The Indians are putting the final nails into their coffin versus Detroit, but I could care less, because the NFL season is upon us. After getting a taste of football action last weekend on the collegiate gridiron, I am an open vessel eagerly awaiting Bengals at Browns to fill me with exhilaration, anxiety, and either angst or joy. In order to prepare you (and myself) for the upcoming season, here's the first part of the first installment of my power rankings for you to consume, digest, and know in the most biblical of meanings.
32. Cincinnati Bengals
Andy Dalton is the next Colt McCoy the same way TCU is the next Texas. Sure, both Dalton and the Horned Frogs had a nice four-year run, but Texas and Colt are institutions. I say all of this knowing that McCoy only has 8 mostly shaky starts in his career, but it's a testament both to the hopelessness of the Bengals and to the overblown McCoy-hype that Cincinnati fans are banking on Dalton matching the former Longhorn great's rookie season for the Bengals to have a winning year. Cedric Benson has come crashing back to earth after his big 2009 season, while the defense lost their biggest advantage when Jonathan Joseph left his cornerback-partner Leon Hall for the big monies in Houston. There is a lot of talent in the receiving corps, but it is very young and inexperienced, and, again, Dalton is throwing them the ball. Not to put any more pressure on the kid than there already is, but Dalton is probably playing for his job from day one, since if he stinks, the Bengals probably end up picking Andrew Luck first overall in the 2012 draft.
31. Carolina Panthers
Yes, the Panthers will be terrible again, but they should be better for it. Starting Cam Newton from the get-go is the right move, both for his development and for the lack of Jimmy Clausen on our TV screens. DeAngelo Williams is rich and back splitting duties with Jonathan Stewart, which, coupled with a very solid offensive line, should take a lot of pressure off of Newton. With Steve Smith showing his age and still no other legitimate receiving options on the roster, though, defenses will stack up to stop the Williams-Stewart attack, which may lead yet again to both missing time. The defensive line is in flux, despite the boatloads of cash doled out to keep Charles Johnson in Charlotte, with Everette Brown released, free agent signing Ron Edwards out for the year with a torn triceps, and two rookies--Terrell McClain and Sione Fua--starting on the interior. The underrated Jon Beason is back to lead the linebackers, and Chris Gamble highlights a solid secondary that helped the Panthers finish 11th in the NFL in pass D last year (of course, it probably also helped that their opponents were usually protecting leads with running plays). With Newton, McClain, Fua, WRs Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, and RB Mike Goodson likely seeing significant time this year, the Panthers have finally embraced a much-needed full-on rebuilding effort.
30. Oakland Raiders
Oakland lost arguably the most talent in the NFL this offseason, as Nnamdi Asomugha (Philadelphia), Robert Gallery, and Zach Miller (both Seattle) were probably 3 of the top 4 players on Oakland's roster last season (with Darren McFadden being the 4th). There is still talent here, mostly on defense. The defensive line is absurdly deep, led by Richard Seymor and Matt Shaughnessey. The linebacking corps is solid, led by 2nd year MLB Rolando McClain and former Brown Kamerion Wimbley, who was awarded for his 9 sack 2010 with an absurd 5-year, $48 million contract with $29 million in guarantees. The relatively loaded front seven will have to compensate for a green secondary that will have to make major adjustments to the absence of Asomugha (like worrying about the 50% of the field he shut down by himself). My problems with the Raiders are almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball, where Jason Campbell will get yet another chance to start, leading a parade of draft-day disappointments also including Kyle Boller and Trent Edwards. The receiving corps will be the fastest in the league, but will also struggle running routes, catching balls, or doing a myriad of other things required of receivers other than sprinting, and with Kevin Boss replacing Miller, Campbell will experience a significant decline in the quality of his safety valve. McFadden and Michael Bush should again be a formidable running duo, but the holes they run through may be tighter without Gallery anchoring the middle of the line. The Raiders will also be hurt by the new kickoff rules, which negate Sebastian Janikowski's booming leg and Jacoby Ford's electrifying return ability (3 ret TDs). Add in the fact that most of the roster wanted Tom Cable retained as coach (which may be why Miller and Gallery followed Cable to Seattle, where he is the new offensive line coach), as well as the usual turmoil that surrounds Al Davis, and this seems like yet another lost season in Oakland.
