Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NFL Power Rankings - 32-27

This is the third segment in a triad of rankings as we gear up for the 2012 season.  First I ranked the quarterbacks.  Then the top 100 players overall. Now, the 32 teams, in reverse chronological order, starting with the lowly Oakland Raiders. 

32. Oakland Raiders
Last year: 8-8

Biggest Strength(s): Oakland has the best player in the NFL at two positions. Unfortunately, those positions both involve kicking the ball. Shane Lechler is a 9-time All Pro punter who booted the ball an NFL record 80 yards last year, and Sebastian Janikowski is a drunk Polish kicker who has made 66 kicks of 50+ yards, including an NFL record 63 yarder.  Outside of those two, the best players on Oakland are probably DT Richard Seymour who is 32 years old, and Darren McFadden, who has gotten injured in all four of his NFL seasons. They also have a pretty good safety in Tyvon Branch and a solid left tackle in Jared Veldheer (Forest Hills Northern grad!)

Biggest Weakness(es): Where to begin? Quarterback, offensive line, pass rush, secondary … if you had to pinpoint one primary weakness, it’s been drafting.  Would you believe that the last real 1st round pick Oakland made was way back in 2008? Since then, they took Darrius  Heyward-Bey with the #7 pick (one of the dumbest 1st round picks ever), Rolando McClain #8 (an amazing talent who unfortunately thought it would be real cool of him to almost shoot a guy and get sentenced to jail), and then nobody in 2011 and 2012 because they traded those picks to acquire Seymour and Carson Palmer.  You can’t go 4 straight years without a 1st round pick.  You just can’t. Especially not in exchange for Carson Palmer, one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league.  Oakland would have been just as good keeping Bruce Gradkowski.

Oh, one other thing: Oakland committed 283 penalties last year, by far the most in the league. In a distant second, with 247, is our Lions. League average was about 200; Indy had just 160.

2012 Offseason: The Raiders best CB last year was Stanford Routt, a borderline star, but they couldn’t afford to re-sign him.  He went to the Chiefs for three years and $20 million.  It was probably smart not to pay him that much, considering Oakland was already over the cap. But anytime you lose your best CB in two consecutive offseasons (remember Nnamdi in 2011) it’s tough.  Other than Routt, there wasn’t much action this offseason. They did bring in a new head coach – Dennis Allen, a 3-4 defense guy know n for the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. This is their 7th coach in 11 years, and none of the previous 6 had a winning record. In an effort to fill holes and address needs, the Raiders signed a bunch of mediocre linemen and cornerbacks, but most of them were role players or bench players last year on the Giants, 49ers, Texans, or some other good team. Whenever a player chooses money and willingly moves from a good team to a crap team, it’s a bad sign, and the Raiders have a roster full of such players.  Then, in the 2012 draft, the Raiders forfeited their first three picks in exchange for Seymour, Palmer and Terrelle Pryor, and didn’t pick until #95, where they took a guard from Utah, the eighth guard off the board. Eek.

2012 Outlook: As the NFL transitions into a full-blown passing league, the Raiders are headed in the opposite direction. Their new offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, concentrates on ball control and field position. With the league’s best kicker and punter, that may actually be a smart move for Oakland. Last year, thanks to an easy schedule, some great kicking, a good amount of luck, and a temporarily healthy McFadden, the Raiders somehow won 8 games. But they won their 8 games by an average of 5.75 points and lost their 8 games by an average of 15 points, including five blowouts with Palmer as quarterback.  They actually went 4-2 without Palmer and 4-6 with him.  That’s as ominous as anything.
2012 Schedule: The division is still pretty weak, but Peyton Manning makes it more difficult. They also get the AFC North and NFC South, which should only equate to 1 or 2 wins. But their bonus games are two of the worst teams in the NFL: Miami and Jacksonville.

