not happen until after a few weeks into the regular season.

On offense, the Bears figure to have problems scoring once again. Running behind a pretty good offensive line, Thomas Jones had a career year in 2005. Before training camp began, though, 2005 first round pick Cedric Benson was anointed as the starter. (Now, allow us to make it clear that we are not fond of Benson in this corner. We’ve always seen Benson as a bit of a problem child, and with Jones already on board, we thought Chicago had wasted their pick when they chose Benson at #4.) But Benson hasn’t managed to stay healthy throughout training camp, and a week ago, he left the sidelines midway through a game and didn’t return. His attitude is quickly becoming a problem, and so Jones is back as the starter. But whoever starts for this team will get many carries and will have a very productive year.

The problem for the Bears lies in the passing game. Starting quarterback Rex Grossman has yet to play a full season in this league, so he is a constant injury risk. Moreover, Grossman has looked rather ordinary in camp, if not mediocre. Brian Griese, who was brought in as a free agent from Tampa, has looked much better. Grossman will have to get his act together quickly or we will see Griese starting before long.

At wide receiver, Muhsin Muhammad was the prized addition last year, and he responded with a good campaign, considering he had Kyle Orton throwing to him most of the year. Muhammad is a huge body with great hands who still enough speed to create separation, even though he is starting to slow down a little. Opposite him, Bernard Berrian figures to be the starter. Berrian, like Muhammad, is a big guy. He should benefit from Muhammad getting double-covered a lot. The main backup is possession receiver mark Bradley. The Bears are set at tight end with Desmond Clark, an unspectacular receiver but excellent blocker.

Look for the Bears to have a season very similar to the last one. While their offense will be better and a bit more explosive with either Grossman or Griese running it instead of Kyle Orton, Chicago will still win games by playing great defense. And in a division that looks very weak, look for the Bears to perhaps run the tables in the North and challenge for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-8)

Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (1st year)
2005 Record: (4-12)
Key Acquisitions: S Marquand Manuel, NT Ryan Pickett, LB Ben Taylor, CB Charles Woodson
Key Departures: WR Antonio Chatman, LB Na’il Diggs, C Mike Flanagan, DT Grady Jackson, K Ryan Longwell, WR Javon Walker

The big headline grabber in Packer-Land this spring was whether or not Brett Favre would come back for another year. And, as we now know, the All-Pro quarterback will be back at the helm of the Green Bay offense. Lost in the shuffle of the Favre news was the fact that the Packers have a new head coach, Mike McCarthy. McCarthy did his apprenticeship under Andy Reid as a quarterback coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, but he is best known for his work as the offensive coordinator for the Saints. Last year, he coached the 49ers offense. While McCarthy is from the West Coast Offense school of thought, he preaches a style that includes far more deep passes and more of a power running game. His offense is a bit of a mix between the pass-oriented Eagles offense and the deep-six Raiders offense. On the defensive side of the ball, Jim Bates, the man who led the Packer defense to 7th in the NFL, left the team this off-season. Still, his philosophy and attacking style will remain, much to the delight of the players, most of whom thrived under Bates.

Brett Favre’s return is great news for the Green Bay offense. While Favre is getting older and does not have the escaping ability he once possessed, nor the invincibility he was once known for, he is still one of the best pure passers this league has to offer. Favre has a cannon for an arm, and he can still thread the needle like very few quarterbacks can. Plus, he is the ultimate leader, the perfect guy to march an offense down the field. What Favre needs to do this year is to put less on his shoulders and not try to force plays as often as he did last year. He needs to start letting his receivers and backs make more plays on their own. In that regard, having a healthy Ahman Green, along with Najeh Davenport, back in his backfield should help a lot. Last year, both got hurt, and the bulk of the running duties were given to Samkon Gado, who made great strides as the year went on. Look for the Packers to rotate all three this year. That should help keep them fresh and healthy, as well as keep defenses off balance. Veteran William Henderson will be back once more as the ever reliable fullack. Green Bay is also set at wide receiver, where Donald Driver (86 rec, 1221 yds, 5tds) is back as Favre favorite target. The split end position is Robert Ferguson’s to lose, but he is receiving major competition from rookie 3rd rounder Greg Jennings. At 5’11” and 196 lbs, Jennings is not a huge target, but he has speed to burn. In camp, he has also showcased very good hands and has shown absolutely no fear going over the middle. He could be starting at some point this year. TE Bubba Franks, a longtime safety valve for Favre, is back for a 7th year. Donald Lee and David Martin also figure to get playing time.

The one issue the Packers have on offense is on the offensive line. The starting tackles, Chad Clifton on the left and Mark Tauscher on the right, are both very experienced and reliable, but depth is a concern. C Mike Flanagan defected via free agency, but Scott Wells should prove to be an adequate replacement. The big problem is at guard, where rookies Jason Splitz and Tony Moll figure as the starters. Green Bay is looking to implement the same type of cut blocking schemes the Broncos use, and the thinking is that using younger, more agile players will help the transition. The 3 youngsters that form the interior line will determine much of the faith of the Packer offense this year. If they can protect Favre, then the offense should thrive. If not, it could spell another miserable year for the veteran quarterback.

On defense, there is a lot of hope after last year’s improved performance. Aaron Kampman (6.5 sacks) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (8.0 sacks) anchor the defensive line. Ryan Pickett, who comes over from St. Louis, and the oversized Colin Cole will be the tackles. This is a line that can get to the quarterback by itself, and the huge Cole should help keep blockers off the linebackers, who form the strength of this defense.

It all starts in the middle with Nick Barnett (139 tackles). Barnett has a lot of speed and he really has a knack for finding the football. He also has great range, which means he doesn’t come off on passing downs. He will be joined on the strong side by Ben Taylor, who recorded 110 tackles last year and is a solid, if unspectacular player. On the weakside, Green Bay will start prize rookie A.J. Hawk. Hawk is often compared to longtime Detroit Lion Chris Spielman, in that he has a motor that never stops. He is also being compared to Brian Urlacher, because he possesses so much speed and he can track down the ball carrier all over the field. In training camp, Hawk has been a little slow to get a complete grasp of the defense, though. Still, he has amazing instincts, so while you can expect him to blow a few assignments this season, he will make a lot of big plays for this defense.

The other big addition on defense is CB Charles Woodson. Woodson has a history of getting injured, but when he is healthy, he can be one of the premier cornerbacks in the league. He has lost a step with age, but he can still take away one side of the field. The other starter will again be Al Harris. Often penalized Ahmad Carroll will move to the nickel spot. The strong safety spot will be manned by Marquand Manuel who comes over from Seattle. Manuel is very good in run support, but he is a liability in coverage. Nick Collins will start at free safety.

The special teams will no doubt be affected by the loss by reliable PK Ryan Longwell. Second-year man Dave Rayner will replace him. Rookie Jon Ryan has been tabbed as the punter. There are also issues at the punt return position, where no starter has been named as of this writing.

All in all, the Packers will experience some growing pains this year. But there is enough veteran leadership on this squad that they will be able to take advantage of a weak division. If they can stay healthy, they should surprise some people.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

Head Coach: Rod Marinelli (1st year)
2005 Record: (5-11)
Key Acquisitions: WR Corey Bradford, TE Dan Campbell, QB Jon Kitna, QB Josh McCown, DE Tyoka Jackson, S Idrees Bashir, CB Jamar Fletcher, OT Rex Tucker
Key Departures: CB R.W. McQuarters, CB Andre’ Goodman, LB Wali Rainer, QB Jeff Garcia, QB Joey Harrington, OT Kyle Kosier

For several years now, the Lions franchise has been a losing one. Under Steve Mariucci, Detroit underachieved year after year. And at the end of last year, there was no sense of accountability on the team, and players left and right were accusing the coaches and their own teammates for the lack of success. Enter Rod Marinelli. Marinelli has long been a key ingredient in helping Monte Kiffin build the vaunted Buccaneers defense of the last few years. He is a no-nonsense guy, one who is very hard but also fair on his players. Getting him into the fold was undoubtedly a great move by President and GM Matt Millen.

