2012 NFL Team Reports

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Updated, 5/22/12

AFC East
Buffalo Bills
QB: The Bills obviously feel comfortable with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB. Fitzpatrick signed a monster extension in 2012, and Buffalo didn’t add a young player to compete for snaps in the draft. But the Bills did sign veteran QB Vince Young to a one-year deal to back up Fitzpatrick. Coach Chan Gailey likes his mobile QBs, and Young will compete with Tyler Thigpen to be Fitzpatrick’s primary backup. Where this leaves wildcat QB Brad Smith is anyone’s guess. If the Bills do keep four QBs, Smith at least offers some versatility as a slot receiver.
RB: The Bills are hoping Fred Jackson is healthy in 2012, giving them one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at the position. Despite Jackson’s age and the fact that he’s coming off a broken fibula, the Bills rewarded the veteran with a two-year extension worth up to $11 million. He’s expected to be the Bills’ main ball carrier again in 2012, with C.J. Spiller used as a movable chess piece, potentially when Jackson is also on the field. Spiller proved last year he’s earned a shot at more touches, but it’ll be tough to keep Jackson off the field if he’s as effective as he was last season. Second-year man Johnny White and veteran Tashard Choice will compete for the #3 job.
WR/TE: The Bills recruited Mario Manningham and Robert Meachem in the off-season, but they’ll enter 2012 with a very similar receiving corps to what they fielded in 2011 (but hopefully healthier). The biggest news of the off-season was the team’s monster extension with top dog Steve Johnson, worth up to $36 million over five seasons. Johnson has had some perceived personality issues, but his new contract is beneficial to both him and the team (especially QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who really trusts him). What the Bills hope is that they have a legitimate deep threat in 2012, with either Donald Jones staying healthy, or rookie T.J. Graham (whom our own Greg Cosell called the most vertically explosive receiver in the 2012 Draft) asserting himself as a legitimate weapon. Either of those players stepping up would allow David Nelson to stay in his more comfortable slot position. At TE, the Bills re-signed the important Scott Chandler to a two-year deal. Chandler is little more than a backup option for fantasy, but he’s a fantastic blocker and is an essential part of the Bills’ red-zone offense and the running game.
OL: If there was one area the Bills struggled on offense last season most consistently, it was almost certainly up front, where the team had a patchwork line that had a bunch of injuries, to boot. While Buffalo lost the gifted but oft-injured Demetress Bell to Philadelphia, the club is hoping for a healthier year up front, in addition to contributions from a couple of rookies. The Bills drafted two young tackles to compete for spots – Cordy Glenn and Zebrie Sanders. While neither will be handed a starting job, the de facto starting bookends – LT Chris Hairston and RT Erik Pears – are mediocre at best, and the Bills are in a position to get their best players onto the field. Glenn, in particular, is expected to have every shot to win the LT job from Hairston. LG Andy Levitre and C Eric Wood are good players along the interior, although RG Kraig Urbik has been a disappointment and could be vulnerable down the road if Chad Rinehart or another rookie in Mark Asper shows well. The Bills should be able to mask their deficiencies along the front as it is a quick-drop offense, but now they also have some young depth and upside.
D/ST: The Bills are comfortable with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their QB, but they know they don’t have an elite player there. So they understand that they have to stop opposing QBs from being great to advance in the playoffs (and there’s that Tom Brady guy in the division). The Bills might have the best defensive line in football, bolstered with the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history, DE Mario Williams (six years, up to $100 million, making him the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the league). But Williams won’t have to make plays alone, as he’ll line up next to DTs Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, and opposite DE Mark Anderson, signed away from the Patriots this off-season. With two new starting DEs, with DE Chris Kelsay and DT Dwan Edwards in rotational roles, the Bills have one of the most gifted DLs in football, but it’s also deep. Work will be easier for the LB corps, which brought back veteran Kirk Morrison to group with elder statesman Nick Barnett and promising young MIKE Kelvin Sheppard. In the secondary, the Bills are also focusing on depth. They drafted CB Stephon Gilmore in the first round, cut veteran Drayton Florence, and re-signed third safety/dime LB Bryan Scott, who plays often in the team’s subpackages. The Bills are focusing on pass rush and depth as they switch full-time to a 4-3 under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, and they now have one of the most intriguing defenses in the NFL because of it. On special teams, the Bills re-signed K Rian Lindell to a four-year deal, but they also drafted rookie John Potter for insurance.
Miami Dolphins
QB: The Dolphins actually got solid play under center from Matt Moore after Chad Henne’s injury last season, but it appears owner Stephen Ross doesn’t feel Moore is enough to take his club to the next level, even though he has said he expects Moore to start Week One, according to the Miami Herald. Not only did Miami bring in veteran David Garrard to compete for snaps, but they drafted Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill in the first round in April’s draft. Tannehill is considered much less of a sure thing than either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, but ultimately he does have the skill set to be a high-end NFL QB, and he’s reunited with his college coach Mike Sherman, who is the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator. The Dolphins are expected to have an open competition for the starting QB job.
RB: For fantasy purposes, the Dolphins’ RB situation is among the most interesting. Reggie Bush had a career year last season, and Daniel Thomas showed some promise as a physical rookie, but the new coaching staff led by Joe Philbin has no connection to either player. The staff, however, did add rookie Lamar Miller in April’s draft, considering him too good a value to pass up in the 4th round. How the Dolphins chose to rotate these backs is unknown at this point (they also still have Steve Slaton on the roster), and it’s probably not going to be decided until training camp, at the earliest. The result could be Bush falling a few rounds later in fantasy drafts than his numbers should indicate.
WR/TE: After trading Brandon Marshall to the Bears this off-season, the Dolphins were left with a severe dearth of weapons on the perimeter, one reason they might want to try to bring rookie QB Ryan Tannehill along slowly. Marshall’s absence leaves Brian Hartline (who is about as average as average comes) and Davone Bess (who is better suited in the slot) as the team’s top two receivers. The Dolphins signed another mediocre veteran in Legedu Naanee, but their biggest hope is that they can get positive contributions from second-year man Clyde Gates or rookies B.J. Cunningham and Rishard Matthews. Gates, in particular, is a player who intrigues the staff, according to the Miami Herald. Gates has spent his off-season learning the new offense, and he told reporters that he played all of last season through a groin tear. The injury and Gates’ limited route tree meant he contributed next to nothing as a rookie. At TE, the decent Anthony Fasano is still the starter, but the Dolphins have two intriguing young players in H-Back Charles Clay and rookie TE Michael Egnew, both of whom project as guys who can makes plays separated from the formation. The TE position is where the Dolphins appear to be the most interesting right now.
OL: The Dolphins have one of the NFL’s best bookends in LT Jake Long, but a switch to coach Joe Philbin’s West Coast offense might mean unrest for the remainder of the line. The offense calls for more athletic, flexible linemen, and previous coach Tony Sparano preferred big bullies up front. Long and C Maurkice Pouncey clearly are not going anywhere, but big guys in LG Richie Incognito and RG John Jerry might have to battle for their jobs (RG Vernon Carey, a bruiser, was not re-signed and is still on the market, and RT Marc Colombo retired). The early favorite for the RT job is rookie Jonathan Martin, whom the team selected in the second round in April, although he’ll have to beat out Lydon Murtha to win the job. Other options along the front include veteran Artis Hicks, who can play tackle and guard and was added in the off-season, and young interior linemen Ryan Cook and Nate Garner. But because the Dolphins are switching schemes, don’t be shocked if there is a little bit of unrest here.
D/ST: Under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the Dolphins are expected to transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, although their recent financial commitment seems to indicate that they’re still counting on the same player to anchor the defense. Cameron Wake, who played OLB the last few years under Tony Sparano, is almost certain to switch to DE, but he’ll have a brand-new contract (five years and up to $49 million, with $17 million guaranteed). It also remains to be seen if Jared Odrick, whom we view as a more natural 4-3 DT, can handle DE, which the Dolphins are going to attempt to find out. Aside from the scheme switch, the Dolphins’ front seven personnel remains relatively stable. In the secondary, the addition of veteran Richard Marshall gives Miami a nice third CB to go with Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, and Marshall will have a chance to compete with Smith for the starting job opposite Davis. Miami also cut veteran S Yeremiah Bell, leaving Chris Clemons, Reshad Jones, and new acquisition Tyrell Johnson to battle for two starting spots at safety. On special teams, the return jobs seem to be open. If the coaching staff reduces Reggie Bush’s reps at RB, he could be a candidate for returns, along with Clyde Gates, Davone Bess, and rookies Lamar Miller and Rishard Matthews.
New England Patriots
QB: Status quo under center for the Patriots. Tom Brady is the starter, Brian Hoyer signed his RFA tender and will be the backup, and second-year man Ryan Mallett remains a projectable talent as the #3 guy here. Hoyer might receive some interest as a potential starter in the near future, but it appears that he’ll have to play at least one more year as Brady’s caddy.
RB: The Patriots looked like they might have things cleared up a little bit in the backfield when BenJarvus Green-Ellis left for Cincinnati, but those hopes might have washed away when the club signed veteran Joseph Addai, who probably won’t be in the market for more than a handful of touches per game but does enough as a blocker and receiver to earn key snaps in passing situations. That leaves Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead to compete for the remaining touches. Ridley is presumed to be the most likely “bell cow” of this group, but Vereen is an unknown with real upside and Woodhead is versatile. Also note that new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wanted to bring in some FBs, which the Patriots didn’t even carry on the roster last year. Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta each have a chance to make the team. The Patriots figure to have a frustrating backfield yet again in 2012, but Ridley can make it less frustrating by working on his ball security, which might have been BJGE’s best asset.
WR/TE: The Patriots revolutionized the TE position in 2011, but the one thing they did lack was a deep threat and a player who could win on the outside against man coverage. That’s no longer a problem with the addition of the mega-talented Brandon Lloyd, who rejoins offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels yet again. Lloyd and Wes Welker (who signed his franchise tender but wants an extension) will start at WR, with a bunch of veterans competing for the rest of the snaps. Deion Branch, Matthew Slater, and Chad Ochocinco are back, but there’s a chance one or two of them won’t make the team given the additions of Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez, and Donte’ Stallworth. That’s not to mention Julian Edelman and rookie Jeremy Ebert, both of whom project as “Welker handcuffs.” At TE, the Patriots will still utilize the human mismatches of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but they also have a very gifted #3 TE in Daniel Fells in case of injury. All in all, this is one of the deepest and most versatile receiving units in the entire league.
OL: Although LT Matt Light retired this off-season, the line still projects as a strength for this Patriot team. Light’s retirement allows Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer to handle the tackle jobs, but there’s also some depth and competition along the interior. C Dan Koppen is a favorite of Tom Brady, but he’ll have to beat out Dan Connolly for the starting job. Connolly can play a bit of a swingman, as can new acquisition Robert Gallery, who will back up Logan Mankins and Brian Waters at the guard spots but can also play tackle in a pinch. The Patriots have also been encouraged by the development of second-year man Marcus Cannon, who could take over at RT if Vollmer doesn’t progress as the team hopes.
D/ST: The Patriots might have lost the Super Bowl last year in large part because they couldn’t get to the QB, and their moves this off-season suggest they want to defend the pass much better in 2012. They drafted Syracuse stud DE Chandler Jones in the first round and added veteran Jonathan Fanene from the Bengals to help bolster the pass rush, and both players offer scheme versatility, which the Pats value (they also drafted DE Jake Bequette in the third round). The addition of LB Dont’a Hightower with the team’s second first-round pick was curious, considering we thought he was overrated coming out of Alabama, but he adds competition to a gifted but underachieving LB corps (with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Rob Ninkovich). In the secondary, the Patriots are hoping second-year CB Ras-I Dowling is healthier in 2012, as he can be a huge boost to a struggling pass defense. New acquisitions CB Will Allen and S Steve Gregory will compete for snaps and provide depth, but neither projects to be a game-changer.
New York Jets
QB: You might have heard, but the Jets added a QB this off-season. Yes, Tim Tebow. While the Jets insist that Mark Sanchez is their starter, and we have no reason to disbelieve them yet, there’s obviously much more of a circus surrounding Tebow than there would be for a normal backup QB (the original player they brought in to handle the role, Drew Stanton, was dealt to the Colts in the wake of the Tebow acquisition). In a perfect world, Sanchez will play well, and Tebow can be used as a “Wildcat QB.” Remember that their new offensive coordinator is Tony Sparano, who developed the Wildcat in Miami. Tebow could also contribute in third- and fourth-down situations and in going for two. But if Sanchez struggles (this off-season, QB coach Matt Cavanagh has lamented his poor decision making), how long will it take for Tebow to become the starting QB outright? The speculation has already started.
RB: Whether Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow is the starting QB in New York, a strong run game is almost certainly a requirement if the Jets are to be successful. But do they have the personnel for it? With LaDainian Tomlinson gone and potentially retiring, the Jets only added 6th-round rookie Terrance Ganaway to a backfield that includes the mediocre Shonn Greene and the talented but unproven Joe McKnight (who gained 15 pounds this off-season, but McKnight admitted it was “McDonald’s” weight, so it's clearly not a problem) and Bilal Powell. Greene is decent, but he probably isn’t good enough to be a lead back on a team with a presumed QB controversy that might well struggle to throw the football. The Jets’ best hope is Ganaway emerges as a rookie, Greene somehow becomes a better player than we’ve seen in his three NFL seasons, or McKnight drops the Big Macs and adequately replaces Tomlinson’s production.
WR/TE: With Plaxico Burress gone, the Jets needed to make a play for a starting receiver opposite the underachieving Santonio Holmes. As of now, that guy looks to be gifted but oft-injured veteran Chaz Schilens, unless rookie Stephen Hill steps up and makes an immediate impact as a rookie. Hill is big and fast, and could provide a downfield element to this offense that was severely lacking without Braylon Edwards last year. He signed his contract quickly and was eager to get to work, a good sign because he ran a very limited route tree in college at Georgia Tech, and he’s not nearly as versatile a prospect as Demaryius Thomas was coming out of the school. The hope is Schilens or Hill augments the perimeter offense so Jeremy Kerley can handle the slot work, while Dustin Keller hopefully can maintain some consistency as the movable TE in this offense.
OL: The Jets entered 2011 with one of the most lauded offensive lines in football, but a mediocre season now leaves the front five with about as many questions as every other unit on this offense. Not only are the Jets apparently still counting on RT Wayne Hunter to protect what could be the blind side if QB Tim Tebow takes over, but they added only one rookie in April’s draft – 6th-round pick OG Robert Griffin. The Jets would love Vladimir Ducasse to win a job, but he’s now struggled at both RT and LG, which means the Jets could well enter 2012 with the same starting five as in their underachieving 2011: LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, LG Matt Slauson (recovering from shoulder surgery), C Nick Mangold. RG Brandon Moore (Pro Bowl alternate), and Hunter. If the lines stays healthy, it could still be a strength, but it’s not a dominant unit anymore.
D/ST: The Jets’ biggest weakness on defense last year was the pass rush, so it’s curious that their biggest off-season investment came along the defensive line, where 1st-round pick Quinton Coples projects more as a versatile five-technique DE as opposed to a natural pass-rusher (he’s been impressing in minicamps, for what it’s worth). The Jets now have a lot of money and time invested into their 3-4 DEs in Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson, but neither is what we’d call a true “rush end.” The best rusher here might well be OLB Aaron Maybin, picked up off the scrap heap last year and re-signed to an RFA tender this off-season. But Maybin isn’t an every-down player, and Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are getting old. The secondary is still strong, and if new safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell are healthy, it could be among the best defensive backfields in the entire league, but the lack of pass rush still appears concerning (Landry, for what it’s worth, is a great blitzer). On special teams, veteran K Josh Brown was brought in to compete with the oft-criticized Nick Folk, who seems like he’s been hanging onto his job for dear life since he arrived in New York.
AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
QB: This is a critical year for QB Joe Flacco, who will apparently enter training camp without a new contract extension, heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Flacco does have some momentum, playing perhaps the best game of his career in the Ravens’ AFC title game loss to New England, but he absolutely must be more consistent for this franchise to trust him long term. It seems both Flacco and the Ravens are backed into a corner. Flacco wants big money, which is understandable, and the Ravens appear hesitant to give it to him, which might be even more understandable. For 2012, this is clearly Flacco’s team, as the Ravens have only Tyrod Taylor and new acquisition Curtis Painter behind him, but if Flacco is as inconsistent in 2012 as he has been in the past, they might be willing to let him hit the market. We’ll be watching closely.