2012 Prediction: With a new coach, new offensive coordinator, a lousy quarterback, and no young players to build around, this won’t be a good team.  They might overachieve towards another 8-8 season, but I expect the complete opposite. If Palmer struggles right off the bat, backup Matt Leinart might take over.  New GM Reggie McKenzie inherited Palmer and his horrible contract ($28 million owed in 2013 and 2014), so he’ll probably try to avoid paying as much of that as possible. If Palmer stinks, he might be out of a job sooner than later. The problem is, Leinart has no upside, and once you put Pryor out there you’ve given up on the season. My prediction: Palmer starts out 1-4, gets benched with a sub-70 QB rating, Leinart goes 1-3, then Pryor gets a chance at the job, but goes 0-7 against the brutal part of the schedule. McKenzie gets his wish - the #1 pick in 2013, and USC’s Matt Barkley.

31. Seattle Seahawks
Last year: 7-9

Biggest Strength(s): The Hawks were actually decent on defense last year; granted, their schedule precluded them from facing any elite quarterbacks They don’t have a pass rush, but they were solid against the run and a few secondary players (namely the safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) emerged as young stars. Also, the running game was great at times, with Marshawn Lynch becoming possessed by the Tasmanian Devil during a 5-1 streak in which he ran for an average of 102 yards per game.

Biggest Weakness(es): The two most important things in today’s NFL - passing the ball, and rushing the passer. Seattle attempted to shore up these positions with free agent Matt Flynn and 1st rounder Bruce Irvin, but neither of those guys can be considered dependable until they prove something. 

2012 Offseason: As mentioned, Flynn was brought in to replace Tavaris Jackson, which seems like a certain upgrade on the surface. But Jackson really wasn’t that awful last year. When the best receiver is undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin, you can’t expect much.  Seattle did nothing to improve the receiving corps, and let’s be honest, Sidney Rice and Mike Williams are incumbent bums. (No, I don’t consider Kellen Winslow Jr. an improvement. Just an idiot.). Seattle also needs to replace their best linebacker, David Hawthorne, who signed with the Saints.

The best part of Seattle’s offseason was supposedly the re-signing of two key players: Lynch, and DT Red Bryant. In both cases, however, the Hawks overpaid. I’d be especially nervous about giving $18 million guaranteed to a proven slacker like Lynch.

2012 Outlook: Just like Oakland, Seattle overachieved last year and won 7 games thanks to an easy schedule and a good running game. But this year, their deficiencies in the passing game should catch up with them, and a mediocre secondary should be exposed by an absent pass rush. 

2012 Schedule: The Seahawks avoided Rodgers and Brady last year.  Not this year.  They also get appointments with Stafford, Romo and Newton. But other than that, it’s a pretty easy schedule, provided the NFC West stinks again.

2012 Prediction: Flynn may be 26 years old, but he’s only played significant time in 3 NFL games. He’s basically a rookie, joining a team with terrible receivers and a lousy offensive line. The one chance this team has of not being awful is the running game, and as I mentioned, Lynch’s contract could turn him into one of the league’s laziest players.  The defense should be average, although the absence of a pass rush is going to continue to be problematic unless Irvin turns out to be a brilliant pick. With an easy schedule though, and a historically great homefield advantage, I’ll give Seattle 5 wins.

30.   Jacksonville Jaguars
Last year: 5-11

Biggest Strength(s): Well, Maurice Jones-Drew won the rushing title, so I guess you’d have to start there.  He averages about 50 receptions per year over the last six seasons, and has a solid career YPC of 4.6. He’s also a great blocker, a good goal-line back, and amazingly durable (only 3 games missed his entire career, playing through many injuries). But now, with the rushing title under his belt, MJD is holding out for a payday. Foster and McCoy just got paid ($20 million guaranteed each), and Jones-Drew thinks he deserves a similar contract.  And he does. The problem, however, is that nobody wants to pay a running back. They are perceived as fragile, easily replaceable, and rapidly declining in importance. Jones-Drew doesn’t fit that description, but countless running backs have produced early in their careers and then plummeted when they reach the 2,000 carries plateau that MJD is approaching. So while MJD technically deserves to be paid, more so than fellow unhappy holdouts Ray Rice and Matt Forte, I would hate to give him the 5-years and $40 million he wants if I were the GM.  I’d much rather build a pass-first team and take my chances on a guy like Maurice Morris for one-tenth the money. Kind of like what the Saints, Packers, and Patriots are doing. But on the flip side, building a successful pass-first team doesn’t really work when you have Blaine Gabbert, so who knows. Maybe they should pay MJD. It might be their best chance at keeping the franchise in Jacksonville and not infuriating all the fans. I’m glad it’s not my decision to make.