Marinelli’s first move was to bring in Mike Martz to run the offense. While Martz had his troubles a head coach of the Rams, he is an offensive genius. He will help spark the offense, and he will use every trick in the book to get big plays out of his squad. The Lions then cut ties with first-round bust Joey Harrington and brought in Jon Kitna and Josh McCown to replace him at quarterback. Kitna will be the starter entering the season. Kitna is known in league circles as a true warrior. Kitna does not have a great arm or great mobility, but he truly makes the most of his ability. He also proved to be a very good tutor for Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, and he will do the same here for the young McCown.

At running back, Kevin Jones has great potential. Jones is a big back who runs with a lot of power, but he has uncanny moves for a man his size and he also has speed to burn. He showed up in camp at a very lean 220 lbs, and Martz plans to use him in the same way he used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis. If Jones can stop underachieving, he could enjoy a breakthrough season. Shawn Bryson is a good receiver out of the backfield and he figures in as the 3rd down back. Veteran Cory Schlesinger is the fullback.

The receiving corps is a great example of the old saying ‘what a difference a year makes’. Last year, everyone was talking about the potential of the Detroit offense with 3 former 1st rounders at the wide receiver position. This year, Roy Williams has one of the two starting positions secured, but Charles Rogers and Mike Williams have fallen out of favor with the new coaching staff. Mike Williams has been having trouble with his routes, and Rogers is on the verge of being released. As of this writing, Corey Bradford, a speedster who never developed to his full potential, figures to hold the other starting spot. The diminutive Eddie Drummond will probably man the slot position. Martz likes his potential as a Az-Hakim type of receiver. Glenn Martinez is slotted as the 4th receiver. At tight end, ex-colt Marcus Pollard is back as the pass-catching specialist. He should see a lot of action on 3rd downs. The starter is Dan Campbell, who comes over from Dallas. Campbell is an average receiver at best, but he is a very good blocker, and he should help the Lions improve their running game.

On defense, Detroit strength is its front seven. It all starts at defensive tackle where Shaun Rogers, perhaps the Lions’ best player, should flourish under new coordinator Donnie Henderson’s aggressive style. Replacing the departed Dan Wilkinson beside Rodgers will be second-year man Shaun Cody, who has enjoyed a strong camp. The starting defensive ends, James Hall and Cory Redding, are nothing to write home about, but they are solid against the run. The best pass rusher of the group might be backup Kalimba Edwards, who resigned with the Lions to get an opportunity to play for Marinelli. There is a possibility he could flourish when coming in on passing downs.

At linebacker, the Lions will field what could be the fastest unit in the league. But it might also be the most fragile unit in the league. MLB Boss Bailey is super fast and is a sure tackler. He lacks great instincts, but makes up for it with pure athleticism. Still, he has only played 11 games in the last 2 years. SLB Paris Lenon is unspectacular, but he rarely misses an assignment. The weak side will be manned by rookie Ernie Sims, who has a history of concussions. Still, Sims is being groomed to play the same role Derrick Brooks plays in Tampa. Like Bailey, he has speed to burn, but he is a much bigger hitter. If he can stay healthy, look for him to make a big impact this year. With such durability concerns, depth might be a problem.

The secondary is nothing to write home about, but it is solid enough. CB Dre’ Bly (6 ints) is the star of the unit. While he isn’t big, he is fast enough and has good enough instincts to match up one-on-one with just about any receiver in this league. Fernando Bryant, who has durability issues of his own, is the other starter. If they can both stay healthy, veteran newcomer Jamar Fletcher is a good nickel back. But if he has to start, the Lions will be in trouble. At safety, Detroit has a pair of big-hitting defenders in Kenoy Kennedy and Daniel Bullocks, who should take over from Terrence Holt at free safety. Kennedy is a force against the run, but he lacks range. Bullocks could become a really good player, but he needs to take less chances and not always look for the big hit.

The special teams are solid with All-pro Jason Hanson handling the kicking duties and with Nick Harris as the punter. Eddie Drummond is electrifying as a return man and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

All in all, the Lions should be much improved from last year, even if their record won’t show it. What fans will see, though, is a much better attitude on the field, and a lot more fight and less quit in their players. The Lions are a work in progress, but they are on the right track, finally.

4. Minnesota Vikings (5-11)

Head Coach: Brad Childress (1st year)
2005 Record: (9-7)
Key Acquisitions: OG Steve Hutchinson, LB Ben Leber, K Ryan Longwell, QB Mike McMahon, RB Tony Richardson, RB Chester Taylor, S Tank Williams
Key Departures: WR Nate Burleson, RB Michael Bennett, S Corey Chavous, LB Sam Cowart, QB Daunte Culpepper, DE Lance Johnstone, WR Koren Robinson, CB Brian Williams

2005 was an odd year for the Vikings. The season began with Minnesota having their sights set on the Super Bowl. Randy Moss, a huge distraction, was gone, and this was finally Culpepper’s team. The problem is that with his offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, and his favorite receiver both gone, Culpepper struggled mightily, until he broke his leg and was lost for the season. But the big storyline of 2005 for the Vikings was the “Party Boat” incident. Several players were charged and the whole team was really covered with shame. Even though Brad Johnson came in and rallied the team to a respectable 9-7 record, there was still a sour taste left in people’s mouth.

Owner Ziggy Wilf, seeking respectability, fired head coach Mike Tice and replaced him with Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. Then, the team traded away Culpepper and essentially handed the reins of the offense to 37 year old Brad Johnson. Still, controversy remains in Minnesota. Koren Robinson, who was handed a fat contract to be the team’s #1 receiver, got in trouble with the law and was recently released. Childress might become a good coach, but he has his work cut out for him with a team that lacks discipline and, frankly, is much less talented than recent editions.

Johnson is a veteran quarterback, one who makes very few mistakes. But Johnson is limited physically. He does not have great arm strength or great mobility. He is a very good leader, though, and is well respected by all his teammates. He is the type of quarterback that does not lose games, but he does not win them either. Mike McMahon, who played for Childress last year in Philadelphia, is the backup. If Johnson gets injured or falters, the Vikes will be in trouble. Keep an eye on second round draft choice Tavaris Jackson. He will simply hold the clipboard this year, but he has all the tools to eventually succeed. Under the tutelage of Childress, he should develop nicely and could start as soon as next year.

At running back, Minnesota brought in Chester Taylor, a 3rd down back with the Ravens, to be their starter. Taylor is a good receiver out of the backfield, but he does not create the matchup problems Brian Westbrook did in Philly for Childress. Taylor has good speed and good cutback abilities, but he has never carried an offense on his back, so the jury is still out on whether he can be an every down back. With Ciatrick Fason and Mewelde Moore as the backups, depth is a huge concern.

