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Default 47 Observations for the 2012 NFL Season

It runs a bit long (as usual), and I rambled in some spots, but I came up with a preseason list of forty-seven observations, ending with my preseason Super Bowl XLVII pick. I donít expect anyone to read every word, so I bolded the beginning of each section to make it easier to skim over.

1.) Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees. Despite their tumultuous off-season, Iím not writing off the Saints. In fact, I think this team might be even more talented than their Super Bowl-winning counterparts. Now that his contract situation is sorted out, Brees is a prime candidate to post another monster, video game-esque campaign. Given the circumstances surrounding the team, if New Orleans achieves some team success and Brees performs at his usual level, heís the frontrunner for the award. The media just wouldnít be able to resist the convenient narrative of a ďcoachlessĒ team succeeding on the back of its ultra-valuable, superstar quarterback.

2.) Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady. This concession is a true toss-up between Brady and Rodgers for me. I donít think itís likely another skill player, be it a healthy Arian Foster or Calvin Johnson, can come close to matching the kind of production necessary to dethrone the elite quarterbacks. And these three quarterbacks are all producing at historic levels right now. I give the slight edge to Brady because I believe the Patriots will ride the easiest schedule in the NFL to the best regular season record and heíll have comparable numbers to boot. Itís so, so close though.

3.) Defensive Player of the Year: Jason Pierre-Paul. Itís been unbelievable to watch JPP evolve into one of the most complete, dominant defensive ends in football. When he was coming out, his freakish athleticism and tools were salivating, but I never figured he would cement himself as such a multi-dimensional game-changer so soon. Heís an offensive linemenís nightmare. Long arms, quick hands, explosive, powerful, and a developing repertoire of pass rush moves. Considering his capable supporting cast along the line in New York, he will see more one-on-ones than he should and has an excellent chance to lead the pack in sacks, which is what this award rewards most of the time.

As a runner-up, Iíll take DeMarcus Ware. Heís too good to not win one at some point in his career. Heís the most versatile 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Exceptional at rushing the passer and dropping into coverage and quite solid at setting the edge, too.

4.) Breakout Offensive Star: Robert Meachem. Meachem established himself as a productive part of New Orleansí wide receiver committee, but I think heís capable of even bigger things in San Diego. He generated a lot of explosive gains for the Saints offense and is a proven deep threat that can stretch seams. Heís underrated as an all-around receiver though. He can run the entire route tree and I expect that heíll replace or exceed Vincent Jacksonís production. A stat line somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 REC / 1200 YDS / 10 TD wouldnít surprise me in the slightest bit.

5.) Breakout Defensive Star: Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins is part of the new wave of safeties. A former corner that can accept some man responsibilities, roam as a centerfielder, and wonít compromise the defense down the middle in the running game. Heís instinctive and versatile. Given to a creative coordinator like Steve Spagnuolo, Jenkins is a dangerous defensive chess piece. With the opportunities this scheme should afford, I expect Jenkins to make things happen on the backend of the Saints defense and solidify himself as a top safety.

6.) Most Underrated: Jay Cutler and Calais Campbell. Jay Cutler has quietly played some very good football with the Bears. In fact, since going to Chicago, I think heís entrenched himself as a top ten quarterback. Everyone knows about his legendary cannon, but Cutler has become more than just a gunslinger with a huge arm. He has made his teammates better and managed to survive behind a disjointed line that would have gotten most quarterbacks killed. And he did it while his offensive coordinator continued to dial up slow-developing routes off five- or seven-step drops that just exacerbated the unitís fundamental problems. Cutler hasnít just had some impressive games here and there. Cutler has had a string of impressive games and heís sprinkled in some MVP-caliber performances, too.

On the defensive end, Calais Campbell deserves a lot more love than he gets. Outside of Haloti Ngata and Justin Smith, thereís not a better five-technique in the NFL and Campbell is still dripping with frightening potential. Heís got a massive frame with surprising suddenness for that size and active hands and feet. Heís versatile enough to line up at a bunch of different spots along both fronts. Five-technique, three-technique, one-technique, or as a base end in a traditional 4-3. He can fill all of those roles in certain situations and let coordinators be flexible. He can generate pressure, he can stuff the run, he can eat space to free up teammates, and he can make an impact on special teams. Even if the box score doesnít reflect it each time out, Campbell has developed into a disruptive force that leaves his fingerprints all over the game.

7.) Most Overrated: DeSean Jackson and Clay Matthews III. DeSean Jackson isnít close to being a number one receiver. Heís a good-to-great number two, depending on the situation opposite him. Heís too one-dimensional to be considered more than that. And heís not even as elite in that regard as most people consider him. Iíve heard him called the best deep threat in the NFL more than once and he wouldnít even crack the top five for me. Heís got the kind of rare, blistering speed to get behind defenses and separate, but thatís not the sole facet of an elite deep threat. If a secondary maintains coverage integrity and challenges him downfield, Jackson is largely neutralized. Heís not the type of receiver that wins 50-50 balls. Heís super fast and takes the top off and creates some space and works well with what the Eagles do, sure, but heís not as good as his press clippings would seem to suggest.

Clay Matthews III is a similar case. Now, Matthews is a great piece of the puzzle in Dom Capersí defense, but he doesnít belong in the conversation of best edge rushers. Thereís a clear separation between him and the best of the best. He still contributes a lot of things to a defense though. He just isnít a top-flight pass rusher or a strong run defender. That said, in all fairness, his value has returned to a more reasonable level and he is relentless in his approach, so I donít see him disappearing soon. But some of the extravagant claims that have been made on his behalf are so far past ridiculous that I still canít forget them.