RB: As of now, star RB Ray Rice has signed neither a long-term extension with the Ravens, nor his franchise tender, but although there has been little to no progress in talks, there doesn’t appear to be any significant concern that Rice would be willing to hold out into the regular season (the new deals for Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy should provide a framework for a Rice extension). If we get to training camp without Rice’s signature on a contract or tender, we’ll start to worry, but that time is a ways off, and he’s saying all the right things to the media. What might cause the Ravens a little more distress than usual in this situation, however, is that veteran RB Ricky Williams retired, and Rice’s primary backup looks to be rookie 3rd-round pick Bernard Pierce. Pierce is a physical back, but he doesn’t project as a true three-down player at the next level. Rice has the Ravens handcuffed here, plus his interviews haven’t been contemptuous, and that’s why it appears a deal will get done sooner rather than later. As for now, he’s keeping himself in shape by working out with former Eagle superstar Brian Westbrook.
WR/TE: The Ravens’ receiving corps was helped in a huge way last year when rookie WR Torrey Smith contributed more than anticipated, which gives the club some real downfield speed for QB Joe Flacco. But they also don’t believe they have enough of it, given the signing of former Texan Jacoby Jones to a two-year deal, and the drafting of Miami WR Tommy Streeter (whom some have compared to new Jet rookie Stephen Hill) in the sixth round. The downfield options should help take some pressure off of veteran Anquan Boldin, and the Ravens are hoping for some contributions from second-year possession guy Tandon Doss, as well. The Ravens have been very disappointed with both TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, neither of whom has stepped up and truly established himself as a true starter. Both are useful players, but their mental mistakes have kept them from being truly high-end players.
OL: The Ravens count on their zone-blocking line to stabilize their offense, in large part because QB Joe Flacco has been inconsistent under pressure in his NFL career. It might be an issue, then, that the interior of their line looks stronger and deeper than the tackle positions. C Matt Birk has been good seemingly forever, RG Marshal Yanda is one of the top players at his position in the NFL (the Ravens just had to restructure his big-money deal to clear cap space), and Baltimore added two quality prospects in 2nd-round pick Kelechi Osemele and 4th-rounder Gino Gradkowski. Osemele has a chance to unseat Jah Reid for the LG job vacated by Ben Grubbs, and Gradkowski could be the heir apparent to Birk at C. We do worry about the tackle spots, where LT Bryant McKinnie isn’t very good and RT Michael Oher hasn’t lived up to his promise. This could be a good unit if McKinnie can hang on for one more year and Oher can stabilize, but it could be decidedly mediocre if neither happens.
D/ST: The Ravens have suffered one of the off-season’s biggest losses in DE Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles working out in April. Suggs vows he’ll be back at some point in 2012, but he obviously can’t be counted on, and that’s why it’s such a blessing that DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw fell to them in the second round in the NFL Draft. Upshaw can do many of the same things as Suggs, and while he can’t be expected to dominate like Suggs, his versatility (along with that of Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger) can help soften the loss, along with that of SAM Jarret Johnson, a really underrated player who departed in free agency. Upshaw has looked a little bit lost in camp when asked to play in coverage, so he told reporters he’s looking to drop a few pounds to increase his versatility. If the Ravens can muster a rush without Suggs, they’ll still be really dangerous defensively. Top CB Lardarius Webb signed a monster $50 million extension, CB Cary Williams signed his RFA tender and is working on an extension, and second-year man Jimmy Smith showed some things as a rookie last year and could win a starting job opposite Webb. The Ravens also signed SS Bernard Pollard to a three-year extension, a quality move given the departure of Tom Zbikowski in free agency. While the loss of Suggs is huge, the Ravens could still have an elite defense if their young rushers can step up, NT Terrence Cody can continue his strong play, and LB Ray Lewis can at least provide two quality downs of play (he struggled immensely in coverage last year). There is also the strange case of FS Ed Reed, who looks ready to go physically for 2012, but recently conceded to SiriusXM NFL Radio that he’s “not 100% committed” to playing this season (Reed does have a flair for the dramatic, however). On special teams, undrafted rookie PK Justin Tucker will be given an outside chance to beat out playoff goat Billy Cundiff, and new acquisition Jacoby Jones and rookie CB Asa Jackson could be in the mix for return jobs.
Cincinnati Bengals
QB: The Bengals have staked their future on QB Andy Dalton, and although Dalton’s struggles late in 2011 might be concerning, overall there were more positives to take from his rookie season than negatives. And Dalton has now bulked up this off-season, adding close to 10 pounds and working on his footwork. Dalton told the Bengals’ official website that he’s looking to improve his deep balls, and he’s confident his legs are the place to start. Dalton also noted he sometimes rushed his dropbacks, and he’s looking to improve his timing and confidence with a full off-season’s worth of reps. Dalton does have limitations, but it at least appears he’s doing everything right so far.
RB: With Cedric Benson gone, the Bengals needed to replace their bell cow back, and they hope they did that with former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whom the club signed to a three-year, $9 million deal in the off-season. Green-Ellis isn’t as gifted as Benson, but he has been better in short yardage throughout his career, and more important, he’s never fumbled. But given Green-Ellis’ relatively “boring” skill set, it’s surprising the Bengals didn’t upgrade more behind him. Bernard Scott is still in town, but he’s been just a guy in his career, and the Bengals didn’t draft a back until the sixth round, when they selected Dan Herron out of Ohio State. Herron might have a chance to claim the #2 job here, but the top job is Green-Ellis’ to lose. Coordinator Jay Gruden likes running the football, but he also understands he needs to protect QB Andy Dalton by eliminating turnovers. Green-Ellis will be a key cog in that department, but it looks like Scott will get a healthy number of touches, as well.
WR/TE: Although the Bengals don’t have a clear #2 WR behind A.J. Green, they have built some very interesting depth at the WR position, and it’s a good group to pair with the anticipatory QB play of Andy Dalton. Obviously, Green is a stud, but can rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones make an impact with Jerome Simpson gone? We think Sanu is intriguing. We figured he projected more as a slot-type of WR, but he could very well be a strong possession-oriented #2 alongside a superstar like Green. In fact, the Bengals realize a pairing like this has worked in the past: team officials have likened Sanu to a more athletic T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who moved the chains consistently while Chad Ochocinco did the more dynamic work. Earlier this week, coach Marvin Lewis told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the current competition for the #2 job is between Brandon Tate and Armon Binns, but we think he’s full of it (Lewis is typically careful with praising rookies this early in the off-season). If you ask us, and we talked to Bengal beat writer Joe Reedy about this recently, Sanu looks to have the inside track to start, while Jones could be an interesting prospect in the red zone because of his huge catch radius, a great asset for Dalton because he can put the ball where he wants it. The Bengals also have two nice slot receivers in Jordan Shipley and Andrew Hawkins. Shipley might be the favorite for the #3 job, but although he’s cleared for football activities after tearing his ACL early last season, his extensive injury history might open the door for Hawkins, who will otherwise battle for the #4 spot with Brandon Tate. At the TE position, the Bengals are hoping Jermaine Gresham has more success mentally in his second season in Gruden’s offense. Gresham is extremely gifted, but he’s hurt his own consistency with mental errors. He did not pick up the offense well enough last year, we're told, but if the light goes on this year, his production should increase for sure. The Bengals added an intriguing prospect in the 4th round of April’s draft in TE Orson Charles, a raw player who could give Cincy some formation options if he can hone his craft quickly. For what it’s worth, he’s been impressing in minicamps.
OL: The Bengals had a solid line in 2011, but the club thought it could improve on the interior. Veteran guards Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings are gone, and they’re replaced with another veteran in LG Travelle Wharton (signed away from Carolina), and an extremely gifted rookie in RG Kevin Zeitler (a first-round pick). The Bengals are hoping that their new guards fit their power scheme well alongside C Kyle Cook, and that LT Andrew Whitworth (who said this month that he had issues with tendinitis in his left leg) improves in the run game. RT Andre Smith showed up to minicamps in shape, believe it or not, and the Bengals are looking strong up front if their core five can gain chemistry and stay healthy. They also have some quality depth with Otis Hudson, Clint Boling, and Dennis Roland (they had also signed veteran Jacob Bell, but Bell opted to retire). This is a good group.
D/ST: The Bengals had a strong defense last year, but they didn’t want to stand pat. They focused a great deal of their attention on defense in free agency and the draft. The biggest changes for Cincinnati come in the secondary. They were left shorthanded last year when CB Leon Hall went down with an Achilles injury in November. That won’t be the case in 2012, as, not only did the Bengals sign veterans Terence Newman and Jason Allen, but they used one of their two 1st-round picks on Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick. All of these new options will compete with Nate Clements and Pacman Jones for a starting job alongside Hall, presuming Hall is healthy for Week One (he is progressing well, according to reports). For what it’s worth, Newman and Allen have been working as starters in OTAs, with Jones rotating in first, according to the Bengals’ official website. Up front, the Bengals also have changes. They lost DEs Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker in free agency, and they’re hoping to get enough rush from the oft-injured Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, and Michael Johnson, along with reclamation projects Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey. Where the Bengals are at their strongest defensively is in the interior of the defensive line. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are a rock-solid starting pair, and they beefed up the DT position with rookies Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. On special teams, the Bengals have a wide range of options to return kicks, including Brandon Tate, Pacman Jones, Jordan Shipley, and rookie Marvin Jones.
Cleveland Browns
QB: Despite an effort to acquire the #2 pick in April’s draft, the Browns fell short of the Redskins’ offer, and they lost out on the Robert Griffin III sweepstakes. But coach Pat Shurmur was apparently adamant on not going into 2012 with Colt McCoy as his starting QB, so the Browns spent their second of two 1st-round picks on Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden. Because of his age (Weeden is older than Aaron Rodgers), Weeden is one of the most intriguing QB prospects in years. In general, he could have been the most pure pocket passer in the draft, and he should enter Week One as the Browns’ starter barring a disastrous training camp (the coaches have said there’s an open competition that is not yet settled, but we’re not buying it, and Weeden has looked good in OTAs). There have also been trade rumors swirling around McCoy, and if he’s moved, Seneca Wallace would once again be the Browns’ backup QB. According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Shurmur said Weeden is “headed in the right direction” in terms of becoming the starter, and that’s good news so early into his NFL career.
RB: Although the Browns didn’t land Robert Griffin III, they might have landed a player who is even stronger at his position, RB Trent Richardson. And if QB Brandon Weeden plays well, our guess is Browns’ fans will be completely satisfied with their draft. Richardson is an absolute bull at 228 pounds, capable of stepping into the Browns’ starting lineup as an every-down back right away. With Peyton Hillis gone and a host of mediocrity (Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya) left in his wake, the Browns desperately needed someone to jumpstart their running game. Richardson can do that. He was drafted to anchor this offense, and that’s what we’re expecting. This job is his. As if it’s been any surprise, he’s blown away beat writers at minicamps, and he could be in line for a huge rookie season.
WR/TE: One area the Browns probably could have afforded to improve was at the WR position, considering their investment in rookie QB Brandon Weeden. Unfortunately, the Browns didn’t see an option worth pursuing on the free agent market, and didn’t find adequate value in the draft, as the only player of note added was fourth-round rookie speedster Travis Benjamin. That means the Browns are crossing their fingers that Mohamed Massaquoi establishes himself as a reliable option, and Greg Little builds on a promising but inconsistent rookie campaign. Third-year player Carlton Mitchell could be in danger of being cut if he doesn’t show something in training camp. On the other hand, some close to the team are actually expecting something from Mitchell this year if he's on the club. There has been some talk about Plaxico Burress (out of his own mouth on a SiriusXM interview, at least), but it doesn’t appear the Browns will add anyone of consequence here. At TE, the Browns have solid veteran Ben Watson, who is recovering from concussion issues, and youngster Evan Moore. We like Moore quite a bit, but his production hasn’t exactly matched his talent so far. Perhaps Weeden can help him find the stat sheet more consistently. They also have a raw athlete in     Jordan Cameron, who needs to be on the radar.
OL: The Browns don’t have a bad offensive line, but there are some questions up front that training camp could settle. The Browns cut G Eric Steinbach and T Tony Pashos, opting instead to go young at a couple of positions. The most notable addition was RT Mitchell Schwartz, drafted in the second round of April’s draft. Schwartz is a grinding type of player, and he should be an ideal blocker in front of RB Trent Richardson. He also prevents the Browns from going with a Band-Aid veteran RT, as they have the last few years. RG Shawn Lauvao and C Alex Mack are back, as is LT Joe Thomas. Thomas’ job might be even more important this year – while we like QB Brandon Weeden, we noticed he had some problems in college when faced with pressure. Thomas is one of the top bookends in football, and keeping Weeden clean and healthy as a rookie is really important. The biggest competition will likely come at the LG spot, where second-year man Jason Pinkston appears the early favorite, but he’ll have competition from veteran John Greco and rookie Ryan Miller (both of whom could also unseat Lauvao). The Browns also brought back veteran Oniel Cousins to back up the tackles spots. We wouldn’t necessarily call this unit a weakness, but the Browns do have to hope they get better play from their guard spots (Richardson, however, will help to make them look pretty damn good).
D/ST: Kind of like their offensive line, the Browns’ defense has a truly elite player (CB Joe Haden), some good ones (LB D’Qwell Jackson, DT Ahtyba Rubin, DE Jabaal Sheard), and some question marks. The Browns understand their pass rush was a weakness last year, something they tried to fix with the additions of DEs Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker on free-agent deals. The problem for the Browns is that they already have some positions they need to fill. Starting DT Phil Taylor tore his pectoral muscle this month, and he should be a candidate to start the year on the PUP list (meaning rookie John Hughes might have to play more snaps than anticipated). Taylor may not even play this year, which is a big blow. LB Scott Fujita will miss the first three games of the year for his involvement in the Saints’ bounty scandal, and we know that SS T.J. Ward has dealt with his fair share of injuries in his two-year career thus far. The Browns have to hope their pass rush is better than last year’s, and that they find a suitable CB opposite Haden (Sheldon Brown is probably better suited to play safety at this point, a reason the Browns re-signed Dmitri Patterson to a multi-year deal this off-season, yet Brown is seemingly sticking at CB). Fortunately, the Browns shouldn’t have many questions in the kicking game. PK Phil Dawson signed his franchise tender, and Josh Cribbs hopefully will be able to focus on return duties if the Browns have a young receiver step up.
Pittsburgh Steelers
QB: Obviously, the Steelers’ fate hangs more on QB Ben Roethlisberger than it ever has, with the team’s noted defense getting older every year. Ben has had his own injury
problems, most notably a high ankle sprain last season, so the Steelers have to have backup QBs they trust. This off-season, they re-signed both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch to back up Ben, continuing their trend of having multiple QBs with starting experience. With new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers might actually look to be more balanced than under Bruce Arians (imagine that), and that could take some pressure off Roethlisberger, who might be one serious injury away from his effectiveness and improvisational abilities from taking a huge hit. But this is a new offense with a lot of changes. According to Roethlisberger, it's about "90% different."
RB: The biggest change for the Steelers in 2012, perhaps even more so than the questionable availability of RB Rashard Mendenhall (ACL), will be the addition of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who replaces Bruce Arians. Haley, like Arians, is known for a pass-heavy offense, but remember that Haley also had the NFL’s #1 run attack with the Chiefs in 2010, when he juggled Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. He has always adjusted to his personnel well, so while we think he’ll be enamored with the gifts of Ben Roethlisberger and his WRs, if backup RB Isaac Redman is pressed into action, Haley will know the best way to get him his carries, for sure. Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters that Mendenhall might start the year on the PUP list, even though he expects his star to play at some point in 2012. The Steelers have spent the off-season complimenting Redman, but they also added an interesting weapon in scatback Chris Rainey in the NFL Draft, a player whom Haley could find a way to work into the offense in interesting ways.
WR/TE: On the surface, it doesn’t look like there should be much upheaval for the Steelers at the WR position. Veteran Hines Ward retired, but that’s the only roster move of note… so far. As of now, RFA Mike Wallace has not signed his tender as he looks for a new deal. While the trade rumors regarding Wallace have always seemed far-fetched, he doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to actually signing something unless it’s a long-term deal. If Wallace’s stalemate extends into training camp, there will be a lot expected of third-year men Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and coach Mike Tomlin has openly admitted he has concerns about Sanders’ ability to stay healthy. As such, it makes sense that the Steelers re-signed veteran possession option Jerricho Cotchery. At the TE position, the Steelers aren’t flashy, but they’re deep. Heath Miller is the starter, second-year man Weslye Saunders is an interesting prospect, and new acquisition Leonard Pope provides some very good depth.
