Green Bay Packers – The champs start out at number one, and deservedly so. Another great draft by GM Ted Thompson, trimmed some fat by letting go of some expendable players via free agency, and re-signed some key players. The team last year showed just how deep the roster was with quality players who came in and replaced injured starters with ease. The team caught fire late in the season, and the momentum carried them all the way to becoming the champs.
Philadelphia Eagles – Hey there, big spender…The Eagles’ have brought in a load of free agents, as you may have heard. The “Dream Team” lacks experience at linebacker, however. Now, in the past, bringing in a lot of free agents and spending a ton of money has usually equaled disappointing results (see Redskins). But last year the Bears signed Julius Peppers and he was a difference maker on defense. We could see a similar occurrence for the Eagles this year with Nnamdi Asomugha.
Atlanta Falcons – Disappointing playoff appearance, but the future is definitely bright for the Falcons franchise as long as Matt Ryan is running the show. Look for a return to the playoffs. Defensive end Ray Edwards was really the only free agent pick up the Falcons got, but he could be a difference maker if he takes attention away from the other side for John Abraham. Julio Jones has been brilliant in training camp, so look for him to get a jump start on all the other rookie wide receivers.
Pittsburgh Steelers – No free agency splash from the Steelers, but you know they’re still one of the top teams in the league. Fresh off the Super Bowl loss, the Steelers are a very similar team to what they were in 2010. They re-signed players they needed back and let go of ones they could do without.
New York Jets – Powerful defense kept a few key players and GM Mike Tannenbaum added some beef up front in the draft. But I think the key to the Jets breaking through and getting to the Super Bowl is Mark Sanchez. He must become a better quarterback this year.
New England Patriots – The additions of Haynesworth, Ochocinco-Johnson, Shaun Ellis, and Marcus Stroud make for an all-star team…about five years ago. The Pats still need a reliable pass rusher and an improved secondary. The team still has living legend Tom Brady at quarterback and plenty of weapons in the passing game, plus they added some talent to the backfield in the draft.
Baltimore Ravens – The team will go as Joe Flacco goes in 2011. He needs to step up in a big way this season if the Ravens want to take the next step. He’s got weapons on offense and the defense, obviously, will be dominant. Free agency took a toll on the team, however. Did they lose too much?
New Orleans Saints – The defensive line got huge upgrades (literally) in the offseason (defensive tackles Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, and first round pick defensive end Cameron Jordan). They traded Reggie Bush, but gained Darren Sproles (not to mention Mark Ingram). The NFC South is going to be very competitive and the Saints are one of the main reasons.
Chicago Bears – The offensive line for the Bears is going to be pretty bad this year. Shouldn’t Jerry Angelo have realized this over the many months of the NFL lockout? For heaven’s sake, if you don’t protect your franchise quarterback, he gets injured. Meanwhile, Cutler has lost weight this offseason, probably trying to be able to run faster. First round pick Gabe Carimi may be the only reliable lineman, but he’s also a rookie. The defense will still be very good, but I see the offense taking a nosedive. Marion Barber and Roy Williams come up from Dallas, but I think there’s a reason why they were allowed to walk.
New York Giants – Steve Smith, gone. Osi Umenyiora, holdout until Monday. Offensive line, concerning. First round pick Prince Amukamara, out for two months. Not exactly a good offseason and start of training camp for the G-Men. I’m not quite sure they’ll be much more patient with head coach Tom Coughlin, but the team should still be in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Josh Freeman is quietly creating a very good career in Tampa and the “Young Bucs” as I like to call them are the next team that will break out. They surprised most everyone (except for head coach Raheem Morris, who stated during the season that they were the best in the NFC) by accumulating 10 wins. GM Mark Dominic has done a great job of improving the roster since he took the job. But the NFC South is going to be super tough this year. A tougher schedule may temper expectations for such a young squad.
Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs surprised the league last year by winning the AFC West and I think they’re up for it again this season. I think Matt Cassel is an underrated quarterback and he’s gotten Steve Breaston and Jon Baldwin as new weapons. “Patriots West” will have to prove that 2010 was no fluke.
Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning’s neck situation will be a concern. Improvements were made along the offensive line with draft picks Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, so Manning should be better protected this season. The defense lost Bob Sanders, but then again, was he ever really playing in recent seasons? Will this be the year we finally see the Colts start to decline? If Manning isn’t 100%, I think everyone will see just how dependent this team is on him.
Houston Texans – Wade Phillips comes in to convert the defense to the 3-4, moving Mario Williams to OLB, but really they’re going to line him up where ever the situation requires him to be at. The real concern, as it was last year as well, will be in the secondary. Will free agent acquisitions Daniel Manning and Jonathan Joseph be enough to improve the atrociousness that was the pass defense last year? Arian Foster also is out to prove that 2010 was no fluke.
St. Louis Rams – Josh McDaniels was brought in as offensive coordinator and the Sam Bradford era in St. Louis looks to have it’s coming out party in 2011. Before we unveil Bradford as the next league MVP, there are some things he needs to improve on, namely the amount of passes he throws further than 20 yards. Stretching the field will be something to watch for. Another thing to watch for is rookie tight end Lance Kendricks. The receiver unit has improved, and will have to help Bradford expand his passing. The defense will need to prove it has upped its level of play, too. There are still some holes on the depth chart, but GM Billy Devaney is definitely building a winner in St. Louis.
