Archive for the ‘2011 Previews’ Category

GLS Preview: Seattle Seahawks

Coming off what almost felt like an awkward playoff appearance as a 7-9 division champion, the Seattle Seahawks would like to make history in more of a refined fashion in 2011. Listening to their rah-rah leader, it could become easy to believe that they’ll do so, that they have some sort of mystic or Hollywood destiny awaiting them.

But there’s only so much Pete Carroll can do with a team that was outscored by a touchdown per game last season, especially considering that the Matt Hasselbeck era is over.

With Hasselbeck gone, the offense is borrowing heavily from Oakland (Tom Cable, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery) and Minnesota (Darrell Bevell, Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice). Seems like an odd approach to re-tooling, but we were so exhilarated by Seattle’s storybook upset of the New Orleans Saints in last year’s playoffs that we’re willing to give Carroll and the Seahawks the benefit of the doubt.

For now.

2010 in a nutshell: They register just one victory against an eventual playoff team and win the worst division in football with a sub.-500 record, but then upset the defending champion Saints on wild-card weekend.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. They’ll bounce back and forth between Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst: Jackson is the starter for now, but the chips are stacked against him and he’ll inevitably have some issues. He doesn’t have to learn a completely new offense because of his history with Bevell and he’ll have a familiar target in Rice, but Jackson shouldn’t expect to receive much support from one of the league’s worst running games and an offensive line that is filled with question marks (more on that in a moment). It’ll only be a matter of time before the fans starting calling for Whitehurst, who easily outplayed Jackson in the preseason, to start some games. And it wouldn’t be shocking to see the team toggle between starters in a tumultuous season.

2. The offensive line will continue to be a work in progress: Cable is a great line coach, but there’s only so much he can do. Jackson and Whitehurst have been getting accosted throughout the preseason while taking snaps behind a line that lacks experience. Russell Okung has star potential but can’t stay healthy. Veterans Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer are gone and rookies John Moffitt and James Carpenter will be forced to start from the get-go on the right side of the line. There’s hope for the future, especially if Max Unger can emerge at center, and new left guard Robert Gallery will help the unit save some face, but they’ll still experience some protection issues and struggle to make things easier on a running game that ranked 31st in the league last year.

3. The defense will surrender over 25 points per game again: Here’s another group that has lost veteran leadership with Lofa Tatupu gone and youngsters like Aaron Curry, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmon, Kam Chancellor and David Hawthorne being counted on to carry a defense that is filled with holes. The line, led by Brandon MeBane and Chris Clemons, should get decent pressure, and Red Bryant can dominate against the run if he stays healthy, but there are far too many question marks beyond that.

The final word(s): They’re a very bad team in a bad division. I’m worried about the passing game, the running game, the pass defense and the run defense. If they didn’t hail from the NFC West I’d be pegging them for three or four wins, but they’ll hang in there and win six under these circumstances.

This simply doesn’t co-relate with this.

The first link, NFL.com’s 2010 team stats page, reveals that the San Diego Chargers had the league’s top-rated offense and defense last season. The second link, NFL.com’s 2010 standings page, reveals that the Chargers failed to make the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record.

At the risk of sounding like Jackie Chiles, it’s almost unfathomable. It’s unprecedented. And it’s criminal. But that’s what a nightmarish start and abysmal special-teams play can do to a franchise in a league where your annual fate is determined in just 16 games.

But the Chargers have overhauled the special-teams unit, starting with the addition of Rich Bicaccia, who leaves the Bucs to take over as the special teams coordinator. He has a sterling rep and won a Super Bowl in Tampa. One year after giving up four return touchdowns and having four punts blocked, the team also made a conscious effort to draft players who can contribute immediately on special teams.

That’s been San Diego’s primary problem, and they’ve addressed it, but it’s hard to tangibly address the other problem that has plagued them in recent years: slow starts. Here’s how the Bolts have begun their last four seasons: 1-3, 3-5, 2-3, 2-5.

The Chiefs and Raiders have become too strong. The Chargers can’t have mental lapses this year, and they can’t stumble again out of the gate. This is probably Norv Turner’s last chance to do something big with a very talented roster.

