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Old 09-05-2012, 07:23 PM    (permalink
Eazy Picks
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Default Eazy Picks 2012 NFL Preview

32. Minnesota Vikings

Itís really a shame Adrian Peterson is stuck on the Vikings right now. Itís not uncommon to see great running backs get stuck on bad teams, but Peterson is truly a once-in-a-generation type of talent who is spending some of his best years on a team that he is unlikely to be able to carry to the playoffs no matter how well he plays. The Vikings went all out trying to make a super bowl push with Brett Favre but they took their shot and missed and have been picking up the pieces ever since. In the last couple years, the team began to show its age and has been in rapid decline.
The Vikings defensive backfield in particular has been a huge liability. Despite leading the league with 50 sacks, the Vikings still led the league in a less desirable statistic with an opposing QB rating of 107.6. The addition of CB Chris Carr is unlikely to make much difference on a defense that couldnít seem to stop anyone when it mattered last year. Rookie OT Ryan Kalil was drafted high in hopes of solidifying the most important position on an offensive line that struggled mightily last year, but the Vikings need to overhaul the whole unit. Kalil is a good start but the Vikings protection issues likely will continue this year. Playing in the leagueís toughest division with a second year QB slated to start, Peterson coming off an ACL tear, an unhappy Percy Harvin and a number of key players fighting father time, Coach Leslie Frazier has plenty on his plate entering first full year on the job.

Storyline to Watch: QB Development
The Vikings surely realize they need to do some rebuilding and get younger, but they also have to recognize that they have a relatively small window to get a ring while Peterson is still the most dominant back in football. However, no matter how good of a run game they have, they will never be able to go all the way without a QB. The Vikings have two intriguing young signal callers in Christian Ponder and Joe Webb, but the jury is still out on both of them. After investing a first round pick in Ponder, they clearly plan on making him the starter, but Webb has done a good job of pushing for playing time and will likely take some snaps from under center before the season is over. Whether or not a franchise QB emerges this year will be the most important thing for the Vikings moving forward

Player to Watch: DE Jared Allen
As bad as the Viking defense was last year, itís hard to imagine how bad they would have been if not for Allenís Herculean effort. You have to admire the way Jared Allen played last year, refusing to let the teamsí struggles affect his motivation or production. Allen turned in the best year of his career with 22 sacks (just shy of Michael StrahanĎs record), doubling his 2010 total. Allen turned 30 this spring and it will be interesting to see if age is going to start taking a toll on him. If the Vikings defense continues to struggle, Allen will likely still bring relentless pressure on opposing passers. If the defense is going to turn itself around, it will have to be Allen leading the charge.

Projected Record: 3-13

31. St. Louis Rams
The Rams are a team that will likely struggle this year but they have the pieces in place to turn the corner rather quickly. Sam Bradford is a promising young QB and as long as he can stay healthy he has a bright future. The defense needs to be rebuilt and they need to get Bradford some better weapons but by trading the 2nd overall pick to Washington, the Rams got themselves a glutton of draft picks this year and the next that they can use to address their many holes. Jeff Fisher had a strong tradition of winning by playing hard-nosed football in Tennessee and he will be looking to instill the same in St. Louis.
Fisherís best chance at success this year would probably be calling Steven Jacksonís number at every opportunity and wear teams down, but it would be short-sighted for him to ride him too hard this year. Going into his 9th season, Jackson is still one of the leagueĎs best backs and when the Rams finish their roster overhaul and develop their young talent, they want him to still be the same player. Rookie Isiah Pead will provide a nice change of pace, but what the Rams really need is for some receivers to step up and help Bradford out. The defense has some excellent pieces to build around in DE Chris Long, MLB James Laurinitis and free agent addition CB Cortland Finnegan but they have some major holes at safety and linebacker and will need some young guys such as DE Robert Quinn, CB Janoris Jenkins and DT Michael Brockers to contribute if this defense is going to improve.

Storyline to Watch: Passing Attack
In 2010, Sam Bradford won the offensive rookie of the year award by showing he can have success with Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola and Danario Alexander as his leading receivers. Two years later, the situation hasnĎt improved much. Rookie Brian Quick and veteran Steve Smith have been brought into the fold and will hopefully contribute but the bottom line is Bradford needs better weapons in the passing game. He has no go to receiver, no quality big play receiver, and no safety blanket at TE. The most important factor, however, will be whether or not Bradford can stay healthy. Bradford has shown that he has the accuracy and football IQ to lead an effective offense no matter if he has great receivers or not, but he needs to put his shoulder problems behind him and show that he is indeed a franchise QB who can be counted on 16 games a year. They donít have a great backup situation and will need Bradford on the field to be competitive.

Players to Watch: CBs Cortland Finnegan & Janoris Jenkins
The Rams will be featuring a new starting CB duo and are hoping the two of these guys will give opposing receivers hell for the foreseeable future. Finnegan followed his former Head Coach to St. Louis and Fisher will be counting on him to set the tone with his hard-nosed defense. Janoris Jenkins, a rookie, would be smart to buddy up with Finnegan. They are nearly the exact same size at 5í10íí, 190 lbs and both have fiery personalities that both help and hurt them. Finnegan has gone through some struggles but has turned out to be a great pro and Jenkins can only hope to develop into the same.

Projected Record: 4-12

30. Cleveland Browns
With Mike Holmgren calling the shots in Cleveland, there is a growing feeling that the Browns are finally headed in the right direction after years of futility. However, Holmgren is quickly finding out that it is not easy to turn around a losing culture when you play in a division with two perennial Super Bowl contenders. After two unimpressive seasons with Colt McCoy, Holmgren decided to go another direction and drafted 28-year old rookie Brandon Weeden to become his starting signal caller. Weeden should benefit from the presence of rookie HB Trent Richardson, who should provide the kind of dynamic running game the offense has been missing. With all-pro LT Joe Thomas protecting his blindside and a solid group of receivers in Greg Little, Muhammad Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs and TE Benjamn Watson, Weeden has the kind of supporting cast he can have early success with.
Defensively, Holmgren still has a long ways to go in the rebuilding process. After Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini failed to successfully install a 3-4 defense, Holmgren and Pat Shurmur are transitioning back to a 4-3. They have a couple good young defensive backs in CB Joe Haden and SS TJ Ward, but the secondary otherwise needs work. Itís no wonder MLB DíQwell Jackson was second in the league in tackles last year when you consider he had only one teammate, DT Ahtyba Rubin, who had more than 70 tackles. DE Jabaal Sheard had a strong rookie season, registering 8.5 sacks and forcing 5 fumbles, and the Browns will need him to build on it. Him and free-agent addittion Frostee Rucker will be counted on to provide a pass-rush presence and they will need to do so for this defense to be successful. Ultimately, the Browns are going to need contributions from some unexpected players on defense if they are going to turn the corner this year.

Storyline to Watch: Big-Play Offense
The Browns simply havenít had an explosive offense lately. Last year, they ranked 31st in yards per passing attempt and tied for 30th in both passing and running plays of 20 or more yards. The Browns addressed this issue in the first round of the draft by drafting Richardson and Weeden. Richardson has the ability to instantly become one of the top big-play backs in the league and Weeden has the arm strength that Colt McCoy lacked. The Browns will look for Little and Cribbs to blossom as vertical threats in this yearís offense. With a defense likely to get gashed with regularity, the Browns will need their offense to do some of the same to stay in games.

Player to Watch: CB Joe Haden
Haden may not get a lot of press because he plays in Cleveland and doesnít put up big numbers, but he is quickly emerging as one of the leagueís top young cornerbacks. After intercepting six passes his rookie year, quarterbacks learned to stay away from him in his sophomore campaign. He did not intercept any passes, but his reputation as an emerging cover corner continues to grow. He isnít the most physically gifted corner out there, but few have better coverage skills than him. Haden is a key piece to the puzzle for Mike Holmgren as he continues to rebuild the defense.

Projected Record: 2-14

29. Miami Dolphins
It probably seems like a decade ago in Miami when Tony Sparano came into town and led them to the 2008 AFC East crown while using the wildcat offense. Joe Philbin is the new head coach and he will be installing a more conventional offense modeled after what he ran in Green Bay. First round pick Ryan Tannehill has all the tools and will get the nod over veteran Matt Moore for the starting QB job, but he is considered a project and will likely go through some rookie struggles. The good news is will be protected by an offensive line anchored by all-pro LT Jake Long, but the bad news is he doesnĎt have much to work with at the skill positions. The team traded away itís top receiver, Brandon Marshall, and will now have to lean heavily on Davone Bess, Brian Hartline and Reggie Bush. The problem is that those players are best suited to play complementary roles on offense and are not go-to guys. Philbin will look to mold the offense, but itís going to take time for him to get the right personnel to run it effectively
The Dolphin defense was a pretty average unit last year and the same can be expected this year, despite the move to a 4-3 front. They have some nice pieces in DE Cameron Wake, LB Karlos Dansby and CB Sean Smith, but itís still a unit that needs work. The Dolphins need someone besides Wake, possibly DE Jared Odrick or LB Koa Misi, to emerge as a productive pass-rusher, and they will need someone to step up and fill the void created by departed S Yeremiah Bell.

Storyline to Watch: Power Run Game
Itís hard to figure out what the identity of this Dolphin offense will be this year. The strength of the unit has to be their powerful offensive line, which only figures to get better with the addition of rookie RT Jonathan Martin and another year under the belt of C Mike Pouncey. Without any good options at QB and a sub-par group of receivers, it would make sense for the Dolphins to utilize a downhill run game and try to control the clock and keep games close. However, their starting running back happens to be at his best in a pass-happy offense that gets him out in space. Backup Daniel Thomas is a load at 230 pounds and could be the right guy to grind it out between the tackles, but he didnít show a lot in his rookie campaign and will need to prove himself this year. The Dolphins will struggle if their games turn into shoot-outs, so it will be crucial that they stay committed to the ground game. For that to happen, they will either need Reggie Bush to dispel the notion that he canít run between the tackles or someone else to step up and give them the power run game they seem to be lacking.

Player to Watch: DE Cameron Wake
Cameron Wake is a great story of a guy who was at first passed over by NFL teams, but persevered and became an NFL star. After dominating the CFL for a couple years, he was given a tryout by the Miami Dolphins and hasnít looked back. He was a natural fit as a 3-4 OLB in their defense and collected 22.5 sacks in the last 2 seasons. While Wake is only entering his fourth NFL season, he is already 30 years old and will need to make a transition from OLB to DE in the Dolphins new defense. Wake is a key piece of the Dolphins defense and they will be counting on him to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Projected Record: 4-12

28. Washington Redskins
After coach Mike Shanahan failed to make a winner out of either Rex Grossman or John Beck, he convinced management to go all-in on rookie QB Robert Griffin III, who didnít come cheap. While the Redskins undoubtedly needed to find a QB, they had a number of other problems that they are now unable to address due to the bevy of draft picks they had to give up to get Griffin. While their rookie QB is an amazing talent who seems to have a good head on his shoulders, the NFL could prove to be a tough transition for him. Those who expect him to have an impact comparable to Cam Newton need to realize that Cam Newton had the most sensational rookie year ever and heaping those kind of expectations on him would be unfair. While Cam Newton played in the SEC against the best defenses in college football, Griffin played in the Big 12 against notoriously soft defenses and only played one SEC team in his career - Missouri twice. Griffin will definitely be in for a shock as he adjusts to the NFL, and he wonít have the benefit of a great run game to take pressure off him like Newton. He is no doubt talented enough to make the transition, but when you consider the playmakers he has surrounding him and the division he plays in, itís easy to see him going through some serious rookie struggles.
Itís easy to see the vision Shanahan has for his offense under Robert Griffin, and once Griffin develops and they surround him with the proper pieces, it could be a thing of beauty. Right now, he has an offensive line that wonít offer great protection and a pedestrian running game led by HB Tim Hightower. WR Santana Mossí best days seem to be behind him and Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson are not game changers.
The Redskins do have some nice pieces in place. OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can bring some serious pressure on the edge of the defense while veteran ILB London Fletcher serves as the quarterback of the defense. CB DeAngelo Hall makes a lot of big plays in the secondary, but also gives up quite a few. The Redskins need to improve at the CB position and on the defensive line but that will have to wait until next year. The team brought in two talented but troubled players, Brandon Merriweather and Tanard Jackson, to start at safety for them. This will be a great opportunity for both of them to get their careers back on track, but if they are not focused the Redskins could have serious issues on the backend of their defense.
Storyline to Watch: Keeping Griffin III off his back
Shanahan has always been known for running a zone blocking scheme and being able to put together a productive offensive line and run game using unheralded players. He is showing his arrogance and confidence by trying to make it work with this current group. The most important element to any young QBís success is having a solid run game and good offensive line to keep the pressure off him. LT Trent Williams needs to play like a top 10 pick, RT Jamaal Brown needs to stay healthy, and someone needs to emerge at the running back position. Otherwise, Griffin will be running for his life all year. Thatís not something you want when you play in a division with DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Trent Cole, and Jason Babin.
Players to Watch: TE Fred Davis
To move the chains, Griffin is going to need to get the ball to his safety valve. The Redskins donít have big wide receivers and Griffin needs a big guy he can count on to work the middle of the field. Davis is an excellent athlete at the TE position and is coming off a career year but he has had some issues with dropping the ball. Griffin needs to be able to rely on him, especially after the release of Chris Cooley.
Project Record: 4-12