8.) Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning. If Manning has a clean bill of health as reported, heís a virtual lock to win. I canít recall a more publicized incident of a superstar being sidelined for a season and then the subsequent circus surrounding their return from injured reserve. From the multiple neck fusion surgeries to the whispers of retirement to the end of an era in Indianapolis to the unseating of Tebow in Denver. If Manning is healed up and prepared for the week-to-week rigors, he will make the Broncos a much better football team. Despite their postseason berth and miraculous win over Pittsburgh, Denver still wasnít a team poised to do serious damage. Now, with Manning under center and good building blocks on defense, I wouldnít be surprised to see the Broncos push some of the more established contenders.

9.) Coach of the Year: Gary Kubiak. If it werenít for Jim Harbaughís impressive NFL debut, Kubiak wouldíve been an excellent choice for this award last season. He endured a rash of injuries at impact positions on both sides of the ball and still steered the Texans to their franchiseís first postseason appearance. I expect Kubiak to replicate Houstonís regular season success and make even more noise in the second season. In fact, the Texans are one of the three teams I can see coming out of the AFC.

As a dark horse, Joe Vitt wouldnít surprise me either, but I think the six-game suspension works against him in the end. Much like Brees, itís an angle that the media could ride though.

10.) The Hot Seat: Andy Reid and Norv Turner. The pressure on Reid has ramped up to the point of redlining. After their prized haul of free agents and subsequent letdown and current preseason predictions, Reid needs to deliver a deep postseason run to save his job. This roster is too talented to be just a mid-table team. Reid made a bunch of questionable coaching decisions last season and if the Eagles donít live up to their expectations again, something will have to change in Philadelphia to placate the frenzied fans and local media. And itís easier to change the coach than it is the high-priced personnel.

As for Norv Turner, Iím not even sure how he has held onto his job for this long. The man is an undisputed offensive genius, but heís not head coach material. Heís too soft. Faced with a stronger division than ever, and a mediocre track record, I donít see how he is still standing once the dust settles. He would need a miraculous run to save him now. That said, after San Diego axes him, he will become one of the hottest commodities in the NFL because offensive coordinators like Norv Turner are hard to find. And Turner is a mastermind that can transform an entire unit. His schemes are brilliant and he knows how to develop quarterbacks well. Heíll be one of the biggest difference-makers available next off-season. Think Wade Phillips. Same situation, different side of the ball.

11.) Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck. Entering the NFL and experiencing immediate success as a passer is a big-time advantage for the award, so I think someone like Trent Richardson would need a combination of factors to happen for him to win it. For all intents and purposes, itís a two-horse race between Luck and Robert Griffin III. At this point, I favor Luck because heís the more polished product. Heís got more experience managing the game, a better command of the passing gameís subtleties, and an easier slate of divisional games. RGIII isnít as familiar with the intermediate passing game and tends to react slower in the pocket when under pressure. Although, I donít doubt Shanahan tailors the scheme to put him in positions to succeed as a rookie. Those naked bootlegs are perfect for RGIII. And heís got dizzying potential to win voters over.

12.) Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a fairly safe pick. Linebackers usually have the most seamless transition to the NFL and Kuechly is one of the most NFL-ready prospects Iíve seen at the position. Heís got an impressive blend of instincts and athleticism. Plus, he plays even faster than he times. His first step almost always takes him in the direction of the football. With the Panthers gravitating toward the national spotlight, I expect Kuechly to shine brightly next to Beason and receive well-deserved accolades. Heís a throwback, three-down linebacker and those are a dying breed in this era of specialization.

13.) Mid-Round Rookie Watch: Joe Adams and Josh Chapman. Joe Adams is electric. I love him as a slot for Cam Newton and I believe he can produce in that situation right from the start. He is an explosive athlete, but Petrinoís offense at Arkansas endowed him wither better receiving skills than heís given credit for. He has a lot of experience working the inside of the field and his route-running shows it. He gears up and down for variance and snaps out of his breaks to create separation. He was such an excellent pick for the Panthers.

Josh Chapman is another mid-rounder that I think can make immediate, noticeable contributions. The Colts are starved for defensive starters and Chapman fills a huge hole in the middle of Chuck Paganoís new 3-4 defense. Chapman is tough as nails, stout at the point of attack, and wide. In terms of nose tackle prospects, I thought Chapman was the most prepared for NFL action. The Colts should consider it a blessing that he fell to them in the fifth.

14.) Best Draft Classes: Steelers and Eagles. These two franchises struck the perfect balance and patched present holes with potential immediate contributors without mortgaging their futures.

For the Steelers, I loved the David DeCastro and Mike Adams picks. Their offensive line has been somewhat of a sore spot and both rookies have an excellent chance to contribute from the start and become long-term fixtures up front. Both are mauling road-graders and I like that Pittsburgh is attempting to add some toughness back to that line. Their third and fourth picks even have short-term and long-term upside. Sean Spence has the skill set to be a sub-package specialist for them and Alameda Taíamu brings much-needed size in the middle, even though I think heís a little too undisciplined as a run-plugger at this point. Iím interested to see how undrafted free agent Robert Golden does as well. The defensive backfield is their biggest question mark and Golden has experience playing at both corner and safety.