The other strength of the Jags is their front 7 on defense. They have two studly linebackers in Daryl Smith and Paul Posluszny,  a good DT in Terrance Knighton, and a solid DE in Jeremy Mincey.  At times, the defense got shredded, but other times, like week 7 against Baltimore, it was completely dominant. 

Biggest Weakness(es): Blaine Gabbert. Also, the secondary isn’t very good, and neither is the O-line, but mostly, Blaine Gabbert.  He was beyond awful last year. It will be interesting to see how long the Jags stick with him, or if they try to salvage the season with Chad Henne. 

2012 Offseason: It was a pedestrian offseason for Jacksonville (signed Henne, re-signed Mincey, got a mediocre CB named Aaron Ross, viciously overpaid WR Laurent Robinson, hired a new coach named Mike Mularkey), until draft day when they traded up to #5 to pick Justin Blackmon, the top receiver on the board. This looked like a great move at the time – Blackmon doesn’t have physical-freak skills like AJ Green, but he has good hands, good route-running, better than average speed, and was supposedly a high character guy.  Then, early in June he got arrested in Oklahoma for drunk driving, which was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to the Jags. [Insert “I’d be drinking too if Gabbert was my quarterback” joke]

Probably the only good part about the offseason was watching Peyton Manning leave the AFC South. Between that and the Texans’ myriad of injuries and lost free agents, the division seems to be wide open. If Jacksonville has any chance at the playoffs, they better sneak in now before Andrew Luck seizes his claim on the division for the next decade.

2012 Outlook: Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen with Gabbert and Henne as the only quarterbacks. Jacksonville is a classic example of a horrible offense and a pretty good defense; perennial bottom feeders like Buffalo, Miami, and Cleveland faced the same dilemma last season and all were under .500.  If you’re going to try to win without a quarterback, you need more than just a good defense. You need an unbelievably good defense. Jacksonville does not have that.

2012 Schedule: If Schaub doesn’t come back healthy and Luck doesn’t start the season well, it’s possible the Jags won’t face a good quarterback until week 8. That’s the good news. The bad news is they face the tough AFC East and NFC North, which could equate to 0-8. But their division is pretty weak and bonus games against Oakland and Cincinnati are winnable.

2012 Prediction: It all comes down to whether or not Gabbert will improve in his sophomore season. You can’t do much worse than a 65.4 QB rating and 50.8% completion percentage, but Blaine needs at least a 75 QB rating to keep Jacksonville somewhat competitive.  If Jones-Drew is signed (and I suspect he’ll be paid late in the summer when the GM becomes desperate, and I also suspect that he won’t be a lazy ass once he is paid) and if the defense stays healthy, and if Blackmon and Robinson pan out to give Gabbert some viable receivers, Jacksonville could win 6 or 7 games, maybe more if Gabbert really improves.

Arm strength isn’t the problem; neither is accuracy to be honest. Last year Gabbert was dreadful under pressure, and had no feel for the pocket. This is reflected by his 40.2% completion percentage when under pressure, and the fact that he led the league in fumbles despite ranking 22nd in pass attempts. But offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski believes that improved footwork will transform Gabbert’s game into something competent, especially when the pocket collapses. I would like to share in his optimism … but I don’t. Instead, I think Gabbert leads the Jags to a 4-12 year, but plays just promisingly enough to keep his job all year.

29. Cleveland Browns
Last year:  4-12

Biggest Strength(s): Two stud players, LT Joe Thomas and CB Joe Haden, anchor the Browns’ roster and prevent them from being the biggest dumpster fire in the NFL. Now, #3 overall pick Trent Richardson gives hope to the 29th ranked offense.  Elsewhere, they’ve got a very good linebacker in D’Qwell Jackson, who actually led the AFC in tackles; however, that was largely a result of a terrible defensive line that couldn’t tackle anyone. The rest of the linebackers – Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong – are pretty solid, and safety TJ Ward is a young stud in the making. The secondary actually ranked 2nd in passing yards allowed, but that was partly because the Browns fell way behind and allowed teams to just run all over them, and partly because they only faced 1 of the 10 best quarterbacks in 2011.

