Now that we have football on the horizon, the attention now turns to where teams stand. Before we can make any 2011 predictions, we need to look at some of the following key topics:
- team needs
- draft choices
- coaching changes
- breakout players
With that in mind, it's been a long time since we saw teams in action so let's take a quick look at some of the focal points heading into 2011.
AFC East Overview
New England Patriots
In no unsimple terms, the NE Patriots kicked a lot of ass last year. Their record against the division, at home, and vs tough opponents was out of this world. So what do they have for an encore? It always seems like it will be hard for them to repeat past successes, but they continue to pump out dominance on a yearly basis.
Their O-line had a great season and the offense ranked near the top on 3rd down completion %, points from long drives, turnover differential, and least amount of penalties. It's no surprise that these stats have the markings of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick written all over them.
The two glaring weaknesses that they need to improve in is their pass defense and getting their defense off the field on 3rd down. NE did take CB Dowling in the draft this Summer and its the 3rd year in a row they've taken a defensive back in the top two rounds. Clearly they are trying to upgrade this area of the field. Yet with Mayo on the rise and free agency around the corner, you can bet they aren't done yet.
To-do list: Find some pass rushers, big-play WR, and answer at RB. Resign Mankins. Fill needs at LB, OT, G, and DE.
Biggest post-lockout question: It's not whether or not they can fill their needs, but if they can maintain their current level of excellence.
New York Jets
Last year I agreed with the hype machine and thought the J-E-T-S would overtake NE, but they got thumped in their final meeting and lost the division. They did exact revenge and shift the axis of power in the playoffs though.
Yet despite this, it was a very up and down year for NY. They dominated the bottom half of the league, but struggled against the tougher opponents. The run game was stellar, but Sanchez didn't breakout. They were excellent stopping the run and the pass, but were horrible in the red zone. Special teams and net yards per drive were great, but they took too many penalties.
It was this up and down nature that plagued the Jets in what was supposed to be a rise to the top type of season. They did draft DE Wilkerson in round 1 and Revis should be good to go from the start in 2011, but questions linger.
To-do list: improve pass rush from the D-line, make decisions on Holmes/Edwards/Smith/Cromartie. Fill needs at S, OT, G.
Biggest post-lockout question: Is their inconsistency part of their identity or is it just part of the growing process?
I didn't expect MIA to go anywhere last year thanks in large part to their questions at QB. I understand Henne finished 2009 strong, but I was in no way shape or form a believer. Things might not be much better heading into 2011 either. Last year they couldn't drive down the field and score points if their lives depended on it. They were pathetic at home and came up short against the tough opponents. Special teams was a disaster and they turned the ball over too much.
On the bright side the pass/rush defense was solid and they were pretty disciplined for the most part. But clearly the needs remain on the offensive side of the ball and this is why they drafted a center (Pouncey) and running back (Thomas) at the top of the draft. Long should take another step at left tackle, but who is he going to protect? Odrick, Misi, and Bess are pieces to build around.
To-do list: Urgently find answers at QB. Prepare for a new look at RB. Fill needs at G, LB, and depth at skill positions.
Biggest post-lockout question: is Dan Marino still the best option at quarterback?
Where O where do we start with the lowly Bills? Should we start with the positives? How exciting is Spiller? Will Dareus make an instant impact on the defensive line? Did anyone realize just how good their pass defense was last season? Can someone please acknowledge how hard these players played despite living in the dungeons of the NFL?
Unfortunately, that is the best spin-doctoring I can do. In reality, the Buffalo Bills have glaring holes and weaknesses all over the place. The QB position is a total unknown. They can't sack anybody or get off the field on 3rd down. They get run down and worn out due to lack of possession and consistently lose the turnover battle.
Other than that things are peachy in Bills-town. The glass if eternally half full as long as that glass is filled with moonshine.
To-do list:improve the #1 priority - the O-line. Resign Posluszny/Florence. Fill needs at LB, RT, DE, and QB. Wouldn't hurt to upgrade at TE either.
Biggest post-lockout question: When will they move to Toronto?
