Cowboys: The Boys have been worried about the offense this preseason for good reason. The first stringers did not score a TD in their first two games. QB Tony Romo got the big money but has yet to produce a post season win. The run of 8-8 seasons should have been a huge red flag to Owner/GM Jerry Jones about giving Romo that much cash. Beside Romo being very inconsistent, the running game has not produced. Romo’s mechanics have been inconsistent due the pressure. If he gets more time he should become more accurate. Romo has a history of making the big mistake at the worst time. Those errors cost the Cowboys games in the last few years. RB DeMarco Murray is good but the line has not opened holes for him. He has also been injury prone. Murray got benched for fumbling in the game against the Bengals. The one super star on offense is WR Dez Bryant. He is as good as anyone in that position and has become very serious about improving his game. Miles Austin has potential but is injury prone. Tight end Jason Witten is good but is more than a bit past his prime. The line was worse than abysmal last year. Romo was running for his life all the time. The Boys spent their first round pick on C Travis Frederick which was an overreaction to an intolerable situation. Fredrick was a reach in the first round but he will help. The one holdover that was promising is third year left tackle Tyron Smith. RT Doug Free would have been cut had he not agreed to lower his salary cap number. Now they have tried him at RG and Jermey Parnell at tackle due to the injury to guard Nate Livings.
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3 Tampa Two system. DeMarcus Ware changes from backer to end. He will be fine. The defense has been injury prone over the last few years. The line has been hurt this year by an injury to nose tackle Jay Ratliff. He has been put on the reserve PUP list and will miss at least 6 weeks. Middle backer Sean Lee is the second best player on that side of the ball. He was out for most of 2012. Lee is critical to the success of the Tampa Two because he has the speed to cover the middle of the field deep between the safeties. OLB Justin Durant is the weak spot on the second level. The backfield has also suffered injuries. Former 1st round pick in 2012 corner Morris Claiborne has been out but hopes to be back for week one. He and corner Brandon Carr are best at man to man coverage but are both decent tacklers that should adapt to the zone system well. The safeties are both suspect but the zone concept should help them.
The Boys don’t have much depth on either side of the ball. They also have a history of critical mistakes. Jerry Jones will not hesitate to fire head coach Jason Garrett if the Cowboys are 8-8 again this year.
Eagles: The Eagles will be fun to watch this year with new head coach Chip Kelly running the show. Kelly named QB Michael Vick as the starter. Vick is the perfect guy to run this offense. The only question about Vick is can he stay healthy? The player that will profit most from the new scheme is RB LeSean McCoy. In Oregon Kelly ran the ball much more often than people think. McCoy fits perfectly into that scheme. The line is much better this year with the return of LT Jason Peters and the addition of first round rookie RT Lane Johnson. The receivers are solid and WR DeSean Jackson will be Vick’s top target.
ILB Mychal Kendricks will lead the new 3-4 defense. While the offense looks very good, the defense is full of big question marks. Can a defense that struggled so much last year learn and implement the 3-4? Can OLB Trent Cole adapt from his DE position? Will former 49er nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga be able to hold up against the run? The biggest question is can the front seven get to the QB and bail out a revamped backfield? Corner Cary Williams comes from the Ravens and Bradley Fletcher from the Rams.
The Eagles are not going to compete for a division title until coach Kelly gets more of his kind of players on the roster. The kind he needs are big fast players. There is also the question of implementing Kelly’s offense in the NFL. If the hurry up offense fails to move the ball the beleaguered defense will be spending a lot of time on the field.
Giants: The Giants will go as far as QB Eli Manning can take them and that will depend on the health of the offensive line. LT Will Beatty is coming around and is signed long term. The team hopes both center David Baas and guard Chris Snee can be ready to go after off season surgery. Right tackle David Diehl is finally healthy but for how long? He has a history of injuries. The running game is a question as well because David Wilson seems to have developed a fumbling issue this preseason to go with his struggles to pass protect. That is a deadly combination and may lead to Andre Brown starting. The wideouts are set but Hakeem Nicks has yet to get paid. Victor Cruz got his money in the off season then promptly got hurt. He is hoping to be back for week one.