I feel the Eagles nailed their selections, too. I loved just about each of them. Fletcher Cox falling to fourteen was unbelievable for them. He is another big cog along that line and I think Jim Washburn molds him into something special. If he can provide some push up the gut, that defensive line could be straight filth. One of their biggest issues last season on defense was lackluster linebacker production, which effectively caps the overall upside of the Wide-9 scheme because it relies heavily on smart second level play. I was a huge fan of Mychal Kendricks as a prospect and I think theyíve found an instant upgrade there with him. Vinny Curry has a very good combination of explosiveness and relentlessness and itís never a bad idea to stock up on pass rushers. Brandon Boykin profiles as a useful slot corner. Marvin McNutt fills a role next to speedsters like Jackson and Maclin, much like Jason Avant. Brandon Washington is a versatile, swing lineman for depth purposes. Chris Polk is a complement to LeSean and Dion Lewis if his checkered medical past works itself out. Even Nick Foles is a worthwhile quarterback to stash behind Vick and attempt to develop. From top-to-bottom, I loved this class.

15.) On the Clock: Jacksonville Jaguars. I canít envision a realistic scenario that leads to Jacksonville picking outside of the top five next April. In fact, I think the Jaguars are a solid choice for the first overall selection. Their quarterback situation is an absolute mess with Blaine Gabbert. Their best offensive weapon is disgruntled and a logical candidate for a letdown season. Their wide receiver corps is loaded with a bunch of mediocre or unproven options. And, while their defense is quite solid across the board, it figures to be left on the field and expected to shoulder the load. I just donít see much upside from this bunch. The offense is just too much of a question mark. If Maurice Jones-Drew shows wear from the beating he took last season or begins to suffer nagging injuries from missing camp, the Jaguars will struggle to accomplish much on the offensive end on a consistent basis. And Gabbert hasnít shown heís capable of elevating a unit for even small stretches.

The Vikings are notable contenders for the same honor though. The NFC North is brutal and their non-divisional schedule is no cupcake either. Most of their ďwinnableĒ games appear to be frontloaded. Couple that with being a green team in transition, and I see some struggles on the horizon.

16.) The Patriots addressed some of their defensive concerns in the off-season, but that wasnít their most impactful addition. Brandon Lloyd was their biggest addition. As pathetic as their defense was last season, the team was still within reach of winning the Super Bowl because of that offense. And their strength just got even stronger. Last season, the Patriot wide receivers struggled to create consistent separation on the outside. Lloyd comes into New England with familiarity in the system and an ability to win one-on-ones on the perimeter. He gives Brady another toy to play with on Sunday and makes that offense tougher to defend. And further improvement in the offensive department, where New England has thrived, can be just as big as shoring up some of those defensive deficiencies.

With regard to first-rounders Chandler Jones and Dontía Hightower, I donít see either being the catalyst to a shocking defensive turnaround in New England. Early reports from training camp seem to suggest that the Patriots are planning to play a lot of 4-3 this year. While I love Jones in that front, it makes the Hightower pick somewhat of a head-scratcher because I donít feel it maximized value. Even more so when considering the Patriots have a capable stack-and-shed linebacker in Brandon Spikes and New England surrendered extra picks to get Hightower. Now, Hightower can be a downhill run-thumper in the 4-3, but that role in that defense doesnít hold a first-round grade. It will be interesting to see where Hightower fits in third-down situations. I wouldnít want to trust him much in coverage and I was never impressed with what he showed rushing the passer in college. That said, I think Hightower has some untapped athletic potential. Heís listed at 270 lbs. right now. Thatís far too big. Thereís no reason for him to be that huge. If he can cut some of that weight and gain some lateral explosiveness, I think he becomes a better linebacker and a more useful pick.

While Iím a big supporter of Chandler Jones and loved the aggressiveness involved in moving up to get him, his biggest asset right now is his stellar run defense. Heís got ridiculous pass rush potential. He needs some seasoning though before he can be a reliable boost in that area. And thatís what New Englandís defense craves most. This team needs to find a pass rusher somewhere to be a much-improved unit. I think the best-case scenario for Jones is that he takes to the finer points quick and becomes a better pass rusher in time for the postseason run. Overall, Jones is an awesome cornerstone going forward, Iím just a little skeptical of his initial impact. Excited to see what Belichick makes of him in the long-term though.

17.) Buffalo has an underrated collection of defensive talent. For starters, I love the defensive line and thatís the core of most great defenses. Mario was a monstrous free agent coup. Heís an elite edge-setter with elite edge-rushing upside. Thatís the kind of signing that can transform a teamís fortunes. With Dareus and Williams on the inside, I think the Bills can wreak havoc with the front four and ease the burden on the rest of the defense, which features some promising defensive backs that Buffalo has been collecting. If a couple members of that backfield take a step forward, this unit is capable of vaulting up the charts.

Pair that with Chanís offense that features a top ten, all-around running back and a spread variant that serves as somewhat of an equalizer, and I think Buffalo looks to be a legitimate contender for a Wild Card spot.

18.) The Jets are a recipe for disaster. And most of it starts at quarterback. A tandem of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow does nothing to inspire confidence in me and itís not like their running game has proven to be a dependable crutch for them, so I think this team struggles to move the ball. Sanchez just isnít a good quarterback and he hasnít made real strides since an overrated rookie season and the talent level around him has undergone a sharp decline. Perhaps he becomes a bit better if Sparano lessens the load, but heís never been an efficient passer to begin with. Not to mention, his weapons include an oft-disgruntled Santonio Holmes and a bunch of unproven prospects. If Sanchez sputters out of the gate, this situation could snowball quick and we could see Tebow sooner rather than later.

