Thursday, July 21, 2011

In the NFC we have the reigning Super Bowl champs, but do they have enough to come out of the conference again?  Which teams will rise and which will fall?  We are a long way from finding out the answers to these questions, but let's take a look at how these teams shake out before they hit the free agent frenzy. 





NFC East Overview


Philadelphia Eagles

PHI is a team that seems to fight themselves as much, if not more, than any other team in the league each season.  High profile storylines and controversies have come to define them in the Reid era.  Last year it was the Vick/Kolb saga.  In the end Vick regained most of his form, developed as a quarterback, and becomes the main man going into 2011.

They owned their division once again and played real well on the road.   McCoy gave them a legitimate threat to replace Westbrook, they scored well in all drive categories, took care of the football, and terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, they stunk at home, couldn't protect Vick whatsoever, took far too many penalties, and couldn't stop a high school team in the red zone.  In the draft they took the crowd favorite Watkins to improve the O-line and a safety in round two - presumably to replace Mikell.

To-do list:solidify O-line, resign Bradley, fill needs at CB, S, DE, and P.

Biggest post-lockout question: Can Juan Castillo really coach a defense?


New York Giants

The G-men were their typical up and downs selves in 2010.  They beat everyone they were supposed to, but failed under the bright lights.  Special teams also really let them down, but other than that they had a lot going for them last year.

Coughlin's smash-mouth run game put up great numbers, the O-line did a great job in protection, and they had good ball control and drive stats.  On defense, they gave opposing quarterbacks a lot of sleepless nights, and they knew how to get off the field on 3rd down.   Overall they were solid in most critical areas. 

Yet, 'solid' isn't good enough when it comes to making noise come January.   I expect Nicks to make people in NY dismiss any notion that Plaxico is coming back, and their main area of focus in the draft was on defense (they drafted a CB and DT).  Fewell had an underrated year as defensive coordinator.

To-do list: re-sign Bradshaw, keep Boss, fill needs at LT and G. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Will Umenyiora stay in NY with the team 11 million over the cap?


Dallas Cowboys

How the mighty have fallen.  What should be made of America's team?  The team completely tanked it last year almost in protest to Wade Phillips.  Once Jason Garrett took over the players decided to come in and earn their paychecks.  Not exactly the sign of a well-oiled machine.

Garrett will have challenges heading into 2011.  His pass defense completely sucked, couldn't stop anybody in the red zone, get off the field on 3rd down, or give any top team any type of challenge.

So where does he start?  Well he does have good lines on both sides of the ball to work with and they went out and drafted a LB, S, and G in the top couple of rounds.  Romo will return healthy and Bryant could breakout in 2011.  We'll see what they do in free agency, but it looks like all signs are pointing up in Texas.

To-do list:fill big needs at S, resign Free, solidify O-line, upgrade at G, DE, CB.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is Romo really the right guy for this team, and if he can't be a leader--who will?


Washington Redskins

At the other end of the spectrum is the 'Skins.  Does anybody in the league have any respect for this organization anymore?  It continues to be a place where guys just come to get paid.  Shanahan was supposed to come in and provide them with stability, but he was the source of more dissension than anybody else last season.

In his defense, WSH is the kind of place that needs to be blown up before it can be set right.  Despite their record, they did step up and play good vs tough opponents last year.  At the same time, there are weaknesses up and down the roster still.  They were terrible on the ground on both sides of the ball.   Stopping the pass was even worse thanks in large part to their inability to rush the quarterback.  On offense they couldn't sustain drives worth a lick.

This all leaves WSH with far more questions going into free agency than all other teams in the division combined.  They did address the defensive line in the draft, but what will be their strategy when the market opens up?

To-do list: figure out QB, upgrade O-line/RB, fill needs at CB, LB, DE, WR, RT.  Put an end to the Haynesworth chapter one way or another.

Biggest post-lockout question: Has Shanahan really changed anything in WSH or this is a case of same old, same old in Snyder-Land? 



NFC West Overiew


Seattle Seahawks

Ok put up your hand if you thought SEA was going to win the division last year.  If you did, you're either lying or a fan of the team.  They had the most roster turnover of any team and brought in a new head coach from the college ranks.  A win over the Saints in the playoffs was impressive, but overall the franchise had a garbage season like the rest of this sadsack division.