The defense is in flux for the first time in a while. DE Justin Tuck comes off of two injury filled years of very average performance. DE Jason Pierre-Paul is recovering from back surgery but is now off the PUP. Mathias Kiwanuka was moved to linebacker but then back to end due to injury concerns. The linebacker group is even more in flux than the line. 2011 undrafted Mark Herzlich is trying to take over the middle spot with veteran Dan Connor pressing him hard. Outside backer Jacquian Williams still has issues with a heal from last year and his partner, Keith Rivers, has a history of minor injuries. Strong safety Stevie Brown is out for the year. Look for the G-Men to sign former starter Kenny Phillips if he can recover from a knee issue. CB Corey Webster needs to improve from an injury filled 2012. They need former 1st round CB Prince Amukamara to show he is worth that pick.
The Giants always seem to be in the playoff race. The defense and offensive line will have to play better than last year for the team to get there.
Redskins: All the fans want to know is when will Robert Griffin III be ready to play? What offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants to know is how long will RG3 be healthy? Griffin will have to change the way he ends his runs to stay on the field. He has an outstanding arm with great vision of the field. But he is slight and needs to protect himself running the ball. The running game was Alfred Morris the 6th round pick in 2012. It is doubtful he can repeat that level of performance. His runs depended on the running threat of RG3 to open lanes for him. If RG3 is reigned in Morris will have much less success. There are questions about the line that include LT Trent Williams’ ability to avoid another suspension and LG Kory Lichtensteiger’s ability to stay healthy. The focus for the passing game will be WR Pierre Garcon and TE Fred Davis. Garcon is fragile and must stay healthy. Davis was suspended last year four games for substance abuse and then blew out his ACL. Santana Moss and Josh Morgan back up second year Leonard Hankerson and Garcon.
The defense has been the calling card of the Skins for years but suffered last season from injuries. End Jarvis Jenkins has to continue to improve from a slow start in 2011 because his replacement, Adam Carriker, is recovering from a quad injury. End Stephen Bowen needs to pick up the pass rush after a poor 2012. The return of OLB Brian Orakpo will help the pass rush a bunch. OLB Ryan Kerrigan faltered after Orakpo went down. The backfield was burned often in 2012. This group is going to have to play a lot better for the team to advance in the playoffs.
The Redskins made the playoffs last year and can again IF RG3 is healthy for 16 games. The chances of that happening are small. Expect them to slip out of the chase for the Lombardi trophy.
Bears: Quarterback Jay Cutler has taken the heat from the fans for the failure of the Bears to get to the playoffs. But he has been behind one of the worst offensive lines in league history. The degradation of his mechanics has been due as much to bad habits developed under stress than his regression as a passer. The improved line play should help that. Matt Forte is one of the best backs in the league. With any blocking he should return to the upper echelon of running backs. The list of quality receivers begins with wideout Brandon Marshall and ends with tight end Martellus Bennett. The problem for Cutler is Marshall has had hip issues and Bennett catches some and drops others. Cutler cannot depend on any of the other receivers. The key to the season on offense is the development of the line. Ex-Saint Jermon Bushrod will protect Cutler’s blind side. He is solid. The issues could come with two rookies on the right side of the line. Guard Kyle Long will likely start the season. Right tackle will be either rookie Jordan Mills or veteran J’Marcus Webb who played left tackle last year but was out of position there.
The defensive line production depends on all pro end Julius Peppers. He is 33 and needs to take some plays off to remain effective. The starter at the other end is still not determined. Tackle Henry Melton was franchised and provides good pressure inside. The Bears’ defense will also depend on rookie Jon Bostic’s ability to replace future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher. Bostic could be replaced by D.J. Williams when he recovers from a hamstring. Outside backer Lance Briggs is solid and will call plays for the defense. The backfield should all be in jail for theft due to stealing the ball so often last year. Corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman played very well. But Tillman is 32 and has lost a half step. Jennings had an extraordinary 2012 but can he make that his new standard? We will see. The safeties are solid with Major Wright and future star Chris Conte patrolling the deep half.