27. Jacksonville Jaguars
To say QB Blaine Gabbert struggled as a rookie would be putting it mildly, but to heap all the blame on him would also be unfair. When your two best receivers are your TE and HB, it can create some issues in the passing game. Nonetheless, Gabbert showed poor pocket presence, accuracy and overall awareness as the Jaguars finished dead last in passing yardage, yards per attempt, and QB rating. The team relied heavily on running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who led the league in rushing and averaged 4.7 yards per carry despite defenses focusing on stopping him. The Jaguars hope to have remedied their issues at receiver by bringing in a talented trio at the position. Laurent Robinson is coming off a breakout season with the Cowboys, rookie Justin Blackmon was a dominant force in college, and Lee Evans is an accomplished veteran looking to resurrect his career. Now equipped with a proper arsenal of weapons, the pressure will be on Gabbert to get this offense going.
For years, this team prided itself for the tough defense it played under head coach Jack Del Rio, who was given the axe during the 2011 season. Most of the players from that era are now gone, with LB Daryl Smith and CB Rashean Mathis being the main holdovers. Smith, along with MLB Paul Posluzny and OLB Clint Session, make up a workman-like LB core, which is the strength of the defense. Mathis has had a great career in Jacksonville but he only played five games last year and is on the wrong side of 30. CB Aaron Ross was a nice pickup and will fight for a starting job with Derek Cox. These three could potentially make up a very nice CB trio but all of them have struggled with injuries and need to show they can stay healthy. The Jaguars have high hopes for their defensive line this year. DT Tyson Alualu has proven to be a solid player but they are hoping he will take the next step along with DT Terrence Knighton, who has reportedly worked hard in the off-season to improve his conditioning. DE Jeremy Mincey will look to build on his 8-sack 2011 campaign while rookie DE Andre Branch will be expected to help Mincey in the pass-rush department.

Storyline to Watch: Turnover Battle
As bad as the Jaguar offense was last year, they did a good job of hanging onto the ball. Despite having a QB rating of only 65, Gabbert only threw 11 interceptions. And despite not having a single player with more than 2 interceptions on their defense, they managed 17 interceptions as a team. The question is whether or not they can do the same this year. With new playmakers on offense, they will likely be more aggressive in their passing game, which could result in more interceptions. Their defense, which lacks any real ball hawks, may struggle to force as many turnovers as last year. The Jaguars were able to stay in a lot of games last year despite their anemic offense and pedestrian defense. They need to not get overzealous with their new weapons and remember the importance of ball control.
Player to Watch: DE Andre Branch
The Jaguars have been trying for a long time to bring in a big-time pass-rusher, spending big bucks in free agency and using high draft picks in an effort to address the situation - always in vain. The Jaguars are now under new ownership and are hoping their most recent addition at DE will do better than his predecessors. Branch, a second-round pick out of Clemson, is coming off an excellent senior campaign and has all the physical tools necessary to come in and be a productive pass-rusher from day one.

Projected Record: 5-11

26. Indianapolis Colts
2012 will mark the start of a new era for the Colts. After over a decade of dominance with Peyton Manning, the Colts will now transition into the Andrew Luck era. Last year was tough, as the team was plagued by injuries and caught with their pants down at the QB position when Manning was unable to play. Itís not often you see a player of Manningís caliber get released, but when you have the opportunity to draft a QB of the caliber of Luck, itís understandable why the Colts chose to part ways with Manning. Of course, the Colts changed a lot more than their QB this off-season, as they brought in a new coaching staff and made big changes in their front office. After flirting with a winless season without Manning it would seem the Colts would be going into full-blown rebuild mode, but they have managed to keep enough pieces to still be a strong team. Andrew Luck is one of the most NFL-ready QB prospects ever, and the Colts kept key veteran free agents WR Reggie Wayne and DE Robert Mathis.
Andrew Luck couldnít ask to step into a much better situation and given his skill level and experience in a pro-style offense, thereís no reason he shouldnít be able to have success in his first year. The Colts did him the favor of drafting college teammate TE Coby Fleener in the second round to give him a familiar target and perfect safety valve, and he has a very nice receiving core to work with in Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Donnie Avery. The offensive line could use some help, but they do have a franchise LT in place in Anthony Castonzo and did well to pick up C Samson Satele and RT Winston Justice to help the cause.
New head coach Chuck Pagano will certainly be rebuilding this defense in the coming years, but he has a few holdovers from the Tony Dungy era who should still be able to contribute. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are two of the best pass rushers in the game and FS Antoine Bethea is an excellent veteran safety. DE Cory Redding and SS Tom Zbikowski both followed Pagano from Baltimore to Indy, and MLB Pat Angerer was a bright spot for the Colts last year. That being said, the defense is undergoing a lot of changes and Pagano could struggle to mold the unit overnight.
Storyline to Watch: Switching from Cover 2 to 3-4
For years, the Colts ran a cover 2 defense emphasizing speedy, undersized players and a bend but donít break philosophy. Pagano will be making sweeping changes on the defense, starting with moving to a 3-4 alignment and preaching a more smash mouth style of football. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will both be making the transition from DE to OLB, where they could be even more disruptive. Both DEs are freaky athletes with an incredible burst off the edge and a nice array of pass-rush moves in their arsenal; they will need to adjust to not playing with a hand in the ground, but they have all the attributes you look for in a 3-4 OLB. Cory Redding was an excellent 3-4 end in Baltimore, and Fili Moala and Drake Nevis are both bigger DEs who are well suited for the 3-4. ILBs Pat Angerer and Conner Kavell are both a little undersized for the 3-4. Angerer will likely continue to be productive, but Pagano will probably look for an ILB with more size to pair with him in the future. Antonio Johnson is not an ideal nose tackle, but he will get the first crack at the job. If he falters, 360-pound behemoth Brandon McKinney could get some playing time. Pagano hopes the Colts defense will be tougher and apply more pressure under his leadership.
Player to Watch: HB Donald Brown
The Coltsí running game has not been a strong point in recent years, and Donald Brown has failed to live up to his first-round billing. He quietly put together a solid year in 2011 and the Colts ditched Addai and gave him the full time starting job. Stanford ran the ball a lot with Andrew Luck and he did an amazing job of executing play-action and bootlegs and making teams pay dearly. If the Colts can establish the run game, it will help Luck make a speedy transition and make the offense very hard to stop. The pressure will be on Donald Brown to have a breakthrough year and give them the run game they need. Projected Record: 7-9
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Itís hard to know what to make of the Bucs right now. A year ago, they were thought of as one of the up and coming teams under the leadership of coach Raheem Morris and rising star QB Josh Freeman. After starting 4-2, they lost ten straight games in embarrassing fashion - prompting the Bucsí management to fire Morris, hire Rutgers coach Greg Schiano to replace him, and go on a spending spree in free agency. They play in one of the leagueís toughest divisions and had to make moves to keep up with their competition, and it will be interesting to see if they did enough to get back in the mix for NFC South contention.
Despite his 2011 struggles, Josh Freeman is still looked at as a franchise QB, and deservedly so. The Bucs improved a strong point of their team by signing all-pro OG Carl Nicks to team up with LT Donald Penn, RG Davin Joseph and RT Jeremy Trueblood to make a formidable offensive line. Tampa really needed to get better weapons for Freeman, and they did so by signing WR Vincent Jackson to pair with Mike Williams and drafting Boise State HB Doug Martin in the first round to share carries with LeGarrette Blount.
The real glaring weakness on this team in 2011 was the defense, which gave up over 30 points a game (worst in the league). New defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan will try to shape the unit up, but he will need some of the young guys to start playing to their potential. There are a lot of young players on their defense, especially their defensive line, that were highly regarded prospects coming out of college and have not yet lived up to the hype. The biggest weakness of the defense has to be at linebacker, and they will be hoping youngsters Mason Foster and David Lavonte can be effective starters immediately. Veteran CB Ronde Barber will be playing FS this year, a move that will prolong his career and better utilize his ability to read quarterbacks. He will pair with blue-chip rookie SS Mark Barron to form a very formidable safety combo, and with free agent addition Eric Wright teaming with Aqib Talib at CB, they have the looks of a strong secondary.

Storyline to Watch: Pass Rush
The Bucs finished dead last in the league with 23 sacks last year, which helps explain why the defense got carved up like it did. Considering how much they have invested in their defensive front, this shouldnít be such a big problem. DT Gerald McCoy, entering his third year, had people calling him the second coming of Warren Sapp when the Bucs drafted him third overall. Two years and four sacks later, people are wondering if he is going to be a bust. DE Adrian Clayborn, another first round pick, had a decent rookie year with 7.5 sacks, but he needs to build on that. DE s Daquan Bowers and Michael Bennett are both young players with upside while DT s Albert Haynesworth and Amobi Okoye will both be trying to use this opportunity to turn their careers around. This unit has the potentially to be a very deep and disruptive defensive front, but players need to start playing up to their ability.

Player to Watch: QB Josh Freeman
The fate of the offense will rest on the shoulders of Josh Freeman, who needs to bounce back from a frustrating 2011 campaign and prove he is a legitimate franchise QB. With two quality running backs, an excellent offensive line, and Dallas Clark, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams running routes for him, he doesnít have much excuse not to perform. Physically and mentally, Freeman seemed to have everything coaches look for in a young QB, but for some reason he took a big step back in 2011 - along with the rest of the team. Freeman is the guy who needs to set the tone if this team is going to rebound.

Projected Record: 6-10

24. Tennessee Titans
The Titans were one of the harder teams to figure out in 2011. After firing longtime coach Jeff Fisher, they figured to be a team in transition that would remain competitive because of the presence of 2000-yard rusher Chris Johnson. After a lengthy holdout, Chris Johnson turned in his worst season as pro. The team showed they were more than a one-man show, going 9-7 and narrowly missing the playoffs. While part of their success can be attributed to an easy schedule, the question becomes how good this team can be if Chris Johnson returns to form.
The Titans have one of the more interesting QB competitions in the league. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck played solidly, but rookie Jake Locker brought a lot of energy to the field and posted a QB rating of nearly 100 in limited action last year. If Hasselbeck struggles, fans will surely start calling for Locker. Whichever QB wins they starting the job, they will have the benefit of a great offensive line anchored by OTs Michael Roos and David Stewart. While the offense still figures to be run-oriented, they are hoping for more dynamic passing game this year. Kenny Britt is a big receiver who seemed to be primed for a breakout season in 2011 before an injury sidelined him, but he will be back this year. With explosive rookie Kendall Wright being added to the mix with Britt, Nate Washington and Damian Williams, the Titans have some real weapons for their QBs to work with.
The Titans need to do a better job of getting to the passer this year, and they are hoping that the addition of Kamerion Wimbley along with increased production from DE Derrick Morgan will help the team improve upon the 28 sacks they registered last year. The Titans two best defenders, CB Cortland Finnegan and FS Michael Griffin, were both free agents this offseason. They were able to keep only Griffin, who will serve as the anchor for a young secondary. The emergence of CBs Jason McCourty and Alteraun Verner last year gave the Titans confidence to move forward without Finnegan, but if either struggles they are not deep at the position.