Which might not be the worst thing for the Jets. It would signal the end of the Sanchez era. Plus, if this team is going to win, its formula has to include a hard commitment to pounding the ball, controlling the clock, and at least maintaining its defensive prowess despite accruing another season of age. Almost adopt the Bronco blueprint. Win with some of the ugliest football imaginable. Tebowís skill set fits into that kind of conceptual picture.

19.) Miami shouldnít be afraid of starting Tannehill this season. Itís a well-supported illusion that ďrawĒ quarterbacks need to spend all of their time as a rookie on the sideline. There are certain examples where I believe it might have aided a quarterbackís long-term prospectus, but Iím also a firm believer in the idea that certain people are destined for success or failure no matter what. I think thereís something to be said for being baptized on the field and developed in the crucible of competition. Certain quarterbacks are fragile and will break under pressure and others will rise above and be stronger for it. If a quarterback has a truly special makeup, heíll succeed in the face of adversity, not survive in the absence of it.

That said, from what Iíve seen, I wouldnít be afraid of starting Tannehill at some point. Sitting him at the start of the season is fine. But to stick to a predetermined date just for the sake of sticking to it is foolish. The Fins donít figure to be contenders this season and Tannehill is their future. It makes sense for him to get some valuable experience under his belt. The biggest issue I saw with Tannehill at Texas A&M was post-snap validation of safeties and downfield coverage shells. Thatís not something that can just be fixed with hours upon hours spent in the film room because itís not all theoretical. He needs to adjust to the speed of the game and that takes practical experience.

Besides, the notion that he will crumble is overblown. Right now, Tannehill has a better pocket presence than Robert Griffin III. Iíve seen no one suggest RGIII sit.

20.) Pittsburgh is the favorite in the AFC North. Pittsburgh has kind of flown under the radar during the off-season, but I expect the Steelers to field an improved squad come September and establish themselves as favorites for the division. Roethlisberger is a true franchise quarterback. Iíve heard all of the rotator cuff stuff, but itís a complete non-issue. Heís got a fantastic receiving corps that fit with him in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery. Their committee of running backs is as unproven as it gets, but their offensive line has gotten better overall and stronger at the point attack. I expect Haley to deploy Rainey in a playmaker role, much like McCluster with the Chiefs, and thatís his best NFL fit by far. As for the defense, I have faith in LeBeau pushing the right buttons and keeping that unit as strong as ever. I donít like the defensive backfield on paper, but I havenít for quite some time, and itís never hindered them from being a top defense because that front seven takes a lot of pressure off them.

Overall, this team is a little like the Giants to me. It features an elite quarterback guiding an offense with a questionable ground game and a fearsome front seven that can put a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and both those elements are capable of taking over games from week-to-week.

21.) But Baltimore is still dangerous. Iím just not as confident in Flacco and their pass rush. Thatís what it comes down to for me. For what itís worth, I think Flacco is their second best skill player and a top-half quarterback in the NFL, but the pieces around him (outside of Rice) arenít studs and Iím not sold heís the type of signal-caller that can elevate an offense above and beyond their means for the whole season.

The defense worries me though, too. The losses of Pagano and Suggs are massive. Thatís their mastermind and their best pass rusher. Itís hard to replace both of those without a decline in production. The Ravens defense had experienced a philosophical revitalization under Pagano and the possible candidates for replacement are dubious. Kindle has potential, but heís a second-rounder that hasnít stepped on the field and shown it. And Iím not Upshawís biggest fan. Heís a solid, technical pass rusher with strong hands and natural power, but he doesnít have dynamic ability. Heís not going to anchor a pass rush.

That said, I love their backend. Baltimore has one of the absolute best secondaries in the NFL.

22.) The Bengals are pretenders. And itís because I still donít have faith in Dalton. Granted, he was much better as a rookie than I ever anticipated him being, but Iím still not sold enough to jump on the Bengalsí bandwagon. He maximizes his talent and does a lot of the little things right, I admit. I canít shake the feeling that his upside is similar to Chad Pennington though, and that doesnít excite me much. Someone that is good enough to take care of an offense and get his team to the postseason now and then, but canít be relied on from season-to-season to be the franchiseís pace-setter.

Plus, Cincinnatiís 0-7 record against non-mediocre teams is sobering. I expect them to start fast and Mike Zimmer to continue to get run out of defensive retreads, but I think this team dips back below .500 again.

23.) The Browns are going to struggle in the win-loss ledger, but I expect them to be competitive and progress. For as much flak as the pick got, and much of it was well-deserved, the fact that Brandon Weeden is an upgrade over Colt seemed to get lost in the incessant Browns-bashing. Quarterback production was the biggest issue for this team last season and the offense was among the worst in the NFL for that reason. Each offensive possession was a complete chore. Nothing flowed from down-to-down or drive-to-drive or game-to-game.

Weeden has a superior skill set that can alleviate some of those inadequacies. Being equipped with a much stronger arm that can push the ball downfield being the biggest difference. Colt succeeded at running a short spread of sorts as a rookie, but he didnít adapt once coordinators constricted Clevelandís underneath concepts. Weeden has the arm to at least challenge defenses and contest the deep areas of the field.

