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Cowboys Prepping For Winter

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys

Not even 15 seconds into yesterday’s Thanksgiving matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the undermanned Oakland Raiders, it seemed like the Cowboys were looking to get an early start on their annual December swoon. Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams, filling in for the injured Dwyane Harris, fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff, resulting in a touchdown for the Raiders on the very first play of the game.

And as much as that 7-0 seemed like a fluke, Oakland got up as much as 21-7 with 1:56 left in the first half. At that point in the second quarter, Oakland had possessed the ball for all but 19 seconds of the period. The Raiders weren’t chewing clock by blowing Dallas off the ball in the running game, either. Oakland wasn’t able to run the ball effectively at any point in this game and averaged just two yards per carry. Instead, rookie Matt McGloin was picking the Cowboys apart on third down, targeting and burning Brandon Carr time and time again in man coverage.

Down 14 points at home in their historic Thanksgiving Day game to a team that wasn’t given a chance coming in, Dallas needed something from their offense heading in halftime if for no other reason than to boost morale, and though Dallas could have used it earlier in the half, Tony Romo delivered with a huge 70 yard drive to help stem the tide as the Cowboys ran into the lockerroom.

“We were in a hole there, down 14, and that drive at the end of the half, we really needed that,” Romo said after the game. “Especially with them starting the second half with the ball. I think that was as important as anything in the football game.”

In the second half, the Cowboys completely flipped the script on the Raiders, dominating the time of possession and scoring 17 straight points before a Sebastian Janikowski field goal in the final minute of the game ended Oakland’s two quarter scoring drought. Dallas went from having the ball for just over two minutes in the second quarter to icing the game by holding onto the ball for 21 of the 30 minutes in the second half.

Romo played an incredible second half given the circumstances. He was a perfect 12-of-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown in the final two quarters, and the only errant pass he threw in the second half was negated by a pass interference flag drawn by Dez Bryant. Given the offense’s struggles in the first half and the illness Romo was dealing with, this was a very impressive response from the Cowboys’ leader. It didn’t exactly warrant the Michael Jordan comparison that Bryant threw out during the post-game media scrum, but it was definitely essential to Dallas’ comeback efforts.

Once Romo helped get the Cowboys the lead, Dallas was able to do something that they haven’t been able to do in a long time: ice the game by running the ball. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ran the ball 12 times compared to just four pass attempts (attempts and sacks). This was a far cry from the times we’ve seen Dallas throwing the ball with a lead because their running game couldn’t keep the chains moving.

And while DeMarco Murray found the endzone three times in this game, he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and had a rough go of things early in the game. Instead, it was Lance Dunbar that feasted on the Raiders defense. Dunbar didn’t get his first carry of the game until the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter, but he made an impact instantly. He ran off tackle to the left for a six yard gain on his first play and then exploded for a 45 run right up the middle of the field on the very next snap.

“Lance did a nice job,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of Dunbar’s performance. “We put Lance in there and he finds a way to kind of work his way through those holes and make some positive plays for us. He is quick, he’s explosive, but … he is still a physical player that doesn’t get knocked around too much in there.”

Dunbar showed a great ability to plant his foot in the ground and change direction quickly. On some outside runs, Murray struggled when trying to find and explode through the right gaps. Dunbar’s size does make him less likely to serve as a full-time back, at least this season, but I’d venture to say that he’s got more natural ability than Murray. He’s a much more fluid runner and seemed to, as Garrett said, turn each one of his touches into a positive play (this is evident in his 6.8 yards per carry average) and he gets through the hole in a hurry with an incredible burst.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Dunbar hyper extended his left knee in this game. While the severity of the injury is not known, Dallas would sure love to be able to use Dunbar in these final few weeks, and the extra days off heading into a Monday night game next week should help with his recovery.

At 7-5 with an undefeated record in the division, the Cowboys are in pole position for the NFC East crown as we head down the stretch, but that coveted playoff birth won’t come easy. While Dallas’ next two opponents – the Bears and Packers – haven’t looked great of late, both teams are expecting their star quarterbacks to be back for their games against the Cowboys, and they too are competing in a very tough division race.

Dallas’ final two games of the season will be against the division rivals in Washington and Philadelphia. Anything can happen against the Redskins and with the Eagles riding a three-game winning streak thanks to some extremely impressive performances by second year quarterback Nick Foles (he had 7 touchdowns against this Raiders team earlier this month), this season may very well come down to the wire for the Cowboys.

So how does Dallas avoid continuing what has been a troubling trend with their play as soon as Santa starts packing his sleigh? The Cowboys are focusing on execution and preparation.

“We just have to continue to execute,” linebacker Sean Lee, who told me he feels optimistic about being able to play against the Bears next Monday, said. “We need to continue to understand what winning football teams do, and that’s finding a way to create turnovers, playing great defense and getting the ball back to our offense.”

“The key in these last four games is that we’re going to have to peak (as a team).”

“We’ve just got to come out and work every single day,” wide receiver Miles Austin said. “We have to be prepared each and every week and we have to be prepared for a tough Bears team next Monday night.”

While keying in on the minute details that tend to decide close games is a good way to prepare for an important stretch of games, Romo is taking an Al Davis-like approach.

“We just need to win some games,” Romo said after the game. “I think more than anything you’ve just got to keep stacking wins together and see where you’re at at the end. Our football team continues to try and improve each week that goes by and I think we’re playing some of our better football right now.”

We have been here before with the Cowboys. We’ve seen them play good football through Thanksgiving and come so close to the playoffs that they can taste it, only to do overdo it on the turkey and wind up in a month-long hibernation.

The Cowboys are in full control of their destiny from here on out. If they finish strong, they’ll earn themselves a playoff spot. And if things come together at the right time, this may be the year that Dallas finally rediscovers their post-season success.

A More Diverse Alex Smith

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alexsmith

When Andy Reid and the Chiefs take on the Eagles tomorrow night, their opponent won’t be the only team with a mobile quarterback on the field. After being cast aside by the hyperathletic and uniquely mobile Colin Kaepernick last season, there’s a tendency to believe that Smith was the dull, safe quarterback while Kaepernick was the complete opposite: a dynamic game-changer that broached excellence and success in a way that Smith never did.

While this is certainly true in some senses, as Kaepernick is definitely a more explosive and effective playmaker than Smith, Smith is not a singularly talented quarterback that is incapable of having more than a neutral effect on games. There is no doubt that Smith is not in the upper echelon of quarterbacks, but in this golden age of signal callers, its not an insult to simply be considered ‘good’. And Smith is exactly that, a good quarterback that can take his team to the post-season so long as he’s complemented with a solid defense and a coach that believes in him.

We saw the effect that Jim Harbaugh had on Smith in relation to some of the previous coaches and coordinators that the 49ers rotated in-and-out around Smith during his first few years in the league, Smith compiling as many playbooks as I have textbooks around me right now. Harbaugh instilled confidence in him and Smith was having the best two seasons of his career up until an injury opened to the door for Kaepernick to steal the spotlight. But while Harbaugh’s effect on Smith was certainly positive, he also kept him on a leash, which exacerbated the gap between Smith (who was solely a game-manager for that team) and the naturally perilous Kaepernick.

There’s a reason that one of Andy Reid’s first decisions as the coach of the Chiefs was to trade what will likely end up being a second round pick for Smith. Smith proved in his last two seasons in San Fransisco that he was capable of being an efficient passer, more adept at handling pressure than his younger self, and also a threat with his legs. Ironically enough, Smith is a very good athlete and yet never had a chance to run the read-option elements of the 49ers’ offense on a consistent basis; only when Kaepernick was the full-time starter did that portion of the playbook become available on every down.

Through two games, it appears as if Reid is going to give Smith a chance to make plays with his arm and his legs. While Smith is still a bit tamed in that he isn’t going to try and fit the ball into tight windows too often, being impervious to potentially horrendous mistakes is not necessarily a bad thing so long as he makes the throws he should, as Smith has learned to do. And now, in addition to unscripted scrambles that Smith has become quite good at, Smith is finally getting a shot at running some of the read-option plays that he ran at Utah and that he didn’t get a chance to run a lot last year with the 49ers.

***

After being unseated from the dream job of quarterbacking a team with an overpowering run game and one of the two best defenses in football by Colin Kaepernick last season, who would have thought that Alex Smith’s career would benefit greatly by working with Chris Ault, the coach that prepared Kaepernick to be a difference maker and invented the Pistol formation when he was at Nevada? This ironic twist is just another interesting chapter in Smith’s saga, and it seems as if Ault is already diversifying Smith’s game after just two weeks. (If you’d like a stat to back that up, consider that Smith currently has more rushing yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants do as teams.)

I’ll admit that I overlooked the potential for Ault to infuse elements of the read-option to the Chiefs offense when they hired him as a consultant this off-season. When I first saw the news, I assumed Kansas City made this move in hopes of figuring out ways to stop the read-option, similar to how the Green Bay Packers sent some of their staff members to College Station this off-season to study the weaknesses in Johnny Football’s offense, but now we know that Ault is a dual-threat adviser in the same way that Smith is a dual-threat quarterback.

On Kansas City’s opening drive against the Cowboys this weekend, Smith had five carries for 40 yards. A couple of these plays were designed runs and the others were impromptu scrambles as the Cowboys went to man coverage. It was clearly an unexpected deviation from the general perception of the ‘Alex Smith gameplan’ and it’s a nice way for the Chiefs offense to throw different looks at the defense.

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The very first play from scrimmage was this beautifully designed triple-option that featured the base pistol formation with Dexter McCluster motioning into the backfield to act as the pitch man. Here you can see Smith is reading the defensive end, who is being left unblocked so that Anthony Fasano can get to the next level. The defensive end crashes, which means Smith keeps it and attacks the edge, which has been sealed. With McCluster spacing it out, Smith’s next read is Brandon Carr, the cornerback on the outside who can choose to take the quarterback or the pitch man. Carr actually does a pretty good job of disguising his intention and not getting out of position, and stops the play from being a big gain, but throwing this look out of this formation can give a defense nightmares if one player takes a wrong step.

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Smith is also adept of getting out of the pocket after going through his progressions and seeing nothing worthwhile. Though he once escaped the pocket too quickly, disregarding open receivers for futile gains, he’s become much better at diagnosing which situations best call for him to take off.