Storyline to Watch: Special Teams Excellence
A lot of the Titans 2011 success has to be attributed to their special teams group. They played in close games last year and help from special teams can tip those kind of games in one teamís favor. The Titans made over 90% of their field goals, including 15 of 17 from beyond 40 yards, ranked second in average kick return yardage, seventh in average punt return yardage, seventh in average kick return yardage allowed, and second in average punt return yardage allowed. Give a lot of credit to special teams coach Alan Lowry - that kind of excellence across the board on special can make a big impact on games and the Titans will be hoping for more of the same this year.

Player to Watch: MLB Colin McCarthy
The Titans do not have a proven group of linebackers right now and surely miss the likes of Keith Bulluck and Stephen Tulloch, but they do have an exciting group of young linebackers. McCarthy is a sparkplug who has been turning a lot of heads and the Titans will be looking for him to turn in a breakout season and emerge as a defensive leader.

Projected Record: 6-10

23. San Diego Chargers
The last couple years, the Chargers have been a team that seem to find ways to beat themselves. Whether itís special teams blunders, dropped passes, miscommunications, or Phillip Rivers fumbling the snap on a kneel play, the Chargers always seem to catch bad breaks and lose games they should win. Amazingly, head coach Norv Turner has managed to keep his job through all the disappointment. Ownership has to be wearing thin on patience though, and this year is probably his last chance to right the ship.
This yearís Charger team isnít as talented as in past years, but if they can stop beating themselves, there is certainly enough talent for the team to be a winner. Phillip Rivers is coming off the worst year of his career and needs to do a better job of protecting the ball after throwing 20 interceptions last year. With Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd, Robert Meachem, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal, he has plenty of targets to spread the ball around in the passing game. The Chargers will be hoping for Ryan Mathews to build on a solid 2011 season and give the team a consistent run game to take pressure off Rivers. Mathews showed a nice big play spark, but with Mike Tolbert gone he will also be asked to carry a heavier load. LeRon McClain is a nice pickup at the FB position and will certainly help Mathews, but more than anything, Mathews needs to work on ball security to be the workhorse the Chargers want him to be.
The Chargers 3-4 defense isnít nearly as viscous as it once was with Shawne Merrimen, Luis Castillo and Quentin Jammer in their primes, but they still have some nice pieces. Shaun Phillips, Jarret Johnson and Antwaan Barnes are all ideal 3-4 OLBs who can get to the QB, and Eric Weddle has emerged as one of the leagueís top safeties. Their defensive line is far from ideal, but they have some young guys who could turn into nice players in DT Cam Thomas and DEs Cory Liuget, Vaughn Martin and Kendall Reyes. Jammer has clearly lost a step and is starting to become a liability in coverage; he would probably benefit from a move to safety, but whether or not Marcus Gilchrist or Shareece Wright is ready to step into the starting role opposite Antoine Cason is unknown.

Storyline to Watch: Improving Protection
Phillip Rivers 20 interceptions have a lot to do with the poor protection he got last year. He wasnít able to get comfortable in the pocket because of the constant pressure in his face and ended up rushing throws and making bad decisions. Make no mistake, Phillip Rivers is one of the leagueís best quarterbacks, but he needs time to let plays develop, read the defense, set his feet and make the throw. The Chargers offensive line couldnít give him that last year, and they might not be able to this year either. LT Jared Gaither has all the ability in the world but has had issues with injuries and conditioning while RT Jeromey Clary has proven to be a bit of a liability. C Nick Hardwick has been through a lot with the team and brings a veteran presence, but the guys around him need to step up.

Player to Watch: WR Vincent Brown
With Vincent Jackson gone, Phillip Rivers will be looking for a new favorite target outside of Antonio Gates. Malcolm Floyd and Robert Meachem will certainly see plenty of balls come their way, but Rivers will likely be looking to get the ball to this youngster. He stands at only 5í11íí, but plays much bigger and showed flashes of greatness in his rookie year. He will likely play a bigger role in the offense this year and could make a big impact.

Projected Record: 6-10

22. Arizona Cardinals
A few years ago, the Cardinals almost rode the unstoppable force that is Larry Fitzgerald to a championship. At his best, he is one of the most unguardable players in the league, and heís one of the few guys who seems to always be at his best. But after losing QB Kurt Warner to retirement and WR Anquan Boldin to free agency, the team just hasnít had enough juice to get back to the playoffs. At 28 years old, Fitzgerald still has a few years left in his prime, and coach Ken Whisenhunt will be doing everything in his power to bring the rest of the team to a championship level before that window closes.
The emergence of Beanie Wells last year was a major positive for a team that has been missing a strong running game for quite some time. Wells is a bruising power back who looked unstoppable at times last year, including a 228-yard performance against the Rams. He needs to be more consistent and stay healthy, but the combination of Wells with Ryan Williams and LaRod Stephens-Howling has the potential to supply a dynamic run game. While the Cardinals have issues at the QB position and donít have a strong offensive line, they may be able to make up for it with excellence at the skill positions. Rookie WR Michael Floyd should flourish against the single coverage he is bound to see with Fitzgerald drawing double and triple teams, and Early Doucet and Andre Roberts provide quality depth at the position. Veteran TE Todd Heap gives the Cardinals a reliable weapon at the TE position who can eat up the middle of the field when defenses overly focus on outside receivers.
While most teams that run 3-4 defenses rely on their OLBs to pressure the passer, the Cardinals are able to get pressure from their defensive line. DEs Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are both disruptive players who can blow up running plays in the backfield and provide a great interior pass rush. Third-year pro Dan Williams is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle whose contributions donít show on the stat sheet, but he needs to stay healthy as he plays a critical role by taking on blockers. The linebacker group leaves something to be desired, but it is a very young group with plenty of potential. Daryl Washington had an excellent sophomore campaign with 107 tackles, 5 sacks and 2 interceptions, but the team needs OLBs Sam Acho, OíBrien Schofield, and Clark Haggans to bring more edge-rushing presence. CB Patrick Peterson is a rising star, but the Cardinals are very weak after him at the CB position. Safeties Kherry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson are both hard hitters and savvy veterans, but they are both on the wrong side of 30 and not great cover safeties. If the team can improve its pass-rush, it will make things a lot easier for a group of DBs who arenít great in coverage.

Storyline to Watch: QB Controversy
The Cardinals seem a little foolish now for giving away a high draft pick and a great young corner (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) in exchange for QB Kevin Kolb. Kolb didnít do anything last year to show that he can be the franchise QB they envisioned him to be when they traded for him. They overpaid for a QB who never really proved himself and are now realizing he lacks toughness and arm strength. John Skelton, a 5th round pick, has the ability to stand tall in the pocket and make all the throws, but he has a lot of improvement to make as a decision-maker. Kolb is the unquestioned starter right now, but he is on a pretty short leash and it will be a situation to monitor throughout the season

Player to Watch: CB Patrick Peterson
Peterson is absolutely one of the most electrifying young players in the league. Entering the draft, defensive coaches had to be salivating at the opportunity to add a 6 foot 1, 220 pound corner with great football instincts and 4.3 speed. Peterson had some struggles in coverage early in the year but finished strong and should continue to get better by practicing against Fitzgerald every day. His greatest impact, however, was actually on special teams, where he had a record-breaking season. He averaged nearly 17 yards per return and found the end zone four times, including a dazzling 99-yarder in overtime to beat the Rams.

Projected Record: 7-9

21. Oakland Raiders
A year after the death of Al Davis, Raider Nation continues to mourn the passing of their franchise godfather. While Davisí contributions to the Raider franchise and the NFL will never be forgotten, he also drew a lot of criticism over the last decade as the Raiders floundered under his leadership. The Raiders are truly in uncharted waters now. For 50 years, Davis ran the Raiders organization and anyone who worked for him knew it was his way or the highway. His son, Mark Davis, is bringing an entirely different approach to ownership. He knows he is not expert in football operations like his father and hired Reggie McKenzie, a former Raider linebacker, as the general manager. McKenzie and Dennis Allen, the teamís new head coach, are both rookies at their new positions. It will be very interesting to see how the team fares under this new regime as they try to rebuild the team their way.
The Raiders 2011 season will be remembered for their desperation midseason trade for retired QB Carson Palmer, a deal that ultimately cost head coach Hue Jackson his job. Itís easy to heap the blame on Palmer for being careless with the ball and failing to lead the Raiders to the playoffs in a year where the division seemed to be theirs for the taking, but there were other factors at work. Darren McFadden had an MVP caliber first half of the season but never got to play a game with Palmer due to a foot sprain, and the defense played very sloppy football late in the season. Dennis Allen realizes that they key to turning the Raiders around is working on fundamentals. There is plenty of talent on the team, but they have made a habit of beating themselves with senseless penalties, poor gap control, missed assignments and sloppy tackling. The Raiders have a huge offensive line anchored by veteran Richard Seymour that can cause a lot of disruption when healthy. Tommy Kelly and Seymour are both forces in the middle and DE Matt Shaugnessy will be looking to make a strong return from injury while Lamarr Houston aims to regain form after a disappointing season. They Raiders have some nice pieces on the backend in safeties Tyvon Branch, Michael Huff and Mike Mitchell, but questions abound at the CB position, where veteran newcomers Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer will be looking to make comebacks from injuries.

Storyline to Watch: Big Play Offense
Al Davisí offensive philosophy has always been a vertical passing game featuring a big-armed QB and speedy receivers. Al Davis may be gone, but the Raiders have a team full of home-run hitters on offense and a quarterback whose best skill is throwing the deep ball. The Raiders have a very exciting group of young receivers in Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, Juron Criner and Rod Streeter and two big-play backs in Darren McFadden and Taiwan Jones. LT Jared Veldheer is an underrated player who has done a great job protecting the blindside for his QB and C Stefen Wisnewski looks like he will follow in his uncleĎs footsteps and become the next great Raider lineman. Itís possible Al Davisí dream offense could be realized after his passing, but guys need to stay healthy and Palmer needs to be more careful with the ball and learn to pick and choose when to take his shots downfield.

Player to Watch: MLB Rolando McClain
In his first two years, McClain has been a huge disappointment, failing to be the difference maker Al Davis envisioned him to be when he drafted him eighth overall. He has disappeared from games on the field and drawn negative attention off the field. If thereís one player the Raiders need to step up, itís McClain. They donít have a particularly strong group of linebackers and they donít have a capable backup at the MLB position. Dennis Allen will be working hard on his fundamentals in hopes that he can learn to use his size and athleticism to be the tone-setter they envisioned him to be when they drafted him.

Projected Record: 8-8

20. Buffalo Bills
The Bills were one of the great stories early in 2011, but they fizzled in the second half and left people wondering if their 5-2 start was just a fluke. Billsí management made it clear they are committed to helping this team finish what they started last fall, signing DE Mario Williams to the richest deal ever given to a defensive player and re-upping with WR Stevie Johnson for 5 years and nearly 40 million. The big question seems to be what the Bills will get out of their QB this year. Fitzpatrick was scorching hot in the first half of the year, posting a QB rating of 92.3 and engineering incredible comebacks against the Patriots and Raiders. He was signed to a big extension shortly after, but struggled mightily in the second half with a QB rating of 67.9. Things may have been different if not for injuries to HB Fred Jackson, who was in the MVP discussion, and other key players. Of course, the Bills have to contend with the Patriots and Jets in their division, so no matter how well they play it will be a tough road to the playoffs.
The Bills defensive front is sure to create a lot of problems for opposing offenses. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are both excellent interior lineman who complement each other well and DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson can wreak havoc as edge rushers. The Bills will look for another big season from LB Nick Barnett who rebounded excellently after the Packers cut him because of concerns about his health and age. While the rest of their LB core leaves something to be desired, the Bills are very strong in the secondary. Safeties George Wilson and Jairus Byrd are both opportunistic playmakers who can take advantage of quarterbacks making bad decisions under duress and there is a lot of talent at the CB position.