All of the pieces are in place, but we’ve heard that before…

2010 in a nutshell: Thanks to the aforementioned problems, they fail to win the AFC West for the first time since 2005.

Three predictions for 2011: 

1. Philip Rivers will make a run at some records: Rivers led the league in passing yards last year. He’s smack dab in the middle of his prime and he has increased his passing numbers in four consecutive seasons. Last year, he managed to compile a ridiculous 4,710 yards through the air despite only having Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson in small chunks. Jackson is ready to go from the get-go this year, and Gates should be healthy. If things can stay that way, Rivers will make a strong push for offensive player of the year honors, and maybe even Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards mark.

2. The defense will be just as good despite losing Ron Rivera: With Rivera in Carolina, Greg Manusky comes from San Francisco to take over a defense that has been tweaked quite a bit. But they’re good tweaks, and Manusky appears to be perfect for the job of toughening up a sometimes timid group. Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders might not have much time left on their biological football clocks, but they’ll bring a fierceness that didn’t always exist in San Diego. Plus, top pick Corey Liuget is already getting rave reviews — the Chargers think they’ve landed a future Pro Bowler at the all-important 3-4 end spot. If recent high draft picks Larry English and Donald Butler can step up on the left side of the D, they’ll have a chance to improve in 2011. And there wasn’t a lot of room for improvement to start with.

3. They’ll miss Darren Sproles more than expected: It won’t be a game-changer, but Sproles’ presence as a back who could also contribute as a stellar receiver will be missed. The team obviously has high hopes for 2010 top pick Ryan Mathews, but the former Fresno State back has had trouble staying healthy and failed a physical at the start of training camp. With Mathews a question mark, battering ram Mike Tolbert will probably become the undisputed top back this year. The duo should get the job done, but neither player is as versatile as Sproles was.

The final word(s): They’re clearly the best team in the division, but I’m still a tad concerned about how they’ll start with the Patriots, Jets, Packers and Chiefs (twice) in the first half. I’m going to give them the AFC West, but not in a landslide.

GLS Preview: Oakland Raiders

Hue Jackson has taken over the NFL’s most bizarrely-run franchise, but it’s clear that crazy old Al Davis is still calling the shots in Oakland.

In addition to selling another high 2012 draft pick for the enigma with speed that they call Terrelle Pryor, Davis’ most questionable decision of the 2011 offseason was made way back in January when he fired Tom Cable and replaced him with Jackson.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Jackson and the quick pace that he’s become synonymous with. But the players seemed to like Cable, and in 2010 he finally restored some respectability to a franchise that had been a laughingstock for nearly a decade.

The Raiders made progress on offense and defense last year, finishing without a losing record for the first time since they went to the Super Bowl in 2002. One year after finishing 31st in the league in scoring, they scored the sixth-most points in the NFL in 2011. But because Davis had a personal axe to grind, Cable’s gone.

Not only is the head coach that built them up gone, but so is their best player. And now, without Cable and Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders will have to prove to the world that 2010 wasn’t a fluke.

2010 in a nutshell: They sweep their AFC West opponents but go 0-6 against everyone else in the AFC. Despite making a lot of progress in the win column, they finish third in the division for the third consecutive season.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The defense will take a big hit without Nnamdi Asomugha: The best cornerback in the league changed the entire defense by shutting down one side of the field and severely limiting the options of the opposing quarterback. Thankfully, the Raiders re-signed Michael Huff at safety (he’s very good in coverage) and have a decent corner pairing in Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, but the league’s second-best pass defense in 2010 will take a hit without Asomugha. And unless youngsters in the front seven like Lamarr Houston and Rolando McClain take big leaps forward, expect the run defense and the pass rush to take hits, too. Losing a shutdown corner has a domino effect.

2. Jason Campbell will have a better year: Campbell was decent but inconsistent in his first year with the Raiders, and although the Raiders have been criticized for their lack of depth on offense, I think Campbell’s options will get better this year. Kevin Boss should replace Zach Miller, rookie Denarius Moore has been killing it in the preseason and you’d have to think that either Jacoby Ford or Darrius Heyward-Bey will emerge. The talent is there. The experience is not. And the brutal offensive line might remove itself from rock bottom territory if touted young guys Jared Veldheer, Stefen Wisniewski, Bruce Campbell and Joseph Barksdale can progress.