Weeden is a solid scheme fit. In general, Iím just not a fan of sifting through castoffs to find a scheme fit at quarterback. Iíd rather find an obvious talent and tailor the scheme to what he does well. That said, Cleveland has made a concerted effort to attract a lot of ďquarterback peopleĒ to the organization. Itís their job to camouflage Weedenís weaknesses and highlight his strengths now. And the Browns have the personnel groupings to run a quick-strike offense predicated on precise timing with three- or five-step drops and strong run action components. Which brings me toÖ

Trent Richardson. Richardson has an elite skill set that can change an offense. Heís got all critical running back attributes. Compact build to handle being saddled with an NFL workload. Runs low to the ground with very quick, active feet and gymnastic balance. Power and toughness are perfect fits for the division. Underrated burst and short-area quickness. Naturalness as a blocker and receiver, too. With Richardson, the Browns are getting a handful of seasons with a potential top five runner in the backfield. (And thatís the overlooked subtext of the Weeden pick. Cleveland doesnít want to squander the prime of Richardsonís career. Because of his age, Weeden is perceived as a more polished product and thus the best win-now option. Thatís the reason the Browns drafted him. On that front, I donít reject their premise. I reject their evaluation.)

Combine an improved offense with a defense thatís showcased some scrappiness and stinginess, and I think the Browns are tough competitors in most games. However, given their strict strength of schedule and inexperience with each other, it wouldnít surprise me if this team still finds itself back at the top of the draft. Sometimes progress isnít reflected in the win column, but this team is adding more and more talent.

The loss of Phil Taylor certainly stings though. The mountains in the middle of that line make things much easier on the rest of the unit and the depth behind him is quite questionable.

24.) Houston is a true championship contender. If it werenít for Matt Schaub going down, I think Houston has a compelling case for coming out of the AFC, but ifs and buts are meaningless in NFL circles. The point is the Texans arenít a fluke.

The offense is rock-solid and reliable. Matt Schaub is an above average quarterback, Arian Foster is the best running back in the NFL, pass-catching depth was added, and I expect the zone-blocking scheme to minimize some of their off-season losses along the line. The biggest concern I have with this unit is Andre Johnsonís health and whether heís reached the wrong side of his peak or heís just battling a string of ill-timed injuries right now. Because an in-form, elite Andre Johnson modifies the landscape of Houstonís offense. It makes them that much more multiple and formidable.

This defensive unit is the obvious difference between these Houston teams and their predecessors though. These offenses have sleepwalked to sterling numbers before, but the defenses could never hold up their end of the bargain. Until Wade Phillips transformed this unit. J.J. Watt is a top five 3-4 defensive end and perfect for his role as a one-gap penetrator. Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are both gifted athletes that Wade can sculpt into a supreme pass-rushing bookend. Jonathan Joseph erased a lot of their backend woes and cemented himself as an upper-echelon corner. With a full off-season of defensive integration, I would be quite surprised if this unit regressed.

25.) The Chiefs have a talented rosterÖexcept where it matters most. And that lowers their ceiling. Matt Cassel can be a capable caretaker, but I donít think heís good enough for legitimate title aspirations. He would need all-time great performances from certain aspects of the team to accomplish that. That said, I think the supporting talent is there to make the Chiefs postseason contenders.

The Chiefs have the best one-two punch at running back, a stable of talented receivers with the potential to mix up personnel groupings and isolate mismatches, a revamped offensive line, and established defensive talent at each level. On the whole, this is a well-rounded football team with age on their side. Outside of Cassel, arguments could be made that this is one of the most talented teams in the NFL.

And thatís what Pioli needs to work toward addressing above all else. A big-time quarterback is the last cornerstone this team is missing. Itís now his job to exhaust each avenue and option that might lead to a quarterback upgrade because this team has a championship window if it acquires one.

(On an unrelated note, Iím curious to see how Romeo Crennel handles his second campaign on the sidelines. With the Browns, Romeo mismanaged himself and his in-game responsibilities. He detached himself from defensive duties and those units were unimaginative and frustrating to watch. Now heís got experience with things like clock management and heís armed with the knowledge that delegating didnít net him the defensive results heís accustomed to. From what Iíve heard, heís keeping defensive duties on his plate this season. Thatís a good sign. Disappointments from previous experiences donít have to define future opportunities.)

26.) San Diegoís talent decline has gone unnoticed. Thatís the reason A.J. Smithís fate should be tied to Norv Turnerís. This teamís gradual fall from consistent Super Bowl contendership is just as much a function of Smithís failings as Turnerís. A handful of seasons ago, this team had difference-makers all over the field. But now, those difference-makers have either aged or retired or gone elsewhere and the Chargers have somehow retained their label as one of the most talented teams in the NFL.

27.) While the Eagles are ultra-talented, I donít trust them to compete for the Lombardi. Because I donít trust Michael Vick when it counts. Heís made noticeable strides as a passer in Philadelphia, but heís still not reliable enough for me, and thatís without considering how dinged up he gets from standard punishment. Passers in the NFL succeed within structure. Improvisation is a great supplemental skill for a quarterback to have. It shouldnít be one of the first attributes listed when talking about one though. And while Vick has improved as a signal-caller, he still hasnít proven he can beat teams from the pocket on a consistent basis. He still has inaccurate stretches and rattles under pressure and doesnít make the required adjustments. Constrict the pocket, preserve gap responsibilities, and force him to lean on that arm in muddied situations.

That said, this team is too talented to not win some games. Thereís explosiveness all over the place on offense. There will be games where the offense hangs up points in bunches and looks downright unbeatable. And the defensive side of the ball should be improved and perform up to its potential. The linebacker corps looks much better on paper and it sounds like the backfield is going to be put in situations that suit their skill sets. If the corners are allowed to press, and the linebackers are much smarter in their assignments, that defensive line and its depth could just wreak havoc in the Wide-9 scheme. Weíll see how Juan Castillo calls it though. The defense has disgusting potential.

I just donít consider them a top five or so team because I donít believe Vick can do it in consecutive weeks once the calendar turns past December.