Storyline to Watch: Rookie Contributions
The Bills brought an influx of talent in the draft and they will be looking for immediate results. Behemoth OT Cordy Glenn is slated to protect Fitzpatrickís blindside, a position they desperately need to solidify. 1st round pick CB Stephon Gilmore could be a day one starter at the CB position and CB Ron Brooks could also contribute. While Stevie Johnson has emerged as a go-to guy at the WR position, they donít have quality depth and rookie TJ Graham could see plenty of action early. If the Billsí rookie class can produce it will go a long way towards this team getting over the hump.

Player to Watch: HB CJ Spiller
The Billsí offense is built around the trio of Fitzpatrick, Jackson and Johnson, but Spiller is the X-factor on the roster. He is the teamís most dynamic playmaker and he can be used in a variety of ways. The Bills donít have quality depth at the WR position or a good pass-catching TE, so Chan Gailey will need to be creative and find ways to get Spiller the ball and not become too predictable on offense.

Projected Record: 9-7

19. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefsí defense of their 2010 AFC West Crown ended before it began. Before they could blink, the team had lost three of their brightest young stars (HB Jamaal Charles, S Eric Berry, and TE Tony Moeaki) for the season. While the Chiefs seemed hopeless for much of the season, they fought hard under Romeo Crennel after head coach Todd Haley was fired and managed to salvage a 7-9 season. With several starters expected to return full strength and some key offseason additions, the Chiefs have high expectations in 2012. Charles is an absolute big play machine at the running back position and free agent addition Peyton Hillis should provide a great change of pace with his power running. RT Eric Winston was a great addition that really solidifies their line and the Chiefs have some dangerous receiving threats in Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin, Steve Breaston, Dexter McCluster and Moeaki. Despite all this, the offense will likely be limited due to their QB, Matt Cassel. He will be going into his fourth year starting for the Chiefs and just hasnít shown that he can be anything more than a serviceable NFL QB and is probably best suited in a backup role.
When Crennel was hired in 2010 as the defensive coordinator, they began a transition to a 3-4 defense that is now becoming a finished product. Former LSU teammates Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey have emerged as excellent 3-4 DEs and rookie NT Dontari Poe should do a good job plugging the middle of the defense. Tamba Hali has emerged as an elite pass-rusher at the OLB position and the team hopes Justin Houston can build on a solid rookie year and bring pressure on the other side. Eric Berry is a rising star at the safety position and the team has other solid veterans like ILB Derrick Johnson and CBs Brandon Flowers and Stanford Routt to fill out their defense. All in all, the Chiefs are one of the better all-around teams in the league, but it could still be difficult for them to get into the playoffs with Cassel at QB

Storyline to Watch: Return Specialists
With Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster returning kicks and punts, the Chiefs have the personnel to change games in the special teams phase. Arenas and McCluster not only possess blazing speed but great field vision and the ability to make guys miss tackles. The Chiefs figure to play ball control offense and rely on their defense, which will make the field position battle very important. These guys can be game-changers by consistently helping the Chiefs with field position and occasionally taking a kick to the house.

Player to Watch: CB Stanford Routt
In terms of pure physical attributes, not many guys can compare to Routt. 6 foot 1, 200 pound cornerbacks with 4.3 speed are hard to find, which is why Al Davis took him in the second round despite his limited skill. It took him awhile to develop, but over the last couple years, Routt has flashed the ability to be a shut-down corner. However, he always seems to be among the most penalized defenders in the league. Perhaps a change in scenery will help him, as excessive penalties seem to be a part of Raider culture. Routt always seems to be in position to make plays on the ball but ends up getting flagged for interference. He is a very physical player with the speed to keep up with almost anyone and with a little bit of coaching and restraint, he could become an elite NFL CB. If the penalty flags continue to fly, the Chiefs will feel the frustration that led to his release from the Raiders.

Projected Record: 9-7

18. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carrollís third season on the job as the skipper in Seattle could be a pivotal one. Carroll has not been shy about making controversial moves, and it is time for them to start paying off. His most recent one is the decision to start rookie QB Russell Wilson, who stands at only 5 feet, 11 inches. Saying Wilson has been impressive in camp and preseason action would be an understatement, but it is still a surprising move considering the money they spent on free agent addition QB Matt Flynn. While Wilson and Flynn are both unproven commodities, they have both looked great in limited action and most coaches wish they had two quality quarterbacks on their roster. A big question for the Seahawks is what they will get from their receivers. Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow are both excellent TEs, but their wide receivers have been dealing with a variety of issues. Sidney Rice had a couple great years in Minnesota but has struggled with injuries in Seattle, Braylon Edwards has been wildly inconsistent throughout his career, and Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are both young receivers still trying to establish themselves in this league. With a strong group of backs and a solid offensive line anchored by LT Russell Okung and C Max Unger, this offense has all the ingredients necessary to be successful.
One area the Seahawks need to improve on is their pass-rush. While they had a lot of guys contribute in the department, Chris Clemons was the only player on the team able to consistently get to the QB. The Seahawks are hoping rookie DE Bruce Irvin can change that and be a difference-maker in his first year. Another rookie the Seahawks will be counting on big-time is MLB Bobby Wagner, who will be filling the big shoes of David Hawthorne. Veteran DTs Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane do a great job of clogging the middle of their defense, which should make Wagnerís job easier.

Storyline to Watch: Secondary Excellence
A strong argument could be made that the Seahawks have the leagueís best secondary. FS Earl Thomas is a big-time playmaker and the Seahawks are expecting big things from him in his third year. He may be a little undersized, but he is an excellent football player who always seems to be around the football. 230-pound SS Kam Chancellor is a great complement to Thomas and serves as a great complement to Thomas. CB Brandon Browner was one of the great individual stories of 2010, playing at a pro-bowl level as a 27 year old rookie. A highly regarded prospect with unheard of size (6í4íí, 220 lbs) at the CB position, Browner slid down draft boards after running a slow 40 and didnít make it to the NFL until last year. Browner made every team that passed on him regret it last year, collecting 54 tackles, 6 interceptions and 2 TDs. Another unheralded rookie CB, Richard Sherman, also had a strong season, giving the team an excellent CB tandem. Veteran Marcus Trufant may be past his prime, but he still has some good years left in him and is perfectly suited to play the nickel back role. This unit can match up with any group of receivers.

Player to Watch: HB Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch unleashed his ďbeast modeĒ last year and was the driving force behind the Seahawksí strong finish. Carroll took a chance on Lynch after he fell out of favor in Buffalo and the move has paid dividends. Lynch churned out yards with his rumbling running style and the Seahawks will be looking for another big year from him. Leon Washington, Michael Robinson, and Ryan Turbin give the team some other good options in the backfield, but Lynch is the guy the team will be counting on to carry the load.

Projected Record: 9-7

17. Cincinnati Bengals
A year ago, the Bengals seemed to be a sinking ship with little young talent and head coach Marvin Lewis was the captain who was going down with the ship. After drafting WR AJ Green and QB Andy Dalton and bringing in a number of players discarded by other teams, the Bengals put together a nine-win season and optimism is abound in Cincinnati. Green and Dalton were a sensational rookie combo and guys like Nate Clements, Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, and Reggie Nelson emerged as key contributors. However, it was still not enough for the Bengals to make the playoffs and it will be hard for them to get over that hump playing in the same division as the Ravens and Steelers.
There is no shortage of talent on the Bengals defense. DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both freaks of nature with red flags that caused other teams to shy away. Like Dunlap and Johnson, OLBs Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard present freakish combinations of size and speed. Both were high draft picks who never lived up to expectations, but they are getting second chances with the Bengals. The Bengals have gotten some production out of these players, but they havenít come close to reaching their potential. If the Bengals can harness their talent, they will combine with MLB Rey Maualuga and DTs Domata Peko and Geno Atkins to form a formidable front seven. The Bengals latest reclamation project will be Taylor Mays, a hard-hitting safety with freakish talent and poor coverage skills. FS Reggie Nelson is an excellent centerfielder-type safety and the Bengals have a number of strong cover corners, so they will look for Mays to fill the role of enforcer in the secondary.
It will be interesting to see how QB Andy Dalton progresses in his second season after exceeding all expectations as a rookie. The Bengals have a nice pair of tackles in Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth, but the interior of the line is a concern. A big question is what kind of production they will get from their wideouts outside of AJ Green. Jerome Simpson departed via free agency and will be replaced free-agent addition Brandon Tate, who is coming off a knee injury. Tate is a speedy receiver who can make big plays, but he never got much playing time in New England, so this will be a great opportunity to prove himself.

Storyline to Watch: Running Game
The Bengals let go of workhorse running back Cedric Benson and will now be starting BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis was never asked to run the ball much in the Patriotsí pass-happy offense and could have a hard time filling the shoes of Benson. He will be backed up by Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard, two players who have been on the Bengals awhile that havenít shown themselves to be anything more than serviceable backups. The lack of a strong run game could make life a lot harder on Andy Dalton and lead to a sophomore slump, and it is crucial that the Bengals find a way to establish their run game.

Player to Watch: TE Jermaine Gresham
The Bengalsí 2010 first round pick has proved himself to be a productive pass-catcher, but they are going to need more than 600 yards from him this year. They are quite thin at wide receiver and donít figure to have a strong run game, so they will need him to step up with a big season. He has the talent to emerge as one of the leagueís top tight ends, and the Bengals need to find ways to get him the ball and keep him motivated.

Projected Record: 8-8

16. Carolina Panthers
Itís very rare that one player can drastically turn around a franchise in just one season, but thatís exactly what Cam Newton did for the Panthers last year. Considered a great athlete who had a lot to learn about playing the QB position, the Heisman winner came into the NFL and made it look easy from week one as he put together arguably the greatest rookie season ever. Newton rushing for 700 yards probably didnít come as a surprise to most, but him passing for 4000 without even having great talent at the receiver position no one could have predicted. Newton is truly an athlete unlike anything the NFL has ever seen before. He has the height to stand tall in the pocket, the arm to make any throw on the field, the speed and agility to outrun defenders to make them miss, the power to break tackles and run defenders over, and he displayed poise and throwing touch that could only be expected from an NFL veteran. The Panthers went from a laughing stock in 2010 to an extremely competitive team in 2011 and thereís no question the reason behind it was Cam Newton. The scary part? Newton still has a lot of room for improvement. He did throw 17 interceptions and wasnít able to make the necessary plays down the stretch in several games where the Panthers had opportunities to pull major upsets. No one will be sleeping on Newton this year, so he will have to keep working hard on improving his craft. But he seems to be a young man with a great head on his shoulders and the talent to go down as one of the all-time greats.
The challenge for the Panthers now is to surround Newton with enough talent for him to take his team places. It will be nice to get veteran LT Jordan Gross back from injury to protect Newtonís blindside. The Panthers drafted Amini Silatolu in the second round and hope that he can combine with C Ryan Kalil and Gross to form a dominant left side of the line. The main concern for the Panthers offensive will be at the RT position, where they are still trying to figure out a solution after dumping Jeff Otah.33-year old WR Steve Smith was reinvigorated last year by the arrival of Newton and turned in one of his best seasons, providing one big play after another. Greg Olsen, Brandon Lafell and Louis Murphy give Newton some big targets to throw to. The running game figures to be among the best in the league. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are both backs who could start for most teams and together they are the leagueís best duo. If that wasnít enough, the team added FB Mike Tolbert, a bruising inside runner who adds yet another dimension to their ground game.
The Panthersí problem last year was their inability to stop anyone on defense. They ranked near the bottom of the league in passing yards, rushing yards, yards per attempt, and sacks among other stats. They need someone besides DE Charles Johnson to put pressure on the QB, and their secondary needs to show some major improvement. Outside of veteran Chris Gamble, the Panthers are very weak at the CB position. Captain Munnerlyn spent last year getting picked on before going on the IR late in the season and they can only hope he will improve.