OL: The Steelers have made a habit over the past decade of not changing much from off-season to off-season, but this year is an exception in one area – the offensive line. There is a legitimate chance that only C Maurkice Pouncey is starting in the same position in 2012 as 2011. First and foremost, the Steelers made a concerted effort to add youth and upside to this line, drafting RG David DeCastro in the 1st round in April to replace the departed Chris Kemoeatu, and OT Mike Adams in the 2nd. DeCastro is a grinder who plays the “Steeler way,” tough and mean in the run game. Adams is a perceived first-round talent with off-field issues, but if the Steelers can get him to pull it all together, he could be considered a legitimate steal. With oft-injured RT Willie Colon moving to LG, Adams could well start at either LT or RT, with Marcus Gilbert or Jonathan Scott at the other spot (Gilbert has the inside track). Adams signed his contract early and was working exclusively at LT in minicamps, which could tip the Steelers’ hand. If we had to take a guess, Adams will start at LT, with Colon, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Gilbert at the remaining spots from right to left. Scott, Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, and Ramon Foster will provide the main depth.
D/ST: As with most years, the Steelers didn’t make a whole lot of changes defensively, and they’ll continue to rely on veterans for another year. The most notable departures in the front seven are LB James Farrior and DE Aaron Smith, both of whom were near the end of the line, if not there already. Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons will provide the tackles at the ILB spots, although Timmons would be a candidate to move outside if James Harrison is either injured or ineffective (with rookie Sean Spence having perhaps the first dibs on his WILB job). The Steelers are also bracing for the future along the defensive front. If DE Brett Keisel’s effectiveness falls more, Cameron Hayward can take snaps, and rookie Alameda Ta’amu is next in line for the NT job behind the ancient Casey Hampton. As was the case last year, however, the Steelers’ front seven is probably not a worry compared to the secondary. Top CB Ike Taylor is still around, but he got burned in the playoffs last year, and the Steelers have a bunch of question marks – Keenan Lewis (the favorite for the LCB job), Cortez Allen, Walter McFadden – behind him, with both William Gay and Bryant McFadden gone. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are a good pair, but Polamalu is too often injured, and his effectiveness has taken a hit recently, despiting winning DPOY in 2011. On special team, if the Steelers want to reduce Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders’ roles in the return game, they could look to rookie RB Chris Rainey or rookie WR Marquis Maze to step up in training camp.
AFC South

Houston Texans
QB: The Texans might have been a Matt Schaub injury away from being the favorites to win the AFC last year, so despite young QB T.J. Yates’ best efforts, there feels like some degree of unfinished business here. The Texans say that Schaub is close to 100% as he recovers from Lisfranc surgery, but coach Gary Kubiak told the Houston Chronicle that the club is taking it slow with Schaub by holding him out of minicamps, opting instead to have him ready for training camp. It appears as if Yates did enough to hold down the backup job for the near future (which isn’t surprising), and veteran John Beck was brought in to be the #3 QB, unless undrafted rookie Case Keenum (the NCAA’s all-time leading passer) impresses enough in the reps he’ll get.
RB: The biggest news for the Texans this off-season was the re-signing of superstar RB Arian Foster to a monster deal – five years and up to $43.5 million, with about $21 million guaranteed. Foster had hamstring problems early in the season, but he rebounded to have yet another huge season in the Texans’ zone running scheme, and that should be the expectation moving forward. Ben Tate will be back as the backup RB, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Texans add a veteran to be the #3 RB. Right now, second-year back Javarris Williams projects to that role for a lack of a better option, but there’s a chance veteran Derrick Ward signs a deal to return to that role, as well. The Texans consider Ward a good “mentor” for the position, but he isn’t effective on the field anymore, and they might want someone with a better shot of actually contributing given the extensive injury histories of both Foster and Tate.
WR/TE: The Texans understand that Andre Johnson might be a top-two WR in the game, but he’s disappointingly fragile, and a lack of depth at the WR position really hurt them last year. While Kevin Walter will be back presumably as the #2 guy here, Jacoby Jones was cut and signed with the Ravens. The Texans drafted two very intriguing prospects in DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, and big body Lestar Jean was impressive in training camp last year before getting hurt. Jean was working in Johnson's spot in the May OTAs, as Johnson was recovering from minor arthroscopic surgery on his knee (which is yet another injury issues for Johnson). The Texans are hoping their youngsters step up, and that TE Owen Daniels (who won’t be held back for fantasy by the departed Joel Dreessen anymore) is more consistent. The wild card here is TE/FB/H-Back James Casey, whom the Texans will use “everywhere,” coach Gary Kubiak told the team’s official website. The departure of Dreessen and the Texans’ need for impact players on the perimeter could mean interesting things for Casey, who is entering his fourth year in the NFL.
OL: The Texans were in a pretty dire cap situation this off-season, and outside of the loss of DE Mario Williams, no place felt the sting as much as the offensive line. The Texans had one of the better lines in football last season, but money talks, and the club had to let go the right side of its offensive line as a result. RT Eric Winston was cut and signed with the Chiefs (the Texans gave a failed physical as the reason, but money was the motivator), and RG Mike Brisiel signed a big deal with the Raiders. The Texans will plug in veteran Rashad Butler at RT (he is still recovering from surgery on his elbow and triceps), and fourth-year man Antoine Caldwell is expected to be recovered from a high ankle sprain to play RG, although he might see some competition from rookie Brandon Brooks, a huge kid who can really move for his size (343 pounds). Fortunately, QB Matt Schaub’s blindside will be well protected, as LT Duane Brown has become a very good player, and LG Wade Smith is also a pretty steady asset. C Chris Myers will be snapping the ball once again, although he’s getting up there in age, and we also like rookie C Ben Jones out of Georgia. While the Texans had to make some moves along the front, they should have enough talent up front to keep the ship steady.
D/ST: Coordinator Wade Phillips put his stamp on the Texans’ defense last year, gaining an aggressive rush from multiple players, but he’ll have to be a little bit more creative in 2012 with the loss of DE/OLB Mario Williams. But it’s also easy to forget that Williams missed a good deal of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. So the Texans will look to get their high-end rush from Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed yet again, while working in versatile and gifted rookie Whitney Mercilus as well. The Texans also made a significant change at the LB position, trading away team leader DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia, and installing youngster Darryl Sharpton as the new starter at ILB. But it’s a move that makes sense. The Texans cleared some money, and Ryans was not a three-down player anymore in the 3-4, as the Texans’ nickel snaps went instead to Brian Cushing, who is now the unquestioned leader of this defense. Although there are still questions at CB opposite star Johnathan Joseph, it’s evident the Texans felt comfortable with their great defense from last year, spending only two draft picks on that side of the ball (Mercilus and DE Jared Crick). The hope is that third-year CB Kareem Jackson takes the next step, especially since veteran Jason Allen left for Cincinnati. On special teams, the Texans brought in veteran PK Shayne Graham and rookie Randy Bullock to compete for the job left by the departed Neil Rackers, and they’ll also have to replace PR Jacoby Jones, where rookie WR Keshawn Martin could be in the mix.
Indianapolis Colts
QB: An off-season review for the Colts would have looked really boring for the last 13 years prior to this one, but this year is quite different, isn’t it? The Colts released the legendary Peyton Manning, freeing him to sign with the Broncos after missing the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, and they drafted Andrew Luck out of Stanford to hopefully lock down the QB job for 13 seasons, like Manning did. Luck has yet to actually take the field with the Colts, as he’s still taking classes at Stanford, but the reason the Colts went with Luck at #1 overall is because they view him as a cerebral “general” of the offense, much like Manning was. In addition to his Stanford classes, Luck is studying the playbook and material coaches gave him, according to the Indianapolis Star. Our guess: Luck will be just fine when he finally graduates and takes the field in the huge shoes he’s being asked to fill. The Colts also acquired a new backup QB in Drew Stanton, an opportunity that befell them when the Jets acquired Tim Tebow, resulting in Stanton asking for a trade where he could be the clear #2 QB. He’ll be that in Indy.
RB: The Colts’ longtime starter at RB, Joseph Addai, was deemed expendable this off-season, and he was cut and later signed with the Patriots. That means the Colts are likely to head into 2012 with Donald Brown, Delone Carter (who is recovering from thumb surgery), and rookie Vick Ballard at RB. Brown is coming off his best NFL season, but he was little better than mediocre, and coach Chuck Pagano has said he wants to switch to a more physical running style, which might suit the games of Carter and Ballard better. Carter and Ballard will get their chance to show their stuff in training camp (Carter’s thumb is supposed to be fully healed by that point). We wouldn’t be surprised if the Colts employ a rotational approach in the backfield, with the staff rolling with whichever back looks the best in camp. This job looks like Brown’s to lose, but he could do just that if he remains inconsistent.
WR/TE: Although the Colts allowed Pierre Garcon to depart for the Redskins and their big bucks, they did make a move that surprised people, re-signing veteran WR Reggie Wayne to a three-year deal worth up to $18 million (many had just assumed Wayne would follow Peyton Manning wherever he went). So Wayne and Austin Collie (who is one more year removed from concussion issues and plans to work out with QB Andrew Luck soon) project to be the top two WRs here, with rookie T.Y. Hilton providing some fantastic speed in a rotational role. Veteran Donnie Avery, if he remains healthy, could be the favorite to start opposite Wayne, though. But what’s most interesting is the Colts’ TE approach. They drafted Luck’s favorite college target, Coby Fleener, in the 2nd round, and then followed that pick up by selecting Clemson’s Dwayne Allen in the 3rd. Fleener is more of a movable chess piece, and Allen the more in-line TE. But expect both to start, as Luck was comfortable in a two-TE offense in college, and the Colts are tipping their hand with their idea for their offense in the NFL.
OL: The offensive line with Peyton Manning at QB might never have been a strong suit for the Colts – Manning’s dominance and brilliance just helped disguise that fact. While it’s a nice luxury to have a QB who can mask offensive line woes, it’s probably not the most prudent strategy to employ, especially now with rookie Andrew Luck under center. So while the Colts may not be exactly good up front in 2012, they have made a concerted effort to beef up the line. Second-year man Anthony Castonzo will start at LT, and he’ll join new acquisition Winston Justice, who appears the favorite to start at RT. Justice is a solid player who can play multiple positions, but he didn’t fit the Eagles’ scheme under coach Howard Mudd (coincidentally, the Colts’ former OL coach). The Colts also signed veteran Samson Satele to replace Jeff Saturday at C, signifying a philosophy change up front – the Colts want to be big and mean. They hope that second-year RG Ben Ijalana can hold down a job, but that’s not a guarantee as he recovers from an ACL tear. Ijalana, Joe Reitz, and new acquisition Mike McGlynn will battle for the two guard spots.
D/ST: The Colts have a lot of question marks defensively, but what we do know is that new head coach Chuck Pagano is going to get the most out of the personnel he has. And it will start at OLB, as the Colts are switching to a 3-4 defense that will probably include some 4-3 fronts, as well. In the base 3-4, the edge rushers are expected to be Robert Mathis (who signed a monster contract worth up to $31 million over four year this off-season) and Dwight Freeney (presuming he doesn’t get traded, which Freeney adamantly denies requesting). The Colts have been pleased with Freeney’s enthusiasm about the switch thus far, and they view Mathis as the “SAM OLB,” much like Jarret Johnson in Baltimore with a greater pass-rushing threat, according to the Indianapolis Star. A quality pass rush and front three (where Cory Redding was signed to fill a starting spot, and Fili Moala and Drake Nevis will compete for the other five-tech spot) can help take some heat off the secondary, where the Colts might struggle to find consistency. Top RCB Jerraud Powers is solid, but he’s coming off an elbow injury and Kevin Thomas is just a guy. There’s no real depth at CB, so the Colts hope their pass rush is strong, and new leaders whom Pagano is familiar with (Redding, S Tom Zbikowski, NT Brandon McKinney) help ease the transition to a new D. For fantasy purposes, the Colts could be sneaky if their pass rush works out, as both rookie WRs T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill could make big-time impacts as return men. But this will likely be a defense you want to start your offensive players against, especially in terms of the passing game.
Jacksonville Jaguars
QB: If it wasn’t evident already, the new Jags’ coaching staff is a little bit worried with QB Blaine Gabbert, who was unimpressive as a rookie in 2011 and is leaving us significant doubts about his future in the NFL (although reports surfaced that Gabbert did play through a broken toe as a rookie). The Jags brought in an intriguing backup in the gifted but inconsistent Chad Henne, and their play for Tim Tebow came down to the last minute, when Tebow was eventually dealt to the Jets. If the Jags truly believed in Gabbert, the Tebow overtures never would have been made (ticket sales notwithstanding), so it’s clear where new coach Mike Mularkey stands (despite his comments to the media). In fact, Sports Illustrated recently reported that there are people within the Jags organization who expect Henne to win the job from Gabbert at some point, even though Mularkey said last week that Gabbert will enter camp as the team’s top QB. This will be a really intriguing situation to watch.
RB: A stalemate is the biggest story in the Jaguars’ backfield . RB Maurice Jones-Drew is currently holding out for a new contract, and there’s no end in sight, with reports from the Florida Times Union suggesting that neither side has engaged in contract talks. Ultimately, we feel the situation has to get resolved, as MJD was the Jags’ entire offense last year, but there’s no doubt that the recent monster deals for Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy are going to provide a framework (and given what MJD means to the Jags, he might want more). What’s surprising is that the Jags didn’t shore up the backfield behind MJD, insurance if the situation gets uglier. Rashad Jennings didn’t play last year after a knee injury, but he didn’t need surgery and he’s fully healed. He should be the primary backup, with youngsters Montell Owens and DuJuan Harris competing for the #3 job vacated by the cut Deji Karim.
WR/TE: The 2011 Jaguars might have had the worst receiving corps we’ve ever seen, and while QB Blaine Gabbert didn’t help matters, the receivers didn’t help him either. So the Jags went out this off-season with a clear intent to improve. Not only did they signed Laurent Robinson to a deal worth up to $32 million over five years, but they traded up to the #4 spot in April’s draft to select Oklahoma State star Justin Blackmon, maybe the best pure possession receiver in the class. With two new starters on the outside, the Jags can afford to move Mike Thomas to his more comfortable slot position, and they also added veteran Lee Evans as a #4 type to potentially make some plays down the field. Cecil Shorts is a second-year player with promise, and he appears to be the current favorite to win the #5 receiver job. The Jags also have a solid pair of TEs, although both enter 2012 with questions. Marcedes Lewis is not a stiff, but his 2011 season was a nightmare, and at times it seemed as if it were physically impossible for him to score a TD. And athletic backup Zachary Miller was cleared for football activity about a month ago after undergoing shoulder surgery in October. While the QB position remains a big question, this set of weapons all of a sudden looks deep and versatile.
OL: The Jaguars’ offensive line might not be a strength of the club, but it’s certainly adequate enough to win, although Blaine Gabbert’s pressure phobia helps to make it look a lot worse than it is. It’s a good line in the run game and decent enough in the pass game. At the tackle position, RT Eben Britton will be back after missing most of last season with a back injury. He’ll join LT Eugene Monroe as the Jags’ bookends. Neither player has developed into what the Jags have hoped, but they’re not liabilities. The Jags have gotten solid play on the interior from RG Uche Nwaneri and C Brad Meester, although the concern with Meester is that he’s now 35 and is nearing the end of the road (he’s been up-and-down the last few years). The weakness up front last year was LG Will Rackley, who struggled as a rookie. But he’s entering his second year, and a full off-season will only help him out. The top backups along the line will continue to be veteran T Guy Whimper and G Jason Spitz. The Jags didn’t make any significant changes here in the off-season, and they’re just hoping their guys stay healthy.
D/ST: Credit Jag defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. He actually had one of the NFL’s most impressive defenses last year, considering what little personnel he had to work with. The Jags are hoping an off-season of rest helps their guys recover, and that rookie second-round pick DE Andre Branch is ready to step in and provide a rush early in his NFL career. The Jags are also hoping for some good fortune in the secondary. Top CB Rashean Mathis tore his ACL last year, but there’s a shot he’s ready for training camp. The Jags are slotting in fourth-year CB Derek Cox as the starter opposite Mathis, but they also brought in veteran Aaron Ross on a three-year, $15 million deal to provide some depth. The safety position remains a concern (although the club loves FS Dwight Lowery), as do two key injuries: LB Paul Posluszny was brilliant last year, but he’s recovering from shoulder surgery and isn’t full-go at OTAs, and DT Terrance Knighton remains a question mark for training camp as he recovers from eye surgery as a result of an April nightclub altercation. If the Jags can get some pass rush from Branch and perhaps Jeremy Mincey, this could actually be a pretty good unit. On special teams, it must be noted that PK Josh Scobee has yet to sign his franchise tender.
