Saturday, September 22, 2012

2012 NFL Football Part 3: AFC

Editing note: Although this is being posted after the season has already started, it is still serving as team opinions from before season and has not been influenced by games already played.

If you missed Part 2.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots 13-3
2. Buffalo Bills 10-6
A lot of receivers may be lost on Revis Island, but the best defensive player in the league can't help this offense.
3. New York Jets 8-8: I have never been a believer of the Jets as contenders, and I think they fall apart a bit this season. Outside of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, the offensive line is a mess that could force quarterback Mark Sanchez into mistakes or get him hurt. They brought in Tim Tebow to be the backup quarterback and gimmick player, but I think he'll be more trouble than he's worth due to the media hoopla he brings in a market like New York. Runningback Shonn Greene isn't a runner with a lot of creativity and won't have much running room to work with behind this O-line. Santonio Holmes is being paid like a #1 receiver yet has not been playing like one while rookie Stephen Hill was a reach as a second round pick who is more of a sprinter than a real receiver. I do like Jeremy Kerley as a return man and slot receiver, but tight end Dustin Keller has always been an overrated 'tweener.
   As always, this team wins games based on its defense, but I'm not sure if it is as strong of a unit as in years past. Darrelle Revis is still the best cornerback in the game, and I love the additions of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell at the safety positions. However, cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson get routinely beat in coverage despite their immense talent. The pass rush can be inconsistent with outside linebacker Calvin Pace being the only true threat and getting up there in age, but I do like the first round picks of the last two drafts, Quenton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson, being added to this front seven. David Harris and Bart Scott have been a strong pair of inside linebackers in the past, but they must perform at elite levels for this team to be over .500.

4. Miami Dolphins 5-11: I'm higher on rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill than most, and although he was a big reach at #8 overall, it makes sense that he is the week 1 starter for offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who was his head coach at Texas A&M. Tannehill is a gifted all around athlete who even played some receiver in college, and I enjoyed watching his connections with Jeff Fuller Jr., his #1 receiver at A&M and whose father played for the 49ers. I was surprised that Fuller went undrafted, but he signed with the Dolphins and could make an impact as a rookie because this is a rather weak receiving corps with Davonne Bess, Brian Hartline, and tight end Anthony Fasono as the only marginal players. Without many weapons at receiver, Tannehill may struggle as a rookie behind a shaky offensive line. Left tackle Jake Long is the only stud on the unit, so they'll need second round steal Jonathan Martin to produce right away at right tackle and center Mike Pouncey to live up to the billing of last year's first round pick. If this group can at least create some holes in the running game, then I think that Reggie Bush can repeat the success of his breakout season. I also like rookie fourth round pick Lamar Miller as the backup runningback with big play capability should Bush's previous injury woes return.
    The defense could be an above average unit, but it is switching to a 4-3 with star pass rusher Cameron Wake now having to play as an every down defensive end. Defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai should make things easy up the middle for middle linebacker Karlos Dansby, but you still have to question the fit of the roster to this new scheme. After the trade of cornerback Vontae Davis in the preseason, depth in the secondary is probably the team's biggest weakness. Cornerback Sean Smith is left as the team's biggest playmaker, but I could see free safety Reshad Jones having a breakout season.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens 12-4
2. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
Green spectacular catches are still not enough to close the gap in this division.
3. Cincinnati Bengals 8-8: I liked Andy Dalton in the draft last year as a later round pick, but he surprised me by rising up to a second rounder and quarterbacking his team to a playoff berth, albeit with some lucky breaks in an easy schedule. I loved their first round pick A.J. Green, who I feel is the next Randy Moss, and Dalton has proven that he will constantly feed his #1 target the ball despite double teams because he is far and away their best receiving threat. Along with stud all-around tight end Jermaine Gresham, the rest of the receiving corps includes interesting young players like return specialist Brandon Tate, former CFL speedbug Andrew Hawkins, and rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Rookie guard Kevin Zeitler was selected with the second of two first round picks to help solidify a strong offensive line. If there are enough consistent running lanes, then free agent addition BenJarvus Green-Ellis will prove to be a reliable workhorse to keep pressure off of Dalton's shoulders.
   The other first round pick, courtesy of the Carson Palmer swindle, was used on Dre Kirkpatrick, a big cornerback that has been a personal favorite of mine for years. Free agent Terrence Newman was also added to an interesting group of corners that includes Leon Hall (a lockdown player coming off an Achilles injury), Nate Clements, Adam Jones, and Kirkpatrick. One of them, possibly the aging Clements, could move to safety as well because Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson are an inconsistent pair. I like this front seven, anchored by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who I've liked since his Georgia days. Michael Johnson is an athletic freak at right defensive end, and I really believe that Carlos Dunlap can become a star at left defensive end if he is healthy. I was surprised that outside linebacker Keith Rivers was traded to the Giants for a fifth round pick, but his former USC teammate Rey Maualuaga leads a strong unit from his middle linebacker spot. Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard are very good in coverage from their outside spots, and rookie Vontaze Burfict would have been a first round pick rather than undrafted if not for character concerns, something the Bengals have never been afraid to take a chance on.

