The Packers and Saints kicked off the festivities last night (Note: This article was originally published on my personal blog an hour before last night's Packers/Saints game.), so I'll get the NFC out of the way now and do the AFC before Sunday.
1. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Naturally, I hope this prediction serves as a jinx and the Cowboys are awful, but I've been getting an ominous feeling recently about those bastards. The offense should easily be one of the best in the NFL with Tony Romo, Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten leading the way, and the front seven on defense is menacing. DeMarcus Ware is still the preeminent sack artist in the NFL. But the season will hinge on the effectiveness of the offensive line and secondary, which are the biggest question marks for this team. Doug Free, a Pro Bowl-quality left tackle, anchors an inexperienced unit that features rookies at left guard and right tackle, and a second-year center who has yet to play a snap in the NFL. And now the rookie right tackle, Tyron Smith, is out at least a few weeks with a knee injury. Much like the Eagles, the Cowboys' offensive line is a work in progress, and Tony Romo is going to be running for his life quite a bit in the early going.
Terence Newman, at age 33, can still play at a high level, but he likely would have been a cap casualty had Dallas signed Nnamdi Asomugha and is now battling a nagging groin injury. Aside from him, the defensive backfield boasts the following starters: Orlando Scandrick, Abram Elam, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Mike Jenkins (who looked like a rising star in 2009 but struggled in 2010). Not exactly an ideal situation. If those guys can even be adequate and the offensive line doesn't get Romo killed, the Cowboys should contend for the division title.
Sleeper: Alan Ball. He's currently the team's slot corner and had something of a breakout season in 2010. If Michael Jenkins falters (or gets injured), Ball is the guy who's going to take his place. I could also see one of Tashard Choice or DeMarco Murray becoming a valuable complementary piece of the offense.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)*
Listen, I could see this team going 7-9 just as easily as 10-6 or better. There's only one professional sports franchise in Philadelphia right now that has earned my unequivocal confidence, and it's not the Eagles. At least management understands -- and has specifically gone of its way to mention -- that the team hasn't accomplished anything yet. I don't try to be down on the Birds, but the nauseating love-fest that followed the free agent shopping spree was getting WAY too out of hand. The hoopla immediately reminded me of two things: Those Redskins teams of the recent past that won offseason Super Bowls by whoring themselves out to gaggles of free agents, and all the gratuitous hype that surrounded the Cowboys going into last season. Big tree fall hard, people.
The fact remains that the Eagles' roster has glaring holes. It's funny, this team seems to be either stable and strong at a position or precarious and weak. There is no middle ground (although I suppose you could make a case for tight end here, if you want to be picky). Accordingly, you can be sure the front office and coaching staff are praying dominant defensive line and cornerback play helps make up for the uncertainty at linebacker and safety. The offensive line will hopefully get better as the season progresses, but you have to be concerned about the first handful of games with rookies Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins starting at center and right guard, respectively. Wait, check that, Watkins has been replaced with Kyle DeVan, a recent waiver wire pickup and former Howard Mudd disciple in Indianapolis. Talk about a move that screams panic -- I'm just waiting for that gallimaufry of an offensive line to screw up and get Michael Vick injured on the first drive of the season. Hey, at least there's a solid plan in place and the team isn't making shit up as it goes along. Oh, wait. I like moving Herremans outside to protect Vick's blind side and think he's going to adapt to the position well, but the interior of the line makes me nervous. These Eagles strike me as a team that's going to start slow -- if you're a betting man, smart money is on the Rams in Week 1 -- and, as has been the trend during the Andy Reid era, come on strong later in the season. But I don't see an NFC championship, let alone a Super Bowl victory.