The Bears should be better if the offensive line comes around but will not challenge the Packers for the title.
Lions: The Lion offense started and ended with quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2012. While he is one of the better young passers in the league, he has needed a running game to balance the offense. Stafford has an above average arm and a below average line. He does struggle with his pre-snap and post snap reads. That has to improve if the Lions are going to get back into the playoffs. The main target is and has been his 6’ 5” wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson’s running mate Nate Burleson only played six games last year. He is 32 and not getting faster. The team has looked for a replacement for him for years. They may have found one in Ryan Broyles but both are coming off knee surgeries.
The newest weapon is free agent running back Reggie Bush. Not only can he run but he is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield as well. Look for him to get 70-80 catches this year. The line has been revamped. The left side of the line should be fine including Riley Reiff at tackle, Rob Sims at guard and Dominic Raiola at center. The rest will depend on tackle Jason Fox staying healthy. They will use two tight ends a lot. That means both Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler will have a chance to prove they are worth contract extensions unless undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria replaces one of them.
The defense has gotten a reputation for being dirty. That is not all bad in the NFL. The strength of the defense is the inside play of tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. The top draft pick this year Ezekiel Ansah is starting at end and provides athleticism that previous candidates did not. He is raw as sushi but seems to make plays. The second and third levels of the defense are major question marks. Middle backer Stephen Tulloch was hampered last year by injuries. When he is healthy he is above average. Outside backer DeAndre Levy was playing well until he suffered a groin injury. The third spot is wide open in an attempt to replace former starter Justin Durant. The backfield was reworked out of necessity. Corner Chris Houston is a holdover as is free safety Louis Delmas. Strong safety Glover Quin comes in from the Texans and they drafted corner Bill Bentley.
The Lions need to get into the playoffs to save their head coach Jim Schwartz’s job. But there have been too many penalties and mistakes to think the team will make the post season in the tough NFC.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league. That says it all. The Packers are going younger at wide receiver. Long time wideout Greg Jennings in gone. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will start and James Jones as the third guy. That should work just fine if Nelson is healthy. Tight end Jermichael Finley may be a head case but his talent makes him worth it. The offensive line is the weakest unit of the team. The injury to left tackle Bryan Bulaga has forced rookie David Bakhtiari to protect Rodgers’ blind side. He can expect some help from tight ends and running backs until he gets into the flow. Left guard Josh Sitton is a pro bowler. The rest of the line is up in the air. Rodgers gets the ball out of his hands quickly but he was sacked way too often last year. The line is going to have to block better on both the pass and the run. There will be a major motivation for the line to open holes for the running game. The Packers have not had a 100 yard rusher in more than 40 consecutive games. That should end as they drafted Alabama running back Eddie Lacy. He is 230 pounds of irresistible force. No lineman wants to get hit in the back by someone of that size. Lacy and fourth round pick Johnathan Franklin will have to do most of the work because DuJuan Harris is out for the year.
The overall defense was fine last year. They ended up 10th in both scoring and yards allowed per game on defense. The Packer defensive line is a little soft against the run. Fortunately for them the Packers are usually far enough ahead that teams seldom try to run the ball much. Ryan Pickett is 33 and cannot be expected to play at a high level much longer. B.J. Raji struggles defeating double team blocks. They have experimented moving Raji outside to end. Rookie first round pick Datone Jones should be a major addition providing pass rush and more size against the run. The second level was the strength of the defense last year but has had some issues. Clay Matthews is as good as any outside backer against the run and the pass. Inside A.J. Hawk is playing close to that level. Brad Jones inside and Nick Perry outside look capable but are somewhat untested replacing the starters from 2012. Free safety Morgan Burnett is the leader of the backfield. The corners are only fair and the strong safety spot is up for grabs but M.D. Jennings seems to have the lead over Jerron McMillian for the game one assignment.
The Packers are clearly the class of the NFC North. They should make the playoffs with no problems. How far they go in the post season will depend on the offensive balance. That will help them run out the clock in playoff games. They should get to the NFC Championship game.