29. Miami Dolphins
I hate to base so much of my rankings on who is playing quarterback for a team, but if the Dolphins had traded for Kyle Orton as they should have, they'd be a sleeper to make the playoffs. Instead, Chad Henne is back for another go-around, and the Dolphins may be the worst team in the AFC. The receiving corps is Brandon Marshall and a bunch of guys (Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, while decent, aren't starters on a Super Bowl team), and Marshall's status as an elite player is in question following an offseason in which his wife stabbed him. Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas replace Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield, but Thomas has been so underwhelming in preseason that Miami brought in Larry Johnson (who was subsequently released, but the fact that he was even called doesn't bode well for Thomas's chances at success this year). Bush can provide some punch to the passing game, but to expect anything more than a few spurts of production in the ground game is to set yourself up for disappointment. The offensive line added rookie Mike Pouncey and Marc Colombo to a very solid base of LT Jake Long and RG Vernon Carney, but Richie Incognito is still at left guard, and is still one of the biggest assholes in NFL history. On defense, the front seven should be solid, with the line getting second-year man Jared Odrick back from a broken leg that cost him his entire rookie season, and Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby anchoring the linebacking corps. The secondary enters a make-or-break year, as corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith and free safety Chris Clemons all enter their 3rd season and will be expected to be consistent NFL starters for the entire season. The roster is solid, but if Henne struggles yet again, the Dolphins will be left in the hands of Matt Moore, and no good will come of that.
28. Arizona Cardinals
Yes, Kevin Kolb is in town, but I don't know what makes the Cards think he's going to be any better than Matt Leinart, who they cut before last season even began. What always made Kolb intriguing in Philadelphia was that he was running Andy Reid and Marty Morhinweg's offense. I just don't see how he's built for the same offense Kurt Warner ran, and there is no running game for Ken Whisenhunt to fall back on if my fears about Kolb turn out to be legit. Beanie Wells is either hurt or running for 3 yards a carry, and his newly signed backup--Chester Taylor--was even worse than Wells last year (2.4 yards per carry). Larry Fitzgerald is a nice target, but the rest of the Super Bowl receiving corps is gone, replaced by the promising Andre Roberts, the disappointing Early Doucet, and Chansi Stuckey, master of the 3-yard drag route. Todd Heap's homecoming to Arizona may be quite fortuitous for the former Sun Devil if he can stay healthy, as Kolb loved checking-down to Brent Celek in Philly. The defense is Darnell Dockett, rookie CB Patrick Peterson, and a whole lot of nothing. Some have the Cards battling the Rams for NFC West supremacy, but the only way I see that happening is if St. Louis plays down to Arizona's level, and not the other way around.
27. Buffalo Bills
Faced with gaping holes along their offensive and defensive lines following the 2009 season, the Bills decided to use the #9 pick in the 2010 draft to select...C.J. Spiller, a running back who's biggest strength is his ability in space, which is hard to come by when you have gaping holes in your offensive line. Unsurprisingly, Spiller stunk last year (283 yards rushing, 1 TD), and the Bills offensive and defensive lines continued to be sieves. The o-line will again have problems, but the drafting of Marcell Dareus should go a long way toward shoring up the defensive front. Besides safety Jarius Byrd and DE Kyle Williams, the rest of the defense is a collection of cast-offs (Andra Davis, Shawne Merriman, Drayton Florence, Nick Barnett) and unproven prospects (with CB Leodis McKelvin threatening to join the released Aaron Maybin on the bust pile). Steve Johnson will have to prove his breakout 2010 was for real, because he's all the Bills have at receiver following the trade of Lee Evans, and Fred Jackson will again be back to split carries with Spiller. Ryan Fitzpatrick had a shocking season (3000 yards, 23 TD, 269 rushing yards) that he will be hard-pressed to repeat, especially since his chances of getting injured are high behind the still-unaddressed gaping holes in the offensive line (something called a Mansfield Wrotto is the right tackle, which says all that needs to be said about the state of the Buffalo offensive line; seriously, I think he was played tackle for Gene Hackman in The Replacements).