If this team does, however, want to make it out of the NFC and perhaps win the franchise's first Super Bowl, it MUST -- must -- develop an identity resembling the opposite of soft and incompetent under pressure, which is what the Eagles have perfected over the past decade. Run the ball. Not a majority of the time, but enough of the time. I'm not even asking for much, just something along the lines of a 45/55 run/pass ration. But late in games, when this team is nursing a lead, it needs to be able to bleed the clock by churning out yards on the ground. Aside from the Packers (who did it throughout the playoffs and then couldn't against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl because no one can fucking run the ball against that defense), look at all the teams that have gone on to win Super Bowls recently. A physical element and the ability to impose their will at the line of scrimmage in the run game were essential to success. Until Andy Reid adopts that philosophy and style to supplement his current offensive dogma, his Eagles will lose to talented teams that do play that way, especially in the playoffs.
Sleeper #1: Dion Lewis (scroll down a bit). Jacquizz Rodgers is still my dude (and he's going to be a weapon for the Falcons), but Dion Lewis has made me a believer this preseason. Andy and Marty Mornhinweg must find a way to get him the ball.
Sleeper #2: Philip Hunt. The 6-1, 250-pound import from the CFL is hoping to be the next Cameron Wake -- an undersized defensive end who went north of the border to hone his craft, ended up leading that league in sacks, and is now getting his shot in the NFL. If Hunt's preseason performance is any indication, he has a shot to be an effective rotational player/pass rush specialist for the Eagles. He made an impressive play in each of the four games and was a consistently disruptive force. Hunt was a long shot to make the roster when training camp started, but he beat out 2010 third rounder Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (hello, wasted draft pick) for the final spot and could be a major surprise if he continues to develop under the tutelage of Jim Washburn. (Edit: Perhaps I should have devoted this paragraph to Darryl Tapp instead.)
3. New York Giants (7-9)
I've never seen preseason injuries hit a team as hard and as mercilessly. It's been unbelievable. The defense is already devastated, having lost six -- SIX! -- players to season-ending injuries, and the real games haven't even started yet. The newest member of the injured reserve list is starting middle linebacker Jonathan Goff, who tore his ACL in practice on Monday. The Giants should still be able to get pressure on the quarterback with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and, eventually, Osi Umenyiora, but those injuries have stripped the defense of whatever depth it had. While the Bradshaw-Jacobs running back hydra has a chance to be as dangerous as ever if the new-look offensive line can jell, overall the unit is thin on talent -- especially at receiver, where the options after Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham range from unproven to average, at best. I don't think much of the Giants this season, but I know better than to be foolish and write them off entirely. They'll likely start strong due to a soft first-half schedule, but I see them fading as the quality of opponent gets tougher.
Sleeper: I was going to nominate Ramses Barden, but the 6-6 wide receiver has been placed on the PUP list and will be out for at least the first six weeks of the season. And Jason Pierre-Paul is no longer a sleeper. So, uh, let's see here. I'm going to go with Linval Joseph, the mammoth second-year defensive tackle who will either occupy multiple offensive linemen to free up Tuck, Pierre-Paul, and Umenyiora on the outside or benefit from those three commanding extra blockers.
4. Washington Redskins (7-9)
I'm sipping some of the pro-Redskins Kool Aid, but at the end of the day there's still not enough talent on this roster to get over the hump. Things are headed in the right direction, though, and you have to think the Skins are eyeing the 2012 draft, which could feature the best quarterback class -- Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Barkley, etc. -- since 2004. This is a team that, just like last year, will be in a lot of games and fight opponents tooth and nail. The defense should be vastly improved (it can't be worse) and, with an underrated offensive line, the run game should resemble what Mike Shanahan had in Denver. But at the end of the day, there's no way a team piloted by a combination of Rex Grossman and John Beck will win this division. It just defies logical explanation, and I refuse to believe it can happen. Until it happens. But leapfrogging the decimated Giants and finishing third in the NFC East? Yeah, I could certainly see that.
The Skins could very well cease to be a humiliating abomination on the field, but Dan Snyder is still a shameful piece of shit. He didn't even read the article that prompted him to file a frivolous, insulting, and hectoring lawsuit against Washington City Paper! What a colossal asshole.