Tennessee Titans
QB: The Titans will have one of the most interesting decisions to make of any team in the NFL in 2012, as they must decide between solid veteran Matt Hasselbeck and promising second-year player Jake Locker as the team’s starting QB. Locker showed well in the few opportunities he got last season, but Hasselbeck was as steady as can be expected, and he nearly led the Titans to the postseason. For right now, it’s only prudent to consider Locker the #2 here, but GM Ruston Webster recently told The Tennessean that the club’s decision will be based on “gut feeling” and whoever gives “the best chance to help [the team] win,” and the battle is expected to extend into training camp, if not deep into the preseason. This battle is even more interesting on the heels of team owner Bud Adams’ spirited and public pursuit of Peyton Manning this off-season, and because the Titans have made a concerted effort to beef up their receiving corps. From a fantasy perspective, a strong performance from Locker in preseason would be awesome, because his athleticism could help make him a high-end fantasy QB even if he’s still rough around the edges.
RB: Last season, the Titans learned the downside of fielding an offense dependent on Chris Johnson – while his 2009 campaign will go down as one of the best in NFL history, the last two years (especially 2011) have highlighted Johnson as perhaps a player best suited as merely a key cog. And while he might be one of the most gifted “cogs” ever, he might be better off as a cog nonetheless, and the Titans’ moves at the WR position might suggest as much. That said, Johnson did get paid last year, and the Titans added no real competition for his position behind Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper. Johnson is now doing all the right things, including getting into better shape and working out with the Titans in OTAs for the first time in his five-year career. The Titans’ new “spread it out” focus is expected to help Johnson, and remember that he still contributed a lot as a receiver last year. There are reasons to be optimistic, but the Titans aren’t looking for him to contribute another 2500 yards from scrimmage.
WR/TE: The Titans’ 1st-round pick in April’s NFL Draft speaks perhaps to a bigger philosophy change than any other team in the NFL. With defensive needs essentially across the board, the Titans instead opted to select Baylor speedster Kendall Wright, giving them one of the deepest and most interesting receiving corps in the NFL. Yes, a lot of that depends on star Kenny Britt’s ability to recover from two procedures on a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee (the most recent surgery was a cleanup procedure), and Britt’s availability for training camp is up in the air at this point. But if he’s healthy, Britt, Wright, Nate Washington, Damian Williams, and Lavelle Hawkins form a really deep 1-5, and that’s not even mentioning a set of TEs that includes Jared Cook, Craig Stevens, and raw but gifted rookie Taylor Thompson. Washington has come out and said explicitly this off-season that he’s “licking his chops” to play in an “explosive” offense constructed by coordinator Chris Palmer, and with these weapons, it’s easy to see why it might be exciting. The only question is: Who will be throwing the football?
OL: If there is an identifiable weakness on the Tennessee roster, you’re probably looking at it. That’s amazing to say, considering this group of five was one of the most highly rated units in the NFL just two years ago. While LT Michael Roos and RT David Stewart are solid enough (they were considered an elite pair just a bit back), the interior of this line was awful last season after a scheme change, prompting a reconstruction. RG Jake Scott was allowed to leave, and it appears that last year’s starting LG Leroy Harris (coming off both knee and shoulder surgeries, which might have been why his run blocking was so poor) will flip sides to the right to allow room for veteran Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a legendary interior lineman, but his play has deteriorated for years now, and even the OL-starved Vikings were willing to let him go. The Titans’ biggest question heading into training camp will be C Eugene Amano, who is sitting out of OTAs as he recovers from knee surgery. Amano was not very good last year, but there are no better options on the roster right now. The Titans did make some moves, but we’re still not convinced the interior of this line will be anything but poor. Perhaps the Titans will help it look better by switching to a more spread-based attack.
D/ST: The Titans don’t have a poor defense, but it’s not a shutdown unit, and remember that they lost top CB Cortland Finnegan to the Rams in free agency. For 2012, the club is hoping that CBs Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner step up to negate the loss (along with veteran Drayton Florence), and that franchise player S Michael Griffin gets signed soon (he’s participating in off-season workouts, so the relationship is good here. Up front, the Titans expect new acquisition Kamerion Wimbley (five years, $35 million) to provide the high-end rush the team was lacking last season. The Titans also believe that third-year DE Derrick Morgan is ready to step up, now that he’s over a year removed from the ACL tear that cost him a huge chunk of his rookie season. Playing opposite Wimbley should help him out. The Titans’ youth movement extends to other positions, as well: DTs Sen’Derrick Marks and Jurrell Casey are expected to start, but the rotation could include second-year man Karl Klug and rookie Mike Martin. At some point in 2012, the Titans could have no LBs with more than one full year of experience – MLB Colin McCarthy was great as a rookie in 2011, and although SAM Akeem Ayers was a disappointment, he’s still expected to start in 2012. The true battle will be at WIL, where veteran Will Witherspoon is still slotted in, but rookie Zach Brown could make a very interesting push if he shows something in training camp.
AFC West
Denver Broncos
QB: The Broncos made perhaps the most high-profile sequence of moves in the league this off-season. First, they won the Peyton Manning free agency derby, then, after signing one of the greatest QBs in league history, John Elway traded everyone’s favorite winner Tim Tebow to the Jets of all teams. So, with the addition of Manning, the Broncos are obviously poised to tailor their offense to his game, meaning OC Mike McCoy will run an offense similar to what the Colts ran. Forget John Fox’s conservative history. This is Manning’s team now, and all the Broncos’ eggs are in his basket. After all, if he has trouble with his neck, the Broncos can kiss their season goodbye with Caleb Hanie, raw 2nd-round rookie Brock Osweiler, Adam Weber sitting behind him. The Broncos are committed to Manning, and they signed him to a five-year, $96 million deal. Osweiler has potential, but he has a long way to go and has spent the off-season working on his mechanics. Manning in their initial OTAs threw the ball extremely well, but he did not throw it down the field.
RB: While the previous Bronco administration spent a 1st-round pick on Knowshon Moreno the current staff clearly isn’t enamored with him. He’s put up numbers occasionally, but he’s not a foundation back and is now coming off a torn ACL (plus a DUI charge in February). He may not even be ready for the start of the season. The lead back here is clearly veteran Willis McGahee, while the Broncos spent a 3rd-round pick on San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman to act as a change of pace and possible 3rd-down back – taking Moreno’s role. It’s possible Moreno’s days in Denver could be numbered, as they have a decent enough #3 back in Lance Ball if Moreno is pushed out. Ball can give the team the power running they would like if McGahee is out with an injury.
WR/TE: The Broncos may not have a standout stud at WR, but they actually look pretty good with a decent supporting cast around Manning. The two holdovers at WR are Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and there’s little reason to think they won’t transition well to a Manning-led offense. Thomas has gotten a delayed start because he underwent surgery to remove a pin inserted in his broken finger early last season. Meanwhile, Decker has worked extensively with Manning already, and he’s 100% after spraining his MCL late in the season. Manning said the coaching staff plans to move Decker around the formation and use him in different ways. Additionally, the Broncos signed versatile former Bengal WR Andre Caldwell to a two-year deal. While primarily a slot receiver, he can play outside, and he could be a good fit for Manning. They also signed Manning favorite Brandon Stokley, but he’s 35 years old and caught only 1 pass last year. At TE, the Broncos made some big moves despite having young talent in a guy like Julius Thomas. They signed a pair of veterans, adding former Colt backup Jacob Tamme – who was fantastic in 2010 when Dallas Clark got hurt – and noted TD vulture Joel Dreessen from Houston. Tamme could be a move TE with Dreessen lining up in a more traditional role. The athletic Thomas underwent ankle surgery to repair ligaments in early April, while second-year TE Virgil Green faces a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. We like Tamme plenty, but we're not convinced he can hold up for all 16 games if he's featured, so we don't see him as a fantastic breakout candidate - although he's certainly an upside backup.
OL: The Bronco offensive line won’t look much different this year. The biggest question is LG, where Chris Kuper is still recovering from a nasty broken ankle from Week Seventeen. The good news is that Kuper is expected to be ready for training camp. Russ Hochstein, the man who replaced Kuper in the playoffs, is a free agent, and the Broncos used a 4th-round pick on Baylor G/C Philip Blake, who provides depth and hopefully some insurance for Kuper. Manning can often compensate for a weak offensive line, but the Broncos certainly don’t want to take any chances given that Manning is coming off an injury and missed time for the first time in his career. Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin are the tackles, with J.D. Walton at center and Zane Beadles at LG.
D/ST: The Bronco defense took a big step forward last year, thanks largely to the return of Elvis Dumervil and the drafting of #2 overall pick Von Miller, who both provided big boosts to a stagnant pass rush. The biggest change this year is the presence of former Jaguar HC Jack Del Rio as Fox’s new DC, replacing Dennis Allen, who took the Raiders’ head job. The Broncos will continue running a 4-3, with Miller and Dumervil leading the pass rush, and they made a couple moves to bolster the front seven by signing DT Justin Bannan from Baltimore and drafting talented Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe in the 2nd round. However, the most noteworthy moves were made in the secondary, as the Broncos look to force more turnovers. They signed former Saint CB Tracy Porter to a one-year deal, and he’ll likely slide into the starting lineup alongside Champ Bailey with Andre Goodman gone. Additionally, they added discarded Bill CB Drayton Florence for depth, plus a new starter in Mike Adams, a former Brown who will replace the retired Brian Dawkins at SS after signing a two-year deal. On special teams, PK Matt Prater was hit with the franchise tag but has not participated in OTAs. Rookie CB Omar Bolden could compete to replace Eddie Royal on returns.
Kansas City Chiefs
QB: The Chiefs spoke about wanting a competition at QB, but given that the only QB they brought in was Brady Quinn, it’s not surprising to see GM Scott Pioli praising incumbent Matt Cassel as a “really good quarterback.” The Chiefs did not bring back Kyle Orton, who started late in the year after Cassel went down and Tyler Palko didn’t work out, as he instead opted to sign in Dallas as Tony Romo’s backup. The Chiefs, with new OC Brian Daboll, then signed Quinn, who spent last year on the bench behind the Orton/Tebow circus in Denver. Quinn hasn’t started a game since 2009 with the Browns, so he shouldn’t be much of a threat – and neither should second-year QB Ricky Stanzi – to Cassel, who is coming back from a broken hand. The biggest change for Cassel is once again adapting to a New OC in Daboll – his fifth in five seasons. Cassel is now healthy and slim and trim, and he seems to be expecting a big year, for what it's worth.
RB: The big story for the Chiefs is the return of Jamaal Charles, who, after a breakout 2010 season, went down early in 2011 with a torn ACL. The good news is that Charles is on track for the season, as he recently declared himself 80% healthy. Charles has participated in some off-season workouts, and he’ll surely be slowly worked back into the mix over the next few months to protect him for the regular season. Charles’ former backfield mate Thomas Jones – the two led the league’s #1 rushing offense in 2010 – is gone, and the Chiefs appear to have secured an upgrade in former Brown Peyton Hillis. Hillis may have struggled with assorted issues last year, but when he starred in 2010, it was under the Chiefs’ new OC, Daboll. Not surprisingly, Charles recently said that he expects Hillis to have a role similar to what Jones played in 2010, as the hard-nosed, inside runner. In that season, Jones had 245 carries for 896 yards and Charles had 230 carries for 1467 yards. Behind them, the biggest question is the role of multipurpose player Dexter McCluster, who has struggled to become the big-play guy the Chiefs hoped he’d become. The Chiefs drafted a quick backup RB in Cyrus Gray – a handcuff for Charles, perhaps – and a slot receiver in Devon Wylie, leaving McCluster’s offensive touches up in the air. The Chiefs will likely be versatile with the formations, working McCluster into the mix but also lining up Charles and Hillis in the same backfield, especially since FB Le’Ron McClain is gone. In fact, McCluster could officially be moved back to WR in training camp, which seems to be the plan now.
WR/TE: The Chiefs wisely used the franchise tag on #1 WR Dwayne Bowe, but the two sides remain in a contract squabble. Bowe has not signed his franchise tender, and, according to, had no plans to sign it any time soon as of late April. Still, Bowe will likely sign it in time for camp, and Pioli has said the team does not intend to trade him. The player most people are keeping an eye on for the future is 2011 1st-round pick Jonathan Baldwin, whose career got off to a rough start when he broke his thumb in a locker room scuffle with Jones. Baldwin has a full off-season to work now, and veteran Steve Breaston has complimented Baldwin on his commitment to learning the playbook – which will help him play faster on the field – and developing into a better all-around receiver. As of now, Bowe and Breaston are the likely starters, but as a former 1st-round pick Baldwin is expected to work his way into the lineup eventually. Behind those three, the Chiefs drafted talented Fresno State slot receiver Devon Wylie, who has similarities to Wes Welker and fits with Cassel but will have to fight for targets in a pretty deep offense. Meanwhile, the TE position should be much improved after Leonard Pope and Jake O’Connell led the way last year. Tony Moeaki, who tore his ACL last year, has participated in conditioning work and is expected to be fully healthy for training camp. Additionally, the Chiefs have insurance in the form of former Giant and Raider Kevin Boss, who signed a three-year deal and allows the Chiefs to use some two-TE sets.
OL: The Chiefs lucked out when the Texans made starting RT Eric Winston a cap casualty, as the Chiefs were then able to lock up one of the league’s best RTs to a four-year, $22 million deal. Winston did undergo arthroscopic ankle surgery in February, but he said it’s fine and will immediately start at RT in place of Barry Richardson, who signed with the Rams, and Ryan O’Callaghan. The other change is at center, where Casey Wiegmann retired after a decade anchoring the Chief line. In his place, look for 2011 2nd-round pick Rodney Hudson to step up in his second year. Otherwise, the rest of the line remains in place with LT Branden Albert, LG Ryan Lilja, and RG Jon Asamoah.
D/ST: The Chiefs lost two key defensive contributors, and the only moves of note they made on defense were to replace the two guys they lost. First, at CB, the talented man-coverage tandem of Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr was broken up, as Carr cashed in and signed a big deal with the Cowboys as a free agent. Replacing him will be former Raider Stanford Routt, who was a cap casualty and signed a three-year, $20 million deal to join the Chiefs. Routt made too many mistakes last year, but he’s a talented guy and a solid replacement in a unit that will be boosted by the return of stud SS Eric Berry from a torn ACL. Like the other Chief starters coming off torn ACLs, Berry expects to be ready for training camp. The Chiefs are also dealing with an injury to their other starting safety, as Kendrick Lewis underwent shoulder surgery in early January. The other big move was the drafting of a raw talent at NT in Dontari Poe of Memphis. Poe has a long way to go in terms of football production, but he’s a freak athlete who the team hopes can replace Kelly Gregg in the middle of its 3-4 under Romeo Crennel.
Oakland Raiders
QB: The Raiders upgraded the QB position in the middle of the season last year by acquiring former Bengal Carson Palmer after Jason Campbell got hurt. Palmer is entrenched as the starter now, with Campbell off to Chicago. To replace Campbell, the Raiders signed Matt Leinart, who, interestingly enough, was Palmer’s successor at USC. In one of the most interesting groups of college QBs in the league, the Raiders also have former Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor, who was selected in last year’s supplemental draft. Palmer should be a good fit in a more West Coast oriented approach under new HC Dennis Allen and OC Greg Knapp, given his diminishing arm strength. Still, the Raiders will continue to take shots as well, utilizing the play-action passing game with their speed at WR.
RB: The key to the Raiders’ season could be the health of star RB Darren McFadden, who played only seven games last year because of a Lisfranc foot sprain. The good news is that McFadden finally made his return to the field in front of the media at the Raiders’ first OTAs, and he reportedly looked good running and was a full participant in drills. The Raiders will move back to a zone-blocking scheme under Knapp, and while McFadden struggled in it early in his career, he’s clearly made great strides as an NFL back over the last two seasons before getting hurt and should be able to adapt to the system. As always, durability is the key, especially with Michael Bush gone. Bush signed with the Bears, and the only replacement the Raiders have brought in so far is a very different backup in quick, change-of-pace runner Mike Goodson from Carolina. Goodson went on IR in November with a hamstring injury but says he’s back to 100%. The Raiders will also look to get increased production from explosive young RB Taiwan Jones, who will compete with Goodson for touches behind McFadden. Versatile FB Marcel Reece will also be in the mix and could see more touches with Bush gone.