The only thing this club could hang their hat on was their home field advantage and their special teams play.  They sucked in every other meaningful statistical category.   They were dreadful running the ball, scoring in the red zone, ball control, turnover differential and almost everything on defense.  The fact that Hasselback is a talked about commodity this offseason just proves how desperate teams are at the QB position.  Drafting a guard at the top of the draft was worthwhile, but it's nothing to get excited about either.  Carpenter and Okung are good building blocks, but it could get worse before it gets better in the Pacific Northwest.

To-do list:better play from RB/WR, keep Brock/Mebane, find a QB, compliment Thomas/Trufant with more help, and fill holes on the D-line, G, LB, WR depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: Hello Whitehurst, goodbye playoffs?


St Louis Rams

Like most people, I fully expected STL to win this division after SF crashed and burned, but they laid a serious egg on the road in SEA in week 17.  A good learning experience after what was a positive turnaround season for this once-great franchise.  Bradford showed that he's studly in the kind of profit-winning way we like, coach Spags is proving that the Reid coaching tree is the real deal, and it all paid off for us with a 10-6 against the spread record in 2010.

They are pretty good on both the offensive/defensive lines, know how to get off the field, maintain good ball control, and were solid in the turnover category.  Things they need to address in 2011 is their record on the road, a more consistent running game, scoring in the red zone, and reducing the number of 3 and outs.   Quinn and Kendricks were solid pickups in the draft and they are bound to get one of the higher profile WR free agents in the coming weeks.  Long, Laurinitis, and Bartell are nice pieces on defense.

To-do list:get a WR and once they do that, go out and get another one.  Fill needs at DT, LB, and S. 

Biggest post-lockout question: How will Bradford and company respond now that they are expected to produce?


San Francisco 49ers

Can someone please explain to me what happened in this train wreck last year?   This was one of the more baffling cases in the league in 2010.  Yes there were legitimate questions at QB and coaching, but this was a defensive unit that was together for a full 4 seasons and performed well below expectations in the first half of the season.  The defense eventually rebounded later in the year, but it came against sub-par opponents and at a time when the division was already out of reach.

Problems on the O-line, 3rd down offense, points from long drives, ball control, and penalties sank the ship before it ever left the port.  It didn't matter which Smith was at QB, this parade wasn't going to work from the get-go.  Singletary found out the hard way that his rah-rah antics from 1853 don't work as well with the modern day millionaires and he never adjusted.  Whether he was stubborn, stupid, or both we'll never know, but now the reigns go to Jim Harbaugh.  Despite his college background at Standford, he was a QB coach for OAK before that and played in the league for 15 years.  It's doubtful that he'll be as blind as Singletary was.

To-do list:  Fill needs at NT, LB, WR, OT, DE.  Determine what's going on at C and QB.  Keep Gore healthy.

Biggest post-lockout question: Kaepernick, good luck kid.


Arizona Cardinals

Speaking of luck, ARI is going to need every ounce it can get in 2011.  This place has been a total mess since Warner sailed off into the sunset and there isn't really a lot of positive to point to.  Sure they were surprisingly good in red zone defense, but given their schedule it's hard to take any positive statistical category seriously.

Things were over before they started when they went into the season with a QB battle that consisted of Anderson vs Leinart.  Once Max Hall came in it was like watching the lame ass ending to a bad movie you couldn't turn off.  I'm not going to run down all their weakness because much like DEN, it would take up too much space.  They targeted two skill positions in the draft by taking CB Peterson and RB Williams, and by all accounts are a shoe-in to get Kolb from PHI.  There's nothing else to do but wipe the slate clean and hope for the best in the desert.

To-do list:revamp the O-line for whoever comes in at QB.  Fill needs at QB, LB, CB, WR, DE, and P.  Find someone in the league who can stop the run.

Biggest post-lockout question: Kolb for what exactly?