Sleeper: Terrence Austin. Listed at 5-11, but Austin is actually a little under 5-10. I'll go ahead and say 175 pounds is his accurate weight... when he's soaking wet. A seventh round pick in 2010, Austin didn't see the field last season until the final two games but has made quite an impression during training camp and the preseason, finishing second on the team with 10 catches for 141 yards. A lot of beat writers have started to sing his praises and think he could be a real weapon both on offense and in the kick/punt return game (supplanting Brandon Banks, perhaps). Austin might be under-sized and have a slight build, but he doesn't play that way. He's quick, tough, fearless, elusive, a precise route runner, and displays soft hands. Currently fourth on the wide receiver depth chart, Austin is a home run threat and will make some big plays for the Skins this season.
(Edit: Look at Chris Neild, notching two sacks in his first career game. He looked really good during the preseason and even better against the Giants. The Skins may have found themselves a gem in the seventh round. The weird thing is that when I wrote my "How to Fix the Washington Redskins" article back in December, Neild is one of the three players I suggested the team take in the sixth round of the draft. Even weirder: One of the other two players I suggested, Markus White, was selected by the Skins just 29 picks before Neild. Actually, that's all a pretty cool coincidence.
Anyway, Neild should be a folk hero and fan favorite in no time. The senile -- drunk? -- band of radio announcers sure do love him already.)
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
The rich get richer in Green Bay. A deep, talented roster that suffered through myriad injuries last season and still managed to win the Super Bowl will only be stronger in 2011. With guys like Jermichael Finley and Morgan Burnett returning to a championship team still largely intact, the Packers are the clear-cut favorites in the conference. Aaron Rodgers is the fucking man. Also, even though the Packers are starting out with a Ryan Grant/James Starks platoon at running back, expect Starks to take over as the number one at some point during the season. The playoffs were just a preview of what he can do.
Sleeper: Randall Cobb (scroll down a bit). The rookie out of Kentucky is going to be a jack of all trades for the Packers -- Mike McCarthy's new toy, if you will. Cobb is a unique player with special talent. There was serious buzz about his performance at training camp, and it stands to reason he'll be dangerous in that high-octane Packers offense. (Edit: And, apparently, as a kick and punt returner, too. Whoa, talk about a home run threat.)
Double Edit: Maybe I should have considered Jordy Nelson as a breakout player candidate. He was huge for the Packers down the stretch last season, and especially in the Super Bowl. If the team is beginning the transition from Donald Driver to Nelson as the number two receiver, 1000 yards is very possible and perhaps even likely. On defense, it appears Erik Walden will be the Packers' surprise linebacker du jour. He, like Nelson, came on late in 2010 -- including a 12-tackle, three-sack outburst against Chicago in Week 17 -- and continued to perform well into the playoffs, especially against the Eagles in the Wild Card Round, when he notched five total tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble. Against the Saints in Week 1, Walden recorded four tackles, a sack, and one pass defended.
2. Detroit Lions (9-7)
I'm buying the Lions, to an extent. I think next season, not this one, is when they finally crash the playoff party. That defensive line is going to be a nightmare, and the offense has the raw talent to be among the best in the league. Matthew Stafford's health, as always, is the wild card here. I still see the Lions as being a few players away, but their time is coming. Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have done a masterful job rebuilding this franchise.
Sleeper: Louis Delmas. If you don't already know about Louis Delmas, the Lions' third-year free safety (FROM?! Western Michigan), you will soon.
3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Donovan McNabb is finally in an offense committed to running the ball and will be handing the ball off to that Adrian Peterson guy. It's too bad he's about to turn 35 and clearly in the twilight of his career. The Vikings are pretty bleh, a middling team that could hang around for a bit but ultimately lacks the talent to compete with the elite. I'll tell fans this: If it's late in the game and you need a score to tie or win, McNabb is not the guy you want leading your team. Honestly, the Vikings are a perfect storm of comedic potential for me, and I'll admit I'm anxious (giddily so) to read Drew Magary's weekly, profaity-laced conniption fits that result from him helplessly watching McNabb throw the ball at the feet of open receivers.