The offensive line got a huge boost with the signing of all-pro guard Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson might be the best guard in football. He can do everything: he is a punishing run blocker, he has the speed and athleticism to pull to either side, and he is flawless in pass blocking. With former 1st rounder Bryant McKinnie at tackle, the Vikings now possess one of the best left sides in the league. Matt Birk, a leader and a very intelligent player, is back at center. Artis Hicks is a capable right guard, and he is backed up by former starter but aging Chris Liwienski. Right tackle is more of a concern. Converted guard Marcus Johnson is powerful, but his technique needs improvement.

When Minnesota signed Steve Hutchinson as a restricted free agent, they included a clause in their offer that said Hutchinson would need to be the highest paid lineman on the team. With Seattle having all-pro Walter Jones on their payroll, that effectively raised Hutchinson’s price tag by 2 millions if he were to re-sign with the Seahawks. That clause created a lot of animosity between the two teams, so Seattle turned around and pulled the same trick on the Vikings to pry away their #1 receiver, Nate Burleson. Losing Burleson is a huge blow to the Vikings offense, because with Robinson now released, they do not have a #1 receiver. Second year man Troy Williamson now becomes Johnson’s main target. Williamson is extremely fast, but he is still very raw. He is not a polished route runner, and his hands are not great either. Last year, he had only 24 receptions. Travis Taylor becomes the other starter. Taylor is a former first round pick who never really panned out. He is better suited to play a reserve role. Aging Marcus Robinson has clearly lost a step and is now a possession receiver. Jermaine Wiggins is back as the starting tight end, and he caught 69 passes last year. Yet, all of Wiggins’ catches totaled only 568 yards, and he only caught 1 touchdown.

The defense is a big question mark. There is some talent there, but it has yet to prove it can gel into a cohesive unit. DT Kevin Williams is already a star, and he can create havoc from the interior. He is very good at penetrating the line, as his 26 career sacks prove. Pat Williams will line up inside with him, but at 33, he is nothing more than a run stopper. DE Erasmus James will start at right end. As a rookie, he collected 4.0 sacks, but he has the potential for much more. If he fulfills that potential will go a long way in determining the fate of this defense. Kenechi Udeze is the other starter.

At linebacker, Minnesota has a lot of bodies, but they need to find the right combination. Rookie Chad Greenway was expected to make a big impact, but he is lost for the season. Ex-Raider Napoleon Harris will start in the middle. Harris has enjoyed a very good camp, but he never performed up to his first round billing. He is a good tackler, but he lacks range and does not take on blocker so well. E.J. Henderson, a former starter in the middle, moves to the weak side to replace Greenway. Ben Leber was given $4,000,000 to be the strong side linebacker, and he is a good one. Dontarrius Thomas can play both outside linebacker positions, and he could even challenge Henderson.

The strength of this defense lies with its starting cornerbacks. Fred Smooth is a very good cover corner, although he did struggle at times last year. Antoine Winfield can stay with any receiver, but he drops way too many interceptions. An while the starters are good, depth is a concern. At free safety, Dwight Smith should do a fine job in the new cover 2 defense the Vikings are trying to implement. Smith played in that defense when he was in Tampa. Darren Sharper is the starter at strong safety, but he is getting up in age and is nowhere near the player he once was, although he did pick off nine passes last year.

If Minnesota can somehow manufacture a pass rush, the defense should be fine. But there are just too many questions on offense. Yes, they will have a very good offensive line. And yes, Brad Childress has done terrific things with past Eagles offenses that lacked talent at the running back and wide receiver positions. But back then, he had quarterback named Donovan McNabb. It will be hard to bring out the same type of results with Brad Johnson at the helm.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (4th year)
2005 Record: (11-5)
Key Acquisitions: DT Sam Adams, S Dexter Jackson, QB Anthony Wright.
Key Departures: QB Jon Kitna, TE Matt Schobel

In 2005, the Bengals saw their dreams of going deep into the postseason get shattered in the beginning of their wild-card matchup with Pittsburgh, when Carson Palmer blew out his knee. The whole team would eventually falter in the second half and let the Steelers run away with the victory. In 2006, Cincinnati looks to rebound with a team that very much resembles the one they fielded last year. On offense, Carson Palmer returns to lead the NFL’s second most potent offense. As of this writing, Palmer still hasn’t participated in a pre-season game, but reports out of training camp say that he is looking great, and he has come out and said that he plans to see his first action on Monday, August 28 against the Packers. If he is healthy, Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He is big and strong, and quite mobile for such a big man. He also has a Marino-like feeling for the rush, and he slides very well inside the pocket. Palmer throws the prettiest deep ball in the league, and he can make every throw in the book. Physically, he is as gifted as any QB out there. If he can’t start the season, which is unlikely at this point, new acquisition Anthony Wright will hold the fort until Palmer is ready.

But while Palmer is the unquestioned leader of this offense, he has many weapons at his disposal. It starts at wide receiver, with perhaps the most entertaining player in the league in Chad Johnson. Johnson has a big mouth, but he has the big-play capability to back it up. In the last 2 years, he has become one of the top 5 receivers in the game. On the opposite side of the field, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who also had a spectacular season last year, is the perfect compliment to Johnson. Together they form what might be the best pair of receivers in the league. The main backup is Chris Henry, a big target with speed to burn, but he has had troubles with the law, so a suspension is likely. After that, depth is a concern. At running back, Rudi Johnson is back with his bruising style. Since coming on in relief of Corey Dillon 3 years ago, Johnson has carried the ball more than back in the league but one. Very rarely does he have a bad game. The change of pace back, Chris Perry, got injured this pre-season. The Bengals would love to get him the ball more, but he is expected to miss the start of the season, so the diminutive Kenny Watson becomes the de-facto #2. But when talking about the Cincinnati offense, we have to mention the offensive line, one of the best in the business. OLT Levi Jones has developed into one of the best pass protectors in the league, and he also has a nasty streak. On the other side, Willie Anderson is the consummate professional. He is getting old, but his technique is still great and he is the leader of the line. LG Eric Steinbach is starting to get recognition as one of the best guards in the NFL, and RG Robbie Williams and C Rich Brahman are more than solid starters. Furthermore, this group has great depth, and they have been playing together for 3 straight years now, and the results are evident.

On defense, the acquisition of DT Sam Adams will help tremendously against the run, the weak spot of this defense. Adams can get lazy at times and at his age, he cannot stay on the field for a full game, but he is huge. He creates big problems for offensive with his size, and his presence will help the linebackers do their job. Next to Adams will line-up John Thornton, who had a fine season last year with 58 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. At DE, Justin Smith returns after registering 92 tackles and leading the team in sacks (6). Smith is not spectacular, but he does everything right. Bryan Robinson, a former DT who missed 6 games last year, will start opposite Smith.

Earlier in the off-season, Cincinnati learned that they would have to do without MLB Odell Thurman for the first 4 games of the year because of a suspension. Thurman was spectacular as a rookie last year, leading the team with 148 tackles. But Marvin Lewis seems to be disappointed in the youngster, so it remains to be seen whether Thurman regains his starting spot when he comes back. WLB Brian Simmons, one of the most complete linebackers in the league, will move in the middle. Landon Johnson, who has played in the middle before, moves into Simmons’ weakside spot. David Pollack, the prized first-rounder from last year, returns on the strong side. After a difficult rookie campaign, he has looked great in training camp and seems poised to have a big season.
But perhaps the best area of the Bengals defense is the secondary. Cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O’Neal are big-time gamblers, but they do get a lot of interceptions. Keiwan Ratliff provides good depth and rookie Jonathan Joseph has reportedly looked good in camp so far. At safety, Dexter Jackson comes over from Tampa, and he knows the defense really well, so he should fit in nicely alongside SS Madieu Williams, a budding superstar.