Biggest Weakness(es): With the 30th best run defense, 28th best run offense, 24th best passing offense, and a pretty much nonexistent pass rush, there are plenty of weaknesses to address.  The running game was probably solved with Richardson, but the rest of the weaknesses remain. Rookie QB Brandon Weeden will probably start from the get-go, replacing three-year veteran Colt McCoy who is actually 4 years younger than Weeden. With quite possibly the worst group of receivers in the history of the league, Weeden and/or McCoy will struggle. The defensive line is one of the league’s worst as well, and stopping the run will continue to be a problem.

2012 Offseason: Drafting Richardson was a no-brainer once the Browns determined that Ryan Tannehill was no good. Richardson will be one of the most complete and productive RBs right away and is the heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year. I’d even consider him a 2nd or 3rd round fantasy pick; he’ll never be coming off the field and will lead the team in receptions.  Drafting Weeden, on the contrary, was not expected. Nor was it very smart.  Not only is Weeden 29 years old,  he just wasn’t that great in college. The Browns needed to improve the receivers and pass rushers, and didn’t do either in the draft or in free agency. The offensive line is solid, and Richardson might keep them in games, but once again, the defense won’t be much help outside of Haden. 

2012 Outlook: In the third year of the Holmgren regime, the Browns seems to finally be rebuilding.  The recent eras of Anderson, Quinn, Delhomme, and McCoy have been forgettable to say the least. None of those QBs have been surrounded by any talent; in fact, Greg Little’s 61 receptions and 709 yards were both the highest marks by a Browns receiver since Braylon Edwards’s amazing 2007 season. Pretty sad when 709 receiving yards is considered a feat, because Calvin Johnson had that in his last four games.

Both offensively and defensively, the Browns are just undertalented. Holmgren and Tom Heckert have done a poor job putting this team together, plain and simple. Even the coaches – Pat Shurmur, Brad Childress, Dick Jauron – are underwhelming.  If Trent Richardson is as good as advertised, the Browns could make 2012 interesting. But if not, the Browns, who have only enjoyed two winning seasons since 1994, will be miserable once again. 

2012 Schedule: For the second straight year, the Browns get a cake schedule outside of their division. The regressing AFC West, the overrated NFC East, and the Colts and Bills. That could actually be 4 wins right there. Plus, they might catch Denver and/or Pittsburgh resting starters in weeks 16 and 17, and I expect Cincy to regress quite a bit this year in the AFC North.

2012 Prediction: Weeden and Richardson will be aided by a weak schedule, but still won’t be able to do much. Asking a couple of rookies to lead your offense is tough, especially with no receivers to stretch the field. Once again, the Browns will fall behind early and often, and won’t have the big-play offense to catch up. Plus their miserable run defense will allow other teams to control the clock. It’s a bad combination. Mike Holmgren has flat out proven to be a crappy team president. I see Cleveland going 2-6, then losing 3 straight, then winning 5 straight, two of which are against teams resting starters, for a bizarre 7-9 finish.

28. Miami Dolphins
Last year:  6-10

Biggest Strength(s): The defense. Led by OLB Cameron Wake, ILB Karlos Dansby and CB Vontae Davis, the Fins ranked 6th in scoring last year and were 3rd best against the run. A big part of that was 385-pound Paul Soliai, a Pro Bowler and one of the few remaining 3-4 nosetackles in the NFL. (Sidenote: a huge number of NFL players – almost exclusively defensive tackles –  are coming out of the Polynesian area. Guys with unpronounceable last names like Solaia, Peko, Pouha, Sopoaga, Ta’amu, Alualu, Ngata, Misi, Kemaoutu, and of course, Troy Polamalu.) Anyway…

Miami also has solid DEs in Randy Starks and Jared Odrick, and brought in Cardinals CB Richard Marshall to compete with incumbents Will Allen and Sean Smith. At OLB, they’re excited about 2010 draft pick Koa Misi, who will compete with Gary Guyton, who isn’t bad either. The safeties aren’t great since losing Yeremiah Bell in free agency, and Davis is the only stud in the secondary. But if Wake and Dansby stay healthy, this could be one of the best front 7s in all of football, and definitely a top 10 overall defense.  