AFC West Overview
Kansas City Chiefs
When we last saw the KC Chiefs they were fading out of the 2010 season with disappointing loss to the BAL Ravens at home. There were a number of bad coaching decisions on key plays during the 1st half that let a promising season come to an end. Having said that, they did restore a tough home field advantage that they enjoyed in the 1990's. KC also played all the top teams very good thanks in large part to an oustanding running game. This allowed them to dominate time of possession in most of their games and Matt Cassel became a responsible QB rather than a projected turnover machine.
Going into free agency/training camp they will look to improve in a few important categories. To start with is their record on the road and against the division. You just can't expect to be a top team when you struggle in these areas. Cassel will need to prove he's more than a game manager, but that might be hard to do given how much they rely on the run game. Their offense is in a very similar situation as the NY Jets in that sense. Lastly, they'll need to become more stout in their red zone defense. KC just doesn't have enough offensive firepower to overcome these deficiencies. In the draft they did take a WR and C in the top two rounds, so that's a good first step. Guys like Berry, McCluster, and Arenas should also make considerable leaps in their sophomore seasons.
To-do list: improve the D-line anyway they can. Fill needs at NT, DE, RT, WR, CB, S.
Biggest post-lockout question: Was 2010 a fluke or a sign of things to come?
San Diego Chargers
For SD it was a much different 2010 season. I don't think I've ever seen a team so dominant on offense and defense lose so many games to sub-par teams. Special teams was far and away their biggest weakness and it should serve as a cautionary tale to other teams who are thinking about neglecting this aspect of the team.
Yet, there is little reason to believe that the Chargers won't rise to prominence once again. You can close your eyes and throw a dart at almost any statistical category and find them at the top. Passing offense/defense, rushing defense, sacks, play on 3rd down, points from long drives, ball control, and net yards per drive. They did all this without a legitimate running game to speak of. If Mathews stays healthy the sky is the limit in 2011.
So where does a team with so many strengths focus on in the draft? This year it was defense as they took a CB, DT, and LB in the top two rounds. This should make new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky happy as he begins his first full season on the job.
To-do list: deal with V Jackson. Pray that special teams coach Bisaccia can fix the problems. Resign Burnett/Weddle. Fill needs at LB, WR depth, RT.
Biggest post-lockout question: Can SD finally defeat their #1 rival...themselves?
Anytime you come to OAK on the merry-go round it's kinda like watching a bad reality show play out in real time. If I wrote "fanbase" as their strength and "Al Davis" as their weakness, I think the analysis would be complete. Until the old man croaks, it will be the same old story in Raider-land. Head-scratching coaching choices along with even stranger personnel decisions continue to derail any hopes of glory for this once-proud franchise.
OAK did manage to do something never done in NFL history last year--swept SD, KC, and DEN, but lost the division crown. Their success was due to their smash-mouth running game and play on defense. For most of the year they gave opposing QB's fits. As a result they were near the top in sacks and pass defense. Yet the most impressive component of their defensive play was the ability to get off the field on 3rd down.
On the flip side, they once again took far too many penalties, couldn't pass the ball worth a damn, stop the run, protect the QB, or sustain drives. In the offseason they've drafted a center and brought in Hue Jackson to lead the troops. Not exactly moves that inspire confidence. Jackson helped mentor Joe Flacco, but what does he have to work with in OAK?
To-do list: resign Miller, develop a new QB. Upgrade WR corps and O-line. Fill needs at CB, S, RT, G, DE, LB.
Biggest post-lockout question: How much longer does Al Davis have left?
Many sharps jumped on the under for the 2010 season win totals the second that Dumervil went down with a season ending injury last year. To say that his loss had a devastating impact on their defense is an understatement. To make matters worse DEN was trying to replace Marshall and Cutler and led by an immature head coach. Disaster was inevitable.
They finished the season as one of the only teams without a single team strength. Think about this, when you pass more than most teams and Orton is your quarterback, you know you have serious problems. The entire defense needs an overhaul. They couldn't do anything right on that side of the ball. Teams ran over them with ease and scored in the red zone without getting their jerseys dirty. In fact DEN were near the bottom in so many critical areas that it's not even worth the space to list them all. Drafting a LB and S in the top two rounds was a decent first step in what will be a long and painful rebuilding process. There is very little question where the priority will be going forward with new head coach John Fox at the helm.