In a way, the Bengals are exactly where the Colts were 2-3 years ago. They have a nearly unstoppable offense, but the defense is a work in progress. And while the “D” should be a bit better this year, it remains to be seen whether Carson Palmer can dissect defenses as well as he did last year. Still, when it comes to pure talent, the Bengals are the class of this division, and that should be enough to translate into a division title.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Head Coach: Bill Cowher (14th year)
2005 Record: (11-5)
Key Acquisitions: S Ryan Clark.
Key Departures: S Chris Hope, RB Jerome Bettis, WR Antwaan Randle El, DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen.

The Super Bowl XL Champions return with their championship winning team almost intact. Sure, they suffered a few losses, but not one of these players is irreplaceable. QB Ben Roethlisberger comes back to lead an offense that should be better and a little more open now that the youngster is in his 3rd year. In 2005, as the season went on, offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt gave more and more leeway to Roethlisberger, especially at the start of games, and ‘Big Ben’ was more than up to the task. The 6’5”, 241 lbs. quarterback is 27-4 in his career, and he is looking to build on that. Most experts agree that he is ready to become a good “fantasy” quarterback as well. Look for the Steelers to expand their offense back to what it was about 3 years ago with Tommy Maddox at the helm: a power running offense that can surprise you with empty backfields and 2-minute drills at any time in the game.

For all his prowess, Roethlisberger probably would’ve never enjoyed half the success he’s had if it hadn’t been for the incredible offensive line playing in front of him. Now that Steve Hutchinson has left Seattle and that former Chief Willie Roaf has retired, the Steelers boasts the best left side in the league. LG Alan Faneca is a fixture on the Pro Bowl squad every year, and LT Marvel Smith is as steady as they come. Both are just as efficient in run blocking as they are in pass blocking. Jeff Hartings had another great year at center. A natural guard, he can pull better than most centers in the league and he is very athletic. He is also very good at recognizing blitzes and making adjustments, and he is a great help to his young quarterback. On the right side, Kendall Simmons is, when healthy, as good a right guard as there is in this league. Last year, he went injury-free and had a great season. RT Max Starks is big and strong (6’8”, 340 lbs.) but he lacks the finish of his counterparts. This is a line that has played together for a long time, and they are perhaps the best group in the league.

At running back, ‘Fast’ Willie Parker is looking for a big season. Reports out of training camp have him being a more patient and a more complete back than last year, when he went over 1,200 yards. Parker has great speed and sees the cutback lane very well, but if he can learn to let his blocks develop in front of him, he can be a great back for a long time. Backing him up, and at the same time taking Bettis’ old spot will be Duce Staley. If healthy, and if he hasn’t lost too much of a step, Staley can definitely fill Bettis’ shoes on the field. But if he isn’t up to the task, look for Parker to see action in short-yardage situations. Vernon Hayes is the 3rd down back.

At wide receiver, Hines Ward returns as the vocal leader of the offense. Ward is a pleasure to watch on the field. He catches every ball he touches, and he is fearless over the middle. He is very reminiscent of former Viking Cris Carter in this way. But he is also the best blocking receiver in the league. He is actually a better blocker than most tight ends, and he helped spurn many long gains last year. Starting opposite him will be Cedric Wilson, who really came on strong towards the end of last season. Wilson also had a strong playoff. Rookie Santonio Holmes comes in as the slot receiver. A smaller receiver in the mold of Santana Moss, figures to see plenty of action. The Steelers plan to use his speed a lot against nickel corners. Like Randle El before him, Holmes will create a lot of matchup problems. Tight end Heath Miller rounds out the skill position players. Miller doesn’t have the great stats, but he is a gamer. He makes a lot of clutch catches, and Roethlisberger likes to look for him in the red zone too.

On defense, the Steelers are led by blitz genie Dick Lebeau. The most important position in the ‘Blitzburgh’ defense is linebacker, and the team returns its 4 starters from last year. OLB Joey Porter gets the sacks, and he gets the press clippings with his loud mouth, but he is a real leader on this defense. And what you won’t read in his stats is that a lot of his sacks were very timely, and when the defense needed a big play, he would come up with it. ILB James Farrior is a tackling machine who should’ve been defensive MVP in the league 2 years ago. Last year, his play tailed off a bit at the start of the season, but he got better as the season wore on and he was a monster in the playoffs. Clark Haggans (9 sacks) and Larry Foote (101 tackles) are the other starters. There is very good depth here, which is not surprising at all.

On the defensive line, the loss of DE Kimo Von Oelfhoffen will hurt the depth, but Brett Kiesel is more than ready to step in his place. As a backup last year, Keisel totaled 3 sacks. At the other end, Aaron Smith returns after another stellar year. Smith is the ultimate 3-4 defensive end. He can rush the passer, but he is especially adept at holding off blockers and letting the linebackers do their work. Casey Hampton returns as the NT. When healthy, he is as important to this defense as any other player on the field. He is so big, and so quick for such a big man, that he commands a double team all the time.

The defensive backfield has now become a strength on this team. SS Troy Polamalu is the superstar of the group. He makes the big hits and the spectacular plays. He is one of the best 3 or 4 safeties in the league, and he covers more ground than any other player out there. He will miss having FS Chris Hope at his side, but Ryan Clark should be an adequate replacement. At cornerback, Pittsburgh has very good starters and even better depth. Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are the starters, but Bryant McFadden and Ricardo Coclough could both be starters on some teams in the league. This is a very deep group.

The Steelers will be fielding a team that should be just as good as last year’s championship team. Still, that does not spell repeat for them. They play in a tough division and they will face a very hard schedule. This is a proud team, full of leadership, with loads of talent and great coaches, and that should be enough to get them into the playoffs, but not to the Super Bowl, not for a second time.

3. Baltimore Ravens (7-9)

Head Coach: Brian Billick (7th year)
2005 Record: (6-10)
Key Acquisitions: RB Mike Anderson, QB Steve McNair, DE Trevor Pryce.
Key Departures: S Will Demps, RB Chester Taylor, QB Anthony Wright

The 2006 Baltimore Ravens are one of those teams full of question marks. They are one of those teams that always seem to be ready to make a move back in the league’s elite, but always come short of expectations.

This year, they’ve added QB Steve McNair of the Titans. McNair will be an improvement over incumbent Kyle Boller, no doubt. Still McNair is getting old and his body is battered. He is always a risk to get injured too, and he is not the passer he was earlier in his career. That being said, he will make far less mistakes than Boller made, and he will provide leadership to an offense that desperately needs it.

McNair will be reunited with his old favorite target with the Titans, Derrick Mason. Mason is on the wrong side of 30, but he is still a very good possession receiver. Second year man Mark Clayton figures to start opposite him, but Clayton has been hampered by injuries during training camp. Clayton’s main attribute is his speed and his ability to work the slot, so if he isn’t 100%, he can’t be very effective. There isn’t much depth here, so the 3 and 4 receiver packages aren’t very strong. Still, the Ravens have a very good tight end in Todd Heap. McNair likes to use the tight end a lot in the passing game, so Heap could see his numbers skyrocket.

At running back, Jamal Lewis figures to be the starter again. But Lewis is getting old, and he is looking slow. He will face tough competition all year long from ex-Bronco Mike Anderson, but Billick might put him at fullback, a position he played from time to time in Denver. The wildcard here is Musa Smith, a young back who has been buried behind the elder Smith and the departed Chester Taylor. Musa Smith is younger and is a much better pass receiver than the other 2 backs. Many think that he will be starting by season’s end.