Sleeper: Kyle Rudolph. Visanthe Shiancoe is still the starter, but Rudolph is the future. The rookie second round pick out of Notre Dame is a natural receiver and superb athlete, even though he's not especially fast, for a guy who's 6-6 and 259 pounds -- not surprisingly, he's also hard to bring down after the catch. McNabb loves his tight ends, so expect Rudolph's playing time and number of targets to steadily increase throughout the season.
4. Chicago Bears (6-10)
Last season was a fluke, and this is a team that's going to come crashing back to earth in 2011. The Bears aren't that good on paper, Jay Cutler's a chinless fraud, the defense is getting old, and there's no way this team gets so lucky again on the injury front. I'll also venture a guess that the Bears won't have the good fortune of facing three different teams forced to play their third-string quarterback, as it did in 2010. I'm a big fan of Matt Forte and Johnny Knox, though.
Sleeper: J'Marcus Webb. Guys who are 6-7 and 333 pounds just shouldn't be able to move like J'Marcus Webb does. Period. We're talking about an extremely rare breed of human. Webb is blessed with sneaky athleticism for his size, is a powerful blocker with a supremely strong punch, and overwhelms defenders at the point of attack. Once he gets his hands on you, it's over. Webb started as a true freshman at Texas and finished his college career at West Texas A&M, so he obviously had D-IA level talent. This is a guy who has natural ability coming out the wazoo but was incredibly raw and needed serious coaching to improve and refine his blocking technique. But Webb steadily improved as the season wore on, and by the end of 2010 he was the Bears starting right tackle. As had been the plan since he was drafted, the team switched him to left tackle at the start of training camp nearly six weeks ago. Reports are that Webb got even stronger during the offseason and has been much better handling speed rushers around the edge. If he continues to develop like this, the sky's the limit as far as his potential goes.
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
I'm definitely buying the Saints this season. They were ravaged by injuries in 2010 yet managed to go 11-5 and earned a playoff berth (playoff loss to 7-9 Seattle notwithstanding). The offense is still stocked with potent weapons for Drew Brees to use as he sees fit, and the addition of Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles* in the backfield is a significant upgrade over Reggie Bush. Meanwhile, the defense retained Roman Harper and added defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who will team with Sedrick Ellis to terrorize the opposition. This is a good, complete football team, and I'm a big believer in both Brees and Sean Payton.
*Edit: We all know Sproles has electric ability and is a truly dynamic player, but holy shit... he's going to be a near lock for close to 100 total yards, at least, every game -- that's just running and receiving -- and is liable to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, which includes kick and punt returns. Sproles is the kind of player who, when he gets the ball in his hands and turns upfield, everyone in the room sits up and goes "OOOOOOOH!!!!" in anticipation of something awesome happening. I was elated upon hearing the Eagles were in on him and found myself pretty disappointed when he signed with the Saints.
When Joe Banner says the Eagles didn't get everyone they wanted and had targeted in free agency (which I read in an article in the Philadelphia Daily News but can't find the link at the moment), I can only assume one of the guys to whom he's indirectly referring is Darren Sproles. There's also a confluence of circumstances and timeline of events that allows for a little deductive reasoning on this front. Bear with me for a second. On August 2, Jonathan Tamari posted this article, in which he wrote, "Banner was up all night Wednesday trying to negotiate a deal that fell through.... All he'd say is that if he even gave us a hint, we'd be able to figure it out." August 2 was a Tuesday. So unless Tamari made an error, he's referring to the previous Wednesday, which was July 27. Sproles officially signed with New Orleans on Thursday, July 28. Given the Eagles' serious interest in him and reports that the race was supposedly down to them and the Saints, I'm guessing that's what Banner meant when he said any kind of hint would enable the media (and fans) to figure things out. I love some good old speculation, especially when it's not baseless. To be honest, I'm surprised Tamari didn't pick up on this and "[wasn't] really sure who it was."
