Thursday, June 28, 2012

NFL Power Rankings: 22-19

The bottom 10 teams and my 2012 prediction: 

32 Raiders                            2-14
31 Seahawks                       5-11
30 Jaguars                           4-12
29 Browns                           7-9
28 Dolphins                        5-11
27 Rams                                7-9
26 Vikings                            7-9
25 Redskins                          4-12
24 Colts                               6-10
23 Titans                              5-11

22.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers  
Last year:  4-12

I’m realizing that by the time I finish these power rankings, it’s going to be November, so I’m gonna rush through some of the boring ones. 

Tampa is hanging in the awkward balance between rebuilding and trying to stay competitive now. Josh Freeman’s regression in 2011 was sad, but bringing in All Pro guard Carl Nicks, receiver Vincent Jackson, and rookie RB Doug Martin (a perfect complement for Blount) gives Freeman a better chance to succeed.  This team still lacks playmakers and isn’t great on the offensive line, and I doubt new addition Dallas Clark has anything left in the tank. But V-Jack gives them a downfield weapon they lacked, and allows Mike Williams to be the #2 receiver, something that should be much more comfortable for him. Arrellious Benn also moves to the slot, which is a better fit.

The defense was absolutely horrid last year, allowing league-worst marks of 156 rushing yards and 31 points per game. A huge part of that can be accredited to a nagging bicep injury to stud DT Gerald McCoy; the Bucs were 3-3 with McCoy and 1-9 without him.

But the problems were mainly at linebacker and cornerback, where Tampa did virtually nothing to improve this season, except giving 5 years and $37 million to Eric Wright, in what was undoubtedly the worst contract of the offseason. They did make one great defensive acquisition by trading up to claim the safety everybody wanted, Mark Barron from Alabama, with the #9 pick.

Barron joins 37-year old Ronde Barber in the secondary, in what will be Barber’s first year at the safety position, after 208 consecutive starts at cornerback. The corners will be Wright and criminal Aqib Talib, who was supposed to be going to jail this summer for assault with a deadly weapon, until all charges were dropped in mid-June due to insufficient evidence, which probably means Talib paid his way out of jail or threatened to kill some dude's brother. Whatever. Despite being a despicable human being, Talib is a very talented CB, with 17 INTs in 4 years.

I really like new head coach Greg Schiano, who brings his no-nonsense persona to a team in need of an overhaul. He proved this by exiling twice-suspended Tanard Jackson and epic moron Kellen Winslow, removing two of the biggest locker room poisons from a team that completely quit last season during their ten game losing streak. Heck, how can you not be excited about hiring a coach who less than six months ago was victorious in the vaunted Pinstripe Bowl?

But the Bucs are in an unlucky position, with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton standing in their way in the NFC South. Even if Freeman ameliorates considerably in his fourth season, he’ll still be the fourth best QB in this division. And with the NFC East also on the schedule, 8-8 is probably a best-case scenario. They do get the luxury of the AFC West, and bonus games against St. Louis and Minnesota, but I can’t see  them overcoming their insufficiencies on defense. They still have no pass rush, unless DaQuan Bowers explodes this year, which is a definite possibility.  

But it’s always risky when free agents join your team solely because you offered them the most money. I'm worried that VJack and Nicks won't stay healthy, and it might be related to their massive paychecks. With a new coach, a retooled roster, and a tough division, I’m thinking the Bucs wind up 6-10, losing their last 5 games after a 6-5 start. 

21. Arizona Cardinals
Last year – 8-8

After an unsurprising 1-6 start, the Cardinals roared to life over the last two months of the season, going 7-2 with wins against San Fran, Dallas and Philly, and a close loss at Baltimore. Four of those seven wins were in overtime, however, so let’s not get carried away. They didn’t blow anybody out. But they did learn to start winning, and most of it happened on defense.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was able to take an underachieving unit and improve them from 29th to 18th without really adding anybody. During the 1-6 stretch, the Cards allowed an average of 383 yards per game, which would have ranked them 29th. But during the 7-2 finish, they gave up a stingy 325 yards per game, good enough to have ranked in the top ten. 

The key was the linebacker position, where Daryl Washington was an under-the-radar star, and 4th round rookie Sam Acho had 7 sacks from the 4-3 OLB position, which is outstanding. The defensive line had a couple of borderline studs with DT Darnell Dockett (deserving Pro Bowler) and DE Calais Campbell (8 sacks, 3 blocked field goals). The secondary wasn’t great, ranking 17th against the pass, but Patrick Peterson is on his way towards being a stud, along with being the game’s best punt returner.  

So the defense is improving. Not sure the same can be said for the offense. 

Last year, the Cards' offensive line was considered the league’s worst by just about everybody. Strangely, they did nothing to improve it, other than extending the contract of lousy Levi Brown. It was quite shocking when the Cards took WR Michael Floyd (a potential diva) with the #13 pick instead of Riley Reiff.  I’m not complaining though.

The running game was decent at times last year, with Beanie Wells fighting through several injuries and managing a 4.3 YPC. Rookie Ryan Williams (2011 2nd rounder) missed the entire season with a ruptured tendon; he'll be back this year, and give Arizona a small, speedy back to complement the bruising Beanie.  