WR/TE: The most noteworthy thing to happen to the Raider receiving corps lately was the arrest of Darrius Heyward-Bey on a DUI charge. While he could face punishment from the league, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll face anything severe that diminishes his fantasy value. DHB developed chemistry with Palmer over the course of the 2011 season and actually became a decent fantasy player and a solid intermediate receiver. Capturing the most attention lately was rookie Juron Criner, a 5th-round pick who had a good Senior Bowl and draw rave reviews for making circus catches at the Raiders’ OTAs. Criner is essentially a replacement for the often-injured Chaz Schilens, who signed with the Jets. Heyward-Bey and Criner are the team’s best intermediate receivers, and they’re joined by a trio of deep threats in Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, and Louis Murphy. The Raiders continue to love Moore’s potential, and Allen said that Ford was nearly 100% in early April after missing much of last year because of foot issues. Palmer clearl looked comfortable throwing to Moore last year, so he gets the edge over Ford for now in our book. Meanwhile, the Raiders apparently still don’t care about the TE position. A year after letting Zach Miller walk, they let Kevin Boss walk to the division-rival Chiefs, leaving Brandon Myers as the starter with raw but athletic second-year player David Ausberry in the mix. Allen said Ausberry could be used as a receiving TE.
OL: The biggest change up front for the Raiders will be the shift back to a zone-blocking scheme in the run game. As part of that change, the biggest addition they made was signing former Texan G Mike Brisiel, who was part of a zone scheme in Houston and previously played under Knapp. It’s a logical fit, and he’ll step in right away as the starting RG. That allows talented 2011 rookie Stefen Wisniewski (nephew of Steve) to shift to center, with Cooper Carlisle moving from LG to RG to make room for Brisiel. Wisniewski is facing a minor issue after undergoing shoulder surgery after the season, but he’s expected to be ready for camp. While the Raiders shuffled the interior of their line, they’ll roll with the same duo at tackle. Jared Veldheer is on the left side, while they re-signed starting RT Khalif Barnes to another one-year deal.
D/ST: The Raiders’ salary cap situation was a total mess entering the off-season, so perhaps the two most notable moves they’ve made were cuts. First, they got rid of CB Stanford Routt (signed with KC), then they got rid of pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley (signed with Ten). Given that they also lost Nnamdi Asomugha last year, they’ve lost a lot of their most notable players. Still, there is some talent, most notably up front with Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, and Matt Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy missed most of last season with a shoulder injury and has been absent from OTAs as he continues his rehab. The Raiders added five players to the defense via free agency, with three of them probably starting. Former Colt MLB Philip Wheeler will likely replace Wimbley as starting SLB, and the Raiders could have two new corners in Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell. Most notably, starting SS Tyvon Branch will be back playing under the franchise tag. Of course, now the Raiders could have another hole to fill after MLB Rolando McClain was sentenced to 180 days in jail after being found guilty of assault, reckless endangerment, menacing and wrongful discharge of a firearm. That could potentially sideline him for the season, and as of now the Raiders’ best option may be starting WLB Aaron Curry or Travis Goethel, so they could be forced to sign someone.
San Diego Chargers
QB: Philip Rivers’ numbers weren’t terrible last year, but he fell behind the game’s other elite QBs and had to answer questions about possible injuries and general inconsistency. He struggled with accuracy more than usual, resulting in bad throws and more turnovers. Not surprisingly, according to the U-T San Diego, Rivers is spending his off-season focusing on eliminating mistakes after he threw 20 interceptions. The good news, at least for fantasy, is that HC Norv Turner is back, thanks in part to lobbying by Rivers on his behalf. The one change here is that long-time backup Billy Volek was released, making room for the Chargers to bring back Charlie Whitehurst two years after trading him to Seattle. Whitehurst’s short stint in Seattle was unsuccessful, and now he won’t have to play unless Rivers misses time – something he hasn’t done since becoming the full-time starter in 2006.
RB: Year Three of the Ryan Mathews era opens without a key piece of the backfield: noted vulture Mike Tolbert. Tolbert signed with the Panthers, leaving the Chargers with Mathews, Curtis Brinkley, and rookie Edwin Baker at RB, although they did sign former 900-yard rusher Le’Ron McClain at FB to join Jacob Hester. Brinkley is currently slated to be the top backup to Mathews. Despite his fumbling and durability issues, Mathews is the clear bell cow back here. Not surprisingly, HC Norv Turner has called for a breakout season from Mathews, and he also said he expects McClain to play a versatile role as a lead blocker, receiver, and runner. McClain could be a TD vulture to Mathews, but he's not as good as Tolbert, at least.
WR/TE: The Vincent Jackson contract issues are a thing of the past, as the former Charger #1 WR signed a big deal with the Bucs. But the Chargers were active at the position in free agency, signing Robert Meachem from New Orleans to take Jackson’s place, in addition to locking up slot receivers Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish and return man Michael Spurlock. That makes this a crowded group, as starter Malcom Floyd and versatile and promising second-year WR Vincent Brown are also in the mix. Staying healthy is big for this group, especially Floyd, who is plagued by inconsistency and injuries. Of course, Meachem is also coming off postseason arthroscopic knee surgery, although he said he feels fine and was ready for OTAs. He’ll move to a larger role with the Chargers as a replacement for Jackson after serving as a secondary deep threat in New Orleans. The rest of the group is a little bit difficult to sort out, but the Chargers spread the field enough to get both Brown and Royal on the field. Brown has the ability to be a very good slot receiver and would also likely start on the outside if Floyd missed time again, while Royal is a quick receiver best in motion. At TE, veteran Antonio Gates returns as starter and remains one of the league’s best despite his foot issues. The Chargers re-signed reliable backup Randy McMichael, and they also made a great move by using a draft pick on raw but athletic TE Ladarius Green, who makes a good protégé for Gates.
OL: While the line was a big issue for the Chargers at times last season, there actually won’t be a lot of change. In fact, the group came together toward the end of the season when Jared Gaither replaced Marcus McNeill at LT, and they’ll stick with that solution. McNeill is gone, while Gaither re-signed on a four-year deal. The big change is the retirement of starting LG Kris Dielman, which leaves a big hole that is still open. Tyronne Green, a 4th-round pick in 2009, is the current favorite for the job, and he worked himself into shape by dropping about 25 pounds since last training camp, according to the U-T San Diego. Green will be pushed by free agent signing Rex Hadnot, who started 16 games for a lousy Cardinal line last year. On the positive side, the Chargers locked up free agent C Nick Hardwick, re-signing him to a three-year, $13.5 million deal.
D/ST: With Ron Rivera off to Carolina last year, the Chargers brought in Greg Manusky to run the defense in a move that ultimately backfield. While the Chargers weren’t particularly talented in 2010, Rivera schemed his way to the #1 ranked defense in the league. Last year? Not so much. The pass rush in particular was an issue, and the DBs were also prone to giving up big plays. So, they got rid of Manusky and promoted from within, tabbing LB coach John Pagano as the new DC, which means not much will change in terms of scheme. They will, however, be more aggressive, and hopefully the personnel will be better. The Chargers made OLB a priority, signing former Raven Jarret Johnson and making a big pickup in the draft by taking South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram in the 1st round. Ingram may have been a steal, and he’ll surely see plenty of snaps in a rotation with Shaun Phillips. If the Chargers can get improve play from 2011 1st-round pick Cory Liuget at DE, the front seven could be pretty good. But can the secondary improve? The Chargers are sticking with status quo at CB, with Quentin Jammer at one CB spot and Marcus Gilchrist pushing Antoine Cason at the other spot. Perhaps more problematic is the SS spot alongside FS Eric Weddle, as rookie 3rd-rounder Brandon Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby for the job. On special teams, the return units will be boosted by the additions of WRs Royal, Parrish, and Spurlock, who will all be in the mix for jobs.
NFC East
Dallas Cowboys
QB: The retirement of backup Jon Kitna left a hole in the team’s QB depth chart that they didn’t feel comfortable filling with third-stringer Stephen McGee. Instead, the team gave Kyle Orton a three-year, $10.5 million deal to back up Tony Romo. The team has made it clear that Romo is the starter, but it is interesting to see Orton, who we thought could land a starting job elsewhere, take a nice contract to be a backup at age 29.
RB: After suffering a fractured right ankle and high ankle sprain that ended his season in Week Fourteen of last year, DeMarco Murray said he was cleared by doctor and has been going through normal workouts without limitations. Murray went as far as to say he feels “great,” and he holds the edge over Felix Jones.
WR/TE: WR Miles Austin is coming off a disappointing 2011 season that saw him miss extended time with hamstring issues, and he admitted to not feeling like he was in the best shape due to a lack of normal off-season program. The Cowboys have a couple of holes to fill in their receiving corps. Former #3 WR Laurent Robinson cashed in on his breakout 2011 season with the Cowboys and signed with the Jaguars this off-season. QB Tony Romo believes some of the team’s young WRs could step up to fill that void, although the frontrunner would have to be veteran WR Kevin Ogletree, although we should be keeping an eye on 5th-round pick WR Danny Coale. After five mostly disappointing seasons with Dallas, TE Martellus Bennett wasn’t brought back as the backup to Jason Witten, so look for the talented John Phillips to move up the depth chart.
OL: Last season, the OL went through a bit of a makeover and started to come together in the final games of the season. They’ll continue to change things up in 2012 as second-year OT Tyron Smith will move from RT to LT with Doug Free switching to the right side. They’re also expected to add a pair of new OGs to the starting lineup thanks to the signings of LG Nate Livings and RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, although Bernadeau is expected to miss up to 12 weeks after having surgery for a torn labrum, which puts his status for training camp in question. In fact, the position not changing in 2012 is C, where Phil Costa started all 16 games last year. However, the team would have liked to look at Bernadeau at C, but won’t get that chance now. Luckily, they’ll have one of the best OL coaches in the league, Bill Callahan, joining the staff this season.
D/ST: With the team struggling to pick up DC Rob Ryan’s defense last year due to a lockout-shortened off-season, Ryan plans to re-teach his defense this year by slowing down. Ryan admitted that he probably accelerated things too much last season, but he’s trying to correct that starting with OTAs. While the defense certainly had talent, they added more with the signing of CB Brandon Carr for five years and $50.1 million and rookie CB Morris Claiborne, who they traded up for in this year’s draft. They’ve also added former Panther LB Dan Connor, who should slot in at one of the ILB spots. Although Claiborne was considered not only one of the best CBs in this draft, but one of the best players overall, secondary coach Jerome Henderson fully expects opponents to go after the rookie, which is why Henderson is doing everything he can to prepare Claiborne for his first season. Claiborne is expected to beat out CB Mike Jenkins for a starting role, although owner/GM Jerry Jones did say Jenkins would be part of the defense after rumors swirled that they were looking to move the former Pro Bowler. There are reports that Jenkins wants a trade and his absence at OTAs seems to back that up. While Claiborne is expected to return in early August from wrist surgery, it’s later than expected, which might be why the team isn’t in a hurry to move Jenkins. The team used its franchise tag on LB Anthony Spencer, who signed it in late April. The deal will pay him almost $8.9 million in 2012.
New York Giants
QB: There’s not much to say about Eli Manning. He’s joked about being the third-most talked-about QB in New York, hosted Saturday Night Live, and just received his second Super Bowl ring. Manning showed just how good he is last season despite a shaky OL that dealt with injuries all season. The debate now seems to be about just how good Manning actually is when it comes to the top QBs in the league. He’s certainly made his case to be mentioned in that group. David Carr will return as Manning’s backup after signing a one-year deal in March.
RB: With the release of Brandon Jacobs, it was pretty clear the Giants needed to address the RB position in this year’s draft and with the last pick of the 1st round, they selected David Wilson out of Virginia Tech. Not only did they need to replace Jacobs, but with Ahmad Bradshaw slowed by injuries due to his physical running style, the Giants needed to find a player that could carry the load if need be, and Wilson should be able to fit that bill. We’ve yet to see much from guys like D.J. Ware and Da’Rel Scott, so while they may still play minor roles, Wilson is someone the team is high on going in the season. OC Kevin Gilbride said seeing Wilson’s speed in rookie minicamp was “encouraging” and “exciting.” Bradshaw is the guy if the foot checks out, but that is an issue that simply isn't going away and it seems like it will be a concern for the rest of his career.
WR/TE: The breakout 2011 season from Victor Cruz made it a little easier to let Mario Manningham hit the free agent market. Now, the team needs to figure out who will become the team’s #3 WR. Jerrel Jernigan, a 3rd-round pick in 2011, was specifically mentioned by GM Jerry Reese as a potential candidate to fill the void left by Manningham. Another option could be 2012 2nd-round pick Rueben Randle, who Reese compared to Hakeem Nicks in terms of his play speed and size. Reese also noted that Randle was a bit handcuffed by his QB situation in college, which limited Randle from showing off his ability to run the entire route tree. Cruz said he’s gotten comfortable with playing in the slot and expects to play there in 3/4-WR sets. While Cruz made his salsa dance famous last year, Reese advised Cruz not to accept an invitation to be a part of “Dancing with the Stars,” noting that Cruz had “one good year” and “one good year don’t make you a great football player.” Despite dealing with knee, hamstring, and shoulder injuries last season, Nicks didn’t need surgery this off-season and said his body “felt like it was in pieces” once the season ended. With both TEs Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum suffering torn ACLs in the Super Bowl, the Giants had to make a move in free agency to solidify depth at the position. They signed Martellus Bennett to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. While Beckum believes he’ll be able to return for Week One, Ballard, who also needed microfracture surgery, admitted his best chance to play in 2012 would be by mid-season, if he’s able to come back at all. Bennett has plenty of talent and is in a one-year "prove it" deal, so he could be a sleeper considering the excellent TE coaching on the Giant staff.
OL: This unit had their issues last year, but a good portion of those problems were masked by the play of Eli Manning. Outside of taking OT Brandon Mosley in the 4th round and OT Matt McCants in the 6th round of this year’s draft, the Giants haven’t done anything to change things up in terms of personnel on the OL, but they could be shifting some players around when it comes to where they’ll be lining up. David Diehl, who lined up at LT last season, realizes he could be moving to RT with Kareem McKenzie not being brought back. Diehl expects Will Beatty to return from his detached retina to reclaim his spot at LT. OC Kevin Gilbride noted that all the injuries that the unit dealt with last year didn’t allow them to mesh due to the constant changes. Gilbride agreed that moving Diehl to RT and Beatty back to LT makes sense. RG Chris Snee underwent elbow surgery, but he appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery and is looking to participate in OTAs.
D/ST: The LB corps dealt with injuries and inconsistent play in 2011, so it shouldn’t be a surprise for DC Perry Fewell to expect some battle to happen during training camp, specifically in the middle. While Michael Boley at WLB and Mathias Kiwanuka at SLB appear to be set, Chase Blackburn should be getting competition from recent acquisition Keith Rivers, as well as Greg Jones and Mark Herzlich. Fewell did say that the MLB position may not be as important as it once was and that the team would be looking to figure out the best plan of action considering the trend of offenses relying more and more on their passing game.
Philadelphia Eagles
QB: After an up-and-down 2011 season that was marred by injuries, the Eagles were rumored to be looking for Michael Vick’s replacement. First there was talk of signing Peyton Manning, although that seemed to be nothing more than exploratory. Then, the Eagles were mentioned as a team that was looking to move up in the draft because of how much they loved Robert Griffin III, but obviously that didn’t come to fruition either. The Eagles did end up taking a QB in the draft, but they surprised everyone with the selection of Nick Foles in the 3rd round. Foles is very different from Vick in that he’s a big QB (6-5, 250) who lacks mobility and doesn’t have a great arm. Foles looks like a project player, and isn’t expected to challenge for the backup spot. Instead, Trent Edwards, who the team signed early in the off-season, should be the team’s #2 QB. That could make Mike Kafka the odd man out. As for Vick, he recently said that this is the first off-season he's taken seriously in his career, which is good (and also bad).
RB: The Eagles locked up arguably their best offensive player when they gave LeSean McCoy a five-year, $45 million extension, including almost $21 million guaranteed. While McCoy is coming off a great 2011 season, HC Andy Reid said he overworked McCoy and would be looking to lighten his load a bit in 2012, specifically mentioning Dion Lewis as someone who could help accomplish that. The Eagles added a power runner and solid pass-catcher in UDFA Chris Polk, who wasn’t drafted due to a shoulder issues in college. In addition to Polk, the team drafted Bryce Brown in the 7th round to help replenish the RB depth after deciding to not bring back Ronnie Brown. Brown is a real wild card, but he has very good speed and much better size than Lewis, plus he catches the ball well. He’s had a checkered past, but the talent is definitely there. Basically, as usual, the situation behind the Eagles’ starting RB is a little cloudy.
WR/TE: DeSean Jackson had a disappointing 2011 season, which was partially to blame on being unhappy with his contract situation. The Eagles gave Jackson the franchise tag in early March, but ended up signing him to a five-year, $47 million deal, including $47 million guaranteed. Jackson said 2011 “was a tough year for myself, had a lot of struggles, had a lot of things that just took me off of my game and my focus.” However, with his new deal, Jackson feels like “100 pounds of stress” is gone, allowing him to totally focus on getting back to top form in 2012. After dealing with an illness for much of the off-season in 2011, Jeremy Maclin is “much stronger right now,” according to HC Andy Reid.The Philadelphia Inquirer was told by an Eagle coach that Maclin was a candidate for a “breakout” year.