Sleeper: Jimmy Graham really can't be considered a sleeper, so let's look elsewhere. Alright, I dare you to tell me which two players are slated to start at defensive end for the Saints with Will Smith serving a two-game suspension at the start of the season for "ingesting a banned substance." I'm 99.9999% sure you can't even name me one without looking it up. Give up? Turk McBride and Jeff Charleston. I have no idea who Charleston is, and I only know of McBride because he was a well-regarded prospect who went in the second round to the Chiefs in 2007. He actually registered five sacks and three forced fumbles last season, and I'm going with him as my sleeper this season. If McBride doesn't improve upon his numbers from last season with Franklin and Ellis wreaking havoc in the middle, he's dog shit. Double-digit sacks isn't out of the question.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)*
I can't bring myself to believe in the Falcons, especially because I never thought they were as good as their 13-3 record suggested last season. They couldn't even beat the Vick-less Eagles. Come on. This is a team that has all the ingredients, from a talent standpoint, to win a Super Bowl. But, I don't know, there just seems to be something missing. A killer instinct? An aura of intimidation that engenders fear and respect in opponents? Mike Smith is a solid head coach but has flaws, and I don't think I'd take him over Andy Reid when it comes to in-game management. That's really all you need to know.
Sleeper: Jacquizz Rodgers (scroll down a bit). The Quizz, fo' shizz. Fuck the haters. I also think second-year outside linebacker Sean Witherspoon will have a big season.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
I like the Buccaneers, but I'm not totally sold that this is a playoff team quite yet. They played over their heads in 2010, and I'm actually thinking Raheem Morris's squad will take a little step backwards in 2011. Although now that I think about it some more, I also wouldn't be surprised if these young Bucs overtake the Falcons for second in the division. Screw it, I'm just going to stick with my gut. Josh Freeman is a rising star with a flare for the dramatic, and Mike Williams and LaGarette Blount are exciting second-year players. The defense boasts some budding young talent, too, and is still led by franchise stalwart Ronde Barber. Much like the Lions, I think the Bucs make the playoffs in 2012.
Sleeper #2: Arrelious Benn. He was actually picked two rounds ahead of Mike Williams. Benn showed flashes of brilliance at times but tore his ACL in Week 16 against the Seahawks. The first season back from that injury is typically iffy, so it might take him some time to regain both his form and confidence. Nevertheless, the talent is there, and Benn and Williams form a wide receiver duo that could be among the league's best in a few years, if not sooner.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-12)
A part of me wishes the Panthers finish with the league's worst record for the second straight season, just to see if they would take Andrew Luck first overall in the draft. This is a team that will be greatly improved and much more competitive than last season, but it's still worst in the division. I'm a big Ron Rivera fan, but I don't believe in Cam Newton, who'll finish the season with a sub-50% completion percentage.
Sleeper: Eric Norwood. I remember him from his days at South Carolina. Norwood is very undersized for a defensive end at 6-1, 241 pounds, but if there's one thing he can do well, it's rush the passer.
1. St. Louis Rams (11-5)
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Rams win the NFC. Seriously. And at 25-1 odds (how the hell are the Niners ahead of them?), it's a bet worth making. This is a team ready to take that next step, and under the direction of Steve Spagnuolo and Sam Bradford, I see no reason it won't happen. All the pieces are in place, and I believe that highly underrated defense could end up being one of the best in the entire league. After all, remember that Spagnuolo's the one who devised the game plan to shut down the undefeated Patriots' vaunted, seemingly unstoppable offense in Super Bowl XLII. I'd say the guy is pretty fucking good at what he does, and I wish we still had him in Philadelphia (Spagnuolo started his NFL coaching career as a defensive assistant under Jim Johnson in 1999 and eventually worked his way up to linebackers coach, before the Giants offered him their defensive coordinator position in 2007).