28.) I canít figure out the Giants. Itís so hard to put a finger on this teamís pulse for me. Last season, I was convinced Fewell would continue mishandle his defensive assets and their astonishing lack of running game would come back to bite them. Oops. That didnít happen.

If I had to guess, Iíd venture this team recaptures their 2008 form and comes out with a chip on their shoulder. I still think thereís a belief out there that this team isnít all that talented and lucked into their Super Bowl title in five seasons. This team performs best when thereís something out there for them to prove to the world. The hungrier the Giants are, the more dangerous the Giants are.

Eli is a top five quarterback. Until he won last yearís Super Bowl, he was absolutely one of the gameís most underrated players. I have zero doubts about him elevating those players and getting them to fire on all cylinders. Nicks and Cruz is a symbiotic relationship. Cruz gets such favorable inside coverage because most people donít realize how much of an all-around beast Hakeem Nicks is. And I expect Cruz to draw some of that attention back this season and free Nicks up to make things happen on the outside.

As for the defense, it has near limitless potential if used to the fullest of their abilities. Their defensive line depth is borderline absurd. The Giants can rotate seven or eight legit linemen and keep bodies fresh into the fourth quarter of games and the late stages of the season. Shaun Rogers has been a mediocre option for the past couple seasons, but if the Giants can salvage what little he has left, that line could be getting a wide load with a serious interior push that can collapse the pocket and make things easier on those edge rushers. New York has great matchup linebackers, and if the reports of Mark Herzlich looking like a junior at Boston College again are true, then the second level is more or less solidified. The corners and safeties are talented and their sub-package matches up with a wide range of offenses, but Fewell has to utilize them right. These corners need to be at the line of scrimmage and putting pressure on their man. The soft, eight-man zones need to stop. Considering their defensive success once Fewell switched things up, I have a hard time believing he would revert back to what wasnít working, but I guess weíll see.

29.) If Dallas realizes their window is closing, eliminating mental mistakes should be their biggest focus. The talent is there to take down the division and make some noise in the postseason. Mental mistakes just kill this team from season-to-season though. You can usually count on some teams finding ways to beat themselves and the Cowboys always seem to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Jason Garrett needs to emphasize discipline and recalibrate this roster to become more detail-oriented. Little adjustments can often make the biggest differences. You canít consistently beat yourself when the overall margin for error is already so narrow in the NFL.

Romo is a quality, top ten quarterback that can win some games by himself. Murray flashed a lot of two-way ability and Jones isnít shabby as a bullpen back. Dez, Austin, and Witten are a top-of-the-line receiving trio. Plus, the Cowboys defense has the ability to apply pressure, especially if their overhauled secondary extends extra flexibility. Rob Ryan has the talent to play around defensively and get fairly creative with his schemes.

This team just needs to eliminate their own unforced errors first and foremost.

30.) The Packers offense sets the floor and the defense sets the ceiling. This offense is dominant enough to drag the Packers to the postseason as long as Rodgers is their quarterback. Green Bayís offensive chemistry is too impressive to deny over the entirety of a season. Last year, Rodgers made more indefensible throws than any other quarterback. He was operating with surgical precision and that offense was regarded as an unstoppable juggernaut.

But when rust accumulated on the offense, the defense couldnít pick up the slack and the Packers were one-and-done despite going 15-1. It just reinforces the point that itís extremely hard to win a championship when one unit is clearly inferior to their counterparts. Because every year there comes a pivotal point where the other must respond and carry the load. Green Bayís offense won shootouts when they needed to. When the Packers needed a tighter defensive game, the defense didnít deliver.

To me, much of this season rides on Dom Capers. I think Capers is such an innovative defensive mind. Heís one of the pioneers of some of the leagueís staple, aggressive concepts from odd-fronts. He gets a lot out of his units and isnít overwhelmed from an Xís and Oís perspective. He puts his people in the right position and makes smart adjustments in response to the offense. If someone is going to find a creative solution to fix this unitís problem with the talent at his disposal, Capers is a sound choice.

His biggest problem is that his personnel failed him last season. His coverage units regressed big-time and his unorthodox base sacrificed too much size for too little range. And when offensive lines geared their protections toward shutting Matthews down and slid blockers to his side, the pass rush broke down and became inconsistent, too. It was a perfect storm for the Packers where one problem trickled down and polluted the other. Green Bayís most likely remedies are first-rounder Nick Perry developing into a viable pass rusher opposite of Clay Matthews and a couple of their youngsters in the secondary discovering their confidence again and playing better.

They donít even need to be dominant. This offense doesnít need the í85 Bears, í91 Eagles, í00 Ravens, or even the í11 Niners defenses backing them. The Packers just need a defense thatís good enough to slow some teams down and give their offense a chance to win some lower-scoring games. Thatís all. And Green Bay doesnít even need them to be feisty from the get-go. That defense can be a work in progress for much of the season. They just need to field a steadier defense come playoff time.

31.) Chicago shouldnít be considered a sleeper. Thatís an above average football team and a serious contender to clinch a postseason berth. Cutler is an underrated quarterback thatís brought the Bears to the NFC Championship Game and now heís surrounded with the best talent heís had since arriving in Chicago. Brandon Marshall is a head case, but heís a talented head case whose upside and past experience as Cutlerís favorite target justifies the risk. With Cutler at the helm and Forte and Marshall at his side, this offense has the potential to be real multiple in its approach to attacking defenses. Not to mention, it canít be stressed how important losing Martz for to this team. Even if Tice is terrible, itís still addition through subtraction. And that defense is the definition of dependable. I donít love their scheme, but Chicago has made it work for a long time and I donít foresee a sudden drop-off now.