The biggest problem last year was at quarterback, where Kevin Kolb didn't even come close to living up to his 5-year, $63 million deal. In fact, it was John Skelton, the pride of Fordham College, who started in 6 of the Cards’ 8 victories.  Skelton didn't put up better numbers than Kolb, but he was Tebowesque in the 4th quarter, orchestrating six game-winning drives, and winning the hearts of Cardinals’ fans. 

Arizona made a play at Peyton Manning during the frenzy, but ultimately lost out and was forced to retain the crappy Kolb/Skelton duo. Coach Ken Whisenhunt claims it's an open competition, but usually the guy getting $63 million wins the job.  Kolb has more upside anyway, and would be the right choice, despite what the fans think. 

The Cardinals didn’t do a whole lot this offseason, other than drafting Floyd and pairing him with Larry Fitzgerald. Best case scenario: this is genius and gives them the best receiving tandem in the league.  Worst case: it's a total flop, Floyd is a diva and a jerk, and Fitz ends up demanding a trade in 2014. At this point, keeping Fitz happy is Arizona's biggest priority, so the Floyd pick had some merit, despite the immense risk. 

They didn’t have a second round pick because … oh yeah … they traded that pick to Philly. For Kevin Kolb. Oops.

Fortunately, they still play in the NFC West, so at least 4 games are highly winnable. That’s the good news. The bad news is, last year they didn’t face a single top five quarterback, and this year they face three, including Rodgers and Brady on the road. They also get the rest of the NFC North and AFC East (ouch) and Atlanta and Philly in their bonus games (double ouch). In other words, they’ve gotta somehow sweep their division to have a chance at going 8-8 again. Probably not going to happen as St. Louis has improved and San Fran is really good. They have enough talent on defense to manufacture a 5-11 season, with big improvements from Patrick Peterson. 

20. Kansas City Chiefs
Last year: 7-9

2011 couldn’t have started worse for the Chiefs. In losing their first two games by a combined 89-10, they also lost Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles, arguably their two best players, for the season. They also lost TE Tony Moeaki, a key piece of the offense. Giving up on the season by week 3 would have been defensible.

Impressively, they bounced back from a rough start and won 4 straight games, granted against inferior foes. Then they lost 4 straight, including a disgraceful 31-3 home loss against Miami, to fall to 4-7. Then they alternated wins and losses, including a bizarre week 15 upset of Green Bay, the Packers’ only regular season loss.

The Chiefs went 4-5 with Matt Cassel, then 1-3 with lefty Tyler Palko, with the only win coming against Caleb Hanie and the depleted Bears, so that shouldn't count. Then they picked up Kyle Orton (now with the Cowboys if you haven't heard) who finished the year with a 2-1 record, including the shocking win against GB.

 During the offseason, KC made a push for Peyton Manning, just like everybody else, but fell short. Now, quarterback remains the only position of major weakness for this roster. If Matt Cassel can “manage the game” and limit mistakes, this could be a very successful team.

The offensive line, which was already solid, got a huge boost when Texans RT Eric Winston signed for 4 years. He’s one of the league’s best run blockers. With Charles and Moeaki returning from injury, the running game could be dynamic; Peyton Hillis was brought in as the power complement to Charles, and since he didn't get the big contract he wanted, maybe he'll be super motivated. KC also brought in Kevin Boss from the Giants, one of the best run-blocking tight ends. 

The receivers are below average, but Dwayne Bowe is respectable, and Jonathan Baldwin has upside. Bowe is currently holding out, which is laughable considering he’s only had more than5 TDs once in his 5 year career. He’s way too inconsistent to warrant a huge deal, but KC will probably fold because they have little else at receiver, except for Steve Breaston and flashy Dexter McCluster. 

The defense is extremely solid, especially if Berry returns at 100% from his ACL injury. They lost stud CB Brandon Carr in free agency, but picked up CB Stanford Routt to replace him. It’s a downgrade, but better than doing nothing. Stud CB Brandon Flowers is still there, and along with Berry and Routt they comprise one of the league’s best secondaries.

Two of the linebackers are outstanding – OLB Tamba Hali (26 sacks the last 2 years) and ILB Derrick Johnson (first team All Pro last year). These two studs make the other linebackers, OLB Justin Houston and ILB Jovan Belcher, look better than they really are. The D line is a trio of early 1st round picks – DE Tyson Jackson (#3 pick in 2009), DE Glenn Doresy (#5 pick in 2008), and now nosetackle Dontari Poe (#11 pick in 2012).

Jackson and Dorsey have underperformed compared to where they were selected, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been busts, as many people assume. They’ve done nothing in the pass rush (a combined 6 sacks in 5 seasons), but both guys are solid against the run, and they open up space for Hali to get after the QB.  

Poe is intriguing; he was physically dominant at Memphis, and had an unbelievable Combine, but Memphis went 2-10 last year and only played against one ranked team. So Poe couldn’t be that good, right?

