Archive for the ‘2011 Previews’ Category

GLS Preview: St. Louis Rams

The St. Louis Rams are one of the league’s most popular sleeper teams, and it’s easy to understand why.

The Rams have a young franchise quarterback coming off a 3,500-yard rookie campaign, a stellar offensive line and a solid mix of veteran contributors and young playmakers on defense. Their win total jumped from one to seven between 2009 and 2010, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t keep climbing in 2011.

But the progression of the franchise is closely tied to the progression of that franchise QB. Sam Bradford had a good rookie season on paper, but his 3,512-yard total was inflated by a rookie record 590 attempts (third-most in the NFL). Bradford dinked and dunked his way along in a conservative west coast offense, averaging just 6.0 yards per attempt.

The unit as a whole averaged just 4.6 yards per play (second-lowest in the league) and finished 26th in the league in total offense.

The good news is that quarterback teaching champion Josh McDaniels has arrived to coach the offense. The bad news is that McDaniels is introducing Bradford and Co. to a more nuanced system in a short amount of time. In 2011, this team’s success will likely be tied to how quickly the offense can adapt to McDaniels’ approach.

2010 in a nutshell: Typical of a young team, they perform much better at home than they do on the road. They clearly outplay the rest of the weak NFC West, but falter late and blow the division title with a flat Week-17 loss in Seattle.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Bradford will continue to progress slowly: I think the future remains bright, but Bradford will experience some growing pains in his sophomore season. He still doesn’t have enough support from the receiving corps or the running game. While Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Mike Sims-Walker and Steven Jackson are good players, none are game-changers at this point. Bradford’s offensive line got better in the offseason with the addition of monster right guard Harvey Dahl, but he’ll have trouble grasping McDaniels’ always-changing offense on a week-to-week basis with so many question marks surrounding him.

2. The defense will be much better: They were mediocre in pretty much every yardage-based category last year, but they still managed to give up only 20.5 points per game thanks in part to a great pass rush (43 sacks). And while O.J. Atogwe will be missed a little, they bolstered the entire D in the offseason by adding Quintin Mikell to the secondary and Justin Bannan, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Daniel Muir and Brady Poppinga to the front seven. None are superstars, but they’ll add depth and experience to a unit with several cornerstones already in place.

3. Chris Long and James Laurinaitis will become Pro Bowlers: Long and Laurinaitis are those cornerstones, and 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn is waiting in the wings with a chance to join them. Long finally arrived with a super 2010 season, but expect his sack numbers to climb considerably with the added depth surrounding him. If Quinn can emerge and Bannan can step his game up, opposing offenses won’t have the ability to focus squarely on Long. Laurinaitis is primed to become a star in the middle, and he’ll benefit from the presence of Mikell, who is a great run defender in the next layer.

The final word(s): The offense will struggle in somewhat of a transitional season, but they’re still clearly the most talented team in a weak division. They’ll take the NFC West with eight or nine wins and gain some playoff experience.

There might not be a team in sports more reliant on a single player than the Indianapolis Colts are on Peyton Manning. That’s why the eyes of the football world are trained on Manning’s neck, which had part of a bulging disc surgically removed on May 23.

That was 96 days ago, and although it was supposedly a “minimally invasive” procedure, we haven’t seen No. 18 throw a football since. It’s easy to forget that the seemingly immortal Manning is human, but he’s 35 now, and he’s undergone two neck surgeries in just over a year.

It’s all taking its toll on the NFL’s active iron man.

And it’s taking its toll on the team, which earlier this week was forced to usher 38-year-old Kerry Collins out of retirement to provide Manning insurance. And although Collins is an upgrade over Curtis Painter, he’s not Manning. No one is. There isn’t a quarterback who can reasonably learn the nuances of the Colts’ extremely unique offense and put it into action (successfully) in less than three weeks.

And if the Colts are already preparing for life without Manning now, if they’re already starting to question whether he’ll be ready for Week 1 with 16 full days before the opener, that has me wondering if the four-time MVP could be in jeopardy of missing more than just a single game. Even the Colts can survive for a week or two without their franchise leader, but beyond that? Indy has Pittsburgh in Week 3 and a talented Bucs team in Tampa in Week 4. The Chiefs, Saints and Falcons linger in the weeks that follow. They don’t get an off week until the middle of November.