Vikings: The Vikes are wasting the career of Adrian Peterson with the poor quarterbacking of Christian Ponder. It seems like Peterson faces 47 guys in the box on every play because no opponent fears the passing of the Ponder. Pro Bowl FB Jerome Felton had surgery on his appendix then was suspended three games for a substance-abuse policy violation. Ponder is inaccurate, does not have a strong arm and does not process information quickly enough to be an NFL starter. The line is solid with the only soft spot being right tackle. The receivers are OK but the QB is what prevents the team from challenging the Packers for a division title.
The defense has been solid with a very good front line. The only opening this season on this side of the ball is at outside backer. They play the run better than the pass. End Jared Allen is the primary pass rusher. He is in the final year of his deal. Tackle Kyle Williams was hurt last weekend but the knee has no structural damage. The back end of the defense has some issues. Free safety Harrison Smith is becoming a star but the pass rush will have to make up for a lack of experience elsewhere. CB Chris Cook is starting for the first time this season. Strong safety Jamarca Sanford tries to replace Antoine Winfield who signed with the Seahawks. Good luck with that. They hope 2013 first round pick Xavier Rhodes can win the other corner spot. So far he has not.
The Vikes will take a step back this year even with the best RB in the game.
Bucs: The question in Tampa is Josh Freeman the quarterback of the future or just another guy? He is in the last year of his rookie deal and must impress to get a starter size contract. He does not see the field well enough. He also stares down his receivers which generates coverage. But the team drafted him due to a strong arm. He trusts his arm too much and becomes inaccurate due to poor mechanics. They have brought in some improved targets for him including WRs Mike Wallace this year and Vincent Jackson last. Doug Martin will be the primary ball carrier. He led all rookie running backs in yardage last year. Four of the five starters on the line return but both guards lost games last year due to injury. The new starter is right tackle Demar Dotson if he can hold off veteran free agent Gabe Carimi who is coming off of knee surgery. The line is good enough. The runners are good enough. Freeman is the question mark.
The defense was last in the league in pass defense in 2012. They were best against the run but that doesn’t mean much in a pass happy NFL. Tackle Gerald McCoy is the star of the defense. End Adrian Clayborn returns as the only other defensive line starter from last year. End Da’Quan Bowers is talented but has started only 6 games. The nose tackle spot is up for grabs. Weak backer Lavonte David and middle backer Mason Foster return from last season. David had a great rookie season but Foster must do better against the pass. The strong side backer spot is open. The backfield has been totally reworked for good reason. It was terrible last season. The big move was the trade for Jet corner Darrelle Revis who is coming off surgery in 2012 on his ACL. He should be fine and will be a giant upgrade. They used their first choice (2nd round) for corner Johnthan Banks but he has to beat out second year corner Leonard Johnson. FS Dashon Goldson comes over from the 49ers and is a big hitter.
The defense will be better but unless Freeman plays like a first rounder the team will struggle to win games.
Falcons: The Falcons are determined to get to the Super Bowl this season. They were a hand full of yards short of that goal in 2012 despite having home field advantage. The passing game is outstanding with QB Matt Ryan throwing to future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez and star WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones. The issue last year was a lack of a running game to balance the offense. The team signed ex-Ram RB Steven Jackson to fix that issue. Jackson is a solid inside runner but is 30 years old and has 2,395 carries in his career. The question is does he have enough left to solve the problem?
The line is two fifths set. Left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock are solid. Peter Konz played guard last year and is working at center this season. The rest is to be determined.
The defense gave up the tenth most yards passing and 365 yards per game overall. That has to get better if the team wants to go further in the playoffs. The team did not resign end John Abraham who had a third of the teams’ sacks last year. They signed ex-Giant end Osi Umenyiora to replace him. Umenyiora is a great pass rusher when healthy. But over the last few years he has had a variety of injuries. Nose tackle Corey Peters is coming off surgery but has looked OK this season. The linebackers have been injury prone and are the weakness of the defense. Only Sean Weatherspoon is a playoff quality guy in this group. The backfield was getting old. CB Asante Samuel is 32 and is the best player of the group. Rookie Desmond Trufant was drafted to bring some youth to the unit. Strong safety William Moore is talented but has had an injury problem the last few years. He missed four games last season due to injuries.
