With the NFL season only two weeks away, it’s time for our annual preview series. I thought we’d try a different format this year; rather than go by division, I’ll take a shot at ranking the teams from #32 to #1 overall. Keep in mind a few things here…#1, I’m basing this on expected records, not as a judge of overall talent. For example, I actually like Carolina’s talent base more than the Bengals’, but I like Cincy’s chances to win more games because they have a relatively soft schedule. #2, this is extremely subjective – I’m going to use a lot of stats to analyze this, but it’s also a lot of ‘feel’. #3, the NFL is VERY tough to forecast, there are always a few teams that come out of nowhere…so don’t bet the savings account on any of this, it’s just for fun J. Having said that, let’s look at the 10 teams that I think are complete also-rans in 2011 – but at the end I’ll list the team from this group I think is most likely to surprise us.
#32: Buffalo Bills
Major Additions: LB Nick Barnett (FA); DT Marcell Dareus (3rd overall)
Major Losses: WR Lee Evans; LB Paul Posluszny
Why they might be better than this: Natural variance of the NFL; attention to defense in draft might allow them to stay in most games…um, that’s about it.
Why they might be as bad as this: Can’t get any worse than 30th; I defy you to name one star player on this team; QB Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term answer; rough division, rough schedule overall, even for a fourth-place team.
Final notes and predicted record: This is the most boring team in the NFL right now – no exciting players, no real news, and they’ve been stuck in a rut for over a decade now. 3-13 for the Bills.
#31: Carolina Panthers
Major Additions: QB Cam Newton (#1 overall); TE Jeremy Shockey (FA)
Major Losses: none of note
Why they might be better than this: Their defense was actually decent in 2010; Cam Newton MIGHT be a versatile enough athlete to win a few games, a la Michael Vick; the NFC South has been the worst-to-first division in recent years; the offense should regress some in 2011.
Why they might be worse than this: Newton isn’t exactly an accurate passer, and his learning curve figures to be steep; Carolina’s offense was by far the worst in the NFL last year – they need more than regression to get them out of that hole; the NFC South has a claim to being the deepest division in the league, so an 0-6 division record is possible for the Panthers; lockout made it tough on new coaches like Ron Rivera to get systems in place.
Final notes and predicted record: I actually like their talent, but I’m not bullish on Newton’s chances, especially early on. Also, the division is ultra-tough and I don’t see more than four or five other wins on the schedule. 3-13 for Carolina.
#30: Seattle Seahawks
Key Additions: QB Tavaris Jackson (FA);TE Zach Miller (FA); S Atari Bigby (FA); G Robert Gallery (FA)
Key Losses: QB Matt Hasselbeck; LB Lofa Tatupu
Why they might be better than this: Well, they ARE the defending division champs; historically they do well at home, even when they are poor overall; Miller gives their QBs a great intermediate target; this division is still pretty terrible, so they could catch lightning in a bottle as they did a year ago.
Why they might be worse than this: I’m already being pretty hard on them, but consider that they were a combined 9-23 in 2008-09 with point differentials almost identical to 2010 – in short, they were VERY lucky last year; Hasselbeck was aging and injury-prone, but he was far better than either Whitehurst or Jackson; their schedule is murderous – AFC North and NFC East, plus Atlanta and Green Bay – that looks like 2-3 wins MAX, meaning they would need to dominate their division again just to approach .500.
Final notes and predicted record: Don’t let their big win over the Saints cloud your judgment – this was a bad team in 2010 and they are strong candidates to be worse in 2011. The only thing that might save them is their mediocre division, but my guess is that they crash hard this season. 4-12 in Seattle.
#29: Cincinnati Bengals
Key Additions: CB Nate Clements (FA); WR A.J. Green (4th overall)
Key Losses: QB Carson Palmer; WR Chad Ochocinco; WR Terrell Owens; CB Johnathan Joseph
Why they might be better than this: Relatively soft out-of-division schedule (NFC West, AFC South); possibility that losing Owens and Ochocinco is addition by subtraction…that’s about all I can think of.
