Tuesday, June 19, 2012

NFL Power Rankings: 26-23

32. Oakland Raiders
31. Seattle Seahawks
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Miami Dolphins
27. St. Louis Rams
26. Minnesota Vikings
Last year:  3-13

Biggest Strength(s): There are many conflicting reports on Adrian Peterson’s ACL. Even Peterson himself isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for week one, saying “To be honest with you, I feel like it’s 50-50.”  But even if he’s playing at 70% health, I would still consider Peterson the strength of this team and the preeminent running back in the NFL.

The other strength is obviously Jared Allen. He’s just a beast, with 22 sacks last year and an average of 15 sacks per season over the last 5 years. He is great against the run, he’s a great team leader, and he defines “motor” for a defensive lineman. He may not be the biggest, strongest or fastest guy Jeff Backus will face this year, but he’s the craziest, scariest, and the best.

Other strengths include solid defensive players CB Antoine Winfield, DT Kevin Williams, and LBs Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. They’ve also got solid playmakers on offense with Harvin and TE Kyle Rudolph, who would have had 15 TDs instead of 3 if he were a Patriot or Saint last year. They’ve also got a potential stud left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil; in fact, I’ll be shocked if Kalil isn’t the best left tackle in the NFC as soon as this year.

Biggest Weakness(es): It’s feast and famine all over the Vikings' roster. While they have studs at a number of positions, they also have complete duds at other spots, and one of those spots right now is the all-important quarterback position. I’m in the minority with my belief that Ponder will be a successful NFL quarterback at some point, but even I can’t say he’s any better than the 26th best QB in the league right now, with upside to crack the top 20 this year. While Ponder was a dismal 1-7 last year as the starting QB, it’s notable that 4 of those games were close, and 3 of them were played without AP.  Given a full season of AP and Kalil, I think Ponder should be able to throw 25 TDs and 3,000 yards – maybe an 82 QB rating.

Back to the weaknesses – aside from Kalil, it’s a very bad offensive line; aside from Winfield, it’s a terrible secondary; aside from Harvin, there are no capable receivers, and even Harvin is limited; aside from Allen, there’s no pass rush.  In other words, there’s not much depth of talent on the roster. When you can double team Harvin (and at 5’11”, he’s not going to beat many double teams), that leaves it up to Michael Jenkins or Devin Aromashadu to make a play.

2012 Offseason:  In response to their need for playmakers, Minnesota signed troublemaker WR Jerome Simpson for one-year and vastly overpaid TE John Carlson. $25 million for a backup tight end? Really?  Obviously, they are trying to replicate the two TE offense that New England pioneered in recent years. The Lions tried the same sort of thing with Scheffler last year, only they gave him $17 million less. It’s a decent idea; give Ponder some confidence with short passes, lean heavily on the running game, and try to control the clock. The only problem is that Ponder is not Tom Brady. But that’s just a small hitch.

After taking Kalil 4th overall (the best player in the draft other than Luck), the Vikes nabbed another great pick by trading up for safety Harrison Smith at #29. Smith should pan out brilliantly for a team desperately needing a playmaker in the secondary. They also got a potential steal with CB Josh Robinson in the 3rd round. But other than those 2 rookies, the Vikings didn’t do anything to improve defensively. A lot is resting on iffy incumbents, especially DE Brian Robinson and CB Chris Cook. 

2012 Outlook: The Vikings underachieved last year, in large part because Donovan McNabb chucked the ball at people's ankles for 6 miserable games. Remember when he threw for a whopping 39 yards in the season opener against the Chargers? Good times.

They didn’t win many more games with Ponder, but they played much better, and they were clearly building towards something. Adding Kalil should massively improve every facet of the offense, and Ponder is a smart, high-character guy who should improve in his second season.  But it all hinges on AP’s health. If he’s full strength, I’d move the Vikings up 5 or 6 spots and call them 8-8. If he were to miss the entire season, I’d consider them a 3 win team again.

2012 Schedule: The NFC North is tough, obviously, but the rest of their schedule is cake: the AFC South, NFC West, and the Bucs and Skins. That’s 8 highly winnable games at least. They also get the luxury of Green Bay resting starters in week 17, something the Lions did not take advantage of last year, when we lost to Matt Freaking Flynn and had to face Drew Brees in the first round instead of Eli. And yes, I realize the Giants won the Super Bowl, but I’m not an idiot, and I’d rather face Eli than Brees any day.  

2012 Prediction: Ponder gets to start out nice and easy, with a home game against Blaine Gabbert, and then traveling to Indy for Luck’s first home game. If the Vikes can start out 2-0, they’ll have a shot to win 7 or 8 games, and maybe even contend for the wildcard if AP is healthy. Plus they’ll probably upset the Lions at least once. I’m comfortable calling them a 7-9 team, but it will all hinge on AP’s health, as I’m sure I’ll say about a million more times.