NFC North Overview

Chicago Bears

CHI was one of the great unknown teams heading into 2010.  Was Peppers really going to earn his contract?  How would Cutler work out in a Martz style offense?  Can the defense regain its old form?  They answered most of those questions with authority.  The O-line took a while to gel and Martz didn't bother to adjust for the longest time.  But while they were figuring it out the defense carried them to a division crown thanks in large part to a great record on the road and within the division.  Teams had a hard time running on them or sustaining drives for points.  Special teams was once again a big weapon and it was an overall great season for Da Bears.

That doesn't mean they don't have areas to improve.  Cutler needs more weapons and the O-line is far from solidified.  Ball control continues to be a problem and Cutler himself will need to answer his critics in 2011.   They bolstered each side of the line with Carimi and Paea in the draft, but they have a big hill to climb if they hope to remain at the top of a division that includes the Super Bowl champs and an up and coming DET team.

To-do list: Fill needs at C (O-line depth), G, LB (depth), DT (depth), WR (#1/depth/size), and DE (depth).  Resign Adams. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Can they fill enough needs on offense to compliment the D?


Green Bay Packers

There isn't much bad to say about the Super Bowl champs.  I picked them to make it to the Super Bowl last year and they went one step further and won the whole damn thing.  They overcame a ridiculous amount of significant injuries, too.  Most of their success came from their ability to dominate the air on both sides of the ball.  They ranked at or near the top in red zone offense, net yards per drive, pass defense, sacks, turnover differential and least amount of penalties.   Despite dominating at home, they won all their playoff games on the road.  All this and I haven't even mentioned Rodgers.

The few things they can improve on is their running game, pass protection, and special teams.  Having said that, most of those areas will be shored up just by getting healthy bodies back for 2011.  In the draft they gave Rodgers two more pieces on offense to work with when they took an OT and WR in the first couple rounds.  Starks now gives Grant a run for his money at RB and they would be wise to keep Kuhn in the mix too.

To-do list: Add a DE and some depth at G.  Resign Jenkins.

Biggest post-lockout question: Who can stand in their way if they can stay relatively healthy in 2011?


Detroit Lions

If we were handing out awards for 2010, DET would be given home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  They had the best ATS (against the spread) record of any team in the league last year.  People continued to under-value them throughout the year and it's not hard to blame them.  DET had an ugly record on the road and against good teams, a crazy pass-happy offense, a high amount of penalties, and bad defensive play from the back 7 and in the red zone.

Despite all this, they continued to cover almost every week.  Most of this success came from their offensive/defensive lines, red zone offense, ball control, and new team attitude.  Gone are the lowly days of an 0-16 season and things are on the up and up in motor-city.  They continued to bolster their strengths by adding a DT, WR, and RB at the top of the draft and you can expect more good things from recent draftees such as Suh, Best, Pettigrew, and Delmas.  

To-do list: Keep Stafford/Best healthy, fill needs at CB, LB, and G.  Try to compliment Delmas at S.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is Stafford headed for the dreaded "injury-prone" label or can he finally put it all together and lead them to the promised-land?


Minnesota Vikings

Anyone who thought Favre was going to lead MIN to another great season in 2010 deserves a slap upside the head.  I'm not saying it was impossible, but the writing was on the wall.  Did I expect the rest of the team to implode the way they did?  Absolutely not--which makes their fall from grace even more significant.  The only strengths the team had last year was Peterson and a bit better than average defense.

Almost everything else was a complete disaster.  From the coaches to the QB play to the divisional record and on an on.  They couldn't compete with the top teams, pass the ball at all, pressure the QB, get off the field on 3rd down, or take care of the football.  In order words it was a total mess.

Management took a chance with Ponder in the draft and followed it up with TE Rudolph in round two.  Out is Brad "Chilly" Childress.  In is defensive-minded Leslie Frazier.  He's had great success coaching top 10 defenses almost every year he's been at the helm.  It would be an understatement to say they are welcoming the change at head coach. 

To-do list: figure out what's going on at QB, solidify the O-line, determine what Rice will do, fill needs at DT, WR, LB, DE, C, G, S, and K.

Biggest post-lockout question: Will Ponder be the guy in week 1 or will they buffer him with a veteran?

NFC South Overview

Atlanta Falcons

ATL was one of my favorite teams last season.  A look at the non-sexy stats told the story as they continued to win week in and week out.  They cleaned out on every team they were supposed to beat, dominated within the division, and finally won some of the tough games on the schedule.  GB exposed them in the playoffs, but they shouldn't look at it as a failure or down year.