Storyline to Watch: New LB Core
One reason to be optimistic about the Panthersí defensive prospects this year is that they will have a whole new group of linebackers. MLB Jon Beason is one of the best in the league at his position and is in the prime of his career, but he missed the 2011 season with an Achilles injury. OLB Thomas Davis has had a hard time staying healthy the last couple years but he is only 29 and claims to be healthy, and he can be a great athlete and playmaker when healthy. Rookie LB Luke Kuechly had a great collegiate career and should contribute right away. OLB James Anderson is coming off an excellent season and will be the only starter returning from last year. Improved LB play can go a long way to help this defense.

Player to Watch: C Ryan Kalil
A big reason for the Panthers dominant ground game is the presence of this veteran center. Kalil is the captain of the offensive line and does a great job getting everyone set up. He is not only a great athlete at the position, but an excellent technician. The Panthers figure to do a lot of inside running and as long as Kalil is there, they should be quite successful.

Projected Record: 9-7

15. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys lately have been a team that just canít seem to get it right. They always have a talented team and are in the playoff mix, but they just havenít had a year where everything came together. The Cowboys have some of the key ingredients of a successful team: A seasoned QB, playmaking receivers, a dynamic pair of running backs and a big-time pass-rusher. However, injuries and issues in the secondary and on the offensive line have stopped this team from reaching its potential. Even though Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware are both coming off career years, the Cowboys were unable to win more than 8 games last year. The Cowboys looked strong early in the year, winning 7 of their first 11 and only losing one game by more than 4 points. Down the stretch, they fell apart and lost four of their last five including the season finale against the Giants with playoff implications.
The Cowboys can draw some real positives from last year. Demarco Murray was a breakout star at running back and looked like a workhorse before fracturing his ankle. With him and Felix Jones returning from injury, the Cowboys hope to have a dynamic pair of backs. Dez Bryant was also a breakout star at WR, and if Miles Austin can return to 2010 form, they will have a duo of physical big-play receivers. OT Tyron Smith had a good rookie year and will be moving to the left side of the line, where they hope he will perform better now than now-RT Doug Free. With TE Jason Witten blocking and running routes and Tony Romo running the offense, this should be a productive unit. They have issues on the interior of their offensive line and donít have good depth at wide receiver, but if their key players stay healthy it shouldnít matter.
The Cowboys have had a lot of issues in their secondary recently, and one thing they did this offseason was get a lot younger at cornerback. They replaced Terrence Newman with Brandon Carr and traded up in the draft to get blue-chip CB Morris Claiborne to give themselves a deep, young, and talented group at the position. They have, however, continued to neglect the safety position. Gerald Sensabaugh is an adequate starter but they are starting an undrafted free agent they are high on, Barry Church, at the SS position. Demarcus Ware is an incredible pass rusher who has averaged over 15 sacks a year for the past 6 seasons, but without a playmaker in the secondary it is hard to take advantage of the pressure he applies to opposing QBs. The Cowboys have an absolutely brutal schedule this year, and will need some guys to start making big plays.

Storyline to Watch: Team Pass-Rush
DeMarcus Ware has been the leagueís most productive pass-rusher over the course of his career, but a team should never rely this heavily on one guy to get to the QB. Ware accounted for nearly half of the teams sacks, and only one other player had five or more sacks. OLB Anthony Spencer is a prototypical pass-rusher and needs to start producing more and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs to be more creative in finding ways to bring pressure. Getting NT Jay Ratliff back from injury should help matters, as he can be disruptive force in the middle.

Player to Watch: ILB Sean Lee
One area the Cowboys really struggled in was stopping the run last year. The Cowboys hope to have improved defensive line play with Ratliff back and rookie Tyrone Crawford in the mix, but Sean Lee is a guy the Cowboys are counting on to step us a leader. Lee had a very solid sophomore season, collecting over 100 tackles and 4 interceptions, but they will be looking for him to take the next step and help this defense play tougher in the middle.

Projected Record: 7-9

14. New York Jets
The dominating storyline for the Jets this year is the QB competition between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, neither of whom the Jets can feel good about starting. The truth is, the Jets should be worried about their offense as a whole. Mark Sanchez is going into his fourth season and isnít showing much progress and Tebow is a great runner and a clutch player, but he needs a lot of work in terms of learning the quarterback position. It doesnít help that the Jets lack any kind of quality depth at receiver and running back. HB Shonn Greene, WR Santonio Holmes and TE Dustin Keller are all good players, but they are certainly not players you build a successful offense around. Having a couple of all-pro linemen in LT DíBrickshaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold is a great help, but the Jets have been having a lot of problems at the RT position and need someone to step up.
No matter how bad the offense is, the Jets will still be a tough team to beat because they have such a dominant defense. Rex Ryan is one of the leagueís best defensive strategists, and he has a loaded war chest. Darrelle Revis is a true shutdown corner, arguably the best the league has seen since Deion Sanders. Quarterbacks who try to test Revis pay the price time and time again, but itís hard to avoid him completely when going against a defense with so many good players. Antonio Cromartie, one of the leagueís best ball-hawking CBs, starts opposite him, and nickel back Kyle Wilson is also a nice player. The weakness of this defense for years had been at the safety position, but after signing veterans Yeremiah Bell and Laron Landry, the Jets may now have the best and most complete secondary in the league. The NFL may be becoming a passerís league, but not when you are playing the Jets.
If there is one area of concern on the Jetsí defense, it is the pass-rush department. They have a number of players that can get to the QB and Rex Ryan understands how to create pressure, but OLB Aaron Maybin led the team in sacks last year with just six. OLB Calvin Pace has been good but he hasnít been the force they hoped he would be as an edge-rusher. ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris are both excellent linebackers who can bring pressure up the middle and it will help to get OLB Bryan Thomas back in the lineup, but this team wishes it had one big-time pass-rusher. They have spent first round picks the last two years on DE s Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, who they hope can free up blitzing linebackers and help with the interior pass-rush.

Storyline to Watch: Wildcat Package
Tony Sparano, the man who popularized the wildcat package in Miami, is now the offensive coordinator in New York after they ditched Brian Schottenheimer. It seems obvious the Jets donít have the proper personnel to run an effective conventional offense, so a wildcat package featuring Tebow may be the Jetsí best bet. They have been pretty secretive so far about what the package will exactly look like, but if they can use it control the clock and put drives together, they may be able to rely on their defense and win games without a productive passing game.

Player to Watch: SS Laron Landry
For Rex Ryan, every defensive player is a chess piece, and he should be able to do a lot of things with his latest addition. Landry came out a discounted price because he has been dealing with some injuries and has never quite lived up to the hype, but he is only 27 and has never been in an environment where he could really flourish. A bone-crunching hitter who can cover an incredible amount of ground, Landry can be a terror attacking the line of scrimmage. Because the Jets have great cover cornerbacks, Ryan can feel free to let Landry freelance and focus on what he does best. This could be the year that Landry becomes the playmaker he was thought to be coming out of LSU.

Projected Record: 10-6

13. Denver Broncos
The Broncos were a great story last year of a team dismissed early on that persevered, believed and achieved. Thanks to a defensive turnaround and some heroics from Tim Tebow, the Broncos fought and scratched their way into the playoffs and beat the Steelers in the first round before having their storybook season put to rest by the Patriots. Some people will attribute their success to a weak schedule and lucky breaks, but they played hard, found ways to win games, and invigorated their fan base. Bronco fans may have been upset about John Elway trading away Tim Tebow, but when he is being replaced by a legendary QB like Peyton Manning, itís hard to complain.
With Manning at the helm, the Bronco offense figures to be quite a bit different than last year. They probably wonít have the first-ranked run offense again, but their passing game should be much more effective. Itís unlikely Willis McGahee will run nearly as well as he did last year, but they hope they can combine him with Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and rookie Ronnie Hillman to form an effective running back by committee. Manning has some good targets to throw to in the passing game in Demaryus Thomas and Eric Decker, but he may need time to develop chemistry with them. For that reason, it is helpful that the Broncos signed TE Jacob Tamme and WR Brandon Stokley, two players who have been catching passes from Manning for years. Having a strong offensive line anchored by LT Ryan Clady should help Manning stay comfortable as he gets used to the change in scenery.
The key to the Broncosí defensive success last year was their pass-rush. Von Miller earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors because of his ferocious pass-rushing, and speed-rushing DE Elvis Dumervil came back strong from injury. First round pick Derek Wolfe is more of a run anchor than pass-rusher at the DE position, but he will rarely see a double team thanks to Miller and Dumervil and could be productive. CB Champ Bailey, now 34 years old, showed last year he is still a top flight corner but itís hard to say how much longer he can play at this level. The Broncos have some other nice defensive pieces in OLB DJ Williams and CB Tracy Porter but they arenít very strong at the DT, MLB and S positions. This team has some great veteran leadership and John Fox is a head coach who will make sure his guys play hard, but the Broncosí roster will probably need to add some more talent before they are really ready to contend.

Storyline to Watch: Takeaways
For a team that finished in the top 5 in sacks, the Broncos didnít do a good job of forcing turnovers, finishing in the bottom 5 in takeaways. They need someone in the secondary who can make quarterbacks pay for making mistakes. S Rahim Moore didnít do much as a rookie, but they will be hoping he can be a playmaker and free-agent addition Tracy Porter can snag a few picks for them. Peyton Manning is a gun slinging QB who will commit some turnovers and it will help a lot if the Broncos defense can get them the ball back sometimes.

Player to Watch: WR Eric Decker
Peyton Manning will be looking for a new go-to receiver and Eric Decker is exactly the kind of intelligent football player Manning works well with. Demaryius Thomas is an incredible physical talent who has been coming along as a receiver, but Manning is a QB who relies on timing and route running from his receivers and Decker is great in those departments. The two have already shown great chemistry and should only get more comfortable with each other as the season goes on. Decker received for 612 yards and 8 TDs last year and seems poised to break out in his third season.

Projected Record: 9-7

12. Chicago Bears
The Bears were left wondering what could have been last season after injuries to QB Jay Cutler and HB Matt Forte caused a five-game losing streak that took them out of the playoff hunt. The Bears made sure to protect themselves this year by signing QB Jason Campbell and HB Michael Bush from Oakland to backup their two stars. The Broncos made another big acquisition in WR Brandon Marshall, who gives them the go-to receiver they have been missing. Marshall and Cutler were one of the leagueís most unstoppable QB-WR combos in Denver and they are now being reunited in Chicago, where they will have an excellent defense to help them win games. By adding Marshall and 6 foot 3 rookie receiver Jeffery Alshon, the Bears finally have some size outside and can use Devin Hester more in the slot and get him the ball in the open field. It took a couple years, but the Bears seem to have finally surrounded Cutler with the necessary pieces to command a potential powerhouse offense.
Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman may all be on the wrong side of 30, but they are still playing at a high level and understand their window is closing. Because of their veteran leadership and coaching from Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli, the Bearsí defense is always a tough unit, but they will be looking for some young guys to step up. The teamís passing defense was not strong last year and they need to improve their pass-rush and get better play from their safeties to change this. DT Henry Melton has been a productive interior rusher and DE Israel Idonije is a solid player, but they hope rookie DE Shea McClellin can enter the rotation as a situational pass-rusher and help the team out on passing downs.
Special teams has been a strength of the Bears for quite some time. Devin Hester is the best return specialist the league has ever seen and Robbie Gould is one of the leagueís most reliable kickers, and the Bears hope this will be the year they bring all three phases together. However, playing in the same division as the Packers and Lions means the Bears have very little room for error.

Storyline to Watch: Keeping Jay Cutler Healthy
Last year, the Bears fell apart and missed the playoffs after Cutler got hurt. The year before, the Bears lost a close NFC championship game to the Packers with Cutler watching the second half from the sideline. The Bears offensive line surrendered 49 sacks last year and they simply have to protect Cutler better if they expect him to stay healthy for a full season. LT Chris Williams went on the IR last year prior to Cutler getting hurt and they will be hoping he can make a strong return. RT Gabe Carimi will be entering his second year and the Bears have high expectations for him after using a first round pick on him.