To-do list: keep Dumervil healthy, coach up the rookies on D, trade Orton, make a decision on Moreno. Fill needs at DT, DE, CB, RB.
Biggest post-lockout question: Tebow might be the chosen one, but does Elway believe that?
AFC North Overview
Considering that PIT made it to the Super Bowl, it's unlikely I need to spend a lot of time recapping their season. It's pretty clear that PIT needed to shut people down with their defense in order to give that offense a chance. Their O-line was atrocious (losing Pouncey hurt a LOT) and they couldn't sustain drives. When you play a team like GB, deficiencies like those will kill you every time.
What did get them to the Super Bowl was their dominance on the road and against their division. Teams had a tough time rushing, passing, scoring, and sustaining drives on them all year long. Also, PIT consistently won the net yards per drive, turnover and sack battles. They added to that arsenal by drafting another DE in the 1st round and addressed the O-line with a tackle in the 2nd.
To-do list: get younger on defense. Fill needs at RB depth, S depth, RG and OT.
Biggest post-lockout question: Can they figure out a way to protect Big Ben?
BAL was a team that exceeded my expectations in 2010. I'm not particularly high on Flacco and I thought age and their secondary were going to be bigger liabilities than they turned out to be. To their credit, they had a great year stopping the run once again and kept people out of the end zone. Special teams was a big factor in their success and they scored a lot more points from long drives than anyone could have predicted. BAL also plastered anyone who came into their backyard and took care of all the teams they were supposed to.
In the end though, they relied far too much on Rice to win them games, turned the ball over too much, and got sub-par play from both of their lines. This isn't a good formula when you need to go through PIT each season. In response, they went out and drafted a CB and WR to expand their play outside the numbers. I expect them to address the lines during free agency, but my main concern remains at QB.
To-do list: Find a deep threat WR. Solidify O-line. Resign Landry/Yanda. Fill needs on D-line, G, OT, LB, S, CB depth.
Biggest post-lockout question: Is Flacco really the answer?
You won't find a more mediocre team in the NFL than the Cleveland Browns. The only bright spot they had last year was their discipline. 'Average' defined almost every other meaningful category. The lone exception might be Haden at CB. One could make the argument that another positive was Colt McCoy, but was he? Huge question marks remain at the QB position and who knows what to expect going into training camp.
What is certain is that they need to upgrade their passing game in one way or another. Stopping the run isn't fair behind either. When you rank near the bottom in time of possession, plays per game, and net yard per drive, wins will be few and far between. New head coach Pat Shurmer earned his wings in PHI as a LB coach and helped Sam Bradford develop in STL after that. To say that he has his work cut out for him in CLE is an understatement. The new era officially began as they took two defensive linemen in the top of the draft.
To-do list: upgrade WR, find a compliment for Haden, fill needs at DE, DT depth, G/OT depth, LB/S depth, DE.
Biggest post-lockout question: Does CLE finally have a foundation to build on or is this just another run around the hamster wheel?
Things weren't pretty in 2010 for CIN and they only got worse during the lockout. Palmer, Ocho, and T.O. appear on their way out and no one has any idea who's coming in. Personally, this was the biggest let-down team last year. The defense was supposed to be solid and the added offensive weapons should have legitimized them as a real threat. Instead they imploded like a grenade and it's a miracle that Lewis is still employed.
The only good thing going for them is the play of their O-line. Outside of that, the entire roster is a work in progress. Benson didn't follow up on a good season and he just got arrested. Opposing teams had all day and night in the pocket to pick them apart. Nothing positive happened on special teams and Palmer turned the ball over more than Tiki Barber in his early days.
The painful rebuild began as they took WR and QB one-two in the draft. I believe Green might be a star in the not too distant future, but Dalton? Don't hold your breath CIN fans. At least he has Gresham and Shipley to throw to.
To-do list: trade Palmer, move on from Ocho. Find pass-rushers. Resign Joseph. Make decision on Benson. Fill needs at RB, G, C, S, CB, DE depth.
Biggest post-lockout question: What will happen with Carson Palmer, but more importantly, does anyone care?