25. Washington Redskins
Last year: 5-11

Biggest strength(s): Before 2011, I predicted that Mike Shanahan’s love affair with Rex Grossman would result in a 2-14 record and the #1 pick. It didn’t happen, largely because the defensive front-7 was much better than I thought. The move to the 3-4 defense looked idiotic at first, as Haynesworth and Andre Carter left town. But nosetackle Barry Cofield came over from the Giants and really anchored the D, along with Brian Orakpo (9 sacks) and rookie Ryan Kerrigan (7.5) sacks. Inside linebacker London Fletcher was also completely awesome, with 166 tackles at age 36. And former bust Adam Carriker revived his career and became a solid 3-4 DE.

Biggest weakness(es): The rest of the defense wasn’t so hot. Three big names in secondary (OJ Atogwe, LaRon Landry, DeAngelo Hall) took turns getting injured and playing terribly, and the lack of depth in the front 7 became evident late in the season when injuries set in. 

But the real weakness was the offense, beginning with Grossman, and extending to the RB and WR positions. Shanahan is obsessed with reliving his Denver legacy: using a different running back every week and somehow being successful. That moronic strategy hasn't work whatsoever in Shanny's two years in Washington, not surprisingly; the Skins have ranked 30th and 25th in rushing the last two seasons. Last year, it was  Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Ryan Torain and Tim Hightower suffering through Shanahan’s running back roulette. 

The receiver position was extremely weak, with Santana Moss and Jabbar Gafney. But the Skins drastically overpaid Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon to replace them, so now the receiver position is both weak and highly expensive. Also, the offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL, with former #4 pick Trent Williams looking more like a 4th round pick.

2012 Offseason: Of course, Robert Griffin III was drafted to replace Grossman and shepherd the Redskins’ offense for the next 15 years. It’s a foregone conclusion that Griffin will be the best football player of all time; the only question is whether or not he’ll break Drew Brees’s single-season passing record this year, or not until next year. All Griffin cost Washington was all their draft picks for the next 40 years. No big deal.

After drafting Griffin, the Skins didn’t pick again until the third round, when they took a guard from SMU. Their next pick was the most fatuous pick of the entire draft: Kirk Cousins in the 4th round. I hate when teams throw away draft picks when they have huge needs on the roster, like the Skins do at CB and WR and others. Cousins made no sense; Grossman and Beck are still there and are highly capable backups. 

In free agency, the Redskins were the typical Redskins, spending way too much money on big-name, injury-prone players. This included two receivers (Morgan and Garcon) who were just looking for maximum money, and secondary players Brandon Merriweather and Cedric Griffin, who are both coming off injuries. So aside from RG3, their offseason was pretty horrendous.

But you can’t disregard Griffin; he was the Redskins offseason. He is their rebuilding plan. And while 99% of people in the world of football believe he is a can’t-miss quarterback, I disagree.  All I see is Denard Robinson throwing bubble screens against bad defenses. No doubt, RG3 is shifty and agile and freakishly fast. But so is Denard, and nobody will even think about drafting Denard in the first round next year. And I realize that Griffin is a better passer than Denard, but I’m not convinced the disparity in their passing ability is monumental. I think RG3 will struggle with accuracy and timing in the NFL, and his speed won’t dominate the game as much as people think. Basically, I think he’s a high-character version of Michael Vick, but with a significantly weaker arm.

2012 Outlook: It’s cliché to say their season hinges on Griffin, but it’s true.  As he adjusts to the speed of the NFL and figures out how to manipulate a constantly collapsing pocket, the future of the Redskins will really be determined. Will he work hard, study film, and stick to what his coaches tell him? Or will he be content to be rich and lazy, like JaMarcus and the many QB busts before him? Will the pressure of being the supposed savior for a terrible team be too much for him? Will he rely on his legs too much and run away from every blitz he sees? Or will he be like a video game quarterback, effortlessly gliding across the field for 45 seconds before finding a man wide open in the end zone?  

Who knows. One thing is for sure: he’s one of the players I’m most excited to watch in 2012. It’s not every day you see a quarterback with 4.38 speed.

2012 Schedule: Being in the NFC East won’t be ideal for Griffin, because he’ll face three of the best pass rushers in the league (Ware, Pierre-Paul, Cole) two times apiece. He also gets to see Jared Allen and James Harrison. The NFC South and AFC North are tough divisions, but bonus games against Minnesota and St. Louis will help the Skins early in the schedule.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I would rank the divisions this way:
1. NFC North (52)   Packers, Lions, Bears, Vikings
2. AFC North (53)   Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns
3. AFC East (56)   Patriots, Bills, Jets, Dolphins
4. NFC East (60)   Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins
5. NFC South (61)   Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Bucs
6. AFC West (79)   Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders
7. AFC South (83)   Texans, Titans, Colts, Jaguars
8. NFC West (84)   49ers, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks 

The number in parentheses represents the sum of the teams’ rankings; for example the NFC West gets an 84 because San Fran is #5, Arizona is #21, St. Louis is #27, and Seattle is #31, and 5+21+27+31=84.  So as you can plainly see, there are 5 good divisions and 3 crap divisions. 