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This play came on a 3rd and 15 at Dallas’ 35 yardline, so a failure to convert here would have changed the complexion of what ended up being a one-point game. The Chiefs went with four wide receivers and a tight end on this play and the Cowboys countered with Cover 1, which is man coverage (usually in the nickel) with one safety deep. The Cowboys did a great job on their coverage and although there were a couple of underneath routes developing on the left side of the field, those completions wouldn’t have netted a first down. So instead, with the pocket collapsing on his blindside, Smith escaped to a ton of green grass on the right side and made a crucial 17-yard play with his legs.

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Later on the same drive, Smith finds a way to foil man coverage again.

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The Cowboys dial up Cover 1 again on this play but have also seemingly spied Sean Lee, one of the best middle linebackers in football, to keep Smith from running on them. Amazingly, by simply shifting the pocket to the right a bit, Smith gets Lee to bite and step to the right before Smith tucks the ball and takes off through a gap in the line on the left side for a 13 yard gain. Interestingly enough, Smith is starting to make defenses pay in the same way that Kaepernick did on passing plays, killing teams for playing man-to-man coverages, which puts their defenders’ backs to the action and gives him some space to get free.

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What was great about Kansas City’s gameplan against the Cowboys is that they came out with a couple of designed QB runs and had Smith pick up some yards with his legs on his own, which gave Dallas the sense that that was how they would play. Instead, the Chiefs incorporated spread elements and typical run formations throughout the game, offering up a diverse set of problems for the Dallas defense, only sprinkling in those read-options plays a few more times throughout the game.

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In the second quarter we got another dose of the read-option from the Chiefs. This time there was no pitchman; instead, the Chiefs work out of the Pistol with Heavy or Tank personnel on the field (2 TE-2 RB-1 WR). The fullback is going to pull and help set the edge on the right side while the rest of the line (with the exception of the playside tight end), block left to help open rush lanes for Charles. As they did for most of the game, the unblocked defensive end crashes on Charles, freeing up Smith to get a positive eight yard gain on the play.

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***

USATSI_7436472_154512334_lowresSmith has always been able to make plays with his legs and he racked up over 700 yards on the ground during his seven years with the 49ers. But his dual-threat ability has never been more pronounced than it is right now. With his very conservative approach to passing, being able to hurt the defense on the ground isn’t so much a luxury for Smith, but instead a necessity for his team to operate as efficiently as possible. It’s why Jim Harbuagh opted to stick with the more dynamic Kaepernick.

Eliminating the tendency to dink-and-dunk their way down the field by incorporating some read-option elements to an already strong running game gives the Chiefs the most dynamic offense that they’ve had in years. A season ago, it would have been hard to imagine Alex Smith’s implementation into an offense leading to a diversification in your offense’s options, but it goes to show that a little creativity in your scheme can go along way in furthering the effectiveness of its weapons.

2013 NFL Previews: NFC South

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brees

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are the only team in their division that won’t be substantially better this season. Of course, it’s hard to improve on 13-3, but instead of making improvements or even holding steady, the Falcons took steps back this off-season while their division foes got stronger. John Abraham and Dunta Robinson are gone and in to replace them are Osi Umenyiora and rookie Desmond Trufant, a fairly large dropoff at least in the first year of the transition. Right tackle Mike Johnson is also gone, as he’s done for the year with a fractured fibula. The only upgrade the the Falcons made this off-season was signing Steven Jackson to takeover as the primary back, filling the void of Michael Turner. Jackson is a better player, but the reason Turner lost effectiveness was because the miles on his legs piled up, and Jackson is not exactly a spring chicken.

Atlanta still has the makings of a tremendous passing offense, as Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez combine to give Matt Ryan a ton of options allover the field. That said, the offensive line is going to be a question mark this season, and may impede Ryan’s ability to get the ball downfield to his receivers on a frequent basis. Center Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo is gone and Sam Baker is an iffy left tackle and most of their replacements are either new or unproven. The Falcons will still put up points, but against teams with good passrushes, Ryan is going to be under a lot more pressure than he was last season, and, according to ProFootballFocus, Ryan only completed 55% of his passes when under pressure last season.

The Falcons don’t have a cupcake schedule this season, either. Along with every team in their division being better than last season, they also play the loaded NFC West, host the Redskins and Patriots and go to Green Bay to face the Packers. Going up against so many teams that can air it out with a poor secondary will also hurt the Falcons, and despite having one of the best seasons in their franchise’s history last year, I see the Falcons taking a step backwards this season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6 and another disappointing post-season

Worst-case scenario: 7-9 as they lose all of the close games that they managed to win last season

Prediction: 8-8 and a long look in the rearview mirror at their missed opportunities

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were incredibly unlucky last season, losing a string of close games, mostly due to the incompetence of head coach Ron Rivera. While Rivera is still in town, one possession loses tend to even out over time, and the Panthers are 2-12 in such games since Cam Newton came to town. If the ball bounced differently in a few of those close games, the Panthers could have made a push for the wild card. They finished the season 5-1 and showed a lot of promise on both sides of the field, setting the stage for a big year in 2013.

The only thing that has me holding back on my excitement for the Panthers this season is the idea that new offensive coordinator Mike Shula may be limiting or completely removing the read-option from the playbook. I’d guess that the basis of this decision is wanting to keep Newton healthy, because there’s no other logical reason to abolish what was a productive part of the playbook last season. And even then, wanting to preserve the franchise quarterback’s health is not going to prevent San Fransisco, Seattle and even Washington from running the read-option a ton this season, so it would behoove the Panthers to reconsider if they do indeed plan on eliminating the read-option from the playsheet.

Outside of that, the Panthers have constructed an interesting roster with a ton of prowess in the running game and some solid options on the outside. Steve Smith has lacked a star complement for the majority of his career, but the trio of Brandon LaFell, tight end Greg Olsen and off-season addition Domenik Hixon should give Newton a few solid options that manage to open up the field a bit for Smith to find space. The Panthers may have one of the worst secondaries in football, but they have assembled a monster passrush headed by Charles Johnson, and their defense is anchored by stud Luke Kuechly, who may be the best middle linebacker in football. They’ll give up a lot of points, but they have an offense that can survive in shootouts and they should have better luck in games that come down to the wire.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, A savior emerges in the secondary and the Panthers ride Cam Newton into the post-season

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Newton doesn’t evolve and the defense gets lit up

Prediction: 10-6, Newton has a career year and Kuechly wins Defensive Player of the Year

New Orleans Saints

I’m not sure there’s an easier bet for a rebound season than the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton returning from his one year suspension, Drew Brees should return to form after having a bit of a down year last season and when Brees is on his game, he’s right there in that elite group of quarterbacks with Rodgers, Brady and Manning that can lift their teams to new heights even if there are some deficiencies with the roster. That said, of those four guys, Brees is easily the one that will have the toughest job to do as he’ll have to score enough points to make up for what will likely be the worst defense in football. Most quarterbacks would be condemned by having such a horrible unit as their counterpart, but Brees is good enough to make a post-season birth for the Saints a possibility regardless.

Rob Ryan is the third most important man in the building for the Saints. With Will Smith out for the season and Jonathan Vilma expected to miss at least half of the season, Ryan’s schemes will have to make up for a dearth of talent. While he has a reputation for having a great defensive mind, his schemes produced an average defense in Dallas despite having a ton of talent to work with, so who knows how well his journey with this underwhelming bunch will go. At the end of the day, if Ryan can manufacture some kind of a passrush on third down and put his defensive backs in positions to produce turnovers, it will be enough. Giving up a ton of points isn’t the biggest problem in the world with Brees on your side.

At Brees’ side is a familiar cast of playmakers. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are the primary receivers on the outside and Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football given what has transpired in New England over the past few months. Two new wideouts could burst onto the scene this season as well. Second year player Nick Toon, a 6’4″ receiver with great ball skills, and rookie Kenny Stills, a speedster that could become the new Devery Henderson this season, figure to get a lot of looks in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense. Supplementing Brees’ arm will be a trio of backs: Darren Sproles (the pass threat), Mark Ingram (the power runner) and Pierre Thomas (a little bit of both). It will be a tough task, but if there is any team that can score enough to make up for a horrid defense, it’s this team.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, The offense explodes and Ryan uses illusions to create a successful defense

Worst-case scenario: 7-9, The defense is too much to overcome

Prediction: 10-6 and a trip back to the post-season for Brees and the Saints

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are a popular sleeper team this season and for good reason. They have built a very good defensive unit and have found some foundational pieces on the offensive side of the ball that have them ready to compete in one of the tougher divisions in football.

It may have been a bit risky to shell out so much for a player coming off of an ACL injury, but if Darrelle Revis comes back and is 75% of his former self, he’ll be able to shut down a side of the field each and every Sunday for the Bucs. Behind Revis is one of the best safety duos in football with strong safety Mark Barron and new free safety Dashon Goldson taking the place of Ronde Barber. Barron is tremendous against the run and has shown some fashes of being a solid pass defender and Goldson had a career year against the pass last year. On the line, Tampa Bay has one of the most disruptive forces in football: nose tackle Gerald McCoy. A monster against the run, if he can get more pressure on the QB this season, Tampa will be a force to be reckoned with defensively.

Running back Doug Martin, coming off of an incredible rookie season that gets overlooked, as it should, because of the unfathomable success of Luck, RGIII and Wilson, will be the linchpin of Tampa’s offense this season. A solid passing attack should complement him with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Kevin Ogletree on the outside for Josh Freeman to throw the ball to. Jackson and Williams were a tremendous duo last season and they are both able to stretch the field vertically, giving the offense a pair of homerun threats.

The reason the Bucs won’t be able to make the post-season? In a loaded conference in which each team has a franchise quarterback in place, Freeman acts as a microcosm for the Bucs. They are teedling in the middle between a playoff team and below average just as Freeman hangs in the balance between being a solid starting quarterback and out of a job next season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Freeman comes through and the defense raises to an elite level

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Freeman is outed as a bust and Mike Glennon gets snaps late in the season

Prediction: 9-7, Competition for a wild card spot falls just short, but the path to the post-season is discovered

2013 NFL Previews: AFC West

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manning

Denver Broncos

The Broncos would have had a picture perfect off-season were it not for Von Miller’s six-game suspension that will leave the Broncos without their top defensive player for a few of their tougher games. The Broncos also lost Elvis Dumervil this off-season, which will only make the absence of Miller look worse in the coming weeks. On top of that, cornerback Champ Bailey won’t play tonight in the team’s season opener against the Ravens because of a foot injury. Last year the Broncos had tremendous luck with their defense in regards to injuries, with nearly all of their starters making it through the entire season without missing a game. They’re already missing a few key names this season, and while it’s not all because of injury, if their luck changes this season, it may do enough damage to knock the Broncos down a peg from being an elite defense to being merely a good one.