Player to Watch: SS Major Wright
The Bears need one of their young defensive backs to step up and Wright is probably the best candidate to answer the call. His attacking style fits in well with Lovie Smithís defensive philosophy, and he should be more comfortable in the defense in his third year. The Bears will look for him to improve upon his 58 tackle, 3 interception season and emerge as a big time playmaker.

Projected Record: 10-6

11. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have been an excellent regular season team under head coach Mike Smith, but they just havenít been able to get over the hump in the playoffs, losing in embarrassing fashion in each of their three playoff games. Matt Ryan is clearly a solid NFL QB, but it is becoming time for him to show that he is more than that. Ryan canít possibly complain about his supporting cast on offense. The Falconsí offensive line is one of the better units in the league, and he has great playmakers to get the ball to. Michael Turner provides the team with one of the leagueís best power running attacks and WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones make up arguably the best receiving tandem in the league. Tony Gonzalez, the greatest TE to ever play the game, is likely in the final year of his career, but he still knows how to get open and catches everything that comes his way.
One of the things that has really held the Falcons back is their passing defense, which seems to get gashed every time they go up against a top QB. The Falcons have not taken this lightly and have made moves every off-season to improve their pass defense, but have not yet been able to correct the issue. DE Ray Edwards, who the team spent big money on last year, only came up with 3 sacks in his first season with the Falcons. They will be hoping he can be more productive this year and combine with veteran DE John Abraham to form a dynamic pass-rushing duo. The Falconsí big acquisition this off-season was CB Assante Samuel, who adds a playmaking element to their secondary. With Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson returning as the starters, the Falcons now have three quality cornerbacks and should be better equipped to go up against high-powered passing attacks. The Falcons are also counting on the continued progression of FS Thomas Decoud, who has developed into a quality starter and shown the ability to read quarterbacks and make plays in the secondary.

Storyline to Watch: Filling Loftonís Shoes
The Falcons suffered a big loss when MLB Curtis Lofton signed with division rival New Orleans. Lofton had been incredibly productive in his tenure with the Falcons, amassing 492 tackles in four seasons, including 147 last year. The Falconsí run defense has been a strong point, and while guys like LB Sean Weatherspoon, SS William Moore, and DTs Perriah Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux deserve their share of the credit, Lofton was the centerpiece. Akeem Dent will inherit Loftonís starting spot after playing well on special teams as a rookie, and he will have a lot of slack to pick up.

Player to Watch: HB Jacquizz Rodgers
Running backs who run as physically as Michael Turner donít generally have long shelf-lives. Turner ran for 1300 yards last year, but is now 30 years old and the Falcons will likely try to cut down his carries. With the emergence of Julio Jones, who seems poised to break out as a star, the Falconsí offense will likely become more pass-happy this year. All of this could mean more playing time for sparkplug running back Jacquizz Rodgers. While he may be undersized, ďQuizzĒ plays with toughness and is a dangerous open-field runner with great receiving skills and vision. The Falcons will likely use him as a return specialist and third down back, and the better he plays the more he will see the field.

Projected Record: 10-6

10. Detroit Lions
Lion fans have had to wait a long time, but they finally have a team they can get excited about. 2011 was a breakthrough year for the franchise, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and winning a playoff game for the first time since 1991. While the Lions do not have the most well-rounded team, they have a few of the leagueís brightest young stars on their roster, and they have shown the ability to carry the team.
Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson have emerged as the most dynamic QB-WR combo in the league. There seems to be no throw the laser-armed Stafford canít make and no ball his freak-of-nature receiver canít catch. The Lions are one of the leagueís most pass-happy teams and they donít seem to have plans of changing that. Despite having the 29th ranked rushing attack, they didnít bring in any new blood at the running back position, instead focusing on getting better protection and more weapons for Stafford. The Lions have needed to upgrade the LT position for a long time and finally spent a first round pick on Riley Reiff to help protect Stafford. Veteran Jeff Backus will probably start for now, but they now have a good insurance policy and have taken steps to help better protect Stafford. With veteran WR Nate Burleson and youngsters Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, the Lions have the necessary pieces to run a spread offense and make teams pay for double and triple-teaming Calvin Johnson. TEs Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler allow them to use two tight ends and no fullback in their base offense, which better fits their pass-happy attack. The big question for the Lions is at the running back position. Jahvid Best was the perfect back for their spread-out offensive attack, but he is coming back from a serious concussion and hasnít been able to get back on the field yet. Until Best returns, the Lions will rely on Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure, but both have struggled with injuries and Leshoure has been suspended the first two games.
The Lionsí defensive philosophy is to attack and penetrate at all times. Their defensive line, headlined by DT Ndamakong Suh, is one of the leagueís most disruptive. Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch are both excellent edge-rushers and the team has a host of backup linemen who can rush the passer. The Lions love to rotate their lineman to keep them fresh and bring constant pressure on QBs. An area of concern for the Lions is their secondary, which gave up a lot of passing yards last year. They lost CB Eric Wright in free agency and replaced him with rookie Dwight Bentley. The Lions donít have particularly strong starters at the position in Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith, and the depth is not very good either. One player the Lions will be looking for increased production from is S Louis Delmas. He was considered a future star after an impressive rookie campaign, but he has regressed and needs to get his career back on track.

Storyline to Watch: Run Defense
The Lions were gashed too often in the run game and need to find proper balance between upfield penetration and gap control. They have a solid group of linebackers in Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant, but too many times their defensive lineman got caught running past the play and left huge running lanes. The Lions defense allowed five yards per carry in the run game and having great pass-rushers doesnít help much when you canít stop the run.

Player to Watch: DT Nick Fairley
Fairley was a dominant player at Auburn and fits perfectly into the Lionsí attacking defensive philosophy, but was a non-factor as a rookie. He dealt with some injuries but is now healthy and should be a key part of the Lionsí DL rotation. At his best, Fairley is a disruptive force in the middle and the Lionsí envisioned him and Suh combining to be a wrecking crew when they drafted him.

Projected Record: 10-6

9. Houston Texans
The Texans are another team coming off a breakthrough season, earning the first playoff berth and playoff win in franchise history. The most impressive thing about the Texans may have been their ability to battle through injuries, as they spent significant time with key players on the shelf. They will start the year with a healthy squad and hope that they can avoid the injury bug this year and build on last yearís success. However, the Texans will have to overcome some key losses due to free agency and cap issues: DE Mario Williams, MLB Demeco Ryans, RT Eric Winston, and RG Mike Briesel.
The big story of the Texansí 2011 season was their defensive turnaround, which has to be credited largely to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He came into town, implemented a 3-4 scheme, and instantly transformed one of the leagueís most porous defenses into an elite unit. The Texan defense ranked second in yardage allowed and fourth in scoring and played well in all phases. CB Johnathan Joseph was probably the best free agent pickup any team made last year as he and fellow newcomer SS Danieal Manning helped transform a Texan secondary that couldnít seem to cover anyone in 2010. Even with the losses of Ryans and Williams, the Texansí front 7 still rates as one of the best in the league. JJ Watt and Antonio Smith are both ideal 3-4 ends and Brian Cushing has established himself as one of the leagueís best linebackers. Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Mercilus Whitney can all rush the passer from the OLB spot and veteran Bradie James will take over Ryansí departed spot.
The Texans will be glad to get QB Matt Schaub back in the lineup. While rookie TJ Yates played better than anyone could have hoped in his relief, Schaub is a seasoned veteran who has displayed great command of the offense. More than anything, Texan fans would like to get a healthy Andre Johnson for a full season. At 100%, he is as good as any receiver in the league, but he has struggled with injuries for the past two years. TE Owen Daniels and WR Kevin Walter are both reliable veterans who have answered the call when Johnson has been out and the Texans hope rookie wideouts Keyshawn Martin and DeVier Posey can add quality depth. No matter what happens with the pass offense, the Texans should be able to rely on their ground game. Running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for over 2000 yards last year and are both entering their prime. Return specialist Trindon Holliday has been turning a lot of heads in the preseason with 3 return touchdowns, and could help give the Texans an extra spark on special teams.

Storyline to Watch: Replacing the Right Side of the Offensive Live
A big reason for the Texansí offensive success last year was their stellar offensive line play. LT Duane Brown and C Chris Myers are two of the best at their positions, but Eric Winston played at an all-pro level and Mike Briesel was no slouch either. They cut Winston in a head-scratching move and Briesel walked in free agency, forcing them to rebuild the right side of their line. RT Derek Newton and RG Antoine Caldwell have both been backups on the Texans their whole careers and the Texans must have had confidence in them to let go of their starters. The Texans also spent a couple of mid round picks on interior linemen to add depth. Whether or not these new guys can come in and play at a high level will have a large impact on their offense.

Player to Watch: DE JJ Watt
Defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment donít usually get a lot of attention. Their main job is to take on blockers and let the linebackers do the work, and even the best players at the position rarely get noticed. In the case of JJ Watt, it was impossible not to notice the impact the rookie was making. Watt had an excellent regular season, but saved his best for the games that mattered most. In two playoff games, he amassed 14 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception that he returned for a TD. A huge man blessed with incredible athleticism and a non-stop motor, Watt is the kind of player who can change the perception of the 3-4 DE position.

Projected Record: 11-5

8. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are one of those teams you can never leave out of the Super Bowl discussion. Their defense is always among the leagueís best, QB Ben Roethlisberger is a proven winner, and Mike Tomlin is one of the leagueís most respected coaches. Their first round playoff exit last year was caused by injuries more than anything else and thereís no reason to think they wonít be back in the mix this year. While the Steelers are one of the leagueís most veteran teams, it is an infusion of young talent that is keeping the team exciting.
Itís the same old story for the Steelers on defense. Dick Lebeau draws up exotic blitzes using linebackers James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, NT Casey Hampton clogs the middle, and SS Troy Polamalu runs all over the field making plays. Itís a winning formula and thereís no reason they should stray from it. Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward give the Steelers some good young talent at the DE position while Brett Keisel continues to be a steadying veteran influence. At 32, Ike Taylor is still an excellent cover corner and the Steelers will look for some of their young corners to step up this year.
Early in Roethlisbergerís career, the Steelers stuck to their classic offense, relying on a strong ground attack. As the QB progressed, the Steelers have changed their philosophy and now use a more wide-open attack and give Roethlisberger freedom to improvise and make plays. Itís not always pretty, but there isnít a QB in the league better at making something out of nothing. Speedster Mike Wallace has emerged as one of the leagueís best big-play receivers and youngsters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are both good young receivers. TE Heath Miller and WR Jerricho Cotchery are veterans who provide Roethlisberger with a reliable set of hands. The Steelers havenít gotten completely away from the classic Steeler offense, as HB Rashard Mendenhall still provides them with a solid power running game. The offensive line has been a problem area in recent years, but the Steelers have spent some high picks to shore up the area and C Maurkice Pouncey has quickly progressed into an elite lineman.

Storyline to Watch: Fighting Father Time
SS Troy Polamalu, CB Ike Taylor, FS Ryan Clark, OLB James Harrison, ILB Larry Foote, DE Brett Keisel, NT Casey Hampton. That is the list of defensive starters on the Steelers over 30 years old. They all seem to still be playing at a high level, but it is only a matter of time before some of these guys start to slow down. It may not be this year, but at some point the Steelers will no longer be able to rely on these fan favorites to carry their defense. The Steelers have been spending some high picks on defense and realize they need to develop young talent, but at this point they are still very reliant on their veterans.

Player to Watch: WR Antonio Brown
Mike Wallace gets most the headlines, but Antonio Brown is a fast-rising star with similar talent. A sixth-round draft pick in 2010, Brown is turning out to be one of the leagueís best late-round gems. There never seems to be a situation that phases the youngster, who put himself on the map as a rookie by hauling in an over the shoulder 58-yard bomb David Tyree-style to convert a third-and-19 with two minutes left in a tied up playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. Brown is a great open field runner who also contributes as a return specialist and he will look to build on his 1100-yard sophomore season.