26. San Francisco 49ers
Let's play a game. Let's see (admittedly, through the arbitrary means of mean typing yes or no after a name) if the 49ers would be better or worse substituting quarterbacks from other rosters in place of Alex Smith. I'm going to skip obvious ones like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (who would be better even with the neck injury) and just list guys who could conceivably be available for trade. Here it goes:
Brian Hoyer (NE): YESThat's 15 names, with 11 making San Francisco better. Why, then, did they decide to bring back Smith? Is it perhaps a ploy by Jim Harbaugh to sink his season and bring his college money ticket Andrew Luck to San Fran?
Chad Henne (MIA): YES
Ryan Fitzpatrick (BUF): YES
Dennis Dixon (PIT): NO
Seneca Wallace (CLE): YES
Bruce Gradkowski (CIN): YES
Curtis Painter (IND): NO
Matt Leinart (HOU): YES
David Garrard (
JAXFA): YES (and he's available!)
Rusty Smith (TEN): NO
Billy Volek (SD): YES
Tyler Palko (KC): NO
Kyle Orton (DEN): YES
Trent Edwards (OAK): YES
Matt Flynn (GB): YES
25. Jacksonville Jaguars
Luke McCown is the new starter in Jacksonville following the sudden release of David Garrard Tuesday, which must be a C&C Music Factory hit because it makes me go "hmmmm". The Jags are the third team McCown has charmed into starting him (Cleveland, Tampa Bay) despite his 74.8 career QB rating. MJD, Mike Thomas, and myself are very angry at Jack Del Rio for sinking the first two's fantasy seasons, and the young, up-and-coming defense is pissed because they will now be overextended and overexposed from countless McCown-led 3-and-outs. I love the Jags tackle tandem of Terrence Knighton and Tyson Alualu, and with MLB Paul Posluszny signed from Buffalo Jacksonville will be stout up the middle. Unfortunately, the offense will rarely score enough to reward the defense's efforts, which will only get worse once McCown gives way to Blaine Gabbert and he produces the same as he did at Missouri (which is to say, not much at all).
24. St. Louis Rams
I know everybody is in love with Sam Bradford, but he still has no one to throw to. Mike Sims-Walker will have one or two monster games this year, and then will either disappear within the rest of the games or literally disappear, missing games for injury or stupidity. Danny Amendola is the exact middle between Davone Bess and Wes Welker, which isn't good enough to carry an entire passing offense. Stephen Jackson is still here, and should be productive yet again, but he will be 28 this year and the clock on his time as a feature back is ticking. The line is solid at the tackles, with Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, and at center with Jason Brown, but the team did nothing this offseason to address its weakness at the guard spots. Between James Hall (10.5 sacks), Chris Long (8.5), and rookie Robert Quinn, the defensive line should have no problem getting to opposing quarterbacks in Steve Spagnuolo's attacking defensive scheme, and James Laurinaitis has proven me wrong and turned into an excellent NFL middle linebacker. Pieces are in place for the future in St. Louis, but because of the horrible division they play in, everyone believes that future is now. We shall see.
23. Cleveland Browns
On their surface, I really like the Browns roster. Colt McCoy is an emerging solid QB, although the preseason love adorned on him is a little over-the-top. I've heard him called a "future franchise quarterback," and while he certainly did show moxie and leadership in his 8 games last year, never once did I find myself thinking I was witnessing the second-coming of Bernie Kosar. I like McCoy, and do think he can be the quarterback of a very good team someday, but the things that are being bandied around about him right now are very similar to the way sports writers and analysts talked about Trent Edwards early in his career, which is a terrifying thought. Elsewhere, the running back position is a strength, with Peyton Hillis back and Montario Hardesty seemingly healthy to provide Hillis with some much-needed rest. The young defensive line also appears strong, with run-stopper supreme Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Phil Taylor forming one of the largest interiors in the NFL and Marcus Bernard and second-round pick Jabaal Sheard applying pressure from the ends. The linebacking corps should be solid if not spectacular, with steady vets Scott Fujita and Chris Gocing outside and D'Qwell Jackson, finally over pec injuries that sidelined him for the past two seasons, manning the middle. Joe Haden looks like he will be the NFL's next great shutdown corner, possibly as soon as this season, and safety T.J. Ward is one of the most vicious enforcers in the NFL. The team's best player, Joe Thomas, is joined by another Pro Bowler on the line in C Alex Mack, but as one examines the rest of the offensive line, the problems with the Browns begin to emerge.