The defense is still full of big names, but it is getting older. Ray Lewis is only a shadow of the player he once was. He still has all the heart, and he is still a very vocal leader, but he doesn’t swarm to the ball like he once did, and he was never great at taking on blockers. Adelius Thomas is quite good on the strong side, but Bart Scott is average at best on the weakside. The loss of Ed Hartwell really hurt them last year, and the team has not replaced him yet.

If there is to be one saving grace for the linebackers, it is the drafting of DT Haloti Ngata. Ngata is a big man, and he can really disrupt blocking schemes. He apparently has looked very good in camp so far, and he has had a pretty good pre-season. Still, the jury is out on Ngata, who got a reputation in college of being somewhat of a slacker and taking many plays off. But if he keeps himself in check and plays hard, he will be a great addition to the team. Kelly Gregg will be the other starter. At DE, Terrell Suggs is the big-time player. With no one to apply pressure across from him last year, Suggs finished with only 8 sacks (down from 11 in 2004). But this year, Baltimore added former Bronco Trevor Pryce. Pryce is getting old, and hasn’t had double digit sacks in 6 years, but he can still rush the passer. 2nd year man Dan Cody, who missed almost all of last year with an injury, will provide depth and come in on passing downs when Pryce moves inside.

In the secondary, the star is Ed Reed. Along with Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh and Brian Dawkins of Philadelphia, Reed might be the best safety in the league. Reed is a huge hitter, but he also has a lot of range and has a real knack for getting interceptions. He did miss 6 games last year, but he is back at full strength now. Whatever anybody says, this is his defense now, not Ray Lewis’. The untested Gerome Sapp will replace the departed Will Demps at the other safety spot, and that’s a big drop-off. Yet, if the Ravens can get more pressure on the quarterback than last year, the difference won’t be too noticeable. At cornerback, Chris McAlister is still mentioned amongst the best corners in the game, but his play fell off last year (only 1 INT). Opposing QB’s did not throw his way as much, but he gambles too much and can be beaten deep. At the other corner, the aging Samari Rolle is the starter. Like McAlister, Rolle had an unspectacular year, grabbing only 1 INT. Rolle is not the shutdown corner he once was in his best years with the Titans, but his technique is still very good and he plays a more conservative style that fits him well. Depth is a concern.

The main problem the Ravens will face this year is facing, once again, the Steelers and the Bengals twice each. Carson Palmer has now made it a habit of destroying the Baltimore defense, and Pittsburgh is always a tough opponent. With these matchups, and trips to Tampa and Denver, as well as games against Carolina and San Diego, this will be a tough season for Baltimore. So, while we think their team will be much improved from last year, their record won’t be much different.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Head Coach: Romeo Crennel (2nd year)
2005 Record: (6-10)
Key Acquisitions: C LeCharles Bentley, WR Joe Jurevicius, LB Willie McGinnest, OT Kevin Shaffer, DT Ted Washington.
Key Departures: WR Antonio Bryant, DT Jason Fisk, DE Kenard Lang, TE Aaron Shea, OT L.J. Shelton

The Browns are a team that is under construction. Romeo Crennel is a man that is well-respected by his peers, and the consensus is that he knows what he is doing, and that he and GM Phil Savage are building a team that will eventually win in this league. But that time is still at least a season away, and this promises to be another tough year for Browns fans.

2nd year pro Charlie Frye is the quarterback. Frye is a cool customer that will be a very good QB in this league for a long time. He plays well under pressure, puts a lot of zipon his passes and throws a very good deep ball. He also moves quite well, but he is still very inexperienced and can’t read defenses that well yet. He will have to grow up fast for this offense to be any good. The main problem at the quarterback position, though, is not the starter, but the fact that there is no quality backup. Ex-49er Ken Dorsey is the best of the bunch. But when he was in San Francisco, Dorsey was awful at best. And reports out of training camp have him not looking too good. So Frye will need to be stay healthy as well, otherwise it could get really ugly.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the rushing offense is nothing to write home about either. Last year, the team finished 25th in the league in that category. During the off-season, the Browns brought in Ruben Droughns from Denver. Droughns is a former fullback who loves to hammer it between the tackles. He also has good vision and is a good cut back runner. Things will be a lot different for him with a much more porous offensive line in Cleveland, but his running style should help him be at least a little bit successful.

Now, if Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards can stay healthy this year, the passing game might threaten a little bit. Winslow has played 2 games in 2 years, but he seems ready to come back. He might not be the player he could’ve been before his injuries, but reports out of training camp have him being a force in the middle of the field and running well enough. Edwards is another story. While he is ahead of schedule, he shouldn’t expected back to the field until October. Before he got injured last year, Edwards was really coming into his own. There is no doubt that he will know the offense a lot better this year, and he has been practicing long balls a lot with Frye in the off-season, so there should be some chemistry there. Expect him to make a big impact when he comes back. Starting opposite Edwards will be Dennis Northcutt. Joe Jurevicius, who comes over from Seattle, will start in Edwards spot until he comes back. Jurevicius has never lived up to expectations, but he is very sure handed and works the underneath areas very well. Look for him to become a comfort blanket for the young Frye, especially when he moves to the slot after Edwards comes back.

Aside from the health of the receiving corps, the biggest wild card in how this offense will perform is the offensive line. C LeCharles Bentley was given millions to be the lede of the squad and anchor it for years to come, but he blew out his knee in the offseason. His backup, Bob Hallen, retired. Next in line was Alonzo Ephraim, but he was suspended for the first 4 games of the year. So the starter figures to be ex-Patriot Ross Tucker. Useless to say, depth is a concern. Also, the rest of the line doesn’t look too good either. LT Kevin Shaffer, who comes over from Atlanta, is more of a run blocker. All the other projected starters have huge medical histories, and depth is a real concern at each spot. If everyone stays healthy, the line should be able to build a rapport and there is enough talent for them to be an adequate group. But the slightest little injury could make everything fall apart.

On defense, the situation seems to be similar as on offense. For instance, the starters on the defensive line are all seasoned performers who can do a good job. NT Ted Washington is perfect for a 3-4 defense. He will be spelled on passing downs, but he will be a force against the run. DE Orpheus Roye is a converted def. tackle who should provide good support against the run. Alvin McKinley is the other end, and he chipped in with 5.0 sacks last season. But behind them, there isn’t much help. Again, one injury could prove disastrous.

At linebacker, things are looking a lot better. Willie McGinnest comes in and will man the strong side. He will also provide a ton of leadership and will be a great role model for the 2 rookies. First round pick Kamerion Wimbley is expected to take over the weaskside position. Wimbley is long and lean, and he is very fast, making him the classic edge rusher. He should flourish under Crennel. D’Qwell Jackson, a second rounder, is already penciled in at the RILB position. Jackson is very active, and he has been making plays all over the field in training camp. He will be joined by holdover Andra Davis, who led the team with 149 tackles last year. Depth is less of a concern here with Matt Stewart and Clifton Smith both capable of being starters.

The secondary is still a work in progress. At cornerback, Daylon McCutcheon is one of the starters, but he is hurt right now. He does hope to be ready for the opener though. At the other corner, 2005 starter Gary Baxter is back from last year’s injury (which cost him 10 games), but he might be looking at the nickel job. It is being said that Leigh Bodden, who replaced Baxter last year, is looking like the best corner in camp for the Browns right now. With a healthy McCutcheon and Bodden looking better everyday, cornerback is a strong position for the team. There is also depth at safety, although there is far less talent. Brian Russell is in at free safety. Russell had one big year with Minnesota (2003 – 9 INT’s), but he is mostly a liability in coverage and lacks range. At strong safety, Sean Jones figures to be the starter, with Brodney Pool backing him up. Both are former second round draft choices and big hitters.