Overall, I think the Bears are one of the easiest team to sum up in a few parts. This team goes as Cutler, Forte, Marshall, Peppers, Urlacher, and Briggs go. There are some other complements need to do their jobs, sure, but those are the core pieces that drive them.

32.) I donít think the Lions will make a return trip to the postseason, but I donít expect a precipitous drop either. Itís something that happens each season. A perennial cellar-dweller breaks out and puts together a good run. Then, in the following season, said team is knocked down from their perch due to a harder schedule and a higher respect level around the league.

I donít think Detroit replicates their team success from last season. But I donít think this team plummets and returns to being the old Lions either because Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are two of the best building blocks in the entire NFL and that combination is lethal enough to keep them afloat on their own. I think this team finds itself in that 7-9 to 9-7 range at seasonís end. Winning a good amount of games, but dropping some to contending teams and being eliminated from the postseason picture.

The main hesitance I have with the Lions is the same as a lot of people. I donít see how this team covers at an NFL level. That backend is as threadbare as Iíve seen. With as efficient and prevalent as the pass is in the modern NFL, thatís a huge handicap to have to overcome. Even if the defensive line shows up, Iím not sure it will be enough to cover it. This backfield needs to be the target of an overall talent infusion. Once Detroit does that, I think the Lions will be right back in the hunt.

33.) Despite all of the distractions, New Orleans is primed for a big-time run. Iím all-in on the Saints this season. I understand itís an unconventional arrangement and situation, but I canít ignore this teamís talent level. I think this squad is more talented than their Super Bowl-winning counterparts, and the potential exists for this team to be galvanized since their perception is that an external force is out to get them.

On offense, I trust Drew Brees and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. I donít think this offense goes on another record-setting tear, but Brees and Carmichael have worked with each other since 2009. By now, theyíve got a rapport of their own and theyíve worked alongside Payton enough to share his philosophy and vision. With two of the biggest mismatches in offensive football in Graham and Sproles and a reliable trio of receivers to manipulate personnel groupings, I trust Brees and Carmichael to muster enough offense to be one of the better units in the league again.

And I believe in Steve Spagnuolo. Much like Wade Phillips, I believe Spags is a coordinator that can change an entire defenseís fortunes. Spags manufactures tough schemes that maximize his talent and brings a controlled aggression that is spectacular to see. He tiptoes the fine line between aggression and carelessness and remains unpredictable while doing it. He can attack an offense with a dozen different blitzes out of the same formation or with the same blitz out of a dozen different formations. Heís one of the few defensive coordinators that wonít back down from being the first to act, too. If Spags is allowed to sink his teeth into this unit and make it his own, then I expect the Saints defense to be tough and generate some extra possessions for that offense.

34.) Cam Newton has made Carolina a hot preseason pick, but his assumed development is the biggest misnomer in the NFL. This is something that Iíve noticed during the off-season. It is just assumed that Cam Newton is going to continue to develop. Development in the NFL doesnít follow a clear linear progression though. Weíve seen people plateau within their first few seasons before. Weíve seen people burn out after exploding onto the scene before. Weíve seen people succeed, struggle, and then find success again. Being a rookie sensation doesnít equate to a setback-proof, career-long development arc.

Weíve even seen a similar situation in the past couple seasons. When Michael Vick took over for Kevin Kolb as Philadelphiaís starter and went nuts on the NFL for four or so weeks, fans and pundits alike heralded it as the dawn of a brand new era. Vick was even a top five quarterback on a lot of lists. Guess what? Vick isnít even a top ten quarterback. But, at the time, it was just assumed that Vick could continue his torrid pace and wouldnít fall off or plateau.

That said, I was a much, much bigger fan of Cam than I ever was Vick. Camís arm talent is much better, heís built like a tank, and heís got superlative intangibles on top of all his other gifts. But I donít think itís asinine to suggest that Cam isnít bulletproof. Heís susceptible to the pitfalls of immediate success and he could be a candidate for plateauing. His physical tools and current skill set are enough to suggest he should be a good quarterback, but the actual upside of an NFL quarterback is largely determined by how well they compartmentalize and process multi-layered information in a very short window of time. That was one of Camís biggest concerns as a prospect. One season, no matter how impressive, doesnít just slam that book shut.

Granted, Iím not even suggesting that Cam has plateaued. He strikes me as a tireless worker and, for the record, I do think heís going to get better. Iím just not sold on him as a future elite quarterback and pointing out that Iíve never seen such a maligned draft prospect given such a benefit of the doubt regarding their development going into the sophomore season.

35.) A pair of new coordinators will determine the fate of the Falcons. Under Mularkey and VanGorder, Atlanta was the most vanilla team in the NFL. They had pretty good talent, but they generally lacked dynamic playmakers and schematic creativity. While I still believe they need the former, the latter can certainly get better.

On offense, Julio Jones and Roddy White can be one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL, but Iím not sold yet that Matt Ryan is the type of quarterback to truly carry an offense through the air. I want to see how he performs now that heís unshackled from some of Mularkeyís dry play-calling. Because heís definitely a smart guy that you can win with under center. Iím hoping Koetter starts to phase out Michael Turner in favor of Jacquizz Rodgers. Quizz is a better, more versatile option at this point.