Biggest Weakness(es): The offense is not just weak; it’s horrendous. Last year they ranked 22nd in yards, 20th in points, 26th in third-down conversions, and 3rd in sacks allowed. Then, they traded away their best receiver (an idiot with a long list of legal trouble, but still a good player) and drafted Ryan Tannehill, who as I documented a few months ago, is John Navarre 2.0.  Not a terrible player, but not even close to a franchise quarterback.

The offense was pitiful early in the season with Chad Henne and the 0-7 start, but picked up steam with Matt Moore (a shockingly decent 87.1 QB rating last year) late in the season. Reggie Bush had the best season of his career, rushing for over 1,000 yards and a wonderful 5.0 YPC. Moore made use of Brian Hartline, Anthony Fasano,  and even some guy named Charles Clay. So naturally, Miami bailed on him and chased every other quarterback this offseason … Manning, Flynn, Griffin, even Alex Smith … and after 4 failures, they opted to draft Tannehill with the #8 pick, when they could have drafted a legitimate stud CB, DE, WR, OT, or anything else. Instead of taking a sure thing, they rolled the dice, and probably threw away a top 1o pick. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Now, the Dolphins are in serious contention for the worst offense in the league, and just like last year, the bad offense will offset the good defense and the Fins will fail to win half their games.

2012 Offseason: Aside from idiotically drafting Tannehill and trading Marshall for nothing, it was a pretty good offseason. They resigned Wake and Soliai to long-term deals, and brought in new head coach Joe Philbin, who coordinated the Packers’ unstoppable offense over the last 4 years. Then, just to prove that owner Stephen Ross is obsessed with attention, Miami signed the world’s biggest idiot, Chad Ochocinco, early in June. I’m going to do my best to ignore him until he goes away. Miami also signed with HBO to do the show Hard Knocks, which usually is indicative of a team full of morons.

2012 Outlook: When the offense sucks and the defense is great, eventually it gets too frustrating and the entire team falls apart. Guys like Wake and Dansby and Davis are going to get sick of working their butts off and losing by scores of 13-3. Tannehill is almost certainly going to be the opening day starter, and will almost certainly flop. Reggie Bush can’t possibly play 15 games again without getting hurt, and 2nd year RB Daniel Thomas looked slow and crappy last year. Also, the Fins rival Cleveland for the worst receiving crew of all time. Seriously, Brian Hartline is your #1 playmaker?

I forgot to mention, Miami does have a couple of studs on the offensive line, with LT Jake Long and center Mike Pouncey. But they also have below-average players at the other positions; maybe rookie Jonathan Martin from Stanford can fix that at right tackle and keep Tannehill from getting killed. But probably not. A good offensive line can’t make a crappy quarterback succeed. They can just buy him an extra couple seconds to be indecisive and make bad throws.

2012 Schedule: With the Bills improving this offseason, the six games against the AFC East are going to be tough. But then there’s the AFC South and NFC West, probably the two worst divisions in football. And bonus games with Oakland and Cincy. So overall, a very easy schedule.

2012 Prediction: I’m inclined to say 6 or 7 wins because of the great defense and easy slate of games. But then I think about Ryan Tannehill, and the 1-5 record he had in college against teams ranked in the top 25. If you can’t beat Missouri or Kansas State, how are you going to beat an NFL defense? Especially with receivers that just aren’t NFL caliber.

Fortunately for Tannehill, Miami’s schedule starts out easy and then progressively gets more difficult. He should be 2-4 at the bye, and keep the starting job. But then he’ll quickly fall to 2-8, and Philbin will have to fabricate some kind of injury to Tannehill so Matt Moore can finish the season and salvage a few wins, while not shattering Tannehill’s confidence. The schedule ends rough, but the Pats might rest the starters in week 17, so I’ll say Miami scraps out a 5-11 record.