Of course, if your top issue is possible regression to a stout defense and your quarterback is Peyton Manning, I’m sure there are worst situations that you could be in. If the Broncos defense regresses any this season, it may be offset in the improvement of their offense. The Broncos already had one of the best receiver tandems in football with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and they killed two birds with one stone this off-season by signing Wes Welker away from the Patriots to act as the superstar version of Brandon Stokely in Manning’s offense while also stealing away Tom Brady’s top threat.

The Broncos ran the ball pretty well last season despite the lack of a dynamic back, but Manning’s offenses have always been able to run the ball at a decent clip because of how much attention the defense has to pay to the passing game. Denver could be an even better rushing team this season with the addition of Montee Ball to give the Broncos a trio of useful backs with Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman. This is far from an elite group, but it should be a productive one that complements Denver’s top-of-the-line passing game and effectively ices games that Manning and his receivers put away early.

When you play in a division as bad as the AFC West and you have Manning at quarterback, you essentially start the season with six wins. Given that, it’s virtually impossible to see the Broncos missing the post-season in 2013.

Best-case scenario: 13-3, If they win tonight and the senior Manning wins the Manning bowl in week two, it’s tough to see Denver losing any games except at Indy, at New England and at Houston

Worst-case scenario: 10-6, The only way they miss the playoffs is if Manning gets hurt

Prediction: 12-4 and a final post-season run for Peyton?

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are as good a candidate as any to have a Colt-like turn around, going from having the number one overall pick to competing for a playoff spot. Like the Colts, the Chiefs upgraded the two most important positions in the game this off-season, replacing Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn with Alex Smith and Romeo Crennel with Andy Reid. Now, the upgrade from Cassel to Smith isn’t as drastic as the upgrade from Curtis Painters to Andrew Luck, but it’s still significant. Smith had actually emerged into a very solid quarterback last season before he was benched for Colin Kaepernick, which is nothing to be ashamed about, and it will be interesting to see how he transitions from having a coach that had him on a bit of a leash to a coach like Reid that tends to let his quarterbacks run wild.

In addition to adding Smith, the Chiefs shored up their offensive line by drafting Eric Fisher with the number one overall pick in the line. So, at least for a season, the Chiefs will have a powerful tackle duo of Fisher and Brandon Albert, who the team tried to trade without finding a seeker. For an edge runner like Jamaal Charles, having two strong run blocking tackles is going to give him the full field to work with on stretch plays and once Charles is propelled into space he becomes one of the most dangerous players in the league. While Reid became notorious for ignoring his dynamic, shifty and explosive running back in Philly, Charles should get a substantial workload this season. Dwayne Bowe should be in for a monster season with a pass-heavy scheme installed and a solid quarterback at the helm. The weakness of the offense would definitely be the lack of a secondary playmaker outside the hashes, as Donnie Avery figures to be the #2 receiver this year.

Reid decided to keep the base 3-4 defensive scheme when he arrived in Kansas City. Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson is one of the best defensive players in the league at reading run and finding his way to the point of attack to plug the hole. Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali are the anchors of this defense. While Johnson gives offenses fits by slowing their run game and contributing fairly well in pass coverage, Hali is a diruptive edgerusher that opponents are forced to scheme for. With the emergence of Justin Houston, a third round pick out of Georgia in 2011, as a tremendous pass rusher in his own right, the Chiefs have assembled a pretty solid linebacker corp.

The secondary will be the key to how much success the Chiefs will have this season. Last year their corners struggled to make any kind of an impact in the run game, and once offenses keyed on getting someone to the second level to deal with stud Eric Berry, they were able to gash Kansas City’s defense. With the exception of Berry, who is one of the best safeties in all of football, and lockdown corner Brandon Flowers, the Chiefs are relying on some new faces to make an impact this season. Sean Smith, formely of the Dolphins, was brought in to complement Flowers, and he has the talent to be productive. Kansas City also brought in Dunta Robinson, once a star corner for the Texans, who could get some looks in the slot or even as a safety at some point this season.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Major strides for the offense and defense help the Chiefs contend for a playoff spot

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Without Jim Harbaugh holding his leash, Alex Smith finds his way into traffic and becomes roadkill

Prediction: 8-8 and a step in the right direction for Andy Reid’s new franchise

Oakland Raiders

Here’s all you need to know about the 2013 Raiders: On April 2nd they traded starting quarterback Carson Palmer to the Cardinals for a pair of late draft picks and then traded for Matt Flynn to replace him. On April 27th they took Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson in the fourth round of the draft. On September 1st, Oakland waived Wilson, who went unclaimed and is now on the Oakland practice squad. On September 2nd, the San Fransisco Chronicle reported that Terrelle Pryor, whom the Raiders drafted in the 2011 Supplemental Draft, had won the starting job over Flynn and would start this Sunday. And just moments before I started writing this preview, I saw this report on NFL.com that says that people inside the Raiders organization don’t have faith in Pryor and instead believe Matthew McGloin, an undrafted free agent that stole Wilson’s roster spot in training camp, gives the team the best chance to win.

Al Davis must be rolling over in his grave.

Best-case scenario: 0-16 and a shot at Bridgewater or Boyd

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Pryor wins the job and read-options his way to a few wins, robbing Oakland of a much needed top selection

Prediction: 2-14 and a chance to ruin Teddy Ballgame’s NFL career before it even begins

San Diego Chargers

This is clearly a rebuilding year for the Chargers as they usher in a new coach in Mike McCoy and a new general manager in Tom Telesco, but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be terrible. I still haven’t given up on the idea that Philip Rivers is a quality starting quarterback and I’m leaning more towards his team’s lack of success being the absolute lack of a run game, a poor offensive line and a porous defense.

That run game is still a question mark, but San Diego brought over Danny Woodhead to go with Ryan Matthews, giving the Chargers a dynamic backfield that may not be tremendous on the ground but will definitely make an impact in the passing game. The receiving corp was poised to be a threat this year, too, but a pre-season injury to Danario Alexander, perhaps the best deep threat in the league last year, leaves the Chargers without one of their top options. Even still, Rivers should have some quality targets to throw to with the underrated Malcom Floyd, rookie Keenan Allen and slot man Eddie Royal lining up next to the declining but still productive Antonio Gates.

San Diego’s front seven on defense actually looks good in theory, but who knows if they’ll actually show up on the field. The excitement level for the defense dropped when Melvin Ingram, a budding star that played allover the field as a joker last season, tore his ACL in camp. D.J. Smith should be a solid pick-up for this team as a blitzer from the linebacker spot but he too is looking to fully recover from a serious knee injury. The secondary lost their two top corners this off-season – Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer – but they both had underwhelming years and a change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Derek Cox, coming over from the Jaguars, and Shareece Wright, who hasn’t played much after being drafted by San Diego in the third round in 2011, will both start on the outside. If they don’t give the defense a boost, at least playmaking safety Eric Weddle will be able to bail out the defense a few times with an interception or a big play in the run game.

Best-case scenario: 8-8, McCoy, who once ran a successful offense with Tim Tebow as the quarterback, gets Rivers back on track and the Chargers enter the off-season with hope for the future

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Rivers loses a step and it becomes clear that San Diego’s rebuilding job won’t be over until they find a new quarterback

Prediction: 6-10, Subtle improvements for a team that’s better off having a down year while Peyton Manning reigns over the division

2013 NFL Previews: AFC South

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luck

Houston Texans

Somehow the Texans managed to have their best season in franchise history last year, which included one of the greatest individual defensive performances ever by J.J. Watt, while finishing the year as if they hadn’t made any progress at all. They stumbled their way through their first round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and were handled with ease by the Patriots in Foxboro in round two. The Texans may have had a better shot if that game was in their building, but they cost themselves homefield advantage by losing three of their last four games including a 23-6 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Houston’s biggest off-season acquisition is Brian Cushing, who is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in October. Cushing’s fill-ins were passable at times, but when you lose someone as terrific in both facets of the game as Cushing, getting a passable contribution in his place takes your team down a peg. Cushing is going to have to be brilliant this season as Houston hopes to replace stud Connor Barwin and Bradie James (a very good pass defender) with some young and unproven talent. The talent is plentiful, though. Few edge rushers possess more potential than Whitney Mercilus, and the Texans are giving him a big role this season in the wake of Barwin, though he’s going to have to make a difference in the run game to have a successful season. If Mercilus struggles against the run, expect rookie Sam Montgomery to get some run, as he displayed great instincts against the run at LSU. I’m also expecting big things from Jared Crick, who shows great power and feel when guarding the run.

Cushing’s return also helps the Texans’ pass defense because he’s very good at covering the middle of the field, but Houston is also counting on another return this season to help out their passing game: Jonathan Joseph. Joseph was deeply affected by injuries last season and it had a large impact on Houston’s scheme. If Joseph is healthy, the Texans can go back to putting Joseph at the line of scrimmage rather than giving receivers a cushion to make up for his inability to turn his hips and get up field. A healthy Joseph combined with the much-improved Kareem Jackson makes for one of the best cornerback duos in the league, and if Ed Reed has any more plays left in his tank to make, it will be tough finding open gaps in the Texans secondary. The one question mark will be how Glover Quin is replaced. Going by the numbers, Quin was the best coverage man on the team last season, and rookie D.J. Swearinger will be asked to hold his own in coverage and as a thumper at the line of scrimmage.

Offensively the Texans aren’t a ton different than they were last season. They lost James Casey to the Eagles and long-time WR2 Kevin Walters is with the Titans. The biggest addition for Houston would be DeAndre Hopkins, who they selected with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft. Hopkins isn’t a burner but he has nice size and hands and will give Andre Johnson, still a top three receiver in the game, the most dynamic partner he’s ever had. Is that enough to boost Houston’s average offense from 2012 to new heights in 2013? I don’t know, and I’m not entirely sure that Arian Foster is still good enough to carry an offense. Foster had guady touchdown numbers in 2012, but he was very average on a per play basis, and highly regarded back-up Ben Tate wasn’t much better.