On defense, Atlanta needs to scale back the amount of zone coverage their back seven sits in. I understand that it suits Brent Grimes and now Asante Samuel well, but top-notch quarterbacks will recognize patterns and pick up on pre-snap indicators and proceed to torch it. It has a place, and can even be used as the predominant coverage, but the looks and shells need to be varied. I expect Nolan will be more aggressive where he can. The biggest issue with the defense is uninspiring front seven talent and the line in particular Outside of Weatherspoon, thereís not someone that scares me. The Falcons need a premium pass rusher to replace Abraham and remodel this defense.

36.) The revamped Buccaneers will struggle to see dividends this season. Greg Schiano was an interesting hire that caught me off-guard, but I love the thought process behind it, even if it was an unpopular hire. He seems to be a respected football mind and a disciplinarian that demands more out of the people around him than Raheem Morris did. And that was a distinct impetus for their sudden implosion. Schiano should instill discipline to that locker room and hold that team accountable instead of letting the power structure fail and result in the wrong voices being heard.

But I donít see that transformation and their free agent splashes translating to on-field success in the first season of the program. In a weaker division, I think this would be an excellent dark horse. The NFC South is brutal though and the other teams in their division have rosters that are just as strong talent-wise or even stronger.

37.) San Francisco will take a step back, but should still be considered the frontrunners for the NFC West crown. I know thereís a faction out there that doesnít trust the Niners at all, but this team has resurfaced from their dark days and theyíre here to stay for the foreseeable future. Their defense, which I thought was the best in the NFL last season, is returning all eleven starters. Their special teams, which are among the leagueís most dominant, wins the battle of field position and relieves pressure for both units. And their coaching staff, which outcoached and outmaneuvered a lot of established staffs, is back. Those are three very good indicators of sustainability and they imply San Francisco isnít going anywhere.

Now, some other realities. The Niners rode a ridiculous turnover differential to their surprise 13-3 record last season, forcing mistakes and then capitalizing on short fields on offense. Even though theyíre returning their entire defense and they put an emphasis on playing smart offensive football, history suggests that posting back-to-back, overwhelming marks in turnover differential is highly unlikely. Itís a natural ebb and flow.

The other factor is Alex Smith. He was the most insulated, protected quarterback out of all the postseason signal-callers. The Niners just donít ask him to do as much as his counterparts and that leads to a certain degree of distrust for Smith and, through osmosis, a certain distrust for the offense in general. And quarterbacks that fluctuate are somewhat of a gamble because so much of offensive production and potential is predicated on quarterback performance. Iíve seen a brilliant Alex Smith and a mediocre Alex Smith.

In general, Iím in the camp that believes Smith is a capable caretaker and his maturation last season impressed me, but itís a fair point to question. I just think Jim Harbaughís tutelage and an improved group of weapons prevent a regression and keep this team in contention for a Super Bowl.

38.) The Cardinals and Seahawks are near carbon clones. Both are stuck in an underrated division and feature strong defenses and promising offenses, but both are encumbered with unsolved quarterback situations. More so the Cardinals. Iíve never been sold on Kolb. But if Kolb can show heís worth what Arizona gave up for him, the Cardinals are legit. Wells and Williams is a balanced backfield and Fitzgerald and Floyd is a dynamic duo in the making. Plus, Arizonaís defense has a good mix of young playmakers and veteran presence at every level.

I trust the Seahawks to reach their upside a little more though. I donít ever see Matt Flynn being spectacular, but heís got a powerful ground game to lean on as a crutch and a solid committee of receivers. On defense, Seattle boasts a young secondary that has emerged as one of the very best in the NFL. If a consistent pass rush materializes, this unit could cement itself. Thatís why Iím so curious to see how they use Bruce Irvin. In my opinion, Irvin was too incomplete and unpolished to take in the top twenty. But, reach or not, he has a load of potential as a pass rusher based on his athleticism. Carroll identified a need on his team and tried to address it. Weíll see how it pans out now. Lately, everything Pete has touched has turned to gold.

39.) Itís a make-or-break season for Sam Bradford and the Rams. Even though St. Louis doesnít figure to be a playoff contender this year, the Rams will be a compelling storyline. With potentially four high picks in the next two drafts, St. Louis will be in a position to add a few impact players and build a championship-caliber core. What remains to be seen is whether Sam Bradford is the quarterback of the future or not. After a disappointing sophomore season in a passer-friendly system and a coaching change, Bradfordís future is a little cloudy. Jeff Fisher isnít married to Bradford. If Bradford struggles again this season, it wouldnít surprise me if Fisher shops him and drafts his own quarterback to groom.

Regardless, the Rams are at a crossroads and the upcoming season will untangle a lot of things.

40.) The NFC is a much deeper, more competitive conference than the AFC. The NFC is stronger than the AFC division-by-division. In the AFC, I see eight or so legitimate postseason contenders. In the NFC, I can buy playoff arguments for eleven or twelve teams. Even projected bottom-feeders like Tampa and Washington can be tough, week-to-week teams that can hang with some of the entrenched contenders.

41.) AFC Wild Card: (3) Steelers over (6) Chiefs and (4) Broncos over (5) Bills.

42.) NFC Wild Card: (6) Giants over (3) Eagles and (5) Bears over (4) Niners.

43.) AFC Divisional Round: (1) Patriots over (4) Broncos and (2) Texans over (3) Steelers.

44.) NFC Divisional Round: (6) Giants over (1) Packers and (2) Saints over (5) Bears.

45.) AFC Championship Game: (1) Patriots over (2) Texans.

46.) NFC Championship Game: (2) Saints over (6) Giants.

47.) Super Bowl XLVII: (1) Patriots 24, (2) Saints 20.

MVP: Tom Brady.
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