4. Cleveland Browns 3-13: 
EDIT: There was a computer error, and a lot of this post was lost. Thus, thoughts on each team from here on will be summarized.
I loved the Trent Richardson pick, but I hated the Brandon Weeden.pick. The offensive line and lack of weapons will not help the 28 year old rookie quarterback. Joe Haden, D'Qwell Jackson, and Jabaal Sheard are studs at each level of the defense, but there is a lack of depth.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans 13-3

2. Tennessee Titans 7-9: It will be interesting to see Jake Locker try to build on a surprisingly good rookie season, and he will have strong targets to throw to with Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, and Jared Cook. The offensive line is getting old, which will put a lot of pressure on Locker's athleticism, but there is a chance for Chris Johnson to bounce back after a poor season. The defense needs Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley to generate some pressure because the secondary has holes behind Michael Griffin and Jason McCourty, who outplayed his twin brother, Devin, last year and earned a big contract extension. Stopping the run could be a problem because the defensive tackles and linebackers are young, but Colin McCarthy, Akeem Ayers, and Zach Brown could eventually form an elite linebacker group.
The future is looking up for the Colts.

3. Indianapolis Colts 7-9: I completely believe Andrew Luck is the real deal and could possibly lead this team to overachieve and reach the playoffs if his supporting cast can step up. Inconsistencies in the running game with Donald Brown and a questionable offensive line will likely derail those chances, but Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donnie Avery, and rookie T.Y. Hilton are not a bad group of wide receivers to go with rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, which were somewhat questionable picks back to back but understandable to help the #1 pick. The defense should improve under new head coach Chuck Fagano's 3-4 with the undersized Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis moving to outside linebacker. Nosetackle is a concern, but Fili Moala and Drake Nevis could excel at defensive end along with veteran Cory Redding, who followed Fagano from Baltimore. Fellow former Raven Tom Zbikowski should pair well with free safety Antoine Bethea, and the trade for Vontae Davis fills a big hole at cornerback.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11: Drafting wide receiver Justin Blackmon and signing the emerging Laurent Robinson should help second year quarterback Blaine Gabbert gain more confidence in his throws instead of panicking in the pocket behind a weak offensive line. Holdout runningback Maurice Jones-Drew must be leaned upon to carry both the running game while also being crucial in the passing game. The defense is solid but needs second round pick Andre Branch to bring an immediate impact at defensive end in case Jeremy Mincey's breakout season was a fluke. Defensive tackle Tyson Aluau is a budding star, but this is not a strong run defense with just Paul Posluszny as the only notable linebacker. The secondary should remain solid with Dawan Landry and Dwight Lowery at safety and cornerback Aaron Ross signed as insurance for the talented but oft-injured Reshean Mathis and Derek Cox.

AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6

Could Manning double up on his Lombardi trophies? Or at least my fantasy championships?
2. Denver Broncos 9-7: I picked the Chiefs in this wide open division mainly because they have an easier schedule than the Broncos, but I do have faith in Peyton Manning's return to glory (I picked him as my fantasy quarterback in the middle rounds after I had to change my strategy once my most important league decided we wouldn't have keepers after all...) There will have to be some adjustment between the system Manning is used to running and the current coaching staff, but with a solid offensive line and running game and Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas at receiver, their schedule should be the only thing in the way of the playoffs. The defense was what really led the Tebow-mania playoff run, but it won't be as strong against the run as it was. However, ith Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, the signing of cornerback Tracy Porter (whom Manning is familiar with from Super Bowl XLIV) across from future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, and a solid group of safeties, the pass defense should keep the games from getting away from them.

3. San Diego Chargers 8-8: Philip Rivers is not likely to rebound well from his worst year with this poor offensive line in front of him, particularly with left tackle as the biggest problem. The signing of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal to bolster this receiving corps with Malcolm Floyd should help, as will the hopeful health of star tight end Antonio Gates, but that won't matter if Rivers does not have time to throw downfield. Ryan Mathews is a dynamic talent at running back, but he can never seem to stay healthy enough to make use of his running and receiving talent. The defense should improve with the additions of free agent Jarret Johnson and first round pick Melvin Ingram to add more strength in this front seven. That should free up pass rushing specialist Shaun Phillips and the emerging inside linebacker Donald Butler to make more plays. This secondary is talented but very beatable with safety Eric Weddle as the only true star. 

4. Oakland Raiders 4-12: The new coaching staff did not inherit a great situation with lots of holes surrounding the handful of talent. When healthy, Darren McFadden is one of the most impressive runningbacks in the league with his size, speed, and catching ability, but the switch to a zone blocking scheme with this porous offensive line might not be the greatest display for his talents. Quarterback Carson Palmer should have a better season after being thrown into the fire after being acquired at midseason while "retired," but this might not be the best system for him either. Denarius Moore, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Jacoby Ford do form a tantalizing receiving group thanks to their speed, but there are health concerns with them. On the other side, the cornerback group was completely remade around the passable safety pair of Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch, but this is not a strong secondary with Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer coming off of disappointing injury years of their own. Defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy will have to step up and create a consistent pass rush for this defense to be successful. Despite talent up the middle with defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Rolando McClain, the run defense has never been a strength either, and I don't expect that to change this season.

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