The Falcons are good enough to get to the playoffs but have trouble getting through them. That will not change this year. Despite probably getting home field advantage in the NFC again, they are not likely to get to the Big Game.
Panthers: QB Cam Newton has put up some good passing numbers but has yet to win much. His accuracy depends on his mechanics which tend to come and go based on the amount of pressure he gets. He has had two primary targets in wide out Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. Both are solid but Olsen has had spells of dropping the ball. They signed free agent and former first round pick Ted Ginn to challenge the other starter Brandon LaFell. Running back Jonathan Stewart is out for at least six weeks with an injury on the PUP. That leaves DeAngelo Williams who has averaged over five yards per carry in his seven year career. But last year he was limited to ten starts and a 4.3 yard average by injuries. While he was a solid starter he is 30 years old, an age where runners tend to struggle. Rookie Kenjon Barner is also a possibility and is now listed second on the depth chart. The line has been a work in progress for several years. Only center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross are quality starters. Kalil missed the final 11 games last year and Gross is 33. The rest of the line is very suspect.
The Panthers were tenth in total defense last year. That is good enough to get them into the playoffs. The stars of the line are ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both of whom got double digit sacks last year. Tackles Dwan Edwards, rookies first round pick Star Lotulelei and second round pick Kawann Short will solidify the interior run defense and keep MLB Luke Kuechly clean. He might be the best at his position in the league. The outside backers are adequate if Jon Beason can stay healthy. He missed much of the last two years with injuries. The backfield has depended on the pass rush to survive. Free safety Charles Godfrey and corner Drayton Florence will start and the rest is up in the air.
If the defensive backfield is just OK and the offense can be more consistent the Panthers should challenge for a playoff spot. That is not likely to happen.
Saints: QB Drew Brees is the offense of the Saints. The running game is an afterthought. The collection of runners does not impress anyone. They added back Darren Sproles but he will catch more than he runs. The key will be how well the line protects Brees. They added guard Ben Grubbs last year and that helped. Brees will throw for 5000 yards again this year. The best receivers are older and injury prone. They stole wide out Kenny Stills in the 5th round of the draft and he looks very good.
The defense set all kinds of records last year—all bad. They were the worst in the history of the NFL. New coordinator Rob Ryan will change the scheme to a 3-4 this year. Will Smith was transitioning to outside backer from end but is out for the year. That will hurt the team. The Saints have to put more pressure on the quarterback and get off the field on 3rd down.
The D will be better but the team will go as far as Brees takes them. They might make the playoffs but that would require a lot of luck, something this team has never enjoyed.
Cardinals: The team found out the hard way it is impossible to win without a quality quarterback. The Cardinals traded for Carson Palmer. He is a huge improvement over the trio of guys that played last year. He can make all the throws but has to be well protected. The Cards brought in free agent right tackle Eric Winston and drafted guard Jonathan Cooper with their first round pick. Cooper broke a leg in week three of the preseason and will be out for the year. Wide out Larry Fitzgerald will benefit the most from the new signal caller. Michael Floyd is developing and will be helped as well. They added free agent Rashard Mendenhall who is a proven up the gut runner if he can stay healthy.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles uses a 3-4 differently that the previous staff. He wants the defensive ends to attack their gap rather than the have responsibility for two gaps as former coach Ray Horton required. The defense needs to play the run more effectively. The change in philosophy should help Darnell Dockett get sacks and tackles for loss again. Former first round pick nose tackle Dan Williams is in danger of “Burger Kinging” himself out of the league. He needs to keep the weight down and have a good year. End Calais Campbell is the best player on his side of the ball. Beside outside backer Sam Acho the second level unit is a mess. Inside backer Daryl Washington is suspended for the first four games. His loss will be felt. The team signed free agent Karlos Dansby to replace him and the under achieving inside backer Jasper Brinkley to play next to him. They also signed Lorenzo Alexander from the Redskins special teams to play outside.