AFC South Overview
Another up and down year for the Colts ended in a loud thud as they were bounced at home vs the scrappy Jets. The writing might have been on the wall in week 1 vs HOU when their defense once again proved soft in the critical spots. During the course of the year they couldn't do a lick in the running game on offense or defense. Their ability to sack the QB was putrid as questions now linger about Mathis/Freeney. Things were just as bad on special teams, too. Yet, the most concerning stat column for IND was their record vs tough teams. With Peyton's health now a concern, you have to wonder what to expect from them heading into 2011.
If he's good to go they'll continue to light things up in the air. They were near the top in passing, red zone, 3rd down %, net yards per drive, ball control, and points from long drives. Peyton and company didn't give up a lot of sacks and the team was disciplined like usual. To ensure their prized possession stays off the turf they drafted two offensive tackles at the top of the draft, but don't expect that kind of focus heading into free agency. This team has a lot of holes and once again they'll try to scotch tape another roster together to supplement the passing game.
To-do list: upgrade their back 7 on defense. Find a way to limit big plays. Fill needs up the middle of the D. Bring Barry Sanders out of retirement to run the ball.
Biggest post-lockout question: Is this the beginning of the end for Peyton's dominance?
I'm pretty certain that we could write the same preview for JAX every season and not much will change. They were decent against the top and bottom teams, but struggled with the middle of the pack. Inconsistency has been the main identity of this squad for quite some time. MJD leads a potent rushing game, they can score in the red zone, and don't take a lot of penalties.
However, problems up and down the roster continue to drive their fair-weather fan base crazy day in and day out. What is going on at QB? What happened to their defense? This team was terrible in the passing game, run/pass ratio, passing/3rd down defense, net yards per drive, and turnover differential. I'm not sure about you, but that is far too many categories to be at the bottom of. Is Gabbert the answer to their woes? Not anytime soon it's not. JAX have a nice building block in Knighton, but it doesn't get much more exciting after that. What we do know is they will be priced in the middle of the road like usual, but we'll have to wait another month until we know if there's value there or not.
To-do list: find replacement for Sims-Walker. Limit the big play on D. Fill needs at LB, S, DE, RB depth, CB depth, DT depth.
Biggest post-lockout question: Has the clock run out on Jack Del Rio?
HOU was a little bit like the Titanic last year. Everyone wanted to jump aboard the new shiny ship once it took off, but just as many fans jumped off as it crashed and drowned midway through the season. They can hang their hat on a pretty good offense. Foster won the rushing title, they dominated in the red zone, and scored a lot of points from long drives.
But when they took their talents to the road and against tough teams, they balked. It's no surprise that they are very interested in Asomugha because they were atrocious in pass defense. That's not a category you want to toil in if Peyton Manning is in your division. Yet, letting teams drive down the field wasn't the worst issue they had. Once teams got in the red zone, it was not much more than a cakewalk into the end zone. As a result HOU drafted two defensive ends and a cornerback at the top of the draft. If Reed and Cushing can stabilize the linebacker crew, it might not take too long to save the ship and once again challenge for the division lead.
To-do list: still trying to find a replacement for D Robinson. Find 3-4 DE's. Fill needs at LB depth, S, FB, G/OT depth, WR depth, P.
Biggest post-lockout question: Are they willing to break the bank for Asomugha or is it another case of wishful thinking?
When it comes to the bottom-feeders of the AFC South it's a case of out with the old and in with the new. Jeff Fisher finally moves on and makes room for Mike Munchak. No one is quite sure how this will work out after he coached offensive line for 14 seasons, but what is sure is that he has his work cut out for him.
Once again they sucked within the division and didn't even come close to challenging the top teams. They got completely owned in the air on both offense and defense. They couldn't get stops or sustain drives which meant teams dominated ball control and net yards per drive. And adding insult to injury is their ranking in the discipline department.
Somehow this needs to turn around. But who is the man at QB? Is a good special teams unit something to be proud about? Not when that's one of the only bright spots of your team it's not. Morgan is a shining light on the defensive line, but he won't be getting outstanding coaching from Jim Washburn anymore as he set sail for Philadelphia.
To-do list: find a stop-gap QB for Locker. Make CJ happy. Screw Britt's head on straight. Fill needs at DE and TE depth.
Biggest post-lockout question: Two steps backs before one step forward in Tennessee?
2011 NFL Preview: NFC Overviews