Projected Record: 10-6

7. New Orleans Saints
The Saints got a lot of negative publicity this season for their bounty schedule and will have to play the season without their head coach and a number of other coaches and players. Sean Payton and Drew Brees work more closely than any other head coach and QB in the league and have had great success together. Brees should be able to direct the offense effectively in the absence of Payton, but it will hurt to lose the play-calling and game-planning chemistry they had. With all the suspensions and bad energy the Saints seem to have going against them, itís easy to see how the team could have a bad year, but they have a stacked roster and veteran leaders who probably wonít let the team fall apart.
The Saints are coming off a record-breaking season offensively and they should continue to pile up points this year. No one is better at reading a defense, finding the open man, and delivering an on-the-money pass than Drew Brees and he has no shortage of weapons. It all starts up front for the Saints, where they have some great linemen in LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Ben Grubbs, and RG Jahri Evans. TE Jimmy Graham is coming off a 1300 yard, 11 TD season where defenses could find no way to stop Brees from getting the ball to his athletic 6 foot 6 tight end. For all the accolades Brees and Graham received, HB Darren Sproles was the most electric player in all phases of the game. He rushed for 603 yards on just 87 carries, caught 86 passes for 710 yards, racked up 1383 return yards and found the end zone 10 times. WR Marques Colston gives Brees another big-time weapon and when defenses miraculously manage to defend all those guys, Brees just finds another open man and hits him with a perfect pass. The most recent development in the Saintsí offense is the emergence of their run game. Sproles is a great scat-back and Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory have all been very productive running between the tackles. When defenses line up against the Saints they truly must pick their poison.
The Saints defense, shamed by the bounty scandal and missing captain Jonathan Vilma, should come out this year with a chip on their shoulder. The team did well to sign LBs David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton and shouldnít miss Vilma too much. If he should win his appeal and get reinstated, it would give the Saints a great trio of linebackers. Their safeties complement each other quite well as FS Malcolm Jenkins is an excellent coverage safety and SS Roman Harper is very productive when blitzing and attacking the line of scrimmage. The team lost Tracy Porter at CB, but they still have a decent duo of starting corners in Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer. Depth is an issue at safety and elsewhere on their defense, but they have do have an offense that keeps them off the field with long, methodical drives.

Storyline to Watch: Over-reliance on Blitzing
The Saints have had a blitz happy defense for quite some time now and that strategy tends to work well in conjunction with a high-powered offense, but they need their front four to create more pressure. Will Smith is a good all-around player and DT Broderick Bunkley is a great run-stuffer, but itís not a good thing when your SS leads the team in tackles. DE Cameron Jordan and DT Sedrick Ellis only combined for 1.5 sacks last year and really need to increase their production. They are both first-round picks and need to be more productive because the team does not have a deep rotation of pass-rushers.

Player to Watch: TE Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowskiís unprecedented production last season could change the way the league sees the TE position. Defensive coaches surely spent many hours this offseason trying to strategize and figure out ways to stop this new breed of big, athletic tight ends. Graham is a former basketball player and undrafted free agent who does a great job of running the field and has the length and leaping ability to go get any ball thrown near him. Itís hard to imagine he can replicate last yearís production, but then itís also hard to imagine how defenses are going to slow him down.

Projected Record: 10-6

6. Philadelphia Eagles
After being declared the ďDream TeamĒ before the 2011 season, the Eagles ended up being the leagueís most disappointing team. However, they learned a lot during the season, finished strong, and now seem primed to play up to their talent. More than anything, the Eagles need QB Michael Vick to stay healthy. Rookie Nick Foles looks promising and should be a more effective backup than Vince Young was last year, but Vick is the guy that makes the Eagle offense go.
Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are both game-breakers, but are also polished route runners with high football IQs. Safeties are forced to stay deep because Vick can hit one of them with a 60 yard bomb at any time, but that leaves them vulnerable to Vick picking up big gains with his feet and getting the ball to his playmakers on underneath routes. HB LeSean McCoy was a major bright spot for the team last year, accounting for nearly 2000 total yards and finding pay dirt 20 times. Andy Reid does a great job of spreading defenses out with his schemes, giving McCoy and Vick space to get out in the open field and do what they do best. Players like WR Jason Avant and TE Brent Celek are the glue that hold the offense together. They are not flashy playmakers like their teammates, but they are reliable receivers who work the middle of the field and help Vick move the chains. The Eagles were dealt a blow this off-season when all-pro LT Jason Peters went down with an injury expected to keep him out all year, which will likely mean more of Vick running for his life. The Eagles have a good interior line, but the tackle position is a major concern at this point.
The Eagles defense didnít quite live up to the hype after acquiring DE Jason Babin and CBs Nmandhi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but they were still a good unit that should only get better. It was understandably hard for a defense with so many new faces to build chemistry in a lockout-shortened season, but they should be better this year. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will only be in his second year as a defensive coach after switching from being an OL coach, but Reid believes in him. The Eagles pass-rush was menacing last year, with DEs Trent Cole and Jason Babin accounting for 29 sacks and DT Cullen Jenkins providing a strong interior pass-rush. The Eagles recognized they needed to get deeper up front and spent three picks in the first 2 rounds on DT Fletcher Cox, DE Vinny Curry and LB Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles hope that with this influx of youth, along with the trade for MLB DeMeco Ryans and the progression of DE Brandon Graham and LBs Casey Mathews and Brian Rolle, they can have a deep rotation of effective players in their front 7. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are a top-notch CB duo, which makes things very hard for QBs under the duress of the Eaglesí pass-rushers. The position the Eagles will hope to get more out of this year is safety. With two cornerbacks who can handle themselves in single coverage, their safeties are given great opportunities to freelance and make plays, but they were starting young players last year whose inexperience showed. The addition of veteran OJ Atogwe should help, and the Eagles will hope that between Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Jaiqwan Jarrett, they get at least one standout performer.

Storyline to Watch: Fourth Quarter Offense
The Eagles really struggled to close out games this year. They did a good job scoring points early in games, but had a hard time putting teams away and werenít able to put together the necessary drives to win close games. They ranked fourth in the league in first half scoring, but only 25th in fourth quarter scoring. They need to show the ability to drive methodically when thatís what the defense gives them, but shouldnít get away from their personality and stop going for the big play when games are close at the end.

Player to Watch: MLB DeMeco Ryans
The Eagles have been looking for a quality middle linebacker since the days of Jeremiah Trotter and it seems they have finally found one. Ryans brings great leadership and should help toughen up the Eaglesí run defense, which has been a problem for quite some time. The Texans gave up Ryans at a discounted price because they wanted to dump his salary and he wasnít an ideal 3-4 linebacker, but he is still in his prime and should play great in the Eagles 4-3 scheme.

Projected Record: 12-4

5. Baltimore Ravens
There probably arenít two players in the league more hungry to get to the Super Bowl than Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The two legendary defenders have had their team knocking on the door for several years now, and they both know they donít have many years left in the tank. Reed and Lewis are true teachers of the game and have done a great job in schooling young players, which has kept this defense an elite unit throughout the years despite frequent turnover. This yearís challenge for the unit will be playing without reigning Defensive Player of the Year OLB Terrell Suggs, who will miss most of the season with an Achilles injury. The good news for the Ravens is that they may not need to rely on a dominant defense as much as they used to thanks to an offense that has shown great improvement in recent years.
Joe Flacco is entering his fifth season and really seems primed to come into his own. He has the benefit of a ground game spearheaded by 5 foot 8 dynamo Ray Rice and a nasty group of blockers. Vonta Leach is the best road-clearing fullback in the game and OT Michael Oher, RG Marshall Yanda are both top-notch players, but the loss of LG Ben Grubbs will be felt. WR Anquan Boldin and TE Ed Dickson are both great at working the middle of the field and Torrey Smith gives Flacco a guy to show off his big arm and air it out to. Depth is a concern at the skill positions, but the arrival of WR Jacoby Jones and rookie HB Bernard Pierce should help matters.
Both well into their 30s, ILB Ray Lewis and FS Ed Reed are still effective players because of their incredible football intelligence, but it is younger guys like DE Haloti Ngata and CB Ladarius Webb who are emerging as the stars of this defense. Ngata is a force of nature on the defensive line and the team hopes young OLBs Courtney Upshaw, Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle and Albert McClellan can provide a strong pass-rush in the absence of Suggs. Other young players like NT Terrence Cody, ILB Jameel McClain and DEs Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee will be counted on to play important roles defensively. The Ravens also have an excellent group of young corners in Webb, Jimmy Smith, Cary Williams and Corey Graham. There may be concerns about young guys not being able to perform, but Reed and Lewis are proven teachers and motivators who have helped bring up a great many quality defensive players before this current group of guys.

Storyline to Watch: Steeler Rivarly
It seems like every year is a great battle between the Steelers and Ravens for the AFC North crown, with the winner normally getting a bye week and the loser ending up as a wild card. The games between the two teams in the regular season are always intense defensive battles between two teams who share a healthy hatred for each other. The bye week and home field advantage has been critical, as it seems the team that wins the division is always the team that goes farthest in the playoffs. The Ravens. The Steelers have mostly gotten the best of the Ravens in recent years, but the Ravens got over the hump last year and beat the Steelers twice and came within a missed field goal of making the Super Bowl.

Player to Watch: QB Joe Flacco
This team will go as far as their quarterback takes them. The NFL really has become a passerís league and teams donít win Super Bowls without QBs who can make big-time throws and engineer scoring drives in the clutch. Flacco made huge breakthroughs in this department last year, which was a big reason why the Ravens came so close to reaching the ultimate goal. The Ravens do not have a seasoned backup, but Flacco has never missed a game in his career and should continue to show improvement.

Projected Record: 12-4

4. New York Giants
The Lombardi trophy goes to the team playing the best football at the end of the year. The Giants are the living proof that winning Super Bowls is all about getting better throughout the course of the year, winning two championships in the last five years after being written off halfway through the season. Coach Tom Coughlin has an uncanny ability to rally this team when it matters most and Eli Manning has established himself as one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league. The Giants do not by any means have the most stacked roster in the league, but they have proven they can beat any team on any given Sunday and should never be counted out of the Super Bowl discussion.
The strength of the Giants team has to be their pass-rush, which is mostly generated by their defensive line. DEs Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora present matchup problems for every offensive line they go against and are able to disrupt even the most efficient passing attacks. Chris Canty, Linval Joseph, Rocky Bernard and Marvin Austin give the Giants good depth on their defensive line and OLB Mathias Kiwanuka can be a force blitzing off the edge. The Giants will miss CB Aaron Ross, but they should be okay at the position because of a deep rotation of solid players. Corey Webster is an excellent all-around corner, and the team hopes Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara can stay healthy and play up to talent. Having safeties Kenny Phillips and Antrell Rolle at the backend of the defense is a great luxury, as both are smart football players who are tough against both the run and the pass.
WR Victor Cruz may have been the NFLís biggest breakout star in 2011. An undrafted player who had never caught a regular season pass, Cruz exploded onto the scene with 1500 yards and 9 touchdowns. He and Hakeem Nicks are a great receiving tandem and both share great chemistry with Manning. Losing Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham hurts, but the Giants have a number of young receivers they have confidence in. The tight end position is also a concern, but over the years Manning has shown the ability to use his TE effectively no matter who is in the lineup. Over the last couple years, the Giants have transitioned out some of their older players along the offensive line. The new group seems to have gelled well and did a good job keeping Manning clean last year, especially in the playoffs.

Storyline to Watch: Running Game
The Giantsí offensive philosophy under Coughlin has always been to use a power running game to set the table for the playoffs, but they actually ranked dead last in rushing offense last year. Eli Manning carried the team to the playoffs with his steady arm, but the running game came alive in the postseason. During the regular season, the Giants didnít have a rusher average over 4 yards a carry and Ahmad Bradshaw led the team with 659 yards. The team will be without the services of their bruiser, Brandon Jacobs, and will have to rely more on Bradshaw to run between the tackles. Rookie David Wilson and veteran DJ Ware will be counted on to combine with Bradshaw for an improved rushing attack. The Giants cannot expect to win their division again without getting more production out of their run game.