Without Manning close to 100 percent, they won’t survive the first half of the season.

And I realize that the guy is a warrior. I realize that his former coach said he’d be on the field Sept. 11 “unless he’s dead.” But this isn’t the kind of injury you can shake off. The neck, I’m told, is sort of important, especially for a quarterback who has to work both sides of the field prior to the snap and as the play unfolds.

The Colts haven’t missed the playoffs since 2001, a remarkable feat in a league draped in parity. They’ve dominated the AFC South since its inception in 2002. They’ve consistently been one of the best teams in football for a decade.

But there’s a chance the run is over.

2010 in a nutshell: Injuries to key contributors such as Dallas Clark, Melvin Bullitt, Jerraud Powers, Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie make it impossible to dominate, and they once again have trouble running the ball and stopping the run. But Manning and his offense find a way to get them into the playoffs at 10-6. They lose to the Jets on wild-card weekend.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Manning will play at least 13 games: Hey, I only said there’s a chance the run is over. I still have faith in Manning, and I believe the team does too. They wouldn’t have given him a five-year, $90-million contract earlier this month if doctors didn’t think he could rebound from this injury. I don’t think he’ll start the season, but I do think the Colts will survive two or three weeks with Collins and/or Painter before battling back with No. 18 in the lineup. And if you’re worried about Manning’s ability to stay healthy once he returns, consider that he surrendered just 16 sacks last year despite playing behind a crappy offensive line.

2. Delone Carter will help a bad running game: Technically, the running game improved last year after putting up embarrassing numbers in 2009. But 3.8 yards per carry still isn’t enough support for Manning and a group of injury-prone and/or aging receivers. In a new attempt to keep defenses honest, they spent a fourth-round pick on an ideal change-of-pace, short-yardage back, Syracuse’s Delone Carter. Expect Carter to emerge as a go-to red-zone back and score a lot of touchdowns. He, Donald Brown and a healthy Joseph Addai could be a respectable trio. Now, if they only had some help from those mediocre/unproven guards and tackles…

3. The front seven will provide more support for a good secondary: After struggling to register sacks and stop the run last season, the team addressed the front seven by adding a few veterans to the fray. Expect Jamaal Anderson, Tommie Harris and Ernie Sims to play big roles. If Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can get help from that trio and 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes can contribute in any way, they’ll be much better up front. With Bullitt and Powers back, the defensive backfield is in solid shape, but they aren’t deep, so they’d better stay healthy this time.

The final word(s): It would be great to see the Colts host the Super Bowl in Indy in February, but I just can’t see them keeping up with the Steelers and Patriots in the AFC. In fact, they’ll have their hands full in their own division for a change. I think the playoff streak continues, but they’ll finally surrender the AFC South to the Texans.

A lot went wrong for the New Orleans Saints in 2010, but it was probably hard for the fans to complain. After all, a lot went their way in the previous year.

But these Saints aren’t that different from the Saints that won the Super Bowl 19 months ago. So, how do they return to those glory days of ’09? The key might be turnovers.

In their Super Bowl year, the Saints forced a league-high 39 turnovers on defense while protecting the ball better on offense. Last year, with the roster diminished from injuries, they registered a league-low nine interceptions and the defense as a whole managed to force only 25 turnovers. What’s more, Drew Brees saw his interception numbers double from 11 to 22. Their turnover ratio went from +11 to -6 in one year.

So, stop committing them, and force more of them. It’s as simple as that.

2010 in a nutshell: They follow up their Super season with another stellar showing, going 11-5 and getting back into the playoffs. But a banged-up roster costs them, and they fall in the wild-card playoffs to the 7-9 Seahawks.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The offensive backfield will be a fantasy nightmare: But they’ll be effective. The running game wasn’t good in 2010, mainly because Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas were severely limited by injuries for much of the season. But Bush is gone and Thomas is healthy and they’ve added two new options. Everyone’s fully expecting Sean Payton to give work to Thomas, rookie first-round pick Mark Ingram, Bush replacement Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory, who shined before also suffering a season-ending injury last year. All four backs are friggin’ good. They’ll come together to make up a tremendous quartet. Just don’t draft any of them too high in your fantasy league.