OL: The team suffered a huge loss when their best OL, LT Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon in March while working out on his own. He wasn’t expected to play in 2012, but those chances were lowered even more when Peters re-ruptured the Achilles during a freak accident when the apparatus he was using to get around collapsed. After he was initially injured, the Eagles did their best to replace Peters by signing Demetress Bell to a five-year deal worth over $34 million. Other moves on the OL included the re-signing of OG Evan Mathis to a five-year, $25 million deal, the release of C Jamaal Jackson, and the trade of OT Winston Justice to the Colts.
D/ST: Perhaps more frustrating than any of the disappointments in 2011 was the play of the defense. The Wide-Nine scheme wasn’t picked up as well as the staff hoped and it was obvious that the team didn’t have the proper personnel to excel. They started with the LB position and traded for DeMeco Ryans to shore up their MLB spot. Philly would trade up in the draft to select the best DT of this year’s class in Fletcher Cox. Cox has athleticism, but more importantly the versatility to line up at multiple spots on the DL. They added more help to the LB corps with the selection of Mychal Kendricks in the 2nd round. In addition to being solid in coverage, the Eagles are excited about Kendricks ability to blitz, which Andy Reid highlighted as one of his strengths in college. In a move that really didn’t surprise anyone, the team traded CB Asante Samuel to the Falcons in exchange for a 2012 7th-round pick. That makes Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie the starting CBs with good depth behind them in Joselio Hanson and 2011 3rd-round pick Curtis Marsh. Reid said Kurt Coleman will start in front of 2011 2nd-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett.
Washington Redskins
QB: The Redskins made their intentions clear when they traded three 1st-round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 and a 2012 2nd-round pick to the Browns in exchange for the #2
overall pick in this year’s draft. They selected Robert Griffin III with their top pick, but then in a surprise move, took Kirk Cousins out of Michigan State in the 4th round. A controversy was started, but HC Mike Shanahan cut that off at the pass when he named Griffin the team’s starter in early May. Shanahan has talked up Griffin by saying, "The NFL is not used to a quarterback with his type of speed and his type of throwing ability. I think we can do some things that people haven’t done." Shanahan also said Griffin was ahead of schedule in learning the offense and believes he can be a “game-changing player.” Shanahan added that Griffin can make any throw and “fits into our system perfectly because we like to run play-action, quarterback keeps, bootlegs. With his speed, he can get on the edge and do things most quarterbacks can’t do." The selections of Griffin and Cousins allowed the Redskins to part ways with John Beck. However, Rex Grossman was a signed to a one-year deal and is expected to be the primary backup for Griffin, for now.
RB: The most frustrating situation to deal with in fantasy football is the Redskin backfield. And it's back in 2012! It didn’t get any easier when the team re-signed Tim Hightower to a one-year deal, despite him still getting over the torn ACL he suffered last season. Hightower admitted he wasn’t sure if he’ll be ready for OTAs or the start of training camp, but vows to be ready for Week One. Hightower is considered a solid all-around back and a great blocker, which was important for the Redskins to have to protect rookie QB Robert Griffin III. Hightower re-joins a backfield that already has Roy Helu and Evan Royster, who were called “two guys who can help you in the future,” according to OC Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan said of Royster, “He has a knack for finding the right hole. He’s a very natural running back, he does it with ease.” To make things even more complicated, the team used a 6th-round pick on Alfred Morris. HC Mike Shanahan wants to keep Morris at RB instead of moving him to FB and said, "He has the ability to make people miss, has great quickness, and can cut on a dime. we get a chance to see how he'll come in and compete with the other backs."
WR/TE: Washington got right to work revamping its receiving corps by giving Pierre Garcon a five-year deal worth $42.5 million. The Redskins also added former 49er WR Josh Morgan on a five-year, $12 million deal. Morgan is one of the favorites to start opposite Garcon, but that leaves a quandary as to what to do with Santana Moss. The team already released Jabar Gaffney and has 2011 3rd-round pick Leonard Hankerson as someone who can compete for reps, but Moss apparently helped his cause by cutting 15 pounds and being in “excellent shape,” according to HC Mike Shanahan. That’s important because the Washington Examiner reported that the team wasn’t happy with the shape he was in last season. While it appears Moss has lost his starting job, he may be able to keep his spot on the team with a good off-season. After missing the last four games of the 2011 season due to a drug suspension, TE Fred Davis was still given the franchise tag, which he signed. GM Bruce Allen called Davis the team’s “most valuable free agent.” TE Chris Cooley continues to recover from a knee injury that landed him on the IR last season, and HC Mike Shanahan said Cooley hasn’t had any setbacks. A healthy Cooley won't change Davis' role as the #1 TE, but he could cut into Davis' upside potential, since Cooley is potentially a very savvy safety valve for RGIII.
OL: Although the Redskin OL could be improved, the team has yet to make any major moves this off-season outside of drafting OG Josh LeRibeus in the 3rd round of this year’s draft. HC Mike Shanahan believes LeRibeus can play OG or C, and actually used him at C for all of the team’s rookie minicamp. They spent a 5th-round pick on OG Adam Gettis and a 6th-round pick on OT Tom Compton. Depth remains an issue for this unit, which is why they went after a player with versatility like LeRibeus.
D/ST: The Redskins have tried to keep important parts of their defense intact by resigning DE Adam Carriker and LB London Fletcher to multi-year deals. They also brought in cast-offs CB Cedric Griffin, CB Leigh Torrence, S Tanard Jackson, S Brandon Meriweather, and S Madieu Williams to provide some veteran depth for a secondary that dealt with multiple injuries last season. With players like safeties O.J. Atogwe and LaRon Landry leaving via free agency, Meriweather and Jackson could end up starting. It wasn’t a pretty 2011 season for PK Graham Gano, so the team signed Neil Rackers to provide some competition.
NFC North
Chicago Bears
QB: While we can’t really blame him, Jay Cutler drew some attention in May when he said, "The offensive line is definitely going to be a concern, and seeing where those five guys fit in, and seeing what five we go with. There are some question marks there. Until we really get that resolved … we have some work to do on the offense." Luckily for Cutler, he’ll finally get the high-end WR he’s been lacking since coming over from Denver. Cutler specifically said he was look for a “big receiver,” noting that he’d like “anyone over 6-2,” and the team obliged. The Bears traded for Cutler’s old Bronco teammate Brandon Marshall, reuniting the two for the first time since 2008. Speaking of being reunited, Cutler will once again work with Jeremy Bates, who is the Bears’ QB coach and passing game coordinator. Bates, Cutler, and Marshall worked together in Denver for three years from 2006-2008. Bates wants to use Cutler’s athleticism to the team’s advantage this season. He said, "We're going to use his feet. He's athletic, he can throw on the run, he can see downfield on the run." Also, instead of the dropbacks used in previous seasons, Bates wants to roll Cutler out more. Although it was totally expected, HC Lovie Smith said back in February that Cutler was 100 percent recovered from the broken thumb that landed him on the IR last season. Jason Campbell signed a one-year deal to back up Cutler and Josh McCown came back on a one-year deal to serve as the #3 QB.
RB: Matt Forte played in the Pro Bowl after missing the final four games of the 2011 season with a knee injury. It was believed to be a way to show the Bears he was over his injury and worthy of a new deal. They began contract talks soon after, but the Bears ended up giving Forte the franchise tag, although GM Phil Emery said the team intended on signing Forte to a deal for 2012 and beyond. Then, in a shocking move, the Bears signed one of the top free agent RBs, Michael Bush, to a four-year, $14 million deal. Bush was told by HC Lovie Smith that the team planned to use a rotation in the backfield with Smith later clarifying that Bush would play a role similar to the one Marion Barber, who was released, played in 2011. Forte was not shy about his frustration with the signing of Bush and has yet to participate in any of the team’s off-season workouts, which could continue until he gets a long-term deal. While there’s no end in sight to this stalemate, Forte isn’t expected to miss any regular season games, if it goes that far. Meanwhile, Kahlil Bell signed a one-year, $1.26 million deal as an RFA and has been a participant in the team’s off-season program. Smith was complimentary of Bell last season when he filled in for Forte, but admitted that he had concerns with using Bell as a #2 RB due to his ball security issues.
WR/TE: The Bears gave Jay Cutler the “big receiver” he was looking for when they traded 3rd-round picks in 2012 and 2013 to acquire Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins. Almost immediately after the trade was announced, it was reported that Marshall was possibly involved in an altercation that could lead to legal action and/or NFL review. Marshall was not worried about any repercussions and has since been cleared of any wrongdoing. The Bears selected Alshon Jeffrey in the 2nd round of this year’s draft to give the team another big target (6-3) to go along with Marshall. However, despite WR coach Darryl Drake saying Jeffery had the best hands in the draft and a “great ability to attack the ball,” it doesn’t look like he’ll be in the starting lineup to open the season. That’s because the Bears are insistent on keeping Devin Hester as a starter. Apparently, QB coach/passing game coordinator Jeremy Bates likes Hester in the new system and the team has installed a special package of plays to take advantage of his skill set. However, Drake said they may try to limit Hester since he will still return both punts and kicks this season despite the signings of Eric Weems and Devin Thomas. WR Johnny Knox (back) is expected to begin the season on the PUP list, as it was reported that Knox had “more structural damage than initially anticipated.” TE Kellen Davis, who was used primarily as a blocker under former OC Mike Martz, re-signed with the team on a two-year deal. HC Lovie Smith said he believes Davis can be featured in the team’s offense. Davis has a chance to be a decent fantasy backup, but we'll have to see about the role of rookie TE/H-Back Evan Rodriguez.
OL: Even though the OL has been much-maligned, the team didn’t address the unit in the draft. New OC Mike Tice said he didn’t believe the decision-makers on the team thought they needed help at OT, so one wasn’t selected. Tice believes the returns of RT Gabe Carimi, who played just two games last season due to a knee injury, and LG Chris Williams, who was limited to nine games due to a wrist injury, will help greatly. Tice said, "With the change in scheme, the change in personality, an offseason, and getting some guys healthy, I think we'll make a big jump in the offensive line. We have a couple young guys who have played good football in half the scheme, if you will. They need to step it up in the other half of the scheme." Williams may be shifted back to LT.
D/ST: With their 1st-round pick, the Bears selected DE Shea McClellin, who is expected to open the season as the team’s #3 DE behind Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Although he’s played LB in the past, the Bears are expected to use McClellin as a nickel pass rusher with the belief he could eventually unseat Idonije on the left side, as Idonije returned on just a one-year deal. The team added solid depth with the signings of DT John McCargo, LBs Geno Hayes and Blake Costanzo, and CB Kelvin Hayden. The Bears also signed a pair of returners in Eric Weems and Devin Thomas to help offset the possible absence of Johnny Knox and to help out Devin Hester.
Detroit Lions
QB: Matthew Stafford has had a pretty quiet off-season, and helped the team out by converting almost all of his 2012 salary into a bonus. It was revealed after the end of last season that Stafford played through a high-ankle sprain from Week Seven on, which certainly quiets the notion that he wasn’t able to play through injury after being banged up in his first two seasons. Stafford will once again be backed up by Shaun Hill, who returns on a two-year deal. The team also signed UDFA Kellen Moore, although HC Jim Schwartz didn’t commit to keeping three QBs on the roster, as he did last season.
RB: The Lions decided to bring back Kevin Smith on a one-year deal after he gave them a bit of a lift when brought in last November. Hopefully, he’ll provide insurance for Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Best has been participating in the team’s off-season conditioning program and GM Martin Mayhew expects him to be cleared for football activities at some point in June.Leshoure, who missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles, is expected to be ready for training camp, if not before. He was working out in the OTAs in late-May. Leshoure was arrested twice this off-season for marijuana possession, and he took a plea bargain to pay a fine. It’s possible that he’ll face a suspension. The Lions don’t seem to be too worried about the RB position, though, as they didn’t pick one in the draft.
WR/TE: After a monster season, the Lions rewarded Calvin Johnson with a seven-year, $132 million deal, and a month later he won the tournament to grace the cover of Madden 2013. The only negative of Johnson’s off-season was the Achilles tendinitis that caused him to skip the Pro Bowl, although he said it was more about not wanting to have any nagging injuries heading into 2012. While the Lions selected Ryan Broyles in the 2nd round of this year’s draft, there are apparently no intentions of letting Nate Burleson go. Broyles, who the team believes is the ideal slot receiver, is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last year. While GM Martin Mayhew said Broyles could open the season on PUP, HC Jim Schwartz said there’s still a chance Broyles is active for Week One. Broyles said he’s “doing everything normal,” but the team isn’t saying that just yet. Second-year WR Titus Young was absent from the start of OTAs in what was initially reported as a suspension stemming from an altercation with S Louis Delmas that saw Young sucker-punch Delmas. However, the team said Young wasn’t suspended but didn’t explain his absence.
OL: The Lions needed some help on the OL and addressed that issue with the selection of OT Riley Reiff in the 1st round. Reiff worked at both OT positions at rookie minicamp and could be a candidate to start, possibly at LT with Jeff Backus coming off a torn biceps. Luckily for the Lions, they’ll have all five starters coming back for a third straight season, which is great for continuity. LG Rob Sims has added some weight in an effort to improve his blocking, noting that he felt the need for the extra weight to handle some of the bigger DLs in the league.
D/ST: DE Cliff Avril was franchised by the team, but as of early May the two sides are at an impasse when it comes to working out a long-term deal. While Avril is staying in shape, he decided to skip the start of the team’s off-season program until a deal is reached. The team was able to come to terms with MLB Stephen Tulloch on a five-year, $25 million deal. With CB Eric Wright departing for Tampa Bay, Detroit used a 3rd-round pick to select CB Dwight Bentley, who our own Greg Cosell believes has a similar playing style to Asante Samuel. He could be in the mix to start, but he may be better off playing in the slot. UDFA PK Derek Dimke was signed and is expected to give long-time Lion PK Jason Hanson some competition.
Green Bay Packers
QB: With Aaron Rodgers firmly entrenched as the team’s starter, the biggest issue for the Packers at QB will be Graham Harrell’s ability to move up to the primary backup spot with Matt Flynn leaving via free agency. HC Mike McCarthy has “high hopes” for Harrell, who was promoted from the practice squad last December when the Bills showed interest. The team is not expected to sign a veteran backup.
RB: Alex Green appeared in just four games last season before tearing his ACL last season, but has been making a quick recovery with HC Mike McCarthy noting how good Green looked in the weight room as he continued to progress in his rehab. Green began straight-line running towards the end of April and recently started “a little bit” of cutting. Green said his “speed is picking up daily” and that he’s “definitely excited” with his progress. Team doctor Pat McKenzie said he’s “hopeful” that Green will be ready for training camp. The Packers apparently felt good enough about Green and the rest of their RBs to not select one in this year’s draft. With Ryan Grant not looking like he’ll return, the team will enter the season with a hopefully healthy Green, James Starks, and Brandon Saine as their top three RBs plus FB John Kuhn, who avoided surgery after suffering an MCL injury in January. It should be noted that HC Mike McCarthy has some concerns with Starks’ durability going forward, especially since he hasn’t played a full season dating back to 2008 as a junior at the University of Buffalo.
WR/TE: TE Jermichael Finley initially received the franchise tag, but was then given a two-year deal worth $14 million. There was some discrepancy over Finley’s actual position with HC Mike McCarthy admitting the team has used Finley as a WR in multiple sets. Veteran WR Donald Driver has been busy with “Dancing with the Stars,” but his name has still be in the news quite often as it relates to his status with the Packers. Because of his high contract number as a player with a limited role, Driver will probably need to restructure his deal to remain with the team. His agent said the team has wanted Driver back and Driver wants to return, so once Driver is back in Green Bay, the new structure will be worked out. Driver’s diminished role could have something to do with HC Mike McCarthy looking to expand WR Jordy Nelson’s route tree by making him more of the focus. TE Andrew Quarless continues his rehab from a torn ACL he suffered in December and may not be ready for the start of training camp.
OL: The Packers are going through a little bit of a rebuilding phase when it comes to their OL, as the newly-signed Jeff Saturday will take over at C with Bryan Bulaga at RT and Marshall Newhouse at LT. That’s because Chad Clifton was cut and C Scott Wells was signed away by the Rams. The Packers hope to have 2011 1st-round pick OT Derek Sherrod ready for the start of training camp, as he continues to recover from a broken right leg suffered last December. If Sherrod is healthy, he could challenge Newhouse for the starting LT spot.