And then there’s the question about Matt Schaub’s viability as a Super Bowl quarterback. This is always the hardest pill to swallow when I try to talk myself into the Texans being a title contender, and if he couldn’t outduel Tom Brady in Foxboro last season, what’s going to change that this season (aside from the defense bailing him out)? Houston’s defense is going to keep them in virtually every game they play in, but it’s been over a decade since a team with a “good” quarterback won it all. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if it happens, it’s going to be on the shoulders of J.J. Watt, not on the arm of Schaub or the legs of Foster.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, A repeat of last season with the veterans staying healthy throughout

Worst-case scenario: 9-7, Schaub takes a stepback and Watt misses time

Prediction: 10-6, Another tremendous season for a once downtrodden franchise, but will they ever reach the next step?

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were the benefactor of some very odd happenings last season. From Andrew Luck leading the league in dropped interceptions to the #ChuckStrong movement that helped Indy capture a couple of wins that had just as much to do with emotion as it did with the talent level of their team. If, say, the Titans had put together an 11-5 season under the exact same circumstances as the Colts did last year, I’d be forecasting regression, but with this Colts team, I can’t help but see them maintaining the pace that they set last season.

Though his 11 wins matched Russell Wilson’s and one-upped Robert Griffin, Luck really wasn’t on the same level as his fellow rookies last season in terms of overall production. An seemingly obvious reason for that would be that Luck didn’t threaten defenses with his legs the same way that Griffin and Wilson did. While it’s true that Luck didn’t punish defenses the same way that Luck and Griffin did – with that hip read-option – Luck was every bit as good as both in the run game last season. According to Football Outsiders, Luck ranked third in the NFL amongst QBs in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) behind Wilson (2nd) and in front of Griffin (5th).

No, the reason that Luck was a little behind Griffin and Wilson last season was because he wasn’t as good with his arm. Luck only completed 55% of his passes, flirted with a healthy dose of completions to the opposition and ended up with 17 picks, the fourth most in the league.

I only paint this grim picture of Luck’s otherwise tremendous rookie season to illustrate how much better he can be in this upcoming season. The Colts had a merely average offense last season and they made moves this off-season to bolster their depth. First and foremost, Indy went out and improved their awful offensive line, which had a lot to do with Luck’s rushed decisions last year. The Colts signed guard Donald Thomas away from the Patriots and inked former Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus to a lucrative deal before drafting tackle Hugh Thornton and interior lineman Khaled Holmes in the third and fourth rounds respectively.

At the skill positions the Colts added Darrius Heyward-Bey to add an explosive vertical threat to a group of talented receivers and running back Ahmad Bradshaw to give them a number one back. Bradshaw was quietly tremendous last season and is exactly the kind of back that can thrive in Indy’s spread out offense. The Colts played with four wide outs and in singleback sets as much as anybody last season and they threw the ball a ton. Bradshaw is capable of making a difference in the passing game and he’s great on draw runs, which are the kind of plays that Indy will throw in there to change up the pace. With Vick Ballard now acting as Bradshaw’s back-up, a more natural role for him, the Colts will have quality depth at running back to go along with their loaded cast of pass catchers at receiver and tight end.

Provided Luck makes a leap forward this season, the defense is the only thing that will hold Indy back from having a huge year. Provided they can stay healthy, the Vontae Davis and Greg Toler cornerback combo will give the Colts a much better duo on the outside than they had to begin last season, and LaRon Landry will be a massive upgrade if, you know, he can stay healthy. Indy also added two very good defensive tackles in Ricky Jean-Francois and Aubrayo Franklin that will give the Colts a strong inside presence against the run, but the rest of their font seven is still iffy.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The offense becomes elite and the defense improves marginally

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Those dropped interceptions are caught this time around, and the defense continues to struggle

Prediction: 11-5 and back-to-back post-season appearances for Andrew Luck

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville will have a very interesting decision to make in a few months from now between Teddy Bridgewater, Jadaveon Clowney and perhaps Tajh Boyd if he plays well enough to become a top prospect. That’s pretty much the only thing that matters for the Jaguars this season. On the field, management has to be hoping that Blaine Gabbert doesn’t have a fluky season and somehow wins five games. This season is all about clearing cap, setting Justin Blackmon straight and preparing to select a franchise player in the first round of next year’s draft. They desperately need a quarterback, but Clowney is the kind of gamechanger that can anchor a defense for a decade, so deciding on Clowney isn’t so bad if they follow it up with another dreadful season in 2014 that allows them to go after Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota in the 2015 Draft.

Best-case scenario: 0-16 and the number one overall pick

Worst-case scenario: 5-11 and the seventh overall pick

Prediction: 3-13 and the number two overall pick

Tennessee Titans

If there’s a quarterback in the league that needs to have the read-option implemented to make him a valuable quarterback, it might be Jake Locker. It is clear that Locker will never be an elite passer, but he’s not even a good one at this point, so allowing him to take advantage of the athletic ability that made him such a good player at Washington would be a smart idea, and the Titans even have a speedy running back in Chris Johnson that could gash defenses that fall for the misdirection. Unfortunately, outside of some elements of the pistols potentially being added to the playbook, the Titans don’t appear to making the read-option a staple of their offense, which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

Tennessee won’t get the most out of its offense until Locker shows he can win with his arm (or his legs), so this might be yet another down season for CJ2k. On the brightside, the Titans went out and added Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker, three very good blockers that should help open up rush lanes for Johnson, who was often tackled in the backfield on plays that had no chance from the get-go last season. Outside of Johnson getting in the open field, though, the Titans offense is going to lack excitement and production. With an inexperienced front seven and an iffy secondary, this is going to be a bad year for the Titans, and they’ll need to make a splash in next year’s draft to become a good team anytime soon. Assuming the off-the-field stuff scares other teams off, may I suggest Johnny Manziel to quarterback this team? At least then they’d have to start running the read-option.

Best-case scenario: 4-12 and a top five pick

Worst-case scenario: 7-9 and Locker fools the front office into giving him another shot

Prediction: 6-10 and mediocrity in a year when they’d rather be awful

2013 NFL Previews: NFC North

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rodgers

Chicago Bears

The Bears lost two key figures this off-season: head coach Lovie Smith and long-time franchise cornerstone and defensive anchor in their famed Tampa-2 system Brian Urlacher. Urlacher retired this off-season after the Bears failed to budge on their offer of $2.5 million for last season with Urlacher and Smith was fired after nine seasons of defensive brilliance and offensive apathy.

While his offenses were always comically incompetent, Smith’s defenses were consistently great, ranking #1 in both pass and rush defense last season by a wide margin according to Football Outsiders. The defense should be tremendous again this season under new head coach Marc Trestman, whom the Bears plucked from the CFL, but you have to wonder how good the Bears could have been had they ever found an offensive coordinator that could complement Smith’s defensive units with a productive offense.

Similar to soon-to-be-televangelist Ray Lewis, Urlacher’s loss will likely have a larger effect on the team’s culture rather than their play on the field. The Bears did a solid job re-stocking the linebacking core by signing D.J. Williams away from the Broncos and drafting Jon Bostic out of Florida in the second round to complement Lance Briggs. Nick Roach was the bigger loss for the Bears defense this off-season; Roach was iffy against the run last season but few outside linebackers around the league held up better in the pass game than Roach did last season.

On the other side of the ball, this is a make-or-break year for Jay Cutler. A big reason Cutler was so bad last season was his awful offensive line not giving him any time to make proper reads or even getting fully into his drops, but he still shows flaws for a veteran quarterback. To help give Cutler a cleaner pocket the Bears went out and got Jermon Bushrod from the Saints, drafted guard Kyle Long with their first round pick and took projected starting right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round.

If Cutler has time to throw, he’s bound to find someone that can make plays on the outside. Brandon Marshall is one of the most reliable receivers in football, Alshon Jeffery has flashed potential as a great number two receiver opposite of Marshall, even if he’s more of a possession guy than a defense stretching speedster, Martellus Bennett will give the Bears a big target up the seams and few running backs can hurt defenses in as many ways as Matt Forte.

The tools are all there for Cutler to utilize, and if his line protects him this season, it’s up to him to prove he’s an elite quarterback, or Chicago may be in the market for a signal caller next summer.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Cutler has a career year and the defense dominates

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Cutler fails to deliver and the defense struggles to find a new leader

Prediction: 7-9 and a quarterback search in the summer

Detroit Lions

The Lions are one of the sexiest teams in the league entering the 2013 season, which is odd for a team coming off of a 4-12 season. But Detroit was subjected to some bad luck that isn’t likely to beset them again and they’ve made some improvements to cover up the major blemishes that cost them big last season. They’ve rotated some new lineman in to infiltrate what was an underproductive group in 2012, they drafted Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor to help make up for the loss of Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch and they drafted cornerback Darius Slay out of Mississippi State and signed safety Glover Quin away from The Texans to help sure up the secondary.

To be sure, those aren’t perfect remedies and Detroit will be far from perfect on the offensive line and against the pass this year, but they also have one of the best defensive lines in football and an offense that should rank amongst the best in the league at scoring points.

Last season Matthew Stafford essentially replicated his monstrous 2011 season according to the all the advanced metrics, leaving behind just one incredibly large discrepancy between the past two seasons: 21 touchdowns. A lot of this has to do with that bad luck I mentioned, but it was still odd to see Stafford go from 41 touchdowns in 2011 to 20 touchdowns while throwing for roughly the same amount of yards and without a jump in interceptions. As I’m sure anybody that owned Calvin Johnson in their fantasy league would know, Johnson was tackled at the one-yardline six times last season, an unfathomable stat for a 6’5″ guy that could probably gain five yards just by falling forward.

The Stafford-Johnson duo, with a little Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew (Bedlam!) mixed in, helped lift the Lions to a top 10 finish in total offense despite the lack of a clear-cut number one running back. That said, Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure were not all that bad last season, and they provide excellent depth for Detroit now that the Lions have Reggie Bush as the starter. Bush is not an every down back but the Lions don’t need him to be with Bell and Leshoure behind him, and Bush acts as a dynamic playmaker that can catch the ball out of the backfield and operate well as a fluid cutter in a spread offense.

The Lions are very much a boom-or-bust team with the way they like to sling the ball around the field and with the iffy state of their secondary (although I’m a big Chris Houston fan), and also in regards to their, shall we say, “interesting” personalities and firecracker (but probably not good) coach. But of all the risks you are taking with the Lions, health is the number one issue. If Stafford, Bush and the key players on defense can stay healthy, this team has a chance to have a dominant offense and a scary, if overall average, defense because of their front four of Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bush gives the offense a dynamic dimension and the passrush helps out the secondary

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Bush and Stafford miss a few games and the Vikings are suckered into giving Ponder another year because of his two games against the Lions (remember Matt Flynn?)