2. The defense will be better: It was actually quite good last year (ranked No. 4 in the league thanks to stellar play from the secondary), but, as I mentioned in the introduction, they simply didn’t make enough big plays and force enough turnovers. But they were adjusting to not having Darren Sharper last year. This year, Malcolm Jenkins is set to become a superstar at Sharper’s former position. Additionally, the front seven will be better with Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin on board to help against the run and Cameron Jordan and Jonathan Casillas present to bolster a pass rush that recorded just 33 sacks in 2010.

3. Drew Brees will bounce back: Brees was trying to do too much last year. He didn’t have enough support because of injuries to running backs and, as a result, the suddenly one-dimensional Saints were forced to throw the ball a lot more than they did in their Super Bowl season. Brees’ touchdown numbers shot up from 11 to 22 and his passer rating plummeted nearly 20 points. The rejuvenated backfield should keep opposing defenses honest and give Brees and the passing game a chance to regain their 2009 form.

The final word(s): It’s still a very tough division. They’ll battle the Falcons to the end once again, and they’ll be back in the playoffs. I’m not convinced they’ll be able to slay the Eagles, Packers and Falcons, but they’ll definitely be in the Super Bowl conversation.

GLS TE Preview

We wrap up our debate-style previews with the tight ends, a top-heavy group that can change your fantasy team if you play them right.

Differences in opinion

Brad Gagnon: The obvious difference is at the top. We both agree that Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis will have big years. I have Witten at the top because he’s consistently a force and has avoided injuries. You have Gates at the top, but there are some serious injury concerns with him and I’m afraid he’s going to begin to decline. You even have Davis ahead of Witten, which shocks me considering the situation in San Francisco. I know you mentioned in our quarterback preview that you were concerned about Gates’ health. So why take him and Davis above Witten?

Sean Tomlinson: I am concerned about Gates’ health, but only mildly, and only enough that it could cause slight damage to the fantasy value of Philip Rivers and Vincent Jackson if he struggles again. But that doesn’t appear likely since we’re not talking about a player who’s been especially banged around and has a long history of injury problems.

Gates’ other major injury came in 2008 when he struggled with a toe ailment near the end of the season and during the playoffs that would eventually require surgery. That actually provided a blueprint for his healing powers and what we can expect this year. After his status for Week 1 in 2009 was in question, Gates not only played all 16 regular season games, but he also set a career-high with 1,157 receiving yards. What’s remarkable is that even though he missed six games in 2010 he was still second in fantasy points among tight ends (138) in most standard formats. The separation here is minimal, but I still think Gates is the clear-cut leader because he’s one of the two tight ends who are the primary targets in their respective offenses, with the other being Davis.

Brad: We’ll see if Michael Crabtree emerges to steal that spotlight in San Fran. Same with Vincent Jackson in San Diego and Miles Austin in Dallas. But you can’t go wrong with any of those three tight ends.

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GLS Preview: Tennessee Titans

There’s an opening for the Tennessee Titans this year. Despite their struggles in 2010 and the coaching changes in an abbreviated offseason that have made the start of 2011 a little more difficult than usual, it’s becoming apparent that no one is going to utterly dominate the AFC South this season, giving the Titans a chance to survive their recent troubles by capturing the division.

The problem is that question marks surround Tennessee’s top two offensive players. Chris Johnson continues to hold out for a new contract, while Kenny Britt could be facing a suspension from the league (or even the team) following a tumultuous offseason of typical shenanigans.

Johnson has been the NFL’s most productive back since the Titans drafted him 24th overall three years ago. Britt has been the team’s strongest receiver since they drafted him 30th overall two years ago. Last year, they were the team’s top two pass-catchers, while combining to record 21 of Tennessee’s 37 offensive touchdowns.