The teams who get to play against the NFC West, AFC South, and/or AFC West are at a big advantage this season. In case you’re wondering, the Lions play against both the NFC West and the AFC South. But we’ll get to all that later. 

2012 Prediction: Last year I got totally bamboozled by Cam Newton, who I was even more critical of than I am of Griffin. Newton was straight-up incredible. So there’s a chance that Griffin follows suit and throws for 400 yards in his first two games. But I highly doubt it. Instead, I think Washington will really struggle and end up 4-12, with lots of blowouts. 

24. Indianapolis Colts
Last year: 2-14

Biggest Strength(s): During their miserable 0-13 start to the season, the Colts really had no positions of strength. Veterans Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday were all exposed as mediocre players, something we all expected but could never verify until Peyton was gone. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were also exposed as exceptional pass rushers who are lousy against the run and of no use on a terrible team that is always trailing. The Colts D faced only 30 passing attempts per game (7th fewest), but a league-high 34 rushing attempts times per game. Without Manning, Freeney basically became nothing more than a defensive end who stinks against the run. 

So all that to say, the strengths of 2010 disappeared in 2011.

The only strength I can see heading into 2011 is the strength of potential. The potential of a new coach, a new era, and most of all, a new quarterback. Andrew Luck may be a rookie, but he’s the most NFL-ready rookie QB since Peyton, and maybe ever.

Biggest Weakness(es): Aside from the Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter trifecta that gave the Colts the 3rd worst quarterbacking in 2011, and a running game that scored only 8 TDs on the ground, and an offensive line that was somewhere between horrific and innocuous, the real weakness of this team was the defense, particularly against the run. Former second round pick DT Fili Moala from USC is considered one of the biggest busts of the 2009 draft.

Now, the Colts finally abandon Tony Dungy’s Tampa 2, and make the move to the increasingly popular 3-4 defense.  New coordinator Greg Manusky plans to move Moala to DE, while sliding Freeney and Mathis back to OLB, where they may be more effective. Another huge bust for the Colts has been 2010’s first round pick, DE Jerry Hughes, who has 1 sack in 24 games. He’ll come off the bench in the 3-4 behind Mathis. At nosetackle will be 5th round rookie Josh Chapman from Alabama, and former Lion Cory Redding will occupy the other DE spot.

Personnel-wise, it’s an atrocious defense. They’ll need at least 2 years of rebuilding around the 3-4, and during that time they’ll lose Freeney, who is unhappy about being in the last year of his contract. The only other mentionable players are ILB Pat Angerer and safety Antoine Bethea; both are solid. But they completely lack any talent at CB or DT, and will remain one of the worst defenses in the league for a while

2012 Offseason: With Jeff Saturday retiring, Dallas Clark moving to Tampa, washed-up Wayne and Mathis getting re-signed, and no significant additions being made to the defense, you’d think it was an abysmal offseason for Indy. But then again, they may have just had the best offseason in a decade by adding Andrew Luck. I didn’t love their 2nd and 3rd round picks (two tight ends) for a team with dire needs on defense, but at least they gave Luck some weapons to get acquainted with. Yet another team trying to emulate the Patriots’ two-tight-end concept. 

2012 Outlook: Well, it certainly can’t be as bad as 2011, when everything fell apart. Andrew Luck will start at QB from day 1, and while he won’t have a lot of help, it’ll be good for him to get smacked around a little bit. He’ll learn how to play from behind. He’ll learn a lot about the pass rush of the NFL. He’ll have plenty of chances to orchestrate comebacks. And he’ll probably carry the super undertalented Colts on his back to a respectable 6 or 7 wins, depending on how bad the defense is. 

2012 Schedule: Just like the Titans and Jags, Indy  faces the tough AFC East and NFC North this year. They actually get Chicago, Minnesota and Green Bay in weeks 1, 2 and 4. There’s a brutal stretch in November where they face New England, Buffalo and Detroit consecutively. But scattered around those tough games, they get plenty of cupcakes: Jacksonville twice, Tennessee twice, Miami, KC, and Cleveland. Plus, they don’t have to deal with Houston until weeks 15 and 17, at which point half the Texans’ roster might be hurt again.