3. Darren McFadden will be a Pro Bowler: With Asomugha gone, McFadden becomes the most talented player on the Raiders’ roster. He was tremendous despite receiving limited reps in a breakout 2010 campaign. In 2011, former No. 4 overall pick will finally become a star in a running game that tore it up last year and should only be better with a healthy McFadden and a promising set of complementary backs in Michael Bush and Taiwan Jones.

The final word(s): The defensive hit will hurt, but I really do see some serious light at the end of a long tunnel for the offense. This is an above-average team with the pieces in place to become a playoff team. But that might not happen until 2012.

New coaching staff, new-look defense, alleged new attitude in San Francisco.

Same old quarterback conundrum in San Francisco.

The Jim Harbaugh reign has begun, and the former Stanford head coach has brought two coordinators with him from the college ranks. The new coaching staff can’t hurt a team that often looked lost and confused under Mike Singletary (and Mike Nolan before him). And while a lot of fans are probably infuriated with a team that left $15 million in cap space on the table while letting veteran contributors Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, Travis LaBoy and David Baas leave via free agency, at least the new faculty is making an effort to put a fresh stamp on an organization that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.

The problem, in addition to the fact that they now have a slew of question marks learning new schemes in a short time period, is that they once again failed to adequately address the problem behind center.

It’s hard to believe Alex Smith is now entering his seventh season in San Fran. The former No. 1 overall pick can’t be labelled a bust until the Niners give up on him as a franchise quarterback, but that has yet to happen despite Smith’s 71.2 career passer rating. He takes too many sacks and throws too many picks, but on the bright side, Smith has never had a head coach with an offensive background, he’s never had a truly competent coaching staff in general, and he’s never had quality complements on offense or defense.

He may or may not have some of those pieces in place this year, but with Andrew Luck applying what must feel like voodoo pressure from 15 miles down the 101 at the Stanford campus, it’s now or never for Alex Smith.

2010 in a nutshell: Despite an 0-5 start, they still finish just a game back of first place in the NFC West. It isn’t because they experience some sort of remarkable turnaround. It’s because the division sucks that much. They wind up with a 6-10 record to cap their eighth non-winning season in a row.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Colin Kaepernick will make some starts: Smith is the best quarterback on the roster, but the Niners don’t appear as though they’ll compete anyway and Smith is bound to have problems, so I’m guessing Harbaugh gives the rookie a shot at some point later in the year. Why is Smith bound to have problems? His only good wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, is a head-case with injury problems, and there’s no telling what Braylon Edwards will do. The quarterbacks have no reliable options beyond Vernon Davis, and veteran running back Frank Gore is about to hit a wall. This offense was 24th in the league in points scored last year — I can’t see them improving much on that this season.

2. The offensive line will improve drastically: The line made too many mistakes and surrendered far too many sacks last year, but the unit should benefit from the maturation of second-year starters Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Davis has the ability to make big strides in his sophomore season and Iupati is already turning into a star. Former Saint Jonathan Goodwin, signed as a free agent earlier this month, should provide an upgrade next to Iupati and Adam Snyder in the middle, and left tackle Joe Staley is healthy again after missing seven games with a fractured fibula last year.

3. They’ll miss Aubrayo Franklin: In fact, they’ll miss a few defenders who helped them finish 2010 with the league’s second-lowest opponent rushing average. Franklin, Lawson and Spikes leave holes in the front seven. The team thinks that unproven and/or failed starters Isaac Sopoaga, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks can step in and soften the blow, but that won’t be an easy task. Fortunately for the Niners, they replaced Clements with the solid Carlos Rogers while improving the secondary broadly by signing Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams.

The final word(s): We’ve said it a thousand times before and we’ll say it a thousand times again: the NFC West sucks. As long as that’s the case, it’s impossible to rule the Niners out. But the Rams are still much better, and the Seahawks and Cardinals might have edges as well. San Fran won’t win more than six games in 2011.

The Kansas City Chiefs are a team on the rise, which is encouraging considering they’re already reigning division champions.