D/ST: The Packers had a great pass rush during their Super Bowl season in 2010, but they struggled to get to the QB last year, so they attempted to address that issue by selecting LB Nick Perry with their 1st round pick in this year’s draft. Perry will be moving to the unfamiliar position of OLB after playing DE. However, Perry lined up at LOLB during rookie minicamp, a spot that’s been filled by Clay Matthews over the last two seasons. The idea is to move Matthews back to ROLB, where he last played in 2009 as a rookie. The team also moved up to get DE Jerel Worthy in the 2nd round as a possible rotational player. There’s been talk of CB Charles Woodson moving to safety after the team cut S Nick Collins due to a neck injury, and Woodson has been receptive to the idea, as long as the CB position is shored up. That could be the case if 2nd-round pick CB Casey Hayward shows he’s ready to start opposite Tramon Williams.
Minnesota Vikings
QB: Christian Ponder was slowed by a hip injury at the end of last season, but was 100 percent healed in early March and ready to participate in the team’s OTAs. Ponder admitted that, because of the team’s poor pass protection last year, he wasn’t comfortable going through all of his reads and would run instead of checking down, which may have caused his hip injury. Joe Webb, who filled in for Ponder, will no longer be used at multiple positions. Instead the team has him focusing on just playing QB, which Webb believes is a positive. The team brought back Sage Rosenfels as insurance for Ponder and Webb, but the Vikings seem to want Webb to serve as Ponder’s backup this season and give him a bit of a push for the starting job.
RB: Adrian Peterson’s rehab has being going quite well after suffering a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus late last season. He resumed running in late March and was already doing wind sprints (and beating his teammates) by late April. HC Leslie Frazier said Peterson was doing great and that the team was “optimistic he’ll be ready for that first game.” However, head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said, "I love Adrian. But let's make this clear: I'm still not going to be quoted as saying he's going to play in the first game. That's not fair. I don't know that." Sugarman also said that while the goal is for Peterson to play in the opener, it will happen "only if he's functionally able to do it." Peterson showed off his progress (including good lateral movement) in a workout in front of the media in early May. Toby Gerhart, who is expected to handle more of the load even if Peterson is ready for the opener, is over his sprained MCL and should be good to go for OTAs.
WR/TE: Percy Harvin will be getting a little help thanks to the addition of WR Jerome Simpson, who signed a one-year deal. Simpson will miss the first three games of the season due to a suspension, but is expected to start opposite Harvin once his suspension is over. OC Bill Musgrave said of Simpson: "He's a legitimate split end. He has speed to threaten down the field and also get in and out of breaks and beat man coverage." Christian Ponder talked up Simpson, saying, "The guy is so fast. He's so athletic. I think he's going to be a great asset to our 'X' position." Harvin underwent offseason shoulder surgery in April and should be recovered in time for the start of OTAs. With Visanthe Shiancoe not returning, the team signed TE John Carlson to a five-year deal worth $25 million despite Carlson missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. The Vikings still have high hopes for Kyle Rudolph, who is expected to start entering his second season. The team drafted WRs Greg Childs and Jairus Wright, both in the 4th round. Childs had a disappointing senior season, but believes it was because he returned too soon from a torn patella tendon. Wright suffered a head injury at the team’s first rookie workout in early May, but he was able to return without any issue the next day. Both could be contributors this year, but it appears they'll need some time to settled into active roles. Childs, in theory, could be their X receiver of the future unless Simpson blows it up and d
OL: As we mentioned, Christian Ponder didn’t feel comfortable going through all his reads due to poor pass protection, which is why he was thrilled when the Vikings used their 1st round pick on LT Matt Kalil. He should start immediately on the left side but is part of a unit that is still working its starting lineup out. Geoff Schwartz was signed to be part of the competition at LG, and it looks like he’ll battle Brandon Fusco, who was drafted as a C, for the starting job.
D/ST: Outside of an amazing performance by DE Jared Allen, it wasn’t a pretty year for the Viking defense in 2011. NT Remi Ayodele and CB Cedric Griffin were cut loose and the team hasn’t made a decision on FS Husain Abdullah yet. The Vikings won’t bring back LB E.J. Henderson, but did re-sign his brother Erin Henderson to a one-year deal. The added CBs Zack Bowman and Chris Carr to help a secondary that struggled mightily last year. CB Josh Robinson was also added to the mix after being selected in the 3rd round this year. The team parted ways with veteran PK Ryan Longwell after selecting PK Blair Walsh in the 6th round of this year’s draft.
NFC South
Atlanta Falcons
QB: Matt Ryan has been making an effort to get stronger this off-season in attempt to improve his arm strength. He noted that he needed to be more effective on downfield throws, which is something he’s been focusing on improving. The team re-signed Chris Redman to back up Ryan for another year.
RB: HC Mike Smith said that while the team wants to keep Michael Turner as their feature back, they want to get other backs involved as well, noting that Turner may be kept on a carry count of sorts to keep him fresh. The Falcons want to get Jacquizz Rodgers involved more, specifically in the screen game, which would make sense since Turner isn’t a pass catcher and doesn’t have the dynamic ability that Rodgers does. Atlanta brought back RB/FB Jason Snelling on a three-year deal.
WR/TE: Roddy White led the league in dropped passes last year, which he called “unacceptable,” but felt he had a good season other than that. White said the addition of Julio Jones did “wonders” for him because it got him more one-on-one coverages. Jones certainly helped the Falcons’ downfield passing attack, but with new OC Dirk Koetter looking to get the most out of Ryan and Ryan attempting to build up his arm strength, Jones could have an even bigger presence in the offense in 2012. The Falcon re-signed TE Tony Gonzalez, it what he believes could be his last season, to a one-year deal, and they also brought back #3 WR Harry Douglas for four years.
OL: Matt Ryan is a QB who needs protection to succeed, and the Falcons didn’t give him enough of it in 2011. That’s why they spent a 2nd-round pick on Peter Konz, who will compete for the starting RG position, but was probably selected as the long-term answer at C. Konz is considered a solid pass protector, but will need to improve in run blocking.
D/ST: Atlanta made a shrewd move in trading a 7th-round pick for CB Asante Samuel, and followed that up by giving him a three-year deal worth $18.5 million. He projects as a starter opposite Brent Grimes with Dunta Robinson possibly being relegated to third on the depth chart, where he’ll be used as a slot corner, which he’s done in the past. The Falcons re-signed DEs John Abraham and Kroy Biermann, as well as Grimes, who received the franchise tag. They also gave FS Thomas DeCoud a five-year deal worth $21 million.
Carolina Panthers
QB: Cam Newton believes his improvement this off-season has been “through the roof” and our own Greg Cosell said Newton was one of the best young QBs in the league thanks to his exceptional play in the pocket. Cosell added, "He was poised and composed, decisive and accurate. He stood tall and delivered the ball in the eye of the storm. He made difficult throws into tight coverage." As of now, Newton will be backed up by Derek Anderson with Jimmy Clausen serving as the third-stringer.
RB: Carolina’s backfield became an even bigger headache for fantasy players with the signing of Mike Tolbert to four-year deal worth $10 million. However, the Panthers have insisted that Tolbert will play FB to kill any notion that Tolbert’s presence would open the door to trade Jonathan Stewart, who’s in a contract year. Rivera said that Tolbert’s athleticism as a FB is something that will help the team and something the team loved to have. The team is expected to continue the rotation of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams with Tolbert serving as a lead blocker and possible third-down back. Mike Goodson, who fell out of favor, was traded to the Raiders.
WR/TE: Steve Smith will hopefully be getting some help on the opposite side this year, but from whom is yet to be determined. The best bet might be Brandon LaFell, who ESPN said the team really likes and believe he could be “poised for a breakout” in 2012. David Gettis might be LaFell’s biggest competition, and while he’s expected to participate in OTAs, his return from a torn ACL might hinder him as well as being a year behind in OC Rob Chudzinski’s system. The Panthers used a 4th-round pick on Joe Adams, but his role in the offense may be limited since he’s expected be used primarily as a return man.
OL: The selection of OL Amini Silatolu in the 2nd round of this year’s draft was a necessity for a Panther OL that’s dealt with injuries to their best players in recent years. He played LT in college, but is expected to be in the competition for the starting LG spot. They kept OG Geoff Hangartner after re-signing him to a three-year deal and also acquired OL Bruce Campbell in a trade. However, they lost OLs Mackenzy Bernadeau and Geoff Schwartz to free agency.
D/ST: With a LB corps that’s dealt with their fair share of injuries over the last couple of seasons, it appeared to be a position of need in this year’s draft, which is why the team selected LB Luke Kuechly in the 1st round. There’s still a question as to where he’ll play along with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Beason is coming off a torn Achilles and needs to prove himself to be 100 percent recovered. Davis will try to come back from his third torn ACL, and may end up playing behind James Anderson on the strong side. The team signed PK Justin Medlock to compete with Olindo Mare.
New Orleans Saints
QB: Drew Brees and the Saints continue to battle over a new deal with Brees going as far as saying the talks have been “extremely frustrating.” Brees clearly wasn’t happy when the team hit him with the franchise tag and was “very upset” that he wasn’t attending team workouts due to the holdup. Even though GM Mickey Loomis said there’s “no ill will” and a deal “will get done,” it should be noted that Brees has yet to sign his franchise tender. In Brees’ absence, the team is expected to sign another QB to join Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield. Brian Brohm participated in a tryout during the rookie minicamp and could be signed.
RB: It’s been a fairly quiet off-season for the Saint RBs outside of Mark Ingram. He ended the season on the IR due to a turf toe injury, but was expected to be 100% by OTAs. However, he was forced to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery in early May and won’t be a full-go for the start of training camp, according to interim HC Joe Vitt. Ingram’s now had three surgeries over the last three years.
WR/TE: Marques Colston and the Saints had little trouble reaching a new contract worth $40 million over five years. Unfortunately, they had to let Robert Meachem go due to cap restraints, leaving a bit of a hole in their receiving corps. Adrian Arrington, who re-signed with the team in February is expected to get the first chance at replacing Meachem, according to the Times-Picayune. WR Nick Toon was taken in the 4th-round and got a high compliment from OC Pete Carmichael, who said Toon reminded him of Colston. Carmichael said, "He runs better than I think people give him credit. He timed real well at the combine. I think that speed shows up on film."
OL: While it wasn’t surprising to see the Saints lose OG Carl Nicks to free agency, it’s still quite a hole to fill. That’ll be up to new LG Ben Grubbs, who signed a five-year deal worth $36 million. The Saints didn’t do much to address anything else on their OL outside of using a 6th-round pick on OG Andrew Tiller and a 7th-round pick on LT Marcel Jones.
D/ST: The biggest story of the off-season has been the bounty sanctions handed down by the league to the Saints. HC Sean Payton was suspended for the season, GM Mickey Loomis will be suspended for the first eight games, and interim HC Joe Vitt will be out for the first six games. LB Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire season and DE Will Smith got four games. Vilma has appealed the suspension and is suing Roger Goodell for defamation. In what may have been a move to cover themselves in preparation for the suspension, the Saints gave LB Curtis Lofton a six-year deal worth over $33 million. They also added LBs Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne. With Vilma out, Lofton is expected to play in the middle with Scott Shanle on the strong side and Hawthorne on the weak side. The DL will be bolstered by the signing of NT Brodrick Bunkley and the selection of 3rd-round pick Akiem Hicks. In what may be the only way to look at the absence of QB Drew Brees as a glass half-full situation, S Malcom Jenkins said that without Brees at OTAs “making plays,” defenders can be more relaxed and learn what they can and can’t do in the defense new DC Steve Spagnuolo is installing. S Roman Harper noted that the new system doesn’t use as much man coverage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
QB: Josh Freeman has made an effort to drop 20 pounds after struggling in his second season, which drops him down to about 235 pounds. New OC Mike Sullivan is expected to help the development of Freeman and has expressed optimism with working with his new QB. Sullivan spent the last two seasons working with Eli Manning as part of the Giants’ staff. Freeman and the Bucs won’t be looking for an extension until 2013. The Bucs signed Dan Orlovsky to back up Freeman this year.
RB: The Bucs hit a home run when they traded back up into the 1st round to grab RB Doug Martin at #31 overall. HC Greg Schiano called Martin a “very complete back” who possesses patience and ability to block, catch, and be patient with his runs. Martin is expected to eventually take over for LeGarrette Blount, but for now the Bucs are calling this a competitions, although it should be noted that Schiano indirectly called Blount out for his issues with ball security. Blount has lost some weight and believes he’s showing he can be an every-down back, noting that the selection of Martin might have been just what he needed. Martin has a hamstring strain that kept him out of the start of OTAs.
WR/TE: Obviously, the biggest move the Bucs made with their receiving corps was the signing of Vincent Jackson to a five-year deal worth over $55 million.Jackson is expected to take over the #1 role from Mike Williams, who will move back into the #2 spot, which probably fits him better. Jackson may take a step back in fantasy value if HC Greg Schiano sticks to his run-heavy offense. In a bit of surprise, WR Dezmon Briscoe wasn’t at any of the team’s first voluntary workouts due to a personal issue, but he did return on 5/21. After an apparent falling out with the team, TE Kellen Winslow was traded to the Seahawks in exchange for a conditional 7th-round pick in 2013. Veteran Dallas Clark was added, and if healthy he'll at least give them the veteran leadership they need on offense. He should be very serviceable if his body is up to it.
OL: Tampa Bay made a big splash with the signing of LG Carl Nicks to a five year-deal worth $47.5 million. He’ll immediately be slotted into a starting job at LG, which will certainly help what was a weak left side of the line along with LT Donald Penn. The team also gave OL Jeremy Zuttah an extension, which was very important as he has the ability to play multiple positions. An improvement in run blocking will be necessary if the Bucs plan to run the ball more this season.
D/ST: Attacking the defense in the draft was a key for the Bucs, and they did a great job in trading down and still being able to get SS Mark Barron in the 1st round. Tampa Bay has struggled at safety in recent seasons, but Barron gives them an immediate starter opposite Cody Grimm. They’ve also moved forward with the move of Ronde Barber from CB to FS. CB Eric Wright, who was part of some early signings in free agency, will replace Barber in the starting lineup. 2nd-round pick LB Lavonte David is expected to fit right it as a starter on the weak side. DE Da’Quan Bowers suffered a torn Achilles, but has since had successful surgery with the hope he’ll be able to return sometime during the season. PK Connor Barth was given the franchise tag, but he ended up signing a four-year deal worth over $13 million.
NFC West
Arizona Cardinals
QB: The competition is open in Arizona. On one side, we have the man who was coveted in trades just a year ago in Kevin Kolb, who signed a five-year, $65 million deal. On the other side, we have John Skelton, a 2010 5th-round pick out of Fordham. Given his contract, Kolb will surely be given every chance to win the job, but HC Ken Whisenhunt may have to go with whoever is more consistent and handles pressure better – a big issue for both last year. This could be a make-or-break year for the 27-year-old Kolb, but the coaches aren’t just going to hand it to him, because Skelton could be a capable starter. Additionally, Kolb must get over the concussion problem that has plagued him and even lasted a few weeks into the off-season, according to the Arizona Republic. Behind them, the Cardinals drafted a developmental player in San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley, who has NFL tools but must become more accurate and make better decisions.
RB: The Cardinals spent a 2nd-round pick on Ryan Williams last year, only to see Beanie Wells finally emerge as a solid producer. Of course, Wells had to be the guy again after Williams tore his patellar tendon, ending his season before it could even start. Fortunately, Williams’ rehab appears to be on track, as he’s already running and cutting, and the Cardinals will need him healthy given Wells’ frequent issues. Wells should be fine, given that it was minor surgery, but there always seems to be some kind of issue with him, and he said he told the team’s official website that he’s not quite sure when he’ll be ready to go. He’s the starter, but Williams will push him. Depth is provided by a solid change-of-pace back in LaRod Stephens-Howling, who re-signed on a one-year restricted tender in April.
WR/TE: Neither Andre Roberts nor Early Doucet is a bad player, but the Cardinals wanted a big upgrade at the #2 WR spot, pushing Roberts and Doucet into complementary roles. That’s why they invested a 1st-round pick in Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd, who should start immediately alongside star WR Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald receives all the attention from defenses, and Floyd, who has similarities to Dwayne Bowe, should help solve that problem if he develops quickly. Making things easier is the fact that Floyd said the Cardinal offense is similar to what he ran under Charlie Weis in his first couple seasons at Notre Dame. Fitzgerald attended all the team’s workouts in the off-season and will also take Floyd under his wing, as the two are both natives of the Twin Cities and have been friends for several years. Doucet re-signed on a two-year deal before the Floyd selection, and he’ll have to compete with Roberts for snaps, mostly out of the slot, assuming Floyd wins the starting job. At TE, the Cardinals will hope for the emergence of athletic second-year player Rob Housler, who, ideally, will push veteran Todd Heap for some snaps.