Prediction: 9-7 and I’m not totally sure Jim Schwartz doesn’t get fired anyways

Green Bay Packers

Because of how entertaining the new class of young quarterbacks is and because of how entertaining the hip new offenses those guys are running are, the Packers have rolled under the radar this off-season. Part of it is because of the disheartening way that the 49ers handled them both in the regular season (when Alex Smith was the starter) and in the post-season (when Colin Kaepernick made a mockery of their defense), leaving us with a sour taste in our mouths regarding the Packers, and part of it is because Tom Brady’s imploding supporting cast has dominated the headlines amongst long-standing superstar quarterbacks.

But that doesn’t mean that Aaron Rodgers isn’t still the best quarterback in football, and it doesn’t mean that the Packers aren’t still one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC. I’m not totally sure that the Packers present as dynamic and dangerous of an attack as the Seahawks and Niners do and I’m pretty sure their defense is a notch below (though still very good), but what I am certain of is that Rodgers is the kind of guy that’s going to look back on the past two seasons as total failures and comeback strong this season, desperate to remind people that he’s the best in the business.

And he’ll be well equipped to do that. Despite the loss of Greg Jennings, the Packers still have Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the outside, Jermichael Finley at tight end and Randall Cobb in the slot. Cobb is the key here, as his versatile skillset makes him an asset in every facet of the game. Green Bay has a package filled with plays just for Cobb, lining him up in various different spots on the field and finding ways to get him the ball in space to allow him to work. Just about every receiver the Packers put on the field is capable of getting open on their own merit, but Green Bay also schemes their players open extremely well, which means they can plug-and-play just about anybody and expect Rodgers to make them a threat.

Green Bay was able to put up the third best passing offense in the league last season (according to Football Outsiders) despite a running game that was just average. To change the equation and to give themselves a multifacted attack, the Packers used second and fourth round picks on Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. While Lacy has the bulky frame of the duo, Franklin is also a physical back, giving the Packers a pair of punishing groundhogs. Lacy will be the starter this season and he’s the better player. While Franklin has a bit more speed, Lacy is far from a snail and his ability to catch the ball will surely make Rodgers happy to finally have a reliable dumpoff option coming out of the backfield.

With a sturdy defense that has only fallen short over the past few years because of injuries, the Packers should dominate their division this season. The only question left is whether or not they have the personnel and the scheme to slow the dual-threat quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III they are sure to see in the post-season. If they can hold up against the mobile QBs, they’ll have a spot in the Super Bowl waiting for them.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The running game flourishes and the defense establishes continuity

Worst-case scenario: 8-8, Injuries overcome the roster and sideline Rodgers for a few games

Prediction: 11-5 and a meeting with Kaepernick and company to decide who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl

Minnesota Vikings

Here’s how good Adrian Peterson was last season: Each week I’d go back and re-watch every Vikings game to see him play even though I knew there would be some Christian Ponder plays mixed in. In all seriousness, Peterson looked like one of the best running backs of all-time last season, ripping off a ridiculous six yards a carry despite the fact that everybody knew he was getting the ball and loaded the box to stop him.

He was elusive and nimble when he needed to be, picking his gaps with the surgical precision of Dr. James Andrews, and a powerful brute when he was man-on-man with a linebacker. He came ever so close to setting the record for rushing yards in a season, all just months removed from watching his knee snap like a broken pencil. It’s pretty crazy that Peterson could have a 2,097 yard season and then set his goal at 2,500 yards for the next season as if he was disappointed. And it’s even more crazy that it’s not a total impossibility.

The only thing standing in his way is a lackluster passing game once again subjecting him to more loaded fronts and specially prepared schemes. Minnesota attempted to make life easier on Peterson by re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton (Peterson owes Felton a nice Rolex for the tremendous work he did in the trenches last year, somewhat offsetting the numbers advantage that defenses would have) and by acquiring a pair of talented wide receivers. Of course, as good as Greg Jennings was with the Packers, Percy Harvin is inarguably a better football player, and as tantalizing as Cordarrelle Patterson’s frame and footspeed make him, I’m not confident in Ponder’s ability to consistently find either one of them downfield. Ponder only excelled when making short, quick passes to Harvin and getting the ball to Kyle Rudolph in the redzone last season, and hasn’t show the ability to toss the ball past the first down marker with accuracy.

Minnesota’s expectations for this season were raised when Peterson put the team on his back and carried them to an improbable playoff appearance, but it’s more likely that this is another transition year for the Vikings rather than a step towards Super Bowl contention. The defense will be better with the addition of rookies Xavier Rhodes and Jacob Lacey to the secondary and first round pick Sharrif Floyd should look great at the defensive tackle spot in Minnesota’s 4-3, but this unit is not yet complete enough to be considered a strength. And even if the defense did take a major step forward in 2013, it would all be for not if Ponder doesn’t exceed expectations. Unfortunately, the question, at least in my mind, is not ‘Will Ponder ever become an above average starter?’ but instead ‘Will the Vikings realize Ponder isn’t the answer sooner rather than later?’.

Best-case scenario: 9-5, Peterson has another monster season and the defense creates turnovers

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Ponder doesn’t connect with either of his vertical threats and the secondary gets burned in a pass-heavy division

Prediction: 6-10 and more flirting with the history books from Peterson

2013 NFL Previews: AFC North

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green

Baltimore Ravens

Last season, the Ravens were the latest team to accomplish what has now become a somewhat regular feat in the NFL, making a dramatic run to a Super Bowl victory despite having a mediocre regular season. It’s still crazy to look back at the things that the Ravens did last year to win it all. While the perception of the Ravens over the last decade has been that they are a smash mouth defensive team, Baltimore won in spite of their defense last season. Ray Lewis’ swan song got the headlines, but by season’s end he was hurting the Ravens more than he was helping them.

What their Super Bowl victory came down to, aside from Jimmy Smith holding Michael Crabtree on the biggest play of the game, was Joe Flacco having the best stretch of his career under Jim Caldwell. The Ravens made a shocking decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after Week 15, which turned out to be crucial in propelling the Ravens to a Super Bowl.

But don’t expect a repeat, though. Baltimore’s already below average defense lost several key players (not including Lewis) including Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams and the offense also one of the key players on their title team: Anquan Boldin. Now the Ravens will be relying on Jacoby Jones to hold up on the outside as their number two receiver even though he’s been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career. Torrey Smith is nice, but he’s not a superstar #1 receiver that demands double teams. With Dennis Pitta sidelined for most of the season with a fractured hip, defenses are going to key in on Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, and Flacco’s first season as the face of the franchise may not go so well.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Rice and Pierce dominate the run game and scheme covers up for a lack of defensive talent

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, The offense lacks verticality and the defense suffers through a down year

Prediction: 7-9, Not totally unlike the Giants of recent years, Baltimore will follow up an average season that finished with a bang with an average season that finishes with a whimper

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have put together a talented roster with playmakers on both sides of the ball and superstars to give them the foundation of a potential playoff threat. But despite the brilliance of A.J. Green and the best defensive line in football, this team can’t reach the next level without their quarterback taking a step up. The Bengals had a great shot take out the Texans in the first round of the playoffs last year as their defense put them in a position to move on, but the offense simply couldn’t move the ball, due in large part to Andy Dalton’s inability to throw his man open or get the ball down the field with accuracy.

This is a big year for Dalton. If he hadn’t had Green alongside him to make him look better, he would have looked like a disaster over the past couple of seasons. Dalton is an OK quarterback with an average skillset, but that’s simply not enough in today’s NFL where a QB with an average skillset is probably a below average quarterack relative to his peers. Dalton can manage games well, but even then he isn’t immune to poor reads and mistakes, and he simply hasn’t show any ability to raise the production of his teammates.

Knowing this, Cincinnati went out and got themselves a couple more young offensive weapons in the first two rounds of the draft. In the first round the Bengals picked up Tyler Eifert, a big tight end that can work well with Jermaine Gresham in two tight end sets, and Giovani Bernard, a dynamic and shifty back that can make plays out of the backfield and provides a stark contrast to starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With Andre Hawkins playing somewhat of a Randall Cobb-role in the slot and Mohamed Sanu complementing Green, the Bengals actually have some talent on the offensive side of the ball.

If the Bengals can get more out of their offense this season, they’ll be primed for a big year. They have an underrated secondary that should get a boost out of second year corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed most of his rookie season due to injuries, a solid linebacking core with the emerging Vontaze Burfict and free agent additions James Harrison and Aaron Maybin leading the way, and they have one of the scariest front sevens in the league. With Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers on the ends and Geno Atkins and Domata Peko at the tackles, there is no better combination of passrushing and run plugging defensive linemen in football. Were it not for J.J. Watt having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, more folks would have picked up on Atkins having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, at least for a nose tackle. On top of getting 13 sacks, Atkins also ranked fifth in the league according to Football Outsiders against the run, stopping 86% of the rush attempts that came his way.

The Bengals have done a really good job building a complete roster, with the exception of securing a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for them, having that franchise quarterback is the number one requirement to be a Super Bowl contender, and it doesn’t seem like Dalton is the guy that will lead them to the promise land.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Dalton takes advantage of his weapons and the defense remains strong

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Dalton turns out not to be the answer and the secondary gets picked apart

Prediction: 9-7, I think Dalton can get this team back to the playoffs, but the ceiling of this team is just about that unless he takes a big step forward.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have seemingly identified and acquired talent some of the most important positions in the game over the past few years, but as their subtle acquisitions pile up, their search for a quarterback continues to go on without an answer. Joe Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the league, Joe Haden is one of the best coverage corners in football, D’Qwell Jackson provides the defense with a very good captain in the middle of the field at linebacker and Trent Richardson appears to have the makings of a franchise running back, a throwback runner that can handle the rock and take the pounding that comes with the role as an every down back.

But in the passing game, the Browns remain well behind the times. Brandon Weeden was a great quarterback during his time at Oklahoma State, but he thrived in a system that spread the field and got the ball out of the backfield as quickly as possible, which played perfectly into Weeden’s hands as someone who can fire the ball accurately and quickly when asked to make quick reads. While he needed to get drafted by a team that could start him right away because of the years he lost to baseball, the Browns were a poor fit in every other way last season, leading to an awful rookie season for Weeden. Cleveland was far from progressive offensively, and forcing Weeden to play a tranditional, throwback style that took him out of his element.