One year after slaying the San Diego Chargers to take home the AFC West title for the first time since 2003, the Chiefs are primed to make another playoff run. They didn’t lose anyone of consequence in the offseason and added some potential key contributors in Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, Kelly Gregg and Jared Gaither.

The 12th-ranked offense will be better with Breaston, Baldwin and Gaither, but there are still concerns about Matt Cassel and his ability to perform consistently. The Chiefs’ franchise quarterback was fantastic while stepping in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 with the Patriots, horrible in his first year with KC in 2009, and up-and-down in 2010.

Now he’s trying to get used to new quarterback coach Jim Zorn and a re-tooled group of receivers. If the transition is anything like Cassel’s transition from New England in ’09, the Chiefs’ world-class running game could become collateral damage.

But no pressure, Matt…

2010 in a nutshell: They shock the heavyweight Chargers in Week 1 to grab an early division lead and never give it up, edging San Diego by a game to win the AFC West. Their Cinderella season dies when they’re crushed by the Ravens on wild-card weekend.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Jamaal Charles will lead the league in rushing: Charles was the league’s second-leading rusher despite carrying the ball only 14.3 times per game in 2010. This year, he’s expected to get a larger share of the backfield work with Thomas Jones beginning to fade at the age of 33. This is a run-oriented offense that is also relatively effective through the air (despite having a 30th-ranked passing game in 2010). If guys like Breaston and youngsters Tony Moeaki, Dexter McCluster and Jonathan Baldwin can step up, there won’t be as much pressure on Charles, who is one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players at the age of 23.

2. Jared Gaither will help the offense a lot: Gaither’s signing could go down as one of the best moves of the 2011 offseason. There are concerns about the monster-sized tackle’s back, and his attitude irked the Ravens, but if he’s driven to do some mauling, he’ll do some mauling. If healthy, Gaither’s a much more dominant player than Branden Albert. If he can be ready to start at left tackle and Albert can move to the right side, the Chiefs will have upgraded the offensive line significantly. That’s good news for Cassel and Charles.

3. Eric Berry will emerge as a superstar: The Chiefs need to do two things better this year on defense — stop the run and force more turnovers. The offseason acquisition of Kelly Gregg should help bolster the run D, but KC didn’t really do anything in free agency to get more turnover-forcers on defense. Maybe that’s because they know that Berry, who was their No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 draft, is about to become an elite player before his 23rd birthday. Berry, who had two sacks, four picks and a touchdown in a spectacular rookie campaign, will also benefit from the continued emergence of Brandon Flowers, who at 25 is becoming one of the league’s most complete cornerbacks.

The final word(s): The Chargers still have more talent, but the extremely young Chiefs have less to lose and a great mentality. They’ll battle San Diego for the division crown to the very end.

GLS Preview: Arizona Cardinals

Some will tell you that the Kevin Kolb era is about to begin in Arizona, while others might prefer to call it the Patrick Peterson era. Some might even insist that the Larry Fitzgerald era is continuing following a few tweaks.

Kolb, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the offseason, takes over at quarterback for a franchise that has been desperate for a veteran pivot since Kurt Warner walked away after the 2009 season. Peterson, who was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in April’s draft, is the most hyped defensive back prospect the league has had since Charles Woodson circa 1998.

Kolb will be counted on to make extreme improvements to an offense that ranked 31st out of 32 and converted an NFL-low 28 percent of its third downs in 2010.

Peterson will be asked to emerge as a shutdown corner and playmaker for a defense that ranked 29th out of 32 and gave up an ugly 27.1 points per game despite playing a weak schedule in 2010.

But the transition to the two new era(s) won’t be fast or easy. Kolb and Peterson are learning new systems in short time frames, and they aren’t exactly supported by great complementary pieces.

2010 in a nutshell: After winning three of their first five games they lose seven straight and nine of their last 11, finishing dead last in the worst division in football.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Kevin Kolb will take a lot of sacks: The Cards surrendered 50 sacks in 2010, which was the second-highest total in the league. Kolb gave up 15 sacks on just 189 pass attempts in 2010 and has already developed a reputation as a quarterback who doesn’t perform well under pressure. Left tackle Levi Brown is awful and right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off of knee surgery, which doesn’t bode well for Kolb’s chances this season. At least in Philadelphia Kolb had a lot of options to get the ball to quickly. But in Arizona, who does he have beyond Fitzgerald, especially now that Steve Breaston is gone?