Tony Pashos, the projected right tackle, has been bothered all preseason by injuries, the latest being a "sore foot" that saw him leave practice Tuesday in a walking boot, which means either the just-signed Artis Hicks or St. Louis-castoff John Greco will be the starting right tackle on opening day . LG Eric Steinbach is out for the year, which means that Jason Pinkston, a converted right tackle drafted out of Pitt in the 5th round of this past April's draft, will be pressed into starting duty at his new position, joining his counterpart on the right side Shawn Lauvao as a first-time starter (technically Lauvao started one game last year, but he's practically a first-time starter). The secondary depth isn't much better, with the aging Sheldon Brown starting opposite Haden at corner and Mike Adams and free agent "prize" Usama Young engaging in a camp battle at free safety that may be decided by who can run on opening day. Behind Jackson, Gocing, and Fujita--all injury-prone, and already injured in the cases of Gocing and Fujita--Kaluka Maiava is the top backup, and he has primarily been a special teams player in his career. The receivers aren't that great even before you get into the depth, which the Browns most likely will need to early with Josh Cribbs and Mohammed Massaquoi both bothered by injuries all through training camp. Starting tight end and last year's leading receiver Ben Watson has barely played in the preseason, and while Evan Moore has stepped up in a big way in Watson's absence, Moore seemingly can't make it through a half without something on his body breaking down. So, yes, while the perfect depth chart the Browns can field probably is very capable of going 8-8 and being in the playoff discussion for most of the season, the lineup the Browns will most likely have to field due to injuries could be the worst in the league. Let's hope all the bluster about McCoy is right, because we may need the next Bernie to carry us through the end of the year.
22. Washington Redskins
For some strange reason, I've gone from believing the Redskins will be the worst team in the NFL this season to almost buying into what Mike Shanahan is trying to do in the nation's capital. Almost. Rex Grossman is the opening day starter, and he will be throwing the ball to Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong. Tim Hightower will be carrying the ball most of the time, at least he will when his shaky offensive line opens holes for him. Rookie Roy Helu backs up Hightower, with Ryan Torain lurking behind Helu. Outside of tackles Trent Williams and Jammal Brown, the line is a question mark, as indicated by a converted tight end--Kory Lichtensteiger--starting at left guard. The defense is anchored by a young linebacker crew, led by veteran London Fletcher and featuring pass rush dynamos Brian Orakpo and rookie Ryan Kerrigan. The secondary could also be strong, with LaRon Landry at SS and DeAngelo Hall at cornerback. The defensive line loses Albert Haynesworth, but thankfully shelled out a large portion of his salary on above-average tackle Barry Cofield and average defensive end Stephen Bowen. With the questions on the interior of the offensive line, and with two new starters on the defensive line, the problems in the trenches will prove to be the ultimate undoing of the 2011 Redskins.
21. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs' schedule this year shifts from playing the AFC South and the NFC West to playing the AFC East and the NFC North, two tougher divisions. And depending on the status of Matt Cassel's rib, Tyler Palko could be the starter at quarteback for the first few weeks of the season, which may be long enough to sink the rest of the Chiefs' chances at a repeat playoff appearance. Jamaal Charles is one of the top three running backs in the league, and let's hope Todd Haley realizes that and quits splitting carries between Charles and Thomas Jones 50/50. Dwayne Bowe gets some help at receiver from rookie Jonathan Baldwin and free agent-signee Steve Breaston, but last year's sensational rookie tight end Tony Moeaki is out of the season. Romeo Crennel improved the defense from 30th to 14th last season, but this year will be tested by Detroit, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay outside of the division. Although they may actually be better than last year's 10-6 division-winning team, the Chiefs may still win far less games due to a more difficult schedule and a regression-to-the-mean from their +9 turnover margin.