Again, this figures to be another hard year for Browns fans. The team has assembled some good starters, but depth is a concern at almost every position. If Cleveland wants to improve on last year’s record, they will have to provide much more of a pass rush, protect the QB better and have a semblance of a running game. And given the shape of the offensive line, the last 2 are not likely to happen. We do feel like the defense will be much improved, but that will not be enough.

Friday, August 18, 2006

NFC East


Before I get on with my preview of the NFC East, just a little word on Golf. This weekend is the PGA Championship. Part of the rules of the tournament is that for the first 2 days, the winners of the previous 3 Majors (Masters, US Open and British Open) play together. And so that means that for the first time ever, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played together today at the start of this very tournament. Indeed, never before had they won 2 of the first 3 Majors in the same year. Today, they both came in with identical scores of -3 (the leader is at -6). They will play again together on Friday, and who knows, they might be paired again on Saturday or Sunday. For the golf fan, and even for the non-fan, this is a sight to see. So if you have a couple of minutes this weekend, do tune in and watch it, if just for 5 minutes. It's worth it, trust me.

Now, onto my NFC East preview:


1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Head Coach: Andy Reid (8th year)
2005 Record: (6-10)
Key Acquisitions: DE Darren Howard, QB Jeff Garcia, WR Jabar Gaffney, TE Matt Schobel.
Key Departures: LB Keith Adams, WR Terrell Owens

2005 was a nightmare for the Eagles. After 4 straight presences at the NFC Championship, which were capped off with a loss in Super Bowl XXXIX, Philadelphia fell from grace in the biggest way. This whole mess of a season started in training camp, with Terrell Owens holding out for more money and taking shots at his quarterback, Donovan McNabb. The divisions in the team started then. What ensued was a rash of injuries on the defensive line which crippled the defense (the team finished 23rd in the league, their worst performance since def. coord. Jim Johnson’s first year), T.O.’s antics getting wilder as the season went on, eventually leading to him being suspended, and Donovan McNabb missing the last 7 games of the season with a sports hernia.

Every Eagles fan in the land hopes that 2006 will not be a repeat of the previous year, and fortunately for them, there is hope. With the departure of Owens, this is once again McNabb’s team. The star quarterback has been the unquestioned leader of this team for years now, and after last year’s debacle, the Eagles brass is quite happy to see him command his troops once again. While his accuracy is still not where it needs to be for this offense to truly flourish like the great 49ers offenses from the 80’s and 90’s, it is hard to find quarterbacks in this league who distribute the ball better than number 5. And even though he doesn’t run as much as he once did, McNabb is still one of the best scramblers in the league.

While McNabb gets all the press, the most important piece in the offense is RB Brian Westbrook. Westbrook’s speed and receiving skills create nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. If he can stay healthy (he suffered an injury in the first pre-season game, but he should be ok for the start of the regular season), he will once again be the oil that makes the engine run for this offense. Still, Westbrook is far from being great between the tackles, and his backup, Reno Mahe is the same type of back. So short yardage situations figure to be a problem again, unless Correll Buckhalter can stay healthy for the first time in years.

The receiving corps, while it lost its superstar in the offseason, figures to be more than adequate. Tight end L.J. Smith had a breakout season last year, and plans are for him to be featured even more in the passing game. He will be backed up by ex-Bengal Matt Schobel, who has very underrated hands. The Eagles plan to use both a lot this year, especially in 2-tight end sets. At wide receiver, Reggie Brown will step into T.O.’s shoes. While Brown is no Owens, he made great strides as a rookie last year, and he has looked very good in training camp. If he and McNabb can find some chemistry, he will be more than adequate. And with a great offensive line, the Philly offense looks poised for a good season.

On the defensive side of the ball, things are looking up in the biggest way. Because Jimmy Johnson likes to blitz so much, pressure from the defensive line is essential so that the corners are not left to dry. This year, the defensive line, even with DE Jerome McDougle looking to miss significant time after being shot in the off-season, looks stacked. The arrival of DE Darren Howard from New Orleans will help the pass rush immensely. He and Javon Kearse look to form a dangerous pair. At DT, veteran Sam Rayburn and second-year man Mike Patterson will probably start, but rookie Brodrick Bunkley, Darwin Walker and Ed Jasper will all see significant time. Johnson likes to rotate his linemen, and he will have ample opportunities to do so here.

As it has become the norm in the past years, Philly is more than set in the defensive backfield. Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, back from injury, will man the corners. Superstar Safety Brian Dawkins will again lead the defense, and hard-hitting SS Michael Lewis will team up with him once more. Depth is solid here as well, with Roderick Hood, Donald Stickland and J.R. Reed all looking to contribute. If there is one weakness on the defense, it is at linebacker. Jeremiah Trotter is a warrior, but there isn’t much here beside him.

In 2006, the Eagles will play with a chip on their shoulders. They do not have the best talent in the conference, and they play in what might be the toughest division in the league. But in what will be a tough year, I believe the Eagles will show resiliency and come out on top of their division. This team has great intangibles and it will show.

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

Head Coach: Bill Parcells (4th year)
2005 Record: (9-7)
Key Acquisitions: WR Terrell Owens, OT Jason Fabini, PK Mike Vanderjagt
Key Departures: OG Larry Allen, DT La’Roi Glover, WR Keyshawn Johnson, OT Torrin Tucker

Dallas is back to being a big focus in this league. The days of Jimmy Johnson, Irvin, Smith and Aikman are gone. Welcome to the days of Terrell Owens and Bill Parcells! Parcells is the ultimate disciplinarian, and Owens is the ultimate problem child. Cameras will be over Dallas all season long, spanning those sidelines to witness the first T.O. outburst.

But while the Parcells-Owens storyline grab all the headlines, we seem to forget that the Cowboys will be fielding a pretty good team this year. The 2005 edition of the team failed short of expectations, but this year Dallas looks a bit more ready. The offensive line, while still a bit of a question mark, looks solid enough. Ex-Jet Jason Fabini will provide solid depth behind starters Rob Pettiti and the aging Flozell Adams. The loss of LG Larry Allen will hurt, but Kyle Kozier should an adequate if unspectacular replacement. Right guard will be manned by the ever reliable Marco Riviera, and C Al Johnson is a consummate pro. The biggest problem for this offensive line is that they are protecting a quarterback who is a sitting duck back there. There is no question that Drew Bledsoe still has one of the strongest arms in the league, and he also throws a pretty touch pass. He can make every throw in the book, and while he still manages a few bonehead plays every year, he has matured a lot with age, and doesn’t take as many chances as he used to. But he is the most immobile QB in the league, and for an offense that struggles with play-action because of the spotty play of the running game, that is not good.

Speaking of the running game, RB Julius Jones is back as the featured back. Jones is tough back who loves to run between the tackles. He fits Parcells’ style to perfection. Marion Barber, the third-down back, will back him up. It is reported he might see more action this year, helping Jones stay fresh. What should help these two mightily this year is the addition of Terrell Owens. For all his faults, Owens might be the best receiver in the league. He can take over any game, at any time. And with Terry Glenn at his side, he gives the Cowboys to big-time deep threats. Opposing defenses will be forced to back their safeties up, and that will help the running game a lot. With tight end Jason Witten, who made the Pro Bowl last year, rounding out the starting unit, look for Dallas to score a lot of points this year.