Why they might be worse than this: The Bengals are the worst-run franchise in the NFL – so poor that their QB, who still was a viable starter, retired rather than report – and the owner is too stubborn to trade his rights! Their QB situation is a mess, the wideout situation is no better, and the defense lost a top corner in Joseph. Frankly, if they had Carolina’s schedule I’m not sure they’d win a game, but as it stands they probably will manage to win four or five somehow…however, I doubt any of them will be in the division.
Final notes and prediction: Anything higher than 5-11 would REALLY shock me…there are always surprises in the NFL, but I cannot see this team being one of them. 4-12 for the Bungles.
#28: Denver Broncos
Key Additions: LB Von Miller (2nd overall); RB Willis McGahee (FA)
Key Losses: none
Why they might be better than this: The defense has nowhere to go but up after allowing the most yards AND points in 2010; draft emphasized defense, which will also help; Brandon Lloyd and Knowshon Moreno provide two legitimate offensive threats; AFC West is still not a great division
Why they might be worse than this: Another new-coach situation likely means a rough time early on as the team installs new systems; defense is likely to still be very poor; non-divisional schedule is VERY rough (NFC North, AFC East); QB situation seems extremely muddled (will Tebow get the job at some point? Is he REALLY an NFL-caliber QB?)
Final notes and prediction: This is the first team on the list that I think has some real upside, and frankly from here on out every team could conceivably win seven or eight games…but when in doubt I look at the QB and the coach. John Fox is a proven coach, but the lockout put him behind – and I just don’t see either of these QBs as playoff-caliber in the end. 5-11 for Denver.
#27: Jacksonville Jaguars
Key Additions: QB Blaine Gabbert (#10 overall); LB Paul Posluszny (FA); S Dewan Landry (FA)
Key Losses: WR Mike Sims-Walker
Why they might be better than this: Well, they did go 8-8 a year ago; RB Jones-Drew is among the elite talents at his position; Poz & Landry should help the defense.
Why they might be worse than this: They were WAY over their head last year – they were outscored by over 60 points, yet somehow finished .500. That’s not repeatable; they went offense-heavy in the draft, despite having one of the league’s worst defenses; QB appears to be in flux with the draft of Gabbert; schedule is MUCH tougher in 2011 – to approach .500 again they will need to win at least four division games, and I don’t see that happening.
Final notes and prediction: Much like Seattle, you have to look at the long-term trend. The Jags were essentially the same team in ’08 and ’09 as they were in ’10, they just got lucky last year. With a lame-duck QB, a rough schedule, and a poor defense, it’s hard for me to see this team surprising anyone in 2011. 6-10 for the Jags – and they only get those six wins if their division is as soft as I expect.
#26: San Francisco 49ers
Key Additions: LB Aldon Smith (7th overall); CB Carlos Rogers (FA), WR Braylon Edwards (FA); QB Colin Kaepernick (2nd round)
Key Losses: CB Nate Clements; LB Takeo Spikes
Why they might be better than this: This remains a very weak division, and the 49ers still have some weapons to compete – fundamentally, they were about the same offense in 2010 that they were in 2009, but the defense really sagged. If that was just a 1-year aberration, 8-10 wins is possible; Edwards gives them a fast (albeit unreliable) deep threat; if Frank gore is healthy, they have a top RB; sixth against the run in 2010.
Why they might be worse than this: Recurring theme among bad teams – QB play. Alex Smith simply hasn’t gotten it done, and now he’s on a short leash with young Kaepernick in the wings; Gore is never healthy; Clements had slipped, but losing him and Spikes is a serious blow to the defense; yet another rookie coach with limited time to prepare his squad; VERY difficult out-of-division schedule (see Seattle above for details).
Final thoughts and prediction: I’m a Harbaugh fan, I think he’s the right coach at the right time in San Fran, and if he had more raw material at QB I’d pick them to really jump up…but I think this will take some time. There’s a lot of upside here, especially on offense…so if a team is going to surprise from this group, they are my first choice – but I’m not betting on it. 6-10 for the 49ers.