Luckily for Weeden, the Browns went out and hired Rob Chudzinski as their head coach and Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator, and both guys have histories designing and running spread offenses. Weeden has looked a lot better in the pocket during the pre-season and the addition of some quick, air-raid style passing principles could go a long ways in making Weeden more comfortable and improving the overall quality of the offense. Next on the list for the Browns would be to add a dynamic receiver that can make big plays. Right now Cleveland lacks a true number one wideout and instead has a cast of solid #2 options. If Weeden and the defense can take a step forward this season and Mike Lombardi can use his second off-season to add some playmakers and depth upfront, the Browns may have something to look forward to next season. But for now, the jury is still out on Weeden.

Best-case scenario: 8-8, Weeden gets better acquainted with the pro game and the defense finds a passrush

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, The Browns start more than one quarterback by week 10

Prediction: 7-9, Weeden shows modest improvement but the lack of playmakers remains evident

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time since I can remember, the blue collar Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t assert their will in the run game. In fact, it wasn’t even a slow decline for the Steelers, who went from having the sixth best rushing offense according to Football Outsiders in 2012 to having the second worst rushing offense in football last season. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall were the primary backs for the Steelers, and all of them produced horribly, but of course, it wasn’t all their fault. Injuries played a big part in Pittsburgh’s inability to run the ball, keeping the backs and the team’s best offensive linemen off the field.

The Steelers, who will be testing out a new outside zone blocking scheme this season, will be getting right guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey back this season at 100% after DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with a broken kneecap and Pouncey played through several nagging issues. Unfortunaley, the injury bug has already gotten to rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a lisfranc injury that will cost him the first couple of weeks of the season. Even with a healthy offensive line and an improved system, Redman and a hampered Bell is not going to remind anyone of the days when the Bus would run over everybody in his path.

Pittsburgh will also be looking to see how their receiver heirachy plays out now that Mike Wallace is with the Dolphins. The Steelers decided to spend their money on an extension for Antonio Brown last season rather than saving up to re-sign Wallace, so he left for a more lucrative offer. Brown is certainly one of the league’s more explosive outside threats, but big seasons from Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton are going to be required if this Pittsburgh offense is going to be able to overcome the loss of Wallace, Heath Miller injury (he’ll miss at least a few weeks as he recovers from his torn ACL) and a running game that is still a question mark.

It appears as if this could be a second straight down season for the Steelers as they attempt to somewhat rebuild their roster for the final years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, but they could surprise and turn up as a playoff team because Dick LeBeau is still alive and kicking at age 75, and his defensive schemes and playcalling make Pittsburgh one of the best defensive teams in the league even when they lack the raw talent. The Steelers lost Casey Hampton and James Harrison this off-season, but the Steelers have Steve McClendon and Jason Worildis waiting in the wings to replace them, and a solid unit still intact for LeBeau to coach up beyond the sum of their parts.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bell and Redman exceed expectations and Big Ben stays healthy

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Roethlisberger struggles with is annual injury and the defense pays for a lack of talent

Prediction: 7-9, One more down year in preparation for phase two of their retooling job

2013 NFL Previews: NFC East

in NFL by
dez

Dallas Cowboys

In what was a make-or-break season for the much maligned and extremely talented quarterback, of course Tony Romo would deliver mixed results. Despite having some of the advanced statistics in the league last season, Romo found a way to leave everybody with a sour taste in their mouths by throwing three interceptions in a week 17 loss to the Redskins, all but crushing Dallas’ post-season hopes. Such is the way that most of Romo’s career has gone. He’s given us tons of brilliant moments, put up the stats of an elite QB and even won a fair share of games in crunchtime, but just when you think he’s about to turn the corner for good, his next throw winds up in the hands of the opposition, often at the worst possible times for a relapse.

While 2012 was a failure for the Cowboys in that they didn’t make the playoffs, Jerry Jones didn’t react if that was the case. Though he did make a big decision to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he also remained steadfast in his commitment to Romo by handing him a rich six-year, $108 million extension ($55 million guaranteed). Despite his awful performance in the season finale, I find myself agreeing with the Cowboys decision to keep Romo around.

First of all, though $55 million is a lot of guaranteed money, even if Romo has a catastrophic breakdown that prevents him from being even a league average quarterback, Dallas can just cut ties with him in the same way that the Bills did with Ryan Fitzpatrick just two seasons after showering him with cash be it under the best shower head or in the pool. Second of all, stripping Jason Garrett of the responsibility of calling plays should greatly benefit Romo. I think Garrett has been way to conservative with the offense over the past few years, which leads to Romo forcing things in critical moments. Bill Callahan is not an incredibly forward thinking play-caller himself, but a new voice should make a difference for the Cowboys.

If Dallas decides to be a tad bit more aggressive offensively, and perhaps even speed things up, they could have one of the best offenses in the league this season. Oklahoma State product Dez Bryant became a superstar last season and his off-the-field maturity has mirrored his growth on the field. Coming into this season, Bryant has the potential to become one of the three best pass catchers in the league. His combination of breakaway speed, physicality and reliable hands (he was catching touchdown passes with a broken finger last season for god’s sake) make him one of the few wideouts in the league that can beat a defensive back every which way, and the Romo-to-Bryant tandem is going to put up video game numbers this season.

To support their passing attack, the Cowboys have put together an impressive Bedlam backfield with former Sooner DeMarco Murray and former Poke Joseph Randle. This is one of the most dynamic duos in the league on a talent basis, with each guy able to run by, through and over linebackers while making an impact in the passing game, but Murray can’t seem to stay on the field. Murray hasn’t had a fully healthy season since his senior year in high school. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changing runner, but I wouldn’t bet on him playing 16 games this season.

After making a pair of big additions to the secondary last off-season, Dallas didn’t make any big personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball this summer. Instead, they used their money to lock-up Sean Lee to a hefty extension and hired a new defensive coordinator: 73-year old Monte Kiffin.

Now, when your own son doesn’t want to keep you around in any capacity at the college level, there’s a reason to doubt that Kiffin’s schemes, which are becoming outdated, will work in his return to the NFL. That said, Dallas has some pieces in place that theoretically fit well with Kiffin’s ideals. Kiffin is shifting the Cowboys to a 4-3 front, putting Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware on the ends of the line with Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher in the middle, which could actually be an upgrade for Dallas.

Additionally, with Lee in the middle of that Tampa-2 look, the Cowboys will have one of the most instinctual and effective middle linebackers in the game playing the key role in their new system; the mike, or middle, linebacker in the Tampa-2 is responsible for reading pass or run at the snap and dropping into coverage if it’s a pass play, and few can make these reads and movements as well as Lee. On top of that, Bruce Carter should make for an awesome WILL (weakside) linebacker in Kiffin’s scheme (making him the primary run stopper if things run smoothly) and free-agent signing Justin Durant, who is coming over from the Lions, will slide in as the SAM (strongside) backer.

The glaring hole in Dallas roster in regards to Kiffin’s defense is their lack of any even league average safties. The “2” in Tampa-2 refers to the two safeties and they are responsible for covering their half of the field and being able to play near the line of scrimmage against the run. Barry Church, Matt Johnson or whoever else Dallas puts on the field at those spots, aren’t equipped for that kind of role and it’s going to be hard to cover up weaknesses at those two spots. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne should improve after struggling to get accustomed to Ryan’s bi-polar coverage calls last season, but that may not mean much to Dallas overall performance against the pass.

While I think the Kiffin hire could work out well, what troubles me is Kiffin’s inability to adapt to the new style of football that is trickling into the league. The last time Kiffin went up against Chip Kelly’s offense – Oregon’s 62-51 victory over USC last November – his defense gave up 730 total yards including 426 rushing yards (7.1 per game) and 304 passing yards (Marcus Mariota was 20-of-23). Now Kiffin will face Kelly’s offense twice per season in addition to two matchups against RGIII and Kyle Shanahan’s spread system (Oakland may also be using the read-option by the time they face the Cowboys if Terrelle Pryor gets the job). While Kiffin has better personnel in Dallas, the issue was schematic when the Ducks burned him over the past three years, and a failure to contain mobile quarterbacks could cost Dallas dearly in such a competitive division.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Romo avoids the gut-wrenching turnovers and the defense adjusts quickly

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Romo goes Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Cowboys and the defense struggles with the new scheme

Prediction: 9-7 and a playoff birth for the Cowboys.

New York Giants

Injuries have ravaged the Giants over the past couple of years, mostly targeting their secondary and defensive line. New York was playing fourth-string corners at times last season and enter this season nicked up on the outside again; in fact, just a week ago safety Stevie Brown, who was very good last season, tore his ACL. On the line, Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off of back surgery and may not be fully healthy until well into the season and Justin Tuck, whether it be nagging injuries or age-related regression, is not the dominant end he once was. To make matters worse, running back Andre Brown fractured his leg in a pre-season game last night, which is the same injury that he suffered last season. While the NFC East is an extremely competitive division, the Giants bout with injury bug may be just as difficult.

With underwhelming corners and their best safety out of the picture and a linebacking core that failed to assist against the run last season, the Giants desperately need to have their dominant passrush of two seasons ago to return, but the injury to Pierre-Paul and Tuck’s regression have made New York’s once dominant defensive line a bit of a question mark headed into the season.

Luckily for the Giants offense, second year running back David Wilson appears to have all of the talent to be a productive number one back and can at least carry the load until Brown returns and the timeshare between the two begins. Wilson is a dynamic back that can make plays in the passing game and burn defenses with his quick cuts out of the backfield. With Ahmad Bradshaw now playing for the Colts, the Giants will start the season with virtually no depth at the running back position, which means Wilson is going to have plenty of chances to prove himself after getting put in the doghouse last season because of a fumble in the season opener.

Though the Giants still have Eli Manning leading their offense, Hakeem Nicks appears to have lost a step over the past year and Victor Cruz, despite his massive contract extension, is actually coming off of an underwhelming season. It’s funny to think that the Giants could go 7-9 and have the worst record in the division, but this appears to be a down season for the Giants as they are relying on far too many rebound seasons and dealing with too many injuries to key players.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, David Wilson becomes a 1,000 yard back and that viscous pass rush returns

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, With no running game, Eli struggles and the injuries decimate the defense

Prediction: 7-9 and a trip to the playoffs for Eli, but only to watch Peyton

Philadelphia Eagles

While critics point to college coaches that have graduated to the NFL and fallen flat on their face in the past as reasons why Chip Kelly should be doubted, count me in on the former Oregon coach being successful at this level. Though he has a very unique and regimented style, we made it through training camp and the pre-season without a rebellion, which leads me to believe that the players aren’t viewing him as a dictator and thus won’t quit on him. And if you’re a player, it’s kind of hard to dislike the coach that wants to run as many plays as possible, spread the ball around a ton and play an up-tempo, exciting brand of football.