On defense, Parcells has done a great job building his unit through the draft. Last year, he added DE Marcus Spears and OLB DeMarcus Ware in the first round, and both had very good seasons. Ware is truly a star in the making. Look for him to get double digit sacks this year. This year, he added OLB Bobby Carpenter to the mix. With Ware and Carpenter, as well as Al Singleton, Kevin Burnett and Akin Ayodele, the linebacking corps is not only very good, it is very, very deep. The defensive line is also set with Jason Ferguson at NT and Chris Canty, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher all vying for playing time opposite Spears.

The defensive backfield is good, but not spectacular. Hard-hitting SS Roy Williams is the star of the group. He’s like a fifth linebacker out there, and he also plays with better positioning and takes better angles than he did early in his career. FS Keith Davis is back too. He is not a flashy player, and he can get beat deep, but he’s the best the team has right now. New addition Marcus Coleman figures to be a backup at best, and if he has to start, the Cowboys could be in trouble. At corner, Terrence Newman and Anthony Henry will start. Henry is a solid but unspectacular corner. Newman is all flash, but he takes too many chances. Veteran Aaron Glenn is back as the nickel corner.

The special teams have always been a big focus of Parcells, and they are good, but not great. The big addition here is PK Mike Vanderjagt. Vanderjagt has a big mouth, and he will go down in history as the guy who blew the 2005 season for the Colts (he missed a 46-yarder at the end of the Steelers game), but he is much better than any kicker Parcells has had in 3 years with the Cowboys.

In a very tough NFC East division, wins will be hard to come. And Bill Parcells, as much as we hate him in this corner, is a great coach, and he will probably be able to coax enough close victories for this team to compete for a playoff spot.

3. New York Giants (9-7)

Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (3rd year)
2005 Record: (11-5)
Key Acquisitions: LB LaVar Arrington, S Will Demps, CB Sam Madison, CB R.W. McQuarters, LB Brandon Short
Key Departures: S Brent Alexander, CB Will Allen, DT Kendrick Clancy, S Shaun Williams

When Tom Coughlin took over the job of Head Coach of the NY Giants back in 2004, he inherited a team of aging veterans who wanted to know nothing of his disciplinarian ways. After all, the man Coughlin succeeded, Jim Fassel, had more of a laid back approach which fit the team’s any veterans better. But slowly and methodically, Coughlin rebuilt the team and won over the remaining malcontents. In 2006, this will indeed be Tom Coughlin’s team.

That being said, they key to getting to the playoffs will be QB Eli Manning’s consistency. After a rough rookie year, Manning showed flashes of brilliance last year, especially in rallying his team from behind. The younger brother the league’s best passer is one cool customer, and he doesn’t buckle under the pressure. Manning also has one strong arm and throws a very good deep ball. But he still has a tendency to lock in on a receiver, and his 52.8% completion rate was too low, and he did throw 17 interceptions. Yet, reports out of training camp say that his mechanics, especially his footwork, have gotten much better. If he can make the type of leap forward he made last year, he should have a great season. But that is a big if. One thing that will help Manning is continuality on the offensive line. Once a weak link in this offense, the line got a lot better last year. It was much deeper, and so it resisted much better in the face of late season injuries. Once again, Kareem McKenzie will man the left tackle spot and protect Manning’s blind side.

The receiving corps is strong. Everything starts with Jeremy Shockey, who enjoyed a very good season last year. While his blocking still leaves a lot to be desired, Shockey is a big body who has deceiving speed and is a matchup nightmare for coaches. The star receiver role, once property of Amani Toomer, is now Plaxico Burress’. The tall, lanky receiver developed great chemistry with the young QB last year, and he should have another big year. The aging Toomer has become a very good short-to-mid range target, but he doesn’t provide the big threat capability he once did. Second-round draft pick Sinorice Moss (younger brother of Santana Moss, and a steal at where he was picked), will be the 3rd receiver. Speedster Tim Carter also figures to see playing time.
Still, even with all those big names, the offense still lives and breathes with RB Tiki Barber. Once said to be too short and too small to carry an offense, Barber has become one of the best running backs in the league. Surprisingly tough, he can run inside, has the speed to take it outside, and is always a threat to take it all the way. Like Edgerrin James, Barber is also adept at picking up the blitz and is a very good receiver. If he stays healthy, he and is offense will both enjoy big years.

On defense, everything starts of the DE position, where Michael Strahan (11.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (14.5 sacks) form the best tandem in the league. The defensive tackle position is not as strong and will suffer from the loss of Kendrick Clancy, a tough run stopper. Still, there is adequate depth all along the line, and this is far from being an area of weakness.

The linebacker position is also very strong. Antonio Pierce is back as the starting middle linebacker. He covers a lot of ground, but he does not take on blockers very well, and he needs help from his DT’s. The weakside position is Brandon Short’s to lose, but he will face tough competition from Carlos Emmons. Last year, Emmons played on the strong side, but he will be replaced by newcomer LaVar Arrington. Arrington has lost a step due to injuries, but he has a big chip on his shoulders. In training camp, he has been virtually unstoppable. He is a big guy, and can really run over people. If he stays healthy, look for him to have a big year. If he doesn’t, Emmons will be back playing in his position. Again here, very good depth.

The defensive backfield is more of a question mark. CB Sam Madison takes over the departed Will Allen’s spot. Madison does not have the speed or the hands he once had, and he struggled a lot under Nick Saban. The Giants hope a change of scenery will prove beneficial. The other corner will be manned by second year man and first year starter Corey Webster. R.W. McQuarters provides excellent depth and is the consummate nickel back. At safety, ex-Raven Will Demps will start alongside SS Gibril Wilson. Coughlin brought in a lot of bodies this year, and so there is again pretty good depth here.

The special teams are set with Jay Feely at kicker, the aging Jeff Feagles at punter (19th year), and Chad Morton as the main return man. Look for Sinorice Moss to also be featured as a return man.

All in all, this is a solid Giants team. But in the NFC East, because the division is so strong, it will all come down to 1 or 2 very close games. In the end, I believe that the uncertainty in the defensive backfield and the growing pains of Eli Manning will prevent the Giants from finishing in front of the Cowboys or Eagles. Still, it will be very close and will come down to probably the last game of the season.

4. Washington Redskins (7-9)

Head Coach: Joe Gibbs (3rd year)
2005 Record: (10-6)
Key Acquisitions: S Adam Archuleta, DE Andre Carter, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Antwaan Randle El
Key Departures: LB LaVar Arrington, S Matt Bowen, CB Walt Harris, S Omar Stoutmire

After a year of keeping his wallet in his pocket, owner Dan Snyder could not resist the temptation two years in a row and started to write big checks again, overspending for free agents Brandon Lloyd, Antwaan Randle El and Adam Archuleta. Still, none of these players is bad, and they could prove to be good, very costly, but good additions nonetheless. But unfortunately for the Redskins, the pre-season started on a rough note for them. They lost Clinton Portis to a shoulder injury. While he will come back, it is said that he will miss the first few games. Also, star cornerback Shawn Springs went under the knife this week and will miss the first 2-3 weeks of the season.

With the first 2 games of the season being against Minnesota and Dallas, the loss of Springs could prove costly. The Redskins have a very good starting four in the defensive backfield, with CB Carlos Rogers and safeties Adam Archuleta and Sean Taylor joining Springs. But because they blitz so much, the skins ask their corners to cover receivers one-on-one most of the time. While they do have good depth, none of the backups can match Shawn Springs’ skill set. That being said, keep an eye on second-year man Sean Taylor. He showed great things last year, and he is poised for a huge year. He has been a monster in training camp, and so far, he looks like the second coming of Ronnie Lott.