ATL got great play from the O-line, special teams, red zone offense, 3rd down offense, points from long drives, ball control, and turnover differential.  Their disciplined play kept them near the bottom of the league in penalties per game, too.

The only areas that broke their season was their pass defense and ability to get off the field on 3rd down.  These are not weaknesses you want to have when Rodgers comes to town though and they paid the price.

However, in the draft they sold the farm to become more explosive on offense by trading for and drafting WR Jones.  I think they gave up far too much, but if he's as great as they think he is, we'll see how it shakes out.  They came back to reality in round two and took a LB, but the real holes on this club will need to be filled via free agency or trade.

To-do list: improve the pass rush, address the kicking/punting situation, and solidify the O-line.  Fill needs at G, CB, and LB.   Have a backup plan for Turner decline/injury. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Do they really believe they can outscore people and stick with the status quo in the secondary/pass rush?

New Orleans Saints

The Saints were one of the trickier teams to figure out last year.  They came out of the gates as overpriced defending champs and things didn't really change too much as the year went along.  At the same time, they had one of the easiest schedules in the league.  After all the ups and downs, they got it together down the stretch, but fell flat on their faces in SEA.  Go figure.

After the dust settled, they could hang their hats on their play in the air--on both offense and defense.  Like true Brees fashion, the team shines in points from long drives, net yards per drive, and 3rd down offense. Things weren't as pretty on defense, but they were surprisingly stout in their red zone.

In the bad category was their record vs top teams, their running game, defensive line, red zone offense, special teams play, and turnover differential.  In retrospect, a "who knows what you're going to get playoff performance" doesn't look so surprising anymore.

They addressed two key areas in the draft by taking a DE and RB at the top.

To-do list: upgrade the LBs, resign Harper, improve the O-line (C), fill needs across the D-line, and add TE depth.  


Biggest post-lockout question: Can this defense figure out how to play balanced ball?  Near the top in takeaways in 2009, near the bottom in 2010.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I'll be the first to admit I didn't see this resurgence coming.  Even after they started strong I had my doubts about this team.  However, in the face of criticism they played some of their best ball on the road and took out almost every bottom-half team on the schedule.  Their pass defense was a bright spot, as well as their ability to sustain drives and take care of the football.

The areas of weakness are mostly on the defensive side of the ball.  Teams didn't have much trouble running on them, sustaining drives in key spots, punching it into the end zone, or dominating ball control.  As a result TB had trouble winning games against the top teams.

No one is about to assign any blame though.  This team appears on the upswing and they drafted two DE's at the top of the draft to help bolster that side of the ball.  Freeman, Blount, and M Williams are a nice trio to build around on offense.  This is one of the youngest teams in the NFL. 


To-do list: resign free agents, bring in a RB, and fill needs at CB, DE, WR, S, LB, G, and K.  

Biggest post-lockout question: Can they keep Talib's head on straight or will they be making other plans?

Carolina Panthers

Last, and most definitely least, is the Carolina Panthers.   Let's start with the positive.  Their pass defense was ok and their running game gave them a small glimmer of hope last year.  Unfortunately, that glimmer could only be seen with a telescope from hundreds of miles away.


The team needs a complete overhaul and John Fox coached with one foot out the door all year long.  In comes Ron Rivera and I have my doubts about his ability to turn around this ship.  He's a good defensive coach, but can he build up a team from scratch?


His first order of business will be to improve the offense.  Newton comes in as Mr Sunshine QB, but he comes into an offense that ranked near the bottom in pass protection, red zone play, 3rd down conversions, points from long drives, ball control, net yards per drive, and turnover differential.  In fact, the offense finished last a dozen+ categories.  The silver lining is that he has Kalil at center to figure things out.  The black cloud is whether or not Smith will even be around to pass to.  Adding insult to injury is the possibility of Williams going elsewhere. 



To-do list: Fill needs at CB, DE, LB, and TE.  Resign Johnson and give Newton a veteran QB counterpart. 


Biggest post-lockout question: How big a slice of humble pie will Cam Newton eat in 2011?

2011 NFL Preview: AFC Overviews