27. St. Louis Rams
Last year:  2-14

Biggest Strength(s): The Rams were miserable last year, ranking near the bottom in every meaningful statistic. It’s tough to find a strength.  I guess you could go with Jeff Fisher, a guy with 142 coaching wins and almost 30 years in the NFL. Fisher brought with him Cortland Finnegan, a nasty cornerback who probably becomes the Rams’ best player. The Rams also picked up two future first round picks in the RG3 trade; if Washington stinks (and I think they will), St. Louis could be picking twice in the top 10 for the next two years.

Other strengths include DE Chris Long, who is proving to be a solid pass-rusher, and of course Steven Jackson, an aging beast of an RB who still has something left in the tank, as evidenced by him single-handedly beating the Saints last year with 191 yards and 2 TDs.

Biggest Weakness(es): With the league’s worst point differential (-214) and the 31st ranked offense, there is plenty of blame to go around. Certainly Sam Bradford’s ankle injury didn’t help, but even when he played he was rotten. The receivers were terrible, and so was the offensive line. The linebackers were bad, the secondary was bad and endured 13 injuries (not a typo), and even the special teams were way below average. But probably the worst aspect of their 2011 season was the run defense – allowing 152 rushing yards per game, 31st in the league. Of course, that had a lot to do with falling behind in the first 3 quarters and then getting run all over. In 7 of their loses, the Rams were trailing by 14, 19, 23, 24, 20, 19, and 14 going into the final quarter:.  That’s a good recipe to rank 31st in run defense.

2012 Offseason: To fix the middle of the defense, Fisher drafted LSU’s monster in the middle, Michael Brockers, a huge specimen who will fill the important run-stuffing DT role that is needed in a Fisher-esque wide-9 defense. The Rams also added Kendall Langford and Trevor  Laws, who both proved to be capable run-stoppers last year. Combined with Finnegan, DE Williams Hayes (who played for Fisher in Tennessee), and 2nd round pick CB Janoris Jenkins, it was a profitable offseason for a wretched defense that couldn’t do anything except occasionally rush the passer. Now, they might just be able to stop the run, which would allow DEs Long and Robert Quinn to have really solid seasons.

Offensively, the Rams lost WR Brandon Lloyd, who didn’t want to be there anyway, and they gained Scott Wells, a Pro Bowl center from Green Bay. They took a receiver in the 2nd round, Brian Quick, who I don’t know anything about other than he’s from Appalachian State and he’s not actually very quick.  The biggest change is the health of Bradford, who is supposedly 100%. Also slot receiver Danny Amendola should be healthy, and Steve Smith (the former Giant, not the Panther) joined the Rams, hoping to be at full health as well. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but at least it’s some semblance of a plan.     

2012 Outlook: The Rams are 15-65 over the last five years, an average of 3-13. My guess is that Fisher alone gives them 4 wins this year, even with this talent-depleted roster. If Bradford stays healthy for 16 games and develops a rapport with one of his receivers, and Steven Jackson stays healthy as well, and the defense works as good on the field as it does on paper, this might just explode into a shockingly good team. Like we saw with Cincy and Houston in recent years, sometimes adding a great cornerback does wonders for a bad defense. And like we saw with San Fran last year, sometimes a great coach can make an enormous change. But there are still major holes on the O-line and D-line, and the linebackers are still pretty lousy, so Jeff Fisher is being asked to do a lot with very little.

2012 Schedule: The Rams begin the year in Detroit, and after that they get five very winnable games, and could be 3-3 or 4-2 heading into 3 straight loses (NE, GB, @SF). After that they should have a good shot at winning 5 of their last 7 games, and could end up in the 7-9 to 9-7 range. Or, on the flipside, the Rams could start slow, and lose winnable games to WAS, CHI, SEA, and MIA. If they do that, they’re basically 1-9 before they know what happened. In other words, they gotta start out winning.

2012 Prediction: I’m taking the optimistic route with St. Louis. I like Bradford, I like Fisher, and I think they’ll win early. I’ll say 7-9, with one or two shocking wins against SF. They’ll be the trendy pick for 2013.

26. Minnesota Vikings

Sorry for breaking this up.  Turns out I wrote a lot.  Maybe I can get this done by August.


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