It also helps that the team’s quarterback, Michael Vick, and their best player, LeSean McCoy, are perfect fits for Kelly’s scheme. Bomani Jones had a great piece theorizing that Vick was born to run Kelly’s offense and that, had he and Kelly crossed paths a decade ago, just how much different his career would have unfolded. While Vick has had his ups-and-downs as a pro and is certainly on his last couple of legs, at least as dual-threat quarterback, he still has enough explosiveness in his gait to make an impact on the ground and his arm has never lost its fervor.

Contrary to popular belief, the foundation of Kelly’s offensive philosophy is the ability to run the ball. There are certainly some spread passing elements built into his scheme, but most of them are based off of the run, which is the opposite of the spread offense that Oklahoma State runs. While the spread offense entails certain universal principles, there is a lot of room for diversity underneath the spread umbrella. In Kelly’s case, the run game takes priority, followed by a short passing game that is analogous to running and then, once the linebackers and safeties start creeping in, the deep ball comes into play.

Of course, Kelly never had a quarterback that could sling it as far as Vick at Oregon, so he’ll have more chances to go deep. That said, you can be sure that McCoy will be the primary playmaker for this offense, and with a coach that is committed to getting him the ball out of the backfield (sorry, Andy Reid), he should have a monster season this year. McCoy is already one of the toughest players in the league to bring down and now consider what else will be going for him this year: 1) the offensive line will be healthy to start the season (most importantly: left tackle Jason Peters is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL), 2) the read-option element will put him in better situations than draw plays and 3) as the playcount grows and grows and the defense tires out, McCoy will be able to turn on the afterburners and see defenders huffing-and-puffing in his rear-view mirror.

As you can imagine, running a ton of plays can also tire out the offensive players too, although their rate of fatigue is often slower than the defense. If McCoy needs a breather, it’s not an issue for the Eagles. Bryce Brown came onto the scene last season as a strong running back and will back-up McCoy this season, Felix Jones is far from a feature back talent-wise, but he does have some speed and ability to work as the third string back for this interchangeable offense, and even fourth stringer Chris Polk has some potential. On the outside the Eagles have even more speed and play-making ability with DeSean Jackson and Damaris Johnson. Both standing short at under six feet tall, they resemble do-it-all Oregon star DeAnthony Thomas in more ways than one, and Kelly must be slobbering at the mouth to get them involved in this offense as much as possible.

As the icing on the cake, the Eagles have also built a stable of tightends. Incumbents Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are solid players and Philly has added James Casey, a former Texan that played allover the field (tightend, H-back, slot receiver), and Zach Ertz, a second round pick out of Stanford that helped put the final dagger in Chip Kelly’s national title hopes at Oregon.

Where the Eagles fall short is defensively. They have some talent but few sure things and Kelly is ushering in a new 3-4 scheme. Amongst the beneficiaries of the switch are middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Fletcher Cox. Ryans was one of the better run stoppers in the league as one of the middle linebackers in Houston’s 3-4 scheme before being traded to Philly and struggling mightily to cover the middle of the field in a 4-3 defense. Back in a 3-4, and playing alongside former Texans teammate Connor Barwin, Ryans should have a bounceback season. That won’t fix the issues the Eagles have in the secondary, though, as free agent acquisitions Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher rated out as average (or slightly worse) last season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Vick has a career year, McCoy puts up MVP numbers, the offense picks up the defense

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Vick gets hurt again and the defense struggles

Prediction: 8-8 and a very good rookie season for Chip Kelly, although it will end without a post-season birth.

Washington Redskins

It will be tough for anyone to ever replicate the kind of season that Adrian Peterson had last year on the heels of tearing his ACL in 2011, but if anybody is going to, it may as well be Robert Griffin III. RGIII has had even less time to recover after tearing ligaments in his knee during the opening round of the post-season, but he has worked incessantly and put himself in a position to be on the field in week one. Griffin has now had two major knee injuries over the past four years, which will inevitably give him the injury prone label, and he certainly doesn’t do himself any favors with his reluctance to slide when he gets into the open field, but all signs point to him being 100% to kickoff his sophomore campaign.

Kyle Shanahan did as good a job as any offensive coordinator in the league last season at devising a scheme that best fit his personnel. He stole some elements from the offense that Griffin ran at Baylor and added a lot of the run principles that his father has held since his time in Denver. The combination of the read-option offense, spread concepts outside of the hashes and that famous zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had a very complex attack with the most dynamic quarterback in football (it’s a close call between he and Kaepernick) and were able to make the post-season in what was supposed to be a transition year.

With Alfred Morris emerging as a great one-cut back that could thrive running the read-option behind a zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had two lethal threats on the ground, forcing defenses to focus their attention in the backfield on virtually every play. By establishing the run, the Redskins opened up the field for their play-action game, which was as good as it gets last season. One of the most endearing images of last season was Griffin showcasing his rocket arm after setting up the Saints with multiple options reads and bubble screens. Safeties are put in an impossible situation regularly by Washington’s scheme and talent, and Griffin has the offense down to a point where he rarely makes mistakes.

If the Redskins are going to fall short of improvement this season, it will be because of their defense. Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker are very good at their jobs, but little else about this defensive unit is very convincing. Josh Wilson gave the team a bump up at corner over DeAngelo Hall last season, but that’s not saying much, and their run defense may have been worse than their pass defense last season, and that is saying a lot. There’s a chance that Brandon Meriwether can make a difference at safety this season and that inside linebacker Perry Riley continues to grow as a player, which would help give their defense a boost, but this part of their team is still a weakness.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, RGIII enters the MVP conversation and the defense plays above it’s head

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, RGIII puts himself at risk too often and the defense regresses

Prediction: 11-5 and a monster season from RGIII

2013 NFL Previews: AFC East

in NFL by
manuel spille

Buffalo Bills

Though lacking the coverage and the disdain from the media, the Bills have had just as bad of a pre-season as the Jets. Buffalo’s top two QB candidates have gone down with injuries, leading to the incredibly depressing report that undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel could be their starter in week one against the Patriots. There’s a chance that E.J. Manuel, whom the Bills drafted in the first round this off-season, will recover from the minor knee surgery he had earlier this month in time to play in week one, but the team is moving forward with Tuel as the projected starter. Kevin Kolb was the other player vying for the starting job, but sadly he suffered a concussion on Saturday that may end his career.

On the brightside for Buffalo, Manuel should definitely be back for week two, and when he gets onto the field, we should be in for an exciting season of experimenting from new head coach Doug Marrone. While his record at Syracuse was far from impressive, the Marrone’s redeeming quality is how adaptive he is for a head coach. He isn’t married to a system nor is he entrenched with a particular offensive philosophy. Manuel has a very similar story, as the Seminoles used a variation of formations and strategies during his tenure at Florida State. When you have a quarterback that can succeed in many different ways and a coach whose willing to diversify his gameplan to give defenses distinctly different looks, there is some potential for a very successful offense.

Manuel is not an elite speedster in the way that Colin Kaepernick or RGIII are, but he does possess a Russell Wilson-esque ability to maneuver around the field with agility and grace. Assuming some spread elements are implemented by Marrone this season, there will be few funner plays to watch than any kind of read-option stuff involving Manuel and C.J. Spiller, who was the best running back in the league last season on a per play basis. Spiller is one of the most electric players in the league and someone capable of making a whole lot of something even when he had nothing to work with last season. With a better offensive scheme in place this season and a “new” new offensive line, Spiller will likely have a few more gaps to work with this season, and that means trouble for any opponent.

Speaking of that “new” offensive line. Aside from a few minor additions, the major difference in the trenches for the Bills this season has to do with slimming down. Marrone plans on running an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that relies on the offensive line to be able to get up and down the field and to promptly get set. A more agile approach has worked out very well for other teams in the past, and it certainly fits with the idea of having a lot of team speed. With Manuel and Spiller in the backfield, a quicker offensive line and a nice, potential-laden receiving core featuring rookies like Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, the Bills have a chance to at least put a scare into teams with their offense this season.

Defensively, the Bills were awful last season, and they’re not likely to be much better this year. Marrone has shifted to an aggressive 3-4 attack, but the personnel on this side of the ball is still lacking.

Best case scenario: 9-7, Manuel figures it out early, the offense runs smoothly and the Bills score a lot

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, Manuel struggles mightily, Spiller gets hurt, and the Bills get scored on a lot

Prediction: 7-9 and a positive outlook on the future for a change.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins showed promise last season as Ryan Tannehill stepped onto the scene as a surprisingly effective rookie quarterback, but Miami doesn’t appear to be on the upswing just yet after their 7-9 2012 campaign. Though the addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace gives Tannehill a vertical threat to work with, the loss of Reggie Bush puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to be productive in the run game and in the passing game. And it will be tough for them to do that with such a porous offensive line.

General Manager Jeff Ireland had an opportunity to build on Miami’s successful 2012 season, but instead he made questionable decisions and built a team with more flaws than they had a year ago. After Jake Long, once considered Miami’s franchise cornerstone, left for St. Louis this summer, partly because of a lowball offer from Ireland, the Dolphins traded their first and second round picks to move up in the draft and pick third. Following the selections of Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, it seemed logical for the Dolphins to take Lane Johnson, a massive and agile offensive tackle. Instead, the Dolphins took Dion Jordan, a defensive end out of Oregon, which is a position they already had covered.

Jordan is a nice player, but you don’t need to trade up to #3 to draft a defensive end who wasn’t dominant in college, particularly when the best player on your team is also a defensive end: monster passrusher Cameron Wake. It gives the Dolphins a dynamic duo of athletic freaks, but the tradeoff is weaknesses at other key spots. It’s one thing to draft a luxury when you’ve already got a playoff foundation in place, but in Miami’s case, there were glaring needs elsewhere on the roster and Ireland decided to give himself a surplus of talent on the bookends of his defensive line.