OL: While it’s hard to argue with the Cardinals’ selection of Floyd, it doesn’t change the fact that their O-line is still a massive issue. The line has acted as turnstiles for opposing pass rushers, and it doesn’t help that Kolb has done a poor job handling pressure. The Cards brought back LT Levi Brown at a reduced price, and while he’ll ideally move to RT, they might not have that luxury unless backup Nate Potter improves. On the other side, Jeremy Bridges is slated to start at the moment with Brandon Keith unsigned, but he should get pushed by rookie Bobby Massie, who somewhat surprisingly fell to 4th round. Guards Deuce Lutui and Rex Hadnot are gone, and the one free agent signing the Cardinals made up front is former 49er Adam Snyder, who is versatile but will probably start at RG. Unless Massie unexpectedly emerges as a stud, it’s hard to imagine this group being a lot better, which is bad news considering they surrendered the 2nd-most sacks in the league last year.
D/ST: While everyone was complaining about the Cardinals’ offensive line, positive changes were made over the course of the 2011 season on defense, where DC Ray Horton has a pretty solid group now. A key, of course, was the emergence of 1st-round pick Patrick Peterson as a star at one CB spot after some early struggles, and he also provides a big boost to the return game, making him incredibly valuable. There really won’t be a lot of changes on this unit, and that might not be a bad thing. LBs Joey Porter and Clark Haggans remain un-signed, but they’re well past their prime, and guys like Daryl Washington and O’Brien Schofield make this a solid unit. It helps that they’re playing behind a good line anchored by Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, and Dan Williams in Horton’s 3-4 scheme. The signings occurred in the secondary, where former Steeler William Gay will compete with A.J. Jefferson, Greg Toler, and 3rd-round pick Jamell Fleming for the starting job opposite Peterson.
San Francisco 49ers
QB: After a surprisingly successful 2011 season in Jim Harbaugh’s first year as coach, Alex Smith re-signed with the 49ers, agreeing to a three-year, $24 million deal to keep him as starting QB despite Colin Kaepernick’s selection in the 2nd round of last year’s draft. With Smith locked up, the focus has been on improving his mechanics. Smith visited with motion specialist Tom House, and Harbaugh said Smith has made “dramatic improvements,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. In addition to re-signing Smith, the 49ers signed free agent backup QB Josh Johnson, a former Buccaneer who played for Harbaugh in college at San Diego. Harbaugh has said the starting job belongs to Smith, with Kaepernick and Johnson competing for the backup job.
RB: The 49ers signed Frank Gore to a four-year, $25.9 million deal last August, but there’s still been a lot of movement in this backfield this off-season. Despite the drafting of Kendall Hunter last year, they signed former Giant Brandon Jacobs as a power back and drafted explosive Oregon runner LaMichael James in the 2nd round. Harbaugh said the selection of James was not an indictment of anyone on the roster, but, at his age, it seems likely that Gore will come off the field more than he used to, even though he’ll still be the clear lead back. Jacobs signed a cheap deal and will have to earn his roster spot, and the same goes for reserve power back Anthony Dixon. James is not going to be a threat to ever be an every-down back, but instead the 49ers will probably use him in a Darren Sproles satellite role.
WR/TE: Given that the 49ers ran with Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams as the starting receivers in the playoffs, it’s not surprising that the WR position was their biggest focus in the off-season. Braylon Edwards was a failure in San Francisco, and Josh Morgan missed most of the season. Both are gone, and in their place the 49ers drafted A.J. Jenkins and signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Crabtree will certainly be one of the starters as he continues to develop a better rapport with Smith, while Manningham has to be the favorite for the other spot. The Sacramento Bee has indicated that Crabtree could see time in the slot when the 49ers go three-wide, although Manningham and Jenkins also have that versatility. Of course, the wild card in this group is the embattled Moss, who had a horrendous 2010 season with the Patriots, Vikings, and Titans and didn’t even play last year. Moss has drawn nothing but rave reviews in workouts so far, but can we really trust him? We know he’s still talented even if he’s not as explosive as he once was, but the question is effort and commitment once he’s actually in game situations. The 49ers also re-signed Ted Ginn, who has made no impact at receiver but is valuable as a return man, as we saw in last year’s NFC title game. At TE, the 49ers will stick with the athletic duo of Vernon Davis as starter and Delanie Walker as his backup.
OL: After initially struggling last year, the 49er O-line came together over the course of the season, and there’s only one noticeable change this year. Starting RG Adam Snyder is gone, having signed with the Cardinals, and he’ll probably be replaced by Alex Boone, who played a lot of snaps last year as a swing player on the line. Boone will compete with 2011 5th-round pick Daniel Kilgore, as Chilo Rachal signed with the Bears. The rest of the group appears set, with LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, and RT Anthony Davis starting.
D/ST: The 49ers had the league’s most dominant defense last season, so there was no reason to make changes. They’ll continue to roll with what’s working. Backup DBs Shawntae Spencer and Madieu Williams are gone, but that’s about it. Starting FS Dashon Goldson was hit with the franchise tag, although reported that Goldson has no plans to sign his tender any time soon. The biggest moves were re-signings. CB Carlos Rogers is back on a four-year, $29 million deal, and OLB Ahmad Brooks also re-signed on a six-year, $44.5 million deal. With young stars like ILB NaVorro Bowman and OLB Aldon Smith, and veterans like ILB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith still in the mix, this defense is absolutely loaded. In his second year, expect to see Aldon Smith play more than just passing downs after his productive rookie year as a situational player.
St. Louis Rams
QB: Well, it’s Year Three of the Sam Bradford era in St. Louis, and he’s stuck learning a new offense for the third time. First, there was Pat Shurmur. Then, in a lockout-shortened off-season, there was Josh McDaniels. Now it’s Brian Schottenheimer, who takes over as OC under new HC Jeff Fisher. Schottenheimer never really had an identity in New York, as the Jets waffled between the “ground and pound” and letting Mark Sanchez throw. Fisher likes to run, and the Rams will surely do that, but they also have to get Bradford – a former #1 overall pick – comfortable after he was bombarded by opposing pass rushes and given little help at receiver last year, aside from Brandon Lloyd. In a vote of confidence for Bradford, new GM Les Snead said the Rams did not consider trading Bradford and using the #2 pick on Robert Griffin III. Behind Bradford, the Rams re-signed backups Kellen Clemens and Tom Brandstater and did not bring back A.J. Feeley.
RB: It’s no secret that Fisher had his eye on Alabama RB Trent Richardson in the draft, but the Rams ended up trading back, meaning they appear comfortable rolling with veteran Steven Jackson, who will be 29 years old this season. Jackson is still effective, of course, always running hard, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also shot down rumors that Jackson was unhappy with his contract. Instead of Richardson, the Rams ended up with explosive Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead in the 2nd round of the draft. The undersized Pead isn’t a threat to take over as the every-down back, although ESPN has reported that the Rams do envision him as a possible successor to Jackson. Either way, for this year, it’s safe to assume that Pead will serve as a change-of-pace behind Jackson, and the two appear to complement each other well. With Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood not re-signed, the Rams have very little depth behind Jackson and Pead. The other RBs on the roster include Chase Reynolds and 7th-round pick Daryl Richardson.
WR/TE: Last year, the Ram receiving corps looked like it might have some potential, but it was a mess to figure out because there were so many bodies. Well, Danny Amendola got hurt early, Mike Sims-Walker was a bust, and Mark Clayton couldn’t get healthy, and the biggest contributor by far ended up being Brandon Lloyd, who started the season in Denver. Now, it’s time to pick up the pieces. Lloyd, not surprisingly, followed McDaniels to New England, and the Rams spent two picks in the first four rounds of the draft on big Appalachian State WR Brian Quick and explosive Wake Forest WR Chris Givens. They join Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Austin Pettis, and Greg Salas in vying for spots, along with Amendola and former Giant and Eagle Steven Smith. Once again, this group is a mess. The Rams clearly have an eye toward the future, and while Quick and Givens are raw, it’s possible one or both could start. The Rams clearly love Quick’s potential to be a complete receiver, and Givens could be a healthy version of Alexander as a deep threat. Amendola re-signed with the Rams on a one-year deal as a restricted free agent, and in early April he said he was 100% healthy after his season-ending elbow injury last September. He’s the favorite for the #3 slot receiver role, while the wild card is Smith, who is looking for a fresh start after 2010 microfracture surgery derailed his career. If Smith is healthy, he’ll almost surely get a spot, with Alexander, Gibson, Pettis – who faces a four-game suspension – and Salas also competing. Fortunately, things appear a little simpler at TE, where second-year player Lance Kendricks will get another shot after an uneven, at best, rookie season, with Michael Hoomanawanui behind him.
OL: The Rams had a ton of holes in 2011, but no unit was more disappointing than the offensive line. Opposing defenses teed off on Bradford, and the Rams gave up the most sacks in the league, thanks to injuries and underperforming players like RT Jason Smith. Both Smith and LT Rodger Saffold, who is returning from pectoral surgery, will get another shot as starters. Saffold has not been cleared yet, but he’s expected to be ready soon. The much-maligned tackle duo missed a combined 17 games last year. Smith took a paycut and has participated in OTAs. As for the other positions, the main battle is at LG, where Bryan Mattison will compete with Robert Turner and Quinn Ojinnaka for the spot vacated by Jacob Bell. Harvey Dahl, who had a disappointing season after coming over from Atlanta, will start at LG with former Packer Scott Wells, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal, starting in the middle. In addition, the Rams added depth by signing former Chief RT Barry Richardson and drafting OT Rokevious Watkins in the 5th round.
D/ST: The Ram run defense was atrocious last year, but overall the group didn’t do a bad job, considering the circumstances. The secondary was decimated by injuries, and the offense couldn’t score points, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. Well, now there is reason for hope on what could develop into a solid unit. The most noteworthy move was the signing of former Titan CB Cortland Finnegan, who agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal. The Rams made other moves at CB too, including taking a risk that could pay off in a big way by using a 2nd-round pick on Janoris Jenkins, who is a top-10 talent but fell because of character concerns. Trumaine Johnson, a 3rd-round pick, is also sure to be in the mix, and the Rams are pretty solid at safety with Darian Stewart and Quintin Mikell. They also have a chance for a pretty good pass rush up front. DE Robert Quinn improved over the course of his rookie season, Chris Long is strong off the edge, and the Rams used a 1st-round pick on DT Michael Brockers. Additionally, the Rams signed DTs Kendall Langford and Trevor Laws, along with OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar and DE William Hayes. Perhaps there will be some growing pains, especially at CB, but there is some talent to work with here. On special teams, the Rams got rid of PK Josh Brown, making room for rookie 6th-round pick Greg Zuerlein.
Seattle Seahawks
QB: The Seahawks somewhat surprisingly handed their starting QB job to Tarvaris Jackson last year, but now he faces stiff competition from former Packer backup Matt Flynn and, if you believe HC Pete Carroll, 3rd-round rookie Russell Wilson. Flynn is the overwhelming favorite to win the job, despite his lack of starting experience. He put up huge numbers in the Packers’ regular season finale, and he was a coveted free agent after biding his time behind Aaron Rodgers. Flynn signed a three-year, $28 million deal, and he will almost certainly win the job, but Carroll has said the team won’t rush to name a starting QB. That means the inconsistent and erratic Jackson is still in the mix, as is Wilson, with former backup Charlie Whitehurst now in San Diego. Wilson does have pro tools as a QB, but the problem is he’s under 5’11” tall, so he faces a big challenge. Still, if Wilson continues to impress coaches and plays well, he could put Jackson’s spot in jeopardy.
RB: One of the most pleasant surprises in the league last year was the hard and decisive running of Marshawn Lynch, who finished 8th among RBs for fantasy last year. Lynch’s success earned him a four-year, $31 million deal, as the Seahawks are now comfortable riding him as the foundation of their offense. Behind Lynch, the Seahawks made a couple moves but did not re-sign Justin Forsett. First, they signed former Buc reserve Kregg Lumpkin, who saw increased action in Tampa because of LeGarrette Blount’s inability to block. Then, they drafted solid Utah State RB Robert Turbin, who runs with a similar style to Lynch and fits the team’s zone running scheme. Lynch has the starting job locked down, and it seems that Turbin could be his handcuff, with veteran Leon Washington occasionally mixed in as a change of pace and third-down back. Former Panther Tyrell Sutton will also compete for a roster spot. Meanwhile, at FB, the Seahawks wisely re-signed special teams captain Michael Robinson, a college QB who made the Pro Bowl last year.
WR/TE: Will Sidney Rice ever be 100% healthy? He’s apparently going to be better than ever this off-season, but can he actually be that way during the season? In five pro seasons, Rice has played a full season and put up more than 500 yards only once – his massive 2009 season in which he had 84/1312/8 with Brett Favre at QB. This off-season, Rice had two surgeries to repair his shoulders. He also dealt with concussions last season and hip injuries in 2010, but right now the biggest concern is the shoulders. GM John Schneider said the procedures will allow Rice to be “the healthiest he's going to be since he's been a professional,” according to The Seattle Times. Rice has worked out but probably won’t be cleared for contact until training camp. The Seahawks are counting on Rice to stay healthy, as they made no changes to the position in the off-season. Former UDFA Doug Baldwin is hoping to build on his successful rookie season and believes he could be even more than just a quick slot receiver, while Golden Tate is also looking to build on a strong finish to his second season. While Tate said he wants to develop into a top outside receiver, GM John Schneider emphasized that he believes Baldwin can be a “dominant inside player,” saying he’s effective at finding soft spots in zones. The Seahawks will have to see if they can get contributions from Michael Williams, who finally emerged in 2010 but struggled with injuries last season and skipped workouts as he recovers from leg issues. Also in the mix are decent backup Ben Obomanu and undersized but speedy wideout Deon Butler, who was a nonfactor last year after suffered a bad leg injury late in 2010. At TE, John Carlson is gone, and the question now is whether they’ll actually make an effort to get Zach Miller involved after he was irrelevant despite signing a five-year, $34 million contract last year. Flynn at QB could help him. Of course, the unpredictable Seahawks made things even more complicated by sending a late-round pick to Tampa for Kellen Winslow, who is a very, very old 29 years old thanks to his knee problems but can still be a decent possession receiver and will allow the Seahawks to use two-TE sets. The addition of Winslow could certainly be another big blow to Miller’s fantasy value.
OL: Pass protection has been a big issue for the Seahawks, especially with Jackson running the show at QB. Having Flynn could help, but, still, improvements are needed up front this season. Injuries certainly haven’t helped, and the key is keeping LT Russell Okung on the field. Okung has missed 10 games in two seasons, but the good news is he participated in OTAs after tearing his pectoral. On the right side, Breno Giacomini (who signed a two-year deal) will likely take over the starting spot permanently as James Carpenter battles back from a torn ACL. According to the Tacoma News Tribune, Paul McQuistan is slated for LG, while John Moffitt should be ready to start at RG despite undergoing MCL surgery on his knee. Max Unger will start at C, and the Seahawks added some insurance by signing OT Frank Omiyale from Chicago and G Deuce Lutui from Arizona with Robert Gallery released.
D/ST: The Seahawk defense developed into a very solid unit last year, and it appears to be on the verge of getting even better, even if people question the Seahawks’ 1st-round choice of West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin. Some teams did covet Irvin as a big-time pass rusher, so time will tell whether not that was a reach, especially with a guy like Melvin Ingram still on the board. Still, Aldon Smith proved last year for the 49ers that a rookie pass rusher doesn’t have to play every down to make a big impact. Irvin joins a pretty deep rotation up front that features re-signed DE Red Bryant, top pass rusher Chris Clemons, and DTs Jason Jones (signed from Tennessee), Brandon Mebane, and Alan Branch. Irvin will also provide a boost to a pass rush that recorded a third-fewest 12 sacks on third down last season, according to The Sports Xchange. The LB corps is not quite as impressive. David Hawthorne signed with the Saints, and now the Seahawks will be forced to go with either 2nd-round pick Bobby Wagner or Barrett Ruud, who lost his job in Tennessee last year, at MLB. The most interesting name in the unit is Allen Bradford, who is being converted to LB after playing RB for Carroll at USC. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have quietly put together one of the best secondaries in the league, so the LBs may not be a big issue if they are successful in their pass rush and in coverage. They released and then re-signed Marcus Trufant at CB, simply for depth, as big corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman played very well last year. And the Seahawks continue to be strong in the middle of the field with the safety duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.


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