At the linebacker position, Washington is set. Warrick Holdman, Marcus Washington and Lemar Marshall figure to start, with Washington being the star of the group. Holdman had a rough year in 2005, missing 7 games, but he will look to rebound. Again, there is strong depth here. But it is on the defensive line that the Redskins dominate the most. Great defenses are built from the line out, and it is certainly true for this defense, which has finished in the top 2 in the league the last 2 years. DT Cornelius Griffin anchors the middle of the line, and Joe Salave’a joins him. There is good depth behind them, as both Cedric Killings and Ryan Boschetti can play. At defensive end, Andre Carter, who comes over from the 49ers, will claim Renaldo Wynn’s LDE spot. Carter has all the tools to be great, and while he has enjoyed good seasons in San Francisco, he never fully achieved his potential. Def. Coord. Gregg Williams will try to turn him loose. Opposite him, Phillip Daniels will start. Renaldo Wynn, a consummate pro who can play anywhere on the line, will rotate with both and see playing time as a tackle on 3rd downs.

On the offensive side of the ball, the loss of RB Clinton Portis will hurt a lot. Portis is a slasher type runner who is as good as it gets in this league. And even though he initially had trouble in Joe Gibbs’ offense, he eventually caught on and enjoyed a great season last year (1,516 yds, 11 TDs). Since there isn’t great depth behind him, with Ladell Betts as his main backup, this figures to be a problematic issue if he can’t come back soon. Last year, Portis carried the offense and enabled QB Mark Brunell to work the play-action fake and buy more time for the receivers to get open.

Speaking of the receivers, Santana Moss enjoyed a career year for the redskins last year, evoking shades of Gary Clark’s best years. Like Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers, Moss is a smallish receiver who’s greatest attribute is his speed. But boy can he run! And in new offensive coordinator Al Saunders’ offense, speed is a must. Remember, Saunders coached the Rams-like KC Chiefs offense in the last few years, and he is trying to implement a similar scheme here. Last year’s other starting receiver, David Patten, will have to fight off Brandon Lloyd, a bust with the 49ers, and Antwaan Randle El for his spot. The Redskins would probably love for Lloyd to seize his chance and capture the role, and use Randle El in the same way Mike Martz used to utilize Az-Hakim with the Rams. Still, bet on Randle El being the starter opposite Santana Moss when the season starts, giving the Redskins the smallest pair of wide receivers in the league. James Trash provides great depth as well. But the guy who will benefit the most from Saunders’ arrival with the team will be TE Chris Cooley. Saunders loves to use the tight end a lot, especially against zone defenses, and Cooley, who had a nice season last year with 71 catches, will probably be featured a lot.

At quarterback, Mark Brunell returns in what will probably be his last season as the starter. Jason Campbell is the QB of the future, and will probably be anointed as the starter as soon as next season, but he is clearly not ready yet, and he will hold the clipboard again this year. Brunell, after struggling mightily 2 years ago, came back strong last year and had a good season. If the offensive line can protect him well again this year, he should be okay, but he clearly is on his last legs. Todd Collins, who came over from the Chiefs and played under Saunders, is the backup.

Like the Giants, the Redskins are caught in a bad spot in this ridiculously strong NFC East. And with the early season losses of key players like Portis and Springs, it will be tough for them to challenge for the division crown. Also, I see Brunell as the worst of the 4 starting quarterbacks, and the most likely to get injured. So, it what will be a game of numbers, I see the ‘Skins as being the ones who will lose the most games in the division, and so they will wind up at the bottom of the pack.

Monday, August 14, 2006

We're back...

Hey everyone!

We're baaaack! But first, allow me to apologize for the lack of activity on this blog for the past few weeks. But with last week's vacations (boy did those feel good) and the ever time consuming activity that is my relationship with the soon-to-be-met-by-most-of-you Kerry, there hasn't been much time to be online.

That being said, much has happened since the last post. For those of you looking for the rest of my NFL preview, do not worry: my NFC east and north and AFC west and south divisions are all one team away from being complete. So look for that in the coming days.

On the pitch, it looks like a promising season in the English Premiership. Chelsea, the favorites to win again this year, will face tough competition from bitter rivals Arsenal. This weekend, Arsenal won 2-1 on a Peter Crouch marker with 10 minutes left in a pre-season friendly. It looks like these 2 teams will fight until the very end. Also, Manchester United figures to be in the mix as well. All this comes as a bit of a surprise with the acquisitions Chelsea made during the summer. One would figure that after bringing in Shevchenko and Ballack, the Blues would dominate the league. But lately, things haven't being going so well for Jose Mourinho's team. Hernan Crespo and Asier Del Horno have both left the Champions in the last few weeks. Also, William Gallas has fallen out of favor after missing part of training camp to extend his vacation. There are also rumblings that Claude Makelele is worried about his role with the arrival of Ballack. And what seemed to be a done deal, the transfer of left back Ashley Cole, has now hit a wall, with the Blues and the Gunners millions apart. Add to this the knee injury to Joe Cole, and what you have is a Chelsea club that is not as strong as it seems it was going to be. I still feel that they will take the Premiership crown for a third year in a row, but it won't be easy this time around.

A couple of weeks back, some were fortunate enough to witness the maturation of one of sports' biggest names: Tiger Woods. At the 2006 British Open, Woods mysitified everyone when he tucked away the weapon that sets him apart from the rest of the field, his driver, and won the tournament decidedly by playing safe, mistake-free golf. I only saw the highlights, but seeing him get on the green with 2 iron shots on par-5's was quite amazing. Woods is still the best golfer in the world, there is no doubt about that. And while guys like Mickelson, Els, Goosen and Singh work hard to achieve distances that match Woods', he just keeps refining his game and evolving into not only the most talented player on the course, but also the most intelligent one. Look for more of these masterful performances this year...

Finally, the world of music has dropped a couple of gems on us in the last month or so. First, there's Ani DiFranco's newest offering, Reprieve. DiFranco still has so much to say, as she has during her whole career. Her lyrics have always been at the forefront of her music, and it is no different here. But her approach is a little bit more subdued than her earlier work. This is a more mature DiFranco. She is still very opiniated and political, and she lashes out at the Bush administration and at the mainstream media and their "network yes men". She talks about 9/11 and terrorism, New Orleans and, of course, Patriarchy and feminism. This girl can still rock, as shown on songs like Decree and Half-Assed, but most of her work here is quieter, calmer. She doesn't seem as angry as she once was, and the music benefits from it. We hear a bit of jazz on this record, especially on the first 4 songs. This is definitely one of her best records to date, and that is saying a lot considering the extensive catalog that came before this release.

A few weeks before, one of the best bands North America knows too little about, Muse, released Balck Holes And Revelations. Oh this release, their lead-singer still sounds like Thom Yorke, but the music has taken leaps. Muse uses sometimes U2-ish guitars, Queen-like theatrical grandeur, rapid-fire drumming and orchestral and electronica elements to create their very own blend of hard rock and it works to perfection. Check out the songs Starlight, Map of the Problematique, Satellite and City of Delusion. Those are all excellent tracks. As far as I am concerned, this is a definite album of the year candidate.

Well, that's it for now people. But check back later this week, as I will post my NFC East preview. After that will come my AFC West preview...

See ya soon,

Dwarf out