If Johnson and the front office can’t break their stalemate and Britt can’t stay out of trouble, the Titans won’t have any hope.

2010 in a nutshell: The wheels come off after a 5-2 start. The players seemingly give up on Jeff Fisher at around the same time Vince Young throws a tantrum that would eventually end his tenure with the team. They lose eight of their last nine games to finish 6-10 despite scoring more points than they allow.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Chris Johnson will be in the lineup in September: I’m not guaranteeing Week 1, because I think it might require a ragged performance or two to really light a fire under owner Bud Adams and general manager Mike Reinfeldt. But eventually both sides will realize that this is a lose-lose situation and CJ2K will sign a compromise to stay in Tennessee for the next three of four years at, I’m guessing, about $12.5 million per season. That’s probably as close to “top playmaker” money as the Titans will agree to cave, and Johnson and his agent will come to the realization that wasting a year of prime football will do more harm than good.

2. They’ll be better at the quarterback position: Matt Hasselbeck is being forced to learn a whole new system for the first time in his 13-year career, but he’s been stellar thus far in training camp and the preseason, and No. 8 overall pick Jake Locker has joined him in the “exceeding expectations” department. New offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is a former quarterbacks coach who should get the most out of Hasselbeck before Locker takes the reins. The Titans still have a very good offensive line (completely intact for the second year in a row) and will keep defenses honest if Johnson and Britt are in the lineup. If Jared Cook can finally emerge at tight end, they could be in much better shape than people are predicting.

3. The defense will struggle again: In fact, they might be a candidate for the bottom of the league, at least in terms of yardage. Last year’s 26th-ranked D lost top sack man Jason Babin, famed defensive line coach Jim Washburn and starting linebacker Stephen Tulloch. How many fewer sacks will they get while trying to adjust to Jerry Gray’s defense without those key contributors from 2010? They’ll need youngsters Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers to step up quickly while hoping that a veteran such as Dave Ball, Jason Jones, Jacob Ford or William Hayes can emerge to help fill Babin’s shoes.

The final word(s): It looks as though it’ll be a tough season, even with Johnson and Britt on board. They’re young and they’re just getting acclimated to a pair of new systems after the work stoppage. For an inexperienced team, there’s quite a lot of depth, but they may have to wait a year for more playmakers to emerge. Another 6-10 season is on the horizon.

Teams that are faced with having to rebuild in upcoming seasons would be smart to take some lessons from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The rebuild produced by Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris in Tampa has been quick, efficient and, based on what the team is expected to do in the near future, extremely successful.

Ultimately, after cleaning house in 2008, the Bucs and their fans only had to suffer through an abysmal 3-13 season before returning to the winner’s circle last year. They rebuilt almost entirely through the draft. Franchise quarterback Josh Freeman was added in the 2009 draft, and his fellow team cornerstones, Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, were either drafted or signed as undrafted rookies in 2010.

This summer, the Bucs signed just one free agent, a punter. But they kept all of the in-house free agents they felt were important to have around (Quincy Black, Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood) and added at least two more immediate starters via the draft.

This is a young team that somehow breaks from the norm by doing the little things right. The offense was ranked No. 7 in the league on third downs and they had the fifth-best turnover ratio in football in 2010.

This season, the focus will be on Freeman, who is expected to become an elite quarterback (although some would argue that he already hit that territory with an off-the-charts 25-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2010), and about a dozen 20-somethings who Dominik and Morris believe can become stars.

If everything comes together the way it’s expected to, it could mean big things for the Bucs.

2010 in a nutshell: They nearly beat the eventual division champion Falcons on two occasions and boost their 2009 win total by over 300 percent. Ultimately, they fall short of the playoffs by being on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. An improved pass rush will give them a playoff-caliber defense: Only three NFC teams surrendered fewer points than the Bucs last year, so they aren’t far from becoming elite defensively. The problem in 2010 was a pass rush that recorded a conference-low 26 sacks. But the defensive line has a lot of upside. McCoy and 2010 second-round pick Brian Price have the ability to be Pro Bowlers if they can stay healthy, and rookies Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers will have a chance to contribute immediately at defensive end. Clayborn has reportedly been stellar thus far, and McCoy was just beginning to excel before an injury ended his rookie campaign early. This is a young and talented line that will get a lot of pressure.