Player to Watch: DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Pierre-Paul is a very rare athlete at 6 foot 5, 280 pounds. He didnít take up football until he was a junior in high school, but was able to use his talent to overcome his lack of technique. When the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2010, he was considered a project and wasnít expected to be this good this soon. ďJPPĒ showed off his high motor and foot speed last year, racking up 86 tackles, best among defensive lineman. He was at his best as a speed-rusher, using his incredible burst to blow by tackles on his way to 16.5 sacks. When he didnít get to the QB, he was able to use his length and leaping ability to knock down 7 passes, third best among defensive lineman. The scary part is that Pierre-Paul is still learning the game and hasnít even come close to reaching his ceiling.

Projected Record: 10-6

3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers were the breakout team of the 2011 season, putting together a 13-3 season and coming within a muffed punt of making the Super Bowl after nearly a decade of futility. Jim Harbaugh took Coach of the Year honors for directing his team to a stunning turnaround in his first season as an NFL coach. Nobody expected him to have instant success implementing a new system in a lockout shortened season, but the 49ers played efficient offense and tough defense from week one, and never laid down for anyone.
It all starts with defense for the 49ers, who will be returning all eleven starters. ILB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith are two of the best in the league and do a great job setting the tone for this unit. Young guys like LBs Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, and S Dashon Goldson have taken well to their mentorship and become difference-makers. Watching Willis and Bowman (who wear number 52 and 53, respectively) was a blur last year, as both possess incredible speed and instincts and simply fly around the field making plays. Aldon Smith finished fifth in the league in sacks as a rookie and looked like a young Jevon Kearse as he used his freakish athleticism and wiry strength to harass quarterbacks. Ray McDonald and Justin Smith provide an excellent interior rush, NT Isaac Sopoaga does a great job clogging the middle, and OLBs Ahmad Brooks and Parys Harralson are effective pass-rushers. The 49ers front seven was dominant last year, allowing only three rushing touchdowns and 77 rushing yards a game. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have earned reputations as big hitters, but they showed good coverage skills last year as well. The secondary has been a concern for the 49ers for a while, but with CB Carlos Rogers playing at a pro-bowl level, and young guys like Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock, and CJ Spillman showing promise, the 49ers are now a tough team to pass against.
People called QB Alex Smith a game-manager last year, and he could care less. For the first time in his career, he was winning games, and that is ultimately what he is there to do. Alex Smith was incredibly efficient and smart with the ball, throwing only five interceptions, and completing over sixty percent of his passes. The 49ers wisely used a ball control offense and let their bruising offensive line pave the way for workhorse HB Frank Gore, who is now the 49ers all-time leading rusher. The Niners may rely a little less on Gore this year, as they now have probably the deepest and most versatile backfield in the league. Kendall Hunter was great as a change of pace back last year, rushing for nearly 500 yards. Rookie LaMichael James is a big play waiting to happen and Brandon Jacobs is the leagueís biggest back and a bruising runner who will be useful in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The 49ers did show an ability to have more than a ball-control offense in last yearís playoffs, as Alex Smith led the Niners to a wild win in a shootout against the Saints and TE Vernon Davis received for nearly 300 yards in two playoff games.

Storyline to Watch: Becoming More Aggressive Without Losing Identity
Harbaugh realizes the 49ers arenít going to win a Super Bowl without being able to air the ball out and make big plays on offense. The 49ers finished 29th in passing yards, 23rd in passing plays for 20+ yards, and 26th in passing plays of 40+ yards. They added WRs Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to combine with Michael Crabtree to form a potent receiver trio. The 49ers will likely air it out more this season and score more points, but they need to be careful not to get away from their identity. They had great success running their offense out of a heavy set with TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller. Their offensive line is much better at run-blocking than pass-protecting, particularly RT Anthony Davis. Itís great that the Niners have more weapons in their pass game, but they have a great defense and run game and their philosophy shouldnít change.

Player to Watch: QB Colin Kaepernick
Itís strange to call a guy who probably wonít even see the field a player to watch, but the young QB has been making waves and seems to be the future signal caller for the 49ers. Based on his preseason performance, the future could become the present this season. Kaepernick has a big arm and can make plays with his legs, and has shown great progress in terms of reading defenses and throwing with his accuracy. Alex Smithís starting job is in no way in jeopardy at this point, but if he is to struggle or get hurt, he will open a window for Kaepernick, who brings playmaking ability to the table that Alex Smith simply canít. If he plays well enough in relief of Smith, Harbaugh may find it impossible to bench the young QB.

2. New England Patriots
For the past decade, the Patriots have been the most dominant force in the NFL. QB Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick have been an unstoppable combination, leading whatever parts they are surrounded with to success. For the second time in five years, the Patriots lost a heartbreaking Super Bowl to the Giants, and are still looking for that elusive fourth ring.
Tom Brady threw for over 5000 yards last year, and the Patriots passing offense should be as unstoppable as ever this year. TE Rob Gronkowski is coming off a record-breaking season with his 1300 yards and 17 TDs, and Brady will continue to feed him the ball. With Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe, the Patriots have unheard of strength at the TE position. Brady loves working the ball down the deep middle and his athletic tight ends seem to create mismatches no matter who is defending them. 5 foot 9 WR Wes Welker has incredible chemistry with Brady and is really the guy who makes this offense go. He was targeted an astounding 172 times, and led the league with 122 receptions as he carved up defenses on underneath routes. The addition of WR Brandon Lloyd gives Brady a veteran downfield target who can stretch defenses. The Patriots do not have a strong run game and lost their starting running back to free agency, but they have proven they do not need to be balanced to be effective on offense. Stevan Ridley had a good rookie year, averaging over 5 yards a carry, and the Patriots will look for him to provide tough, inside running. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead should provide decent options as change of pace backs.
Bill Belichick has been flirting for some time with a switch to a 4-3 defense and it seems like this is the year he will make a full transition. The team spent three high draft picks on guys for their front seven who should fit well into the new scheme, and they believe the switch will make the defense into a tougher unit. When they won their Super Bowls, they did it with strong defense and Brady making clutch plays. They have been relying too much on Brady in recent years and their defensesí inability to make big stops has prevented them from winning consistently in the playoffs. Rookie SLB Donta Hightower will combine with MLB Brandon Spikes and WLB Jerod Mayo to make up a strong group of backers who all are well-suited for their place in the defense. DT Vince Wilfork is still a force in the middle and the Patriots should have a nice rotation of DEs in Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette and Jermaine Cunningham.

Storyline to Watch: Backend Coverage
The Patriotsí D got torched by opposing QBs last year, finishing 31st in total yards allowed and yards allowed per attempt. Starting CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty have shown the ability to collect interceptions, but they also give up too many plays. SS Patrick Chung looked like a rising star a year ago, but he did not play well last year. A player to keep an eye on is rookie FS Tavon Wilson, who the Patriots hope can challenge Steve Gregory for the starting spot.

Player to Watch: DE Chandler Jones
Drafting Jones was a key move for the Patriots this off-season. They knew they needed to add a pass-rusher after losing Andre Carter and Mark Anderson to free agency, and they may have gotten themselves the best pass-rusher in the draft in Jones, who has already shown himself to be a disruptive force in preseason action. The rookie will likely see the field a lot and be counted on to play a key role in the defensive turnaround Belichick hopes to see.

Projected Record: 14-2

1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers canít be happy with the way their season ended, but it served as a reminder to them that winning Super Bowls isnít easy. After destroying every team in their way en route to a championship in 2010, the Packers won the first 13 games of the 2011 regular season and made it look easy. Complacency seemed to set in a little bit as the team clearly wasnít playing its best football down the stretch. They were unable to complete a perfect regular season and played sloppy in a playoff loss to the Giants.
Aaron Rodgers has emerged as the leagueís best signal caller, playing at a such a high level that he has managed to separate himself from even Drew Brees and Tom Brady. After posting a 110 QB rating and collecting a Super Bowl MVP in the 2010 playoffs, he put together a 2011 season so remarkable that even Drew Brees breaking Dan Marinoís passing yards record wasnít enough to deny Rodgers the MVP award. At just his fourth year starting, Rodgers has shown an incredible ability to operate an explosive offense without being careless with the ball. His 45 to 6 touchdown to interception ratio is simply unprecedented, as was his 9.25 yard per attempt and 68.3 completion ratio. Rodgers is the best in the league at putting the ball on a spot where only his receiver can get it and what really sets him apart from the leagueís other elite passers is his ability to pick up big gains with his feet and make plays on the run. Rodgersí receivers are not the biggest and fastest guys in the league, but they are great route runners with reliable hands, and have remarkable chemistry with Rodgers. Greg Jennings is Rodgersí go-to guy and the star of the group, but Jordy Nelson was actually the most productive receiver in the group last year, receiving for over 1200 yards and 15 TD s. TE Jermichael Finley is a matchup nightmare and wideouts James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb are effective slot receivers. As good as the Packer offense has been, there is a lot of room for improvement. They did not have a strong running game and didnít do a good job of protecting Rodgers. The signings of C Jeff Saturday and HB Cedric Benson should help the team have a more effective inside run game.
Itís hard to understand why the Packersí defense struggled so much last year. They ranked 2nd in scoring and 5th in yardage allowed in 2010 and returned almost all their starters, yet finished dead last in yards allowed in 2012. Part of this is because they were piling up so many points that teams were airing it out and trying to play catch-up, but the unit really did take a step back in 2011. The Packers remain one of the best defenses in the league in terms of forcing turnovers, but they really need to tighten up their play. They had to deal with the losses of FS Nick Collins and ILB Nick Barnett last year and will have to play without ILB Desmond Bishop this year, but there is still plenty of talent on the defense. Tramon Williams is an excellent cover corner and the team drafted Casey Hayward in the second round to go along with Sam Shields and Jarret Bush to make up a nice group of CBs. Charles Woodson will be moving to SS, where he will be in position to freelance and make plays, and the team will look for FS Morgan Burnett to build on a solid sophomore season. OLB Clay Mathews is a great player, but after recording only 6 sacks last year, the Packers will be expecting much more from him this year. Rookie OLB Nick Perry was drafted in the first round to help with the pass-rush, which was a major disappointment last year. NT BJ Raji and DE Ryan Pickett are both excellent run defenders, but the teamís interior pass-rush has not been the same since losing DE Cullen Jenkins. Rookies Jerrel Worthy and Mike Daniels and free-agent signee Phillip Merling will hopefully help in this department.

Storyline to Watch: Dominating the Turnover Battle
Yardage is great, but no factor is more decisive in games than turnovers. A big reason why the Packers have been so dominant lately is their ability to take the ball away from opponents while taking care of it themselves. Last year, they tied for the NFL lead in takeaways, and had the second fewest giveaways. This stat does a lot to explain how they managed to go 15-1 despite ranking dead last in yardage allowed. In the playoff game they lost to the Giants, they were sloppy with the ball, losing three fumbles and turning the ball over 4 times in total. With an offense as good as theirs, itís hard for them to lose games unless they make mistakes. Rodgers takes great care of the ball and as long as the team can cut out the fumbles and keep forcing takeaways on defense, they shouldnít lose many games.

Player to Watch: SS Charles Woodson
There is no one more instrumental in forcing turnovers on the defense than Charles Woodson, who was the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. He has lost a step in his old age, but he makes up for it with instincts and playmaking ability that are second to none. He was always a physical corner who loved to blitz and freelance in zone coverage, so the move to safety should come naturally to him. He racked up 74 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 interceptions, 17 passes defended, 1 FF, 1 FR and 1 TD last year and he may be even more active this year without being responsible for playing man coverage as a corner. If the team continues to struggle rushing the passer, Woodson will probably be used more often on blitzes, where he is quite effective. He is a defensive general for the team and the coaching staff trusts him to follow his instincts.
Projected Record: 13-3
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