The Rams may play in the porous NFC West, but they have one of the league's most daunting out-of-division schedules. That includes facing off against five playoff teams from last year: the Eagles (home), Ravens (home), Packers (away), Saints (home), and Steelers (away). Going on the road to face the Giants (Week 2) and Cowboys (Week 7) is no picnic, either. This will be a thoroughly battle-tested squad when the postseason rolls around, or one that crumbled under the pressure and failed to raise its game to meet the level of competition.
Sleeper: Lance Kendricks. I was so close to lazily copying and posting my paragraph about Bradley Fletcher from the breakout players article but ultimately decided against that impulse. A rookie tight end out of Wisconsin, Kendricks became the Rams' immediate starter the moment he was drafted and proceeded to solidify his position with a standout performance in training camp and throughout the preseason. He has already developed quite the rapport with Bradford, and I think he is going to be a bigger part of the offense than people realize.
2. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
I'm not the biggest Kevin Kolb fan out there, but I don't think he's a pile of shit either. I expect him to be a solid quarterback, and I genuinely hope he succeeds. That said, given the Eagles' wretched luck over the past half-century, Kolb will probably have an MVP-caliber season and lead the Cardinals all the way to a Super Bowl victory. He's got some players to work with on offense, especially if Beanie Wells can stay healthy and become a legitimate starting running back. Overall, though, aside from Larry Fitzgerald, this is a roster largely bereft of high end talent.
Sleeper: Rob Housler. The rookie has the size and strength of a tight end and the speed and athletic ability (especially as a leaper) of a wide receiver. I'm assuming he'll play some sort of hybrid position. Housler's unique skill set intrigued me long before the draft process started in earnest. The Cardinals must find a way to get him on the field, as he's the type of player who can pose matchup problems and turn into a serious weapon in the passing game.
3. San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
Hey, maybe this is the year the 49ers finally step up and win the NFC West, now that no one is touting them as a team on the rise. Oh, right, Alex Smith is still the quarterback... so maybe not. The 2012 draft can't get here soon enough for Jim Harbaugh and company.
Sleeper #1: Kendall Hunter. Frank Gore just got his contract extension and will be counted upon to log a lion's share of the workload, but don't be surprised if the 49ers work in Kendall Hunter, the rookie fourth round pick out of Oklahoma State. He's a player I liked in the draft and is in line to take over starting duties should Gore go down with an injury.
Sleeper #2: NaVorro Bowman. Playing next to Patrick Willis can only be a good thing for your career prospects.
4. Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
I'd rather have the Rex Grossman/John Beck combo than the Tarvaris Jackson/Charlie Whitehurst disaster that Pete Carroll is rolling with this year. Good lord, that's awful. You can try to convince me this team -- despite being a major player in free agency and signing Sidney Rice and Zach Miller -- isn't tanking for one of the super-stud quarterback prospects that will be available in the 2012 draft, but I'm not buying it. There's no other even remotely justifiable explanation for letting one of Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst lead your team on offense. None. And if you truly believe either is a starting quarterback in this league, you are a stupid person. If that means I'm belittling the intelligence of three guys -- Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and general manager John Schneider -- who (presumably) have forgotten more about football than I'll ever know, so be it.
(3) St. Louis over (6) Atlanta
(5) Philadelphia over (4) Dallas
(1) Green Bay over (5) Philadelphia
(3) St. Louis over (2) New Orleans
(1) Green Bay over (3) St. Louis
NFC Champion: Green Bay Packers
I know, I know... highly imaginative, but the Packers are just way too good at literally every position. St. Louis in the NFC Championship is about as bold as I'm willing to get.