As a result, Miami does have a strong passrush and should get to the quarterback often this season. Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler were both added this off-season to give the Dolphins even more blitzing prowess, and both players can hold their own in the run game as well. Miami has added a lot of weapons they believe will pressure opposing quarterbacks, and that will be huge this season since their cornerbacks can’t cover anybody. Safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones are solid players, but they can’t do enough to cover the blemishes of the defenders lining up out wide.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Tannehill and Wallace click instantly and Wake and Jordan reek havoc on opponents

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, Tannehill regresses behind a poor offensive line and the defense gets roasted weekly

Prediction: 6-10 with a lot of questions about who should be in charge of the team coming up in the off-season.

New England Patriots

As if Tom Brady hadn’t already padded his legacy with enough accomplishments, keeping the Patriots offense at an elite level this season would be a remarkable feet. And yet, we all kind of expect it to happen anyway. That’s just hot consistently good Brady has been over the last decade, able to elevate the play of whoever is around him with his incredible leadership, precision and knowledge of the game.

New England enters this season without their top five receivers from last season. Wes Welker left for less greener pastures (in terms of dollars) in Denver, Brandon Lloyd is still looking for another job, Aaron Hernandez may have committed several murders, Danny Woodhead is now a San Diego Charger and Rob Gronkowski has now undergone more surgeries than Joan Rivers. While Gronk may be back at some point this season, the cupboard is bare outside of newly added wideout Danny Amendola. Amendola is a solid young playmaker with a similar skillset to Welker and should replace him rather well, but he is still predominately a slot receiver, leaving the Patriots without a logical threat to rely on outside the hashes.

Why might this not be a lethal blow to the Patriots? Besides having Brady putting it all together, New England has built one of the best run games in the league. Interestingly enough, Belichick rarely, if ever, incorporates elements of the run game typical of spread offenses like draw plays. The Patriots are a power run team that can pound the ball down your throat, a fascinating contrast to the fleet-footed and finesse characteristics of their passing attack. Stevan Ridley has emerged as one of the best running backs in football, Shane Vereen is a very good runner with the ability to make plays out of the backfield and Belichick even used Brandon Bolden last season with a surprising amount of success.

Defensively the Patriots should improve this season. Late-season addition Aqib Talib gives the Patriots their first stable number one corner in a few years and if Alfonzo Dennard’s legal troubles amount to nothing, the corner tandem of Talib and Dennard will give New England a formidable pass defense for a change. In the middle of the field, few teams stopped the run better last season than the Patriots. With the massive Vince Wilfork clogging things up the middle and Brandon Spikes anchoring a solid linebacking core with an instinctual ability to find the gaps on run plays, the Patriots maintained an average defense by shutting down the run. With an uptick expected from their secondary, the Pats should wind up with a top 10 defensive unit this season.

Best-case scenario: 13-3, Brady makes it seem like nobody left and the defense improves

Worst-case scenario: 8-8, Brady has his first down season since he tore his ACL and the defense remains average

Prediction: 11-5 and a conference title battle with Peyton.

New York Jets

What a circus this franchise has become. Only the Jets could have their rookie quarterback that most of their fans seem to be clamoring for throw three interceptions in a pre-season game and then have their incumbent starter get injured on a meaningless play in fourth quarter of the same game. Rex Ryan’s job has dominated the headlines over the past few days because of his decision to stick Sanchez in there, but the real story with this team has nothing to do with Sanchez or rookie Geno Smith. It’s that the team has no talent anywhere on the roster.

While the loss of Shonn Greene is actually a positive, the Jets aren’t replacing him with a sure thing. Chris Ivory has had his moments in spots for the Saints over the past few years, but he had all of 40 carries last year and is entering the season as the Jets best offensive option. The only productive pass catcher that the Jets had last season – tightend Dustin Keller – is gone and even if Smith or Sanchez were to play well this season, the results probably wouldn’t show it because of the team’s lack of talent at receiver.

There are some promising players on the defensive side of the ball like young defensive end Quinton Coples, but the cornerstones of this defense (Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott) are no longer on the team, leaving this unit in search of a new leader, making it analogous to the rest of the team.

Best-case scenario: 7-9, Geno Smith is slightly better than Mark Sanchez and the defense sends Rex Ryan off with a solid season

Worst-case scenario: 3-13, Geno Smith is as good as or slightly worse than Mark Sanchez and the defense gets tired of playing defense

Prediction: 5-11 and lots of turnovers.

Wild Wild Wes

in NFL by
welker

In the back of your mind, you kind of knew that Wes Welker would find a way to spite Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck after two years worth of on-and-off negotiations didn’t net him a contract extension in New England.

And what do you know: Now Welker is going to be flanking Peyton Manning as the slot receiver for the Denver Broncos. It’s an exciting plot twist that makes the Broncos an even more dangerous team, which is hard to fathom after they finished with the second best offense in football last season.

Welker’s deal with the Broncos is worth $12 million over two years, a reasonable price tag even for a veteran player, which makes it even more odd that the Patriots weren’t able to retain him. There was a sense that the Broncos were sitting in the weeds yesterday as a bunch of deals got done, waiting for their chance to pounce on a deal like this, and you have to credit John Elway for make it happen.

Denver may have just assembled the most prolific wide receiving core of all-time. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker already made for one of the best wide receiver combinations in the NFL, and now you add one of the best slot receivers ever to the mix? If Peyton Manning gets a little back of that zip back in his arm through off-season training this season, we could be talking about a historically productive offense in 2013.

PlayerDYARRankDVOARankCatch%
Thomas3933 of 8621.0%13 of 8667%
Decker3894 of 8616.3%8 of 8669%
Welker24319 of 865.4%30 of 8667%

Take a look at how Denver’s top three receivers performed last year based on Football Outsiders advanced metrics. Needless to say, no other team in football had a third receiver that ranked that highly in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement; value overall) and DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average; value per play).

Look no further than at one of Peyton Mannings’ oldest friends to see how his new one will play this season. Even at 36 years old, Brandon Stokely was still productive for Denver last season. Stokely ran 93.9% of his routes in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and led the league with an 80.4% catch rate out of the slot. What this tells you is that a sure-handed receiver that runs reliable routes and gets his timing down with Manning will be able to produce.

Given that Welker led the NFL in yardage produced out of the slot last season (1,040) and finished second in 2011 (1,207; Victor Cruz had 1,208), I’m sure that Manning is drooling at the possibilities this offense will have next season (Eli is drooling for a separate reason). Additionally, the last time Welker played with a vertical threat to the outside of the numbers like Thomas – 2009 with Randy Moss – he led the league with an 82% catch rate out of the slot and compiled 984 yards in such situations.

Welker is a very versatile slot player, too, a bit more so than Stokely was in his prime. In addition to running quick/timing concepts out of the slot, Welker is also a master at working the intermediate routes and killing teams that play zone coverage and leave the middle of the field open.

welkerscreen

Here is a play we will surely see from the Broncos from time-to-time in Welker’s first season in Denver. It’s a simple a 2×1 alignment with Welker motioning pre-snap to the right side of the formation. New England pulls the right side of it’s ine on this play and Welker breaks back on the snap immediately for a quick screen. These plays aren’t necessarily always called but if Manning sees a key that tells him blitz or off coverage, he can go to this audible.

Learning the terminology of Denver’s offense will be a major transition point for Welker, particularly because such a large percentage of the plays called for him come after the quarterback makes his pre-snap reads and gives a hand signal or a call for Welker to adjust his plan for that play. If Welker were going to the Chiefs and had to work with Alex Smith about this, I’d be a bit worried, but seeing as he’s going from Tom Brady to Peyton Manning, I’m sure they’ll have the communication ironed out by the time opening day comes around.

welkerhotread1

Here is an example of Brady picking up the heat from the Ravens and making a call to his offensive line. Take a look at Welker peaking in at Brady, likely listening in to what he’s calling.

welkerhotread2

As you can see, Welker adjusted to a quick flat route, beating his man, ace slot corner Ladarius Webb, with a great jab step towards the middle before breaking off towards the sideline.

But like I said, Welker isn’t all about the quick hitter routes that pick up five or six yards a play, though that is a valuable part of his game and will likely be the extension of Denver’s run game this season. Take a look here at how well he runs his route against this zone coverage.

welkermidd11

The Patriots are going to use start tight end Aaron Hernadez here to cross the face of two of Baltimore’s zone defenders (Webb and Ray Lewis). As a result, the middle of the field will open up for Welker when he breaks towards the middle of the field around the 25-yardline.

welkermidd1

Lewis is totally out of position to cover Welker’s route and this an easy throw for Brady to make.

welkerzone1

Here the Jets are going to try to get cute by dropping their defensive tackle in coverage as well as their outside linebacker, hoping to contain Welker on short crossing routes over the middle of the field.

welkerzone2

So much for that. Welker, as receivers are taught, sits down versus the zone coverage and makes himself easy target for Brady in between two defensive players without the lateral range to make a play on a strong pass.

Finally, we get to Welker’s ability to get down the seam on deep routes.

welkerdeep1

The Jets are in a two deep look here, but their strong safety is not going to drop deep; instead, the strong safety will provide support on Hernandez while the free safety gains depth for deep plays.

welkerdeep

You can see how this creates a problem. The free safety did not gain his depth in the middle of the field, giving him an awful angle at Welker, who is now heading right for where the strong safety would be if he wasn’t inching up to cover Hernandez.

With defenses having to send help over to Thomas, I feel like Welker will have ample opportunities to make plays down the seam with the Broncos this season. When you consider how well Thomas stretches the field vertically, how well Decker runs those intermediate routes and how well Welker performs in the slot, Denver will have the best receiving core in the league this season. And with Manning at the helm, anything is possible with this group.

amendola
It didn’t take long for New England to find their Wes Welker replacement.

As for the Patriots, they felt this loss for all of an hour before signing Wes Welker Jr., former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola, to a five-year, $31 million deal. Amendola is cut from the same cloth as Welker; he’s a prototypical slot guy that works great on option routes and graduated to the pros from a spread system at Texas Tech (same as Welker).

Amendola averaged 1.91 yards per route run last season when playing out of the slot, which happened on 80% of his routes. Compare that to Welker’s 2.05 yards per route run and you don’t get too significant of a difference, especially when you consider the difference in scheme, quarterback and complimentary talent.

Amendola is a dynamic slot guy that runs good routes, is dangerous on option plays and will make for a new primary target for Tom Brady. Once those two have their chemistry down, they’ll have the chance to be just as productive as the Brady/Welker duo, though Amendola does come with a bit of an injury risk.

The Patriots did a great job to snag the best slot option on the market once Welker was gone and this move is better for them in the long-term with Amendola being just 27-years old.

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