2012 Prediction: Luck probably starts out 2-1, with home games against the Vikings and Jags early. That’ll help build some confidence, and he might even be audacious enough to think he can beat teams like Green Bay and New England. But with the current state of the Colts’ defense, I can’t see anything like that happening. I’ll say they finish the year 6-10.

23. Tennessee Titans
Last year: 9-7

Biggest strength(s): Probably the offensive line, particularly on the ends. Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart are perennially among the best tackles in the business. They play smart, physical, and at times dominant, allowing an undertalented offense to compete with anybody. Defensively, there aren’t really any strength to speak of, especially since the team’s best defensive player (Cortland Finnegan) signed with St. Louis this offseason. The Titans have a pretty special player at running back, but Chris Johnson’s decline from 2,006 yards and a 5.6 YPC to 1,047 yards and a 4.0 YPC was stunning and disheartening. CJ should serve as proof to GMs across the league why you don’t give big money to guys who seem like punks. Or to running backs. But especially, don’t give big money to punk running backs.

Biggest weakness(es): It would have to start with the defensive line. Only one player had more than 5 sacks for the Titans last year, and that was DT Karl Klug with 7. Hence, Tennessee ranked 31st overall in sacks, and that led to a lot of problems for the secondary, who allowed one of the worst completion percentages in the league. They did manage to rank 17th in total defense, but they also played 7 of their games against Luke McCown, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Delhomme, Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, Kyle Orton, and Colt McCoy. They only faced 3 really good QBs all year (Schaub, Ben, Brees), and got waxed in all three games. Now, the entire defense is in trouble with the loss of Finnegan, who allowed 8.8 yards per reception, the lowest mark of any starting cornerback.

2012 Offseason: To shore up the pass rush, Tennessee slightly overpaid Kameron Wimbley from the Raiders. Not only must Wimbley overcome the temptation of laziness that comes with a $35 million contract, he also must move from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE, which means a lot more physicality. Wimbley averages a modest 7 sacks per year over the past five years, and doesn’t create turnovers, so it won’t be a monumental move. But it’s definitely an improvement.

The Titans also filled a hole at the guard position with 35-year old future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson. This was part of their desperation push to acquire Peyton Manning, which obviously fell short. While Hutch is passed his prime, he’s still one of the best guards ever, and will be a nice short-term fix at LG. 

There weren’t any other splashy moves in free agency, and the only notable draft pick was Baylor receiver Kendall Wright with the #20 pick. Wright seemed a bit overrated in my estimation, as he and RG3 took advantage of teams like Rice University and piled up hundreds of garbage time yards. But Wright gives Jake Locker and/or Matt Hasselbeck a young, fast receiver to work with, hopefully next to Kenny Britt who is recovering from an ACL injury.

2012 Outlook: Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year with new coach Mike Munchak and rookie QB Jake Locker. Instead, the Titans overperformed and went 9-7, just missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. That 9-7 record was in spite of Chris Johnson impersonating Tatum Bell all year. So in theory, they could win 10 or 11 games if CJ actually plays like himself.

But, losing Finnegan leaves a big hole in the secondary, and I doubt if former 6th round pick Jason McCourty is ready to be the #1 CB for a team with very little pass rush. There’s also a ton of pressure on Wimbley to be the star of this defense, but how often does a player leave the Raiders and then turn out to be reliable? Even if Wimbley offers 8 to 10 sacks, this will still be one of the worst defensive lines in football, and the linebackers aren’t good enough to pick up the slack.

But more than anything, this season will depend on the progression of Jake Locker, and on how soon Matt Hasselbeck is willing to bequeath the starting job. Locker played very well in limited action last season (99.4 rating in 5 games), but Hass helped the team win 9 games, so he won’t be flippantly benched. While adding Hutchinson and Wright helps, this offense still doesn’t have a ton of talent, unless of course CJ kicks back into gear.

2012 Schedule: It begins brutal, with Brady, Rivers, Stafford and Schaub in the first four weeks. Then they get the rest of the AFC East and NFC North (two very solid divisions) along with Pittsburgh. So if the Titans have any hope of winning 7 or 8 games, they’re going to have to win at least 5 in their division. Which won’t be impossible, but something tells me Andrew Luck won’t roll over and die. Also worth noting - they get the Packers week 16, which might be a rest-the-starters situation.

2012 Prediction: While their schedule is tough, they do get cake games against Jacksonville (x2), Miami and Minnesota. If they can win those, and take care of beatable teams like Chicago, Indy and the Jets, then all they need is 1 or 2 upsets and they could win 9 games again. That might even win them the division, as I expect Houston to regress a bit this year. But alas, I think growing pains are in store for Locker and Munchak, and I think this defense takes a big step back without Finnegan. They’ll go 4-4 in the winnable games, but just 1-7 in the more difficult games, for a 5-11 record.

22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers ... 

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