Sunday, August 30, 2009

'09 NFL Predictions - AFC South

1) Indianapolis Colts
(2008 Record: 12-4, 2nd place, Wild Card)
Offense –
I see this as the most competitive division in football, headlined by the Indianapolis Colts. They may be under new direction, but they’re returning #18 under center. He’s been sharp as ever this preseason, and the fact that he’s going under the radar behind guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady will surely be a silent incentive. I see another 4,000 yard and 30 TD season with a possible 4th MVP award……….Manning may be without Marvin Harrison, but he still has Reggie Wayne. The former Cane is still one of the game’s best, most consistent performers, and I see him making a run at his career high of 12 TDs. He’s about as reliable as they come. Replacing Harrison is Anthony “I love you Chunk” Gonzalez. He catches everything thrown his way, but he’s not going to break many long ones. 70 catches isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Austin Collie, the rookie from BYU, has been tearing it up this preseason and will start the year as the 3rd receiver. At first glance, you’d think that they could use another veteran receiver, but I think Collie will work. Additionally, they re-signed pseudo WR Dallas Clark, albeit at a steep price. He’ll again draw plenty of targets from Manning……….Joseph Addai had an unimpressive junior campaign, watching his rushing total be cut in half from the previous year. He dealt with knee and shoulder injuries last year and is coming off knee surgery, but I’m going against public opinion expecting him to regain some semblance of his ’07 form. I’m not calling for 1,000 yards, but 750 should be realistic. As insurance, the Colts drafted Donald Brown in the first round, and he’ll see the field plenty this season. Should Addai flop again, Brown can handle the load. I don’t know if he’s ready to be a 3 down NFL back, but it wouldn’t be for lack of effort. This should be a productive backfield……….Tony Ugoh is currently listed as second on the depth chart at LT, but I’m guessing that’s a temporary thing. He’s been injured and underperforming, but he’s got too much talent to sit. For now at least, Charlie Johnson is responsible for protecting Manning’s backside. The Colts are better with him