San Diego Chargers – I see the Chargers as a team on the decline. First round picks aren’t panning out, Norv Turner can’t get his team to start playing until late in the year, and they just had another bad draft. However, Philip Rivers is still leading the team on the field and it’s hard to bet against him in the regular season. I’m still flabbergasted as to how a team can have the number one offense and defense (yardage wise), and miss the playoffs. Another thing: hopefully they’ve solved their special teams problems.
Detroit Lions – Matt Stafford NEEDS to stay healthy. It’s been the knock on him and he needs to shed that label. It would help if the offensive line had better additions, but the Lions’ main focus is apparently on defense. The defensive line is scary…like…pee your pants scary. Second round running back Mike Leshoure is out for the year, which hurts the offense, because Jahvid Best seems to be best suited for a two man backfield.
Seattle Seahawks – Big improvements in free agency with the signings of WR Sidney Rice, C Olin Kreutz, TE Zach Miller, and DT Alan Branch) Oh, and uh, Tarvaris Jackson. If the Seahawks had a decent option at quarterback, I’d think they had a shot at repeating as NFC West champs, but even with all of the upgrades at other positions, I think the Rams have the upper hand.
Jacksonville Jaguars – GM Gene Smith wanted to build the Jaguars through the draft, but this offseason, he went on a shopping spree in free agency. I think that could be a little favor to Coach Del Rio to try to save his job. Wayne Weaver said that if the Jags don’t make the playoffs this year, Del Rio’s gone. The defense added three new starters at two linebacker spots and at safety.
Minnesota Vikings – Well, it’s time to start over in Minnesota. Christian Ponder is now their QB of the future and Donovan McNabb is there to help ease the transition. Although Adrian Peterson still makes this team dangerous offensively, McNabb will have to prove he has talent left in the tank. The defense will be good still and will keep the team in games.
Miami Dolphins – A few years ago, I felt Chad Henne could be a good quarterback. Learned my lesson. The additions of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas will have to show that they can at least match what Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown brought to the offense. The Dolphins added talent at linebacker and Mike Pouncey on the offensive line, but other than that, the roster hasn’t improved very much.
Tennessee Titans – The Titans have a completely different face this year. Vince Young, Jeff Fisher, gonzo. Jake Locker was drafted for the future and Matt Hasselbeck steps in for the transition. Mike Munchak brings his lack of head coaching experience (went straight from playing to assistant coach, to offensive line coach). I’m unsure if the lack of head coaching experience will matter, but it’s something to ponder…I think so Brain, but Pete Rose…can we trust him? (Pinky and the Brain…anyone?) Totally random, but anyways…I don’t see the Titans improving over last year’s record.
Arizona Cardinals – The Cards got their new QB in Kevin Kolb, but I’m still skeptical he’s the answer. They gave up quite a bit for him in the trade with Philly, but it’s worth a shot to get someone to fill what was an awful position for the Cards in 2010. The addition of LB Stewart Bradley and TE Todd Heap were nice additions, as well.
Carolina Panthers – I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the Panthers are going to be much improved in 2011. They get some key players back from injury last year, and had a pretty good looking free agent class as well. The big question, of course, is will Cam Newton become the starter and then, will he be able to lead the offense? He looked good in the preseason opener.
San Francisco 49ers – Alex Smith is not the answer. Help is not coming for the 49ers this season. I think people need to read between the lines. Coach Harbaugh wants Andrew Luck. The secondary is improved with free agents Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner, but not greatly improved. Looks like unless AlDon Smith provides a pass rush threat in his rookie year, the Niners won’t have much of a threat off the edge. It’ll be another year for the struggling 49ers.
Oakland Raiders – Darren McFadden busted out last season and he’ll be the focus of the Raiders’ offense. Hue Jackson will start his tenure in Oakland with some expectations of improving over an 8-8 season (albeit surprising 8-8). The offense lost tight end Zach Miller, but the Raiders will probably use their running game as their bread and butter. On the other side of the ball, the defensive front seven looks strong (minus Quentin Groves). I think the Raiders will take a step back in 2011 with no real quarterback and the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha.
Cleveland Browns – I wasn’t a fan of Colt McCoy during the 2010 draft prep, but he’s gained some respect from me and is looking up as the starter for the Browns. However, I don’t expect him to become a superstar or anything like that. Young players will be at important positions for the Browns, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’re up for the challenge. Peyton Hillis was an amazing steal from the Broncos and will be the drive of the team.
Buffalo Bills – This team has no superstar, maybe not even any stars, but there are a lot of quality players on the Bills…unfortunately, that doesn’t get it done in the NFL. The offensive line needs to improve greatly, Ryan Fitzpatrick must play at least like he did last year (which I thought was surprising), and Shawne Merriman needs to stay healthy. Merriman had a good showing in the Bills’ first preseason game. The Bills lost key players in free agency and may be in the running for Andrew Luck a.k.a. the number one pick in 2012.
Denver Broncos – The you-know-who controversy has become a distraction for this franchise and I think we’ll see the Broncos at the bottom of the AFC West again at the end of the 2011 season. The pass rush should be impressive however. Elvis Dumervil will be coming back after being on IR all last season and they drafted OLB Von Miller, who’s known for his pass rushing ability.
Washington Redskins – John Beck…really? I’m willing to give him a shot, but this is very fishy. I think head coach Mike Shanahan is making a play for the number one pick in the 2012 draft for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. It’s looking like another tough year in the nation’s capital.