Overall, it’s probably at least a B+ defense, though I have my doubts about Routt being able to replace Carr. Routt is solid in creating turnovers and big plays, but he also led all CBs in penalties last year, and gave up 8 scores. He’s a risk-taker, and if opposing QBs hesitate to throw towards Flowers, which is likely, Routt could really suffer.

I’m also not that thrilled about three key players (Berry, Charles, Moeaki) all returning from ACL injuries.  

Nonetheless, a lot of people are pegging the Chiefs as dark-horse Super Bowl contenders, saying that they are just a QB away from having the best roster in football. As you can tell by the #20 ranking, I don’t agree. Saying “they would be a great team if they had a better QB” is like saying “I would be a millionaire if I had another $900,000 dollars.”

Cassel is the key to this team, and he’s kind of going unnoticed because of all the quality players on the roster. The additions of Winston, Boss and Hillis are going to allow KC to be a dominant run team, but defenses will be smart enough to put 8 or 9 in the box and force Cassel to throw. What this team desperately needs is a possession receiver. Baldwin is exciting and really tall, but not somebody who really moves the chains.

I understand that there’s a ton of talent on the roster, especially on defense. But because of Cassel, this just isn’t a team I would be afraid to play. They won’t score enough points to put teams away early, and if it’s close late, you can probably count on Cassel screwing up. Also, the schedule is really tough, with the AFC North and NFC South, not to mention two games apiece against Rivers and Peyton.  I’ll say 7-9 again.

19. San Diego Chargers
Last year: 8-8

Like a jackass, I predicted the Chargers would go 14-2 last year, and Rivers would win the MVP. Instead, his QB rating dropped from 102 to 88, and the Chargers lost 6 straight games in the middle of the season on their way to 8-8. From my estimation, no team underperformed more than San Diego in 2011. 

There were no excuses ... they faced an easy schedule ... their division was pitiful ... and they didn't have the injuries and holdouts they had in 2010, when four key offensive players (Gates, VJack, Matthews, and Marcus McNeil) combined to miss 26 games. In 2010, Rivers led the NFL in YPA throwing to Legedu Naanee and Seji Ajirotutu.  In 2011, with a full healthy offense, Rivers went into the tank. 

Not only did Rivers throw an uncharacteristic 20 picks, he also saw his YPA – which had led the league for three straight years at 8.39, 8.75, and 8.71 – drop to a paltry 7.95, barely cracking the top ten in a category he typically owns. You’ve got to wonder if Darren Sproles was actually the catalyst to the passing offense all along.

Now, with his best deep-threat fleeing to Tampa, and with Antonio Gates having the knees of a 60 year old, it’s up to overpaid free agents Robert Meachem (4 years, $26 million) and Eddie Royal (3 years, $13.5 million) to rescue Rivers’ career. Probably not going to happen.

If there’s a chance for the Bolts’ offense to remain one of the league’s best, it’ll be Ryan Matthews. The former #12 pick spent much of his rookie season injured, and took a back seat to Mike Tolbert at times. But in limited action, he has accumulated quality stats in 2 years (1,800 yards, 13 TDs, 72 catches, 4.7 YPC). Now, with Tolbert joining a crammed backfield in Carolina, Matthews has the job all to himself, and should be, if nothing else, a fantasy darling. 

The Chargers’ defense has long been overrated, ever since the obnoxious days of Shawn Merriman. Their #1 rank in yards allowed in 2010 was one of the flukiest things that ever happened, and a clear result of an insanely easy schedule. They proved this by ranking 16th last year, and 20th against the run.

The defense’s biggest issue was on third downs, giving up a 49.2% conversion rate, which not only ranked worst in the NFL, but was a full 2% worse than any other defense had allowed in over a decade. YIKES.  

The reason for the Bolts’ historically bad third-down defense was the cornerbacks, particularly Quintin Jammer. In the 66 times he was thrown at, QBs put up an average rating of 129.9, by far the highest mark allowed by any CB.  Not surprisingly, the lowest QB rating allowed belonged to Darrelle Revis with a stunning 45.6. One more fun fact: no CB allowed more receptions than Detroit’s Eric Wright (75 catches), whom you may remember as the guy Tampa gave 5 years and $37 million to.

Back to the Chargers.  While the corners were dreadful, the safeties, especially Eric Weddle, were solid, and linebackers Shaun Phillips and Takeo Spikes did a good job against the run. The primary problem was the pass rush. They ranked 24th in sacks with just 32, and only one player, Antwan Barnes, had more than 4. Nobody expects Barnes to get 11 sacks again, so they had to significantly upgrade the pass rush this offseason. They did that with the steal of the 2012 Draft - Melvin Ingram at pick 18.

Once again, this team will only go as far as Phillip Rivers will carry them, and with a weakened supporting cast, it’s tough to see him improving on his lackluster 2011. They have a tough schedule outside of their division (NFC South, AFC North, Jets, Titans), and now have to deal with Peyton Manning twice.  If they don’t make the playoffs, this will be Norv Turner’s last year. I see them going 9-7, but falling short in the AFC West.   

18. Chicago Bears ... 


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