2. LeGarrette Blount will become a Pro Bowler: Lots of people are concerned about Blount’s ability to perform on a consistent basis and contribute as an every-down back, but I’m confident that Morris will know how to use him to the best of his ability. In the modern-day NFL, you don’t have to be a great blocking back to be a star, and Blount should continue to break ankles while acting as Tampa’s top running back from the get-go. This year, he’ll have added support from the return of veteran center Jeff Faine, who was out with an injury during Blount’s reign of dominance in the second half of 2010. If Blount can keep it going and the coaching staff can avoid overworking him, the Bucs might have a top-five running game in 2011.

3. The run defense will continue to have problems: They were 28th against the run last year, and while the aforementioned progress being made on the defensive line is promising, they’re really pushing their luck by installing rookie third-round pick Mason Foster as the starting middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes provide solid support on either side, but I expect Foster to struggle early at a tough position for rookies to step into. The Bucs had tons of cap space to re-sign Barrett Ruud; I’m very surprised they didn’t do so.

The final word(s): The youngest team in the league won six road games to finish 10-6 last year. On paper, they should be much better this year. While they aren’t as talented as the Falcons or Saints, there’s no reason to believe they won’t win at least 10 games again. But this time, they’ll join the postseason party.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have never won the AFC South and haven’t won a division title, period, since they were kittens in 1999. But there’s a belief in Duval County that this could be the year these mature cats finally dethrone the mighty Indianapolis Colts.

Jack Del Rio’s team hasn’t been to the playoffs in four years, but their win total has increased in three consecutive seasons. This year, after an offseason with little turnover save for a few potential defensive upgrades and no changes to the coaching staff, a sneaky-dangerous team with one of the league’s premier offensive weapons has a chance to make a run at the top spot in a wide-open division.

2010 in a nutshell: A 7-3 mid-season run is crippled by a 1-2 start and an 0-3 finish. Despite threatening to steal the division from the Colts, they settle for second place and an 8-8 record.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Blaine Gabbert will get a chance to start: It’s obvious that the passing game is the problem on offense. And although that’s not entirely David Garrard’s fault, the Jags drafted Gabbert in the first round because they’re clearly looking for some more sizzle under center. The team continues to insist that Garrard is the starting quarterback, but Gabbert appears to be applying pressure in training camp. While Garrard’s numbers weren’t all that bad last year, he’s been known to have a stinker once every few weeks. If he hits a speed bump and the Jags go into crisis mood early this season, I’d expect Gabbert to get his shot. The real problem won’t be who’s starting under center; it’ll be who Garrard and Gabbert have to throw to. I have no idea why the Jags didn’t address the receiver position in the offseason.

2. The defense will be better: This is a D that surrendered 26.2 points per game and a league-high 6.3 yards per play in 2010. They finished the season ranked 28th overall and couldn’t stop anybody on third downs. But Paul Posluszny, Clint Session and Dawan Landry are upgrades over Kirk Morrison, Justin Durant and Sean Considine. If Tyson Alualu can take a leap forward in his second season and Aaron Kampman can stay healthy, those numbers could improve quite substantially.

3. A pathetic pass rush will cost them: But the biggest problem on defense is the lack of a pass rush. Yes, Kampman’s return should help and Alualu will be relied upon to help create pressure. Defensive end Matt Roth, who they signed as a free agent, might be good for a half-dozen sacks, too. But in the offseason, the Jags needed to make bigger changes to a pass rush that has registered an NFL-low 40 sacks over the last two seasons. There isn’t a player on this roster who had more than five sacks in 2010, and the team has yet to register a sack in two preseason games. Unless some guys take off, this will be a major problem once again in 2011.

The final word(s): I think they’re a step behind the Colts and Texans. It isn’t a big step, so it wouldn’t shock me if they finally broke through. But it’s a step, and I’m giving them another 8-8 record and leaving them out of the playoffs once again.