The defensive backfield benefited from the issues of former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu. Those issues drove him into the third round in the 2013 draft. He has been the star of the camp. Football was never his problem. Where he got into trouble was off the field. So far that has not been an issue. Corner Patrick Peterson is one of the top players at that position and will play a little offense this year as well. No one has established himself at the other corner.
The Cardinals will be better but are a long way from challenging the 49ers or the Seahawks. Cutting down on penalties would help.
49ers: QB Colin Kaepernick may go down as one of the all time steals of the draft. The 2nd rounder led the 49ers to the Super Bowl without any off season preparation. This year he will be much better getting the starter reps all off season. The offensive line is outstanding and RB Frank Gore is a perennial all pro. The wide receiver situation was hurt with the injury to Michael Crabtree. They brought in Anquan Boldin and he will provide some veteran leadership to the unit.
The defense is top three in the league with stars all over the field. The Smith brothers (DT Justin Smith and OLB Aldon Smith) terrorize quarterbacks. The combo of inside backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are freed up to stuff the run or cover backs and tight ends. The backfield is solid and the 49ers added rookie safety Eric Reid and veteran free agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha.
The 49ers are ready to win a Super Bowl. If they can stay healthy they just might.
Rams: The Rams had the best divisional record in the NFC West last year. But that was last year. Quarterback Sam Bradford got the last super contract for being the first overall pick. So far he has played well but the team has not progressed. The team moved to give him some targets in free agent Wes Welker and first round pick Tavon Austin. They are still trying to figure out how to use Austin effectively. The running game is a huge question because they let Steven Jackson leave in free agency. None of the backs have earned the start so it will be a committee approach. Free agent Jared Cook was the most sought after tight end on the open market and they got him. The line has been a work in progress for a couple of years but now seems to be headed in the right direction. Ex-Dolphin Jake Long was signed to play left tackle and former LT Rodger Saffold was moved to RT.
The defensive line is full of early draft picks and is the strongest unit on the team. Both end were early first round picks and play like it. Ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are budding stars. Tackles Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers are solid. There is not much quality depth. Middle backer James Laurinaitis plays at a pro bowl level. The outside guys are fine. While the corners are solid the safety position is a problem. Janoris Jenkins fell to the second round in 2012 due to off the field issues but played very well joining veteran corner Cortland Finnegan.
The Rams might challenge in a normal division but in the NFC West they will have to fight their way to third place.
Seahawks: The fans have not seen much of their QB Russell Wilson but that is OK. He is the leader of the team. He should improve on his 2012 season because he has gotten the starter reps in practice. He will have Marshawn Lynch at running back. Lynch is a top rusher. Wilson will need the help because both projected starters at wide outs are injured. The Hawks traded for Percy Harvin and then in OTAs he hurt his hip. He may be back later in the season but Wilson succeeded without him last year. Starter Sidney Rice has also been hampered this preseason. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are capable and will have to fill the void until the wounded wide outs return. The line was expected to be a strength but has not done well in the preseason. Right guard is an issue and the pass blocking overall has faltered.
The defense is among the best in the league. The line is talented and deep but has suffered injuries and a suspension. Free agent end Cliff Avril has been dealing with a hamstring injury. He may not be able to play week one. Nose tackle Brandon Mebane is nursing a groin pull and star end Bruce Irvin is suspended for the first four games. Former starting end Chris Clemons wants to get a long term deal and is still on the PUP. The Hawks have to find a replacement for free agent linebacker Leroy Hill on the strong side. The back four are solid with the addition of free agent Antoine Winfield to the existing group. Safety Earl Thomas is a star.
The Hawks have committed too many penalties including 14 flags for over 180 yards against the Packers. That is one thing that Coach Pete Carroll is going to have to fix if the Seahawks are going to advance to a Super Bowl.
That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.
Bill Smith is a former coach of several semi-pro teams, has officiated both football and basketball, done color on radio for college football and basketball and has scouted talent. He has also published several novels on .
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