#25: Washington Redskins
Key Additions: LB Ryan Kerrigan (16th overall)
Key Losses: QB Donovan McNabb
Why they might be better than this: The NFC East appears to me to be weaker than in past years; having a returning coaching staff puts the ‘Skins ahead of most other bad teams; Torain and Moss provide some offensive spark; fairly easy non-division schedule.
Why they might be worse than this: This team gave up the second most yards in the league and I see no apparent improvement on defense; Shanahan hasn’t built a great team since Elway retired; most importantly, with McNabb gone the QB options are Rex Grossman and John Beck, with no heir apparent. You HAVE to have good QB play to win in the NFL, and Washington simply doesn’t have that.
Final thoughts and prediction: there’s some talent here, and I think they might even challenge the Giants for third in the division (more on them later)…but overall this franchise is a shell of its former greatness, and appears to be running in place. 6-10 for the ‘Skins.
#24: Oakland Raiders
Key Additions: QB Terrelle Pryor (supp. Draft); TE Kevin Boss (FA)
Key Losses: CB Nnamdi Asomougha; TE Zach Miller; G Robert Gallery
Why they might be better than this: The offense was among the best in the league last year, and easily the most improved – they went from 197 points scored in ’09 to 410 last year. QB Jason Campbell is not a star, but he provides consistency that’s been sorely lacking in Oakland; Darren McFadden exploded last year and is now a premier back; the division is still not very strong, and a light early schedule allows a fast start.
Why they might be worse than this: Al Davis should have retired years ago – his continued presence is destroying this franchise. Coach Tom Cable stuck with his plan and had the team on the rise, yet was still fired after the season; Free agents flee the team like rats leaving a sinking ship – the loss of Asomougha and Miller will have a HUGE impact on this season; the defense was mediocre a year ago and was not addressed in the offseason at all; the closing part of the schedule is brutal; yet another team with a coaching change and not much time to work with; will Pryor become a distraction if the Raiders are out of the race late in the season?
Final words and prediction: I predict a MAJOR offensive regression in Oakland – Miller was a huge part of the passing offense, and his departure will affect the entire passing game. McFadden is awesome but he cannot do it alone – teams will now load up to stop him even more than before. Defensively, Asomougha’s departure leaves them woefully thin in the secondary, and the division’s top two teams will likely torch them through the air. 6-10 for Oakland, and I may well be too optimistic about their chances.
#23: Minnesota Vikings
Key Additions: QB Christian Ponder (#12 overall); QB Donovan McNabb (trade);
Key Losses: QBs Brett Favre and Tavaris Jackson; WR Sidney Rice; T Bryant McKinnie
Why they might be better than this: As I predicted a year ago, the Vikings stuck with Favre a year too long and it cost them – they imploded offensively. Donovan McNabb is almost certainly better than what they had a year ago; the defense slipped a little, but the Vikings still have some talent on that side of the ball; coach Leslie Frazier had six games at the end of last season to work with the squad – a huge leg up on teams with brand-new coaching staffs; RB Adrian Peterson is still among the best in the game.
Why they might be worse than this: By allowing McKinnie and Rice to leave, and not addressing the positions through the draft, Minnesota’s offense will likely struggle again. Percy Harvin still isn’t 100% – who will McNabb throw to? not enough weapons; the division figures to be perhaps the deepest in the NFL, with the defending champs, the 11-5 Bears, and an improving Lions team – no ‘gimme’ wins at all for the Vikings; the defense is getting a bit old, especially in the front seven, and no action was taken to address this area; if McNabb goes down, Ponder isn’t ready (most think he was a reach at #12 anyway), and the entire season could go south in a big hurry.
Final words and prediction: Minnesota seems to me like a team who missed its chance and is on the downside now. I foresee a major rebuild coming in Minneapolis, and while I still think there’s some talent on this team (the most of any double-digit loss team, hence they are rated the highest), I think that the division is just too tough for them now – and while McNabb provides stability at QB, he’s no longer a QB good enough to win without major weapons to throw to. 6-10 for the Vikes.
Next week, we’ll run down the middle ten – all of whom have realistic paths to a playoff berth. Also, next week we’ll be presenting the new and improved GANT Gridiron Challenge – where anyone can play and compete for weekly prizes!
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.