2. The run defense will improve: That isn’t saying a lot, but I’m trying to find some positives here. This is a unit that was gashed much of last year, finishing 30th against the run. But there’s a good chance linebacker Daryl Washington really steps it up in his second season. They also added veteran field general Stewart Bradley in free agency, and 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams should only get better.

3. The running game will continue to suck: They did add Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack while re-signing Lyle Sendlein to shore up a solid interior offensive line, but Tim Hightower is gone and rookie running back Ryan Williams is out for the year, leaving the unproven (and rather disappointing) Beanie Wells to do everything on his own. The Cards’ run game ranked dead last in the league last year — I can’t see it improving drastically with Beanie going solo in 2011.

The final word(s): Kolb will be an upgrade and Ray Horton’s defense will be more effective as the players become acclimated to the new system, but this is a team that is at least a year away from competing, even in the awful NFC West. I’m giving them six wins.

GLS Preview: Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos are still trying to find some consistency in the post-Mike Shanahan era. After two nightmarish years with Josh McDaniels at the helm, the franchise has handed the personnel keys to a legend and the coaching keys to an established defensive mind with an impressive head-coaching résumé.

But while the onus is on John Elway and John Fox (and I suppose general manager Brian Xanders) to fix a defense that surrendered a sickening 29.5 points per game in 2010, the focus continues to be on the quarterback position.

That isn’t surprising, because quarterbacks are the easiest players to analyze and criticize on any team. But it’s still sort of perplexing, because the Broncos had the NFL’s seventh-best passing game last year.

It’s no secret that the Broncos considered trading Kyle Orton in the offseason. It’s also no secret that Tim Tebow has struggled in training camp and the preseason, so much so that Brady Quinn has (at least temporarily) supplanted him as Orton’s backup. These are juicy storylines, but they aren’t overly crucial when assessing the fate of the 2011 Broncos.

As long as Orton is under center, they’ll be good offensively. And Tebow proved late last season that he can probably hold it down in Orton’s stead, if necessary.

The passing game isn’t the problem in Denver.

The problem? Everything else.

2010 in a nutshell: They go 4-12 despite winning two of their first four games. The defense can’t stop anybody, especially on the ground. Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd emerge to become the only bright spots in a painful season.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Von Miller will be the defensive rookie of the year: Marcell Dareus and Ryan Kerrigan might be primed to have big years in Buffalo and Washington respectively, but Miller has emerged as a clear DROY frontrunner during training camp and the preseason. The No. 2 overall pick (and the defense as a whole) will benefit greatly from the presence of a healthy Elvis Dumervil on the opposite side. Dumervil led the league in sacks in 2009 before missing all of 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle. This is a team that registered a league-low 23 sacks and 18 takeaways last year. With Miller and Dumervil rushing the passer and a healthy Andre Goodman teaming up with rookie ballhawk Rahim Moore in the secondary, they’ll make more big plays in 2011.

2. They won’t run well: They ranked 26th on the ground last year, and I see no reason why Knowshon Moreno will be any more effective this season. He still doesn’t have much support from a weak interior offensive line and there’s a feeling that he’s simply not capable of being a quality No. 1 back. Fox had a great power running game in Carolina, so his presence and the acquisition of Willis McGahee could help a little, but don’t expect them to dazzle on the ground.

3. And they won’t defend the run well: They tried to improve a horrible run defense with the addition of free agent defensive tackle Ty Warren, but it looks like he’ll miss most of the season with a torn triceps tendon. Solid linebacker D.J. Williams is also hurt, which is nothing new for him. For the second year in a row the Broncos will rely on a group of mediocre run defenders to keep offenses balanced, but I don’t envision Brodrick Bunkley, Kevin Vickerson and Marcus Thomas (who is also currently injured) making a big difference. Denver surrendered a league-high 26 rushing touchdowns and was beat for a league-high 22 runs of 20 yards or more last year. I don’t see those numbers improving much this season.

The final word(s): Improvements were made to the defense, they’ll be better off with an established head coach and the passing game will again experience success. But they still lack both the talent and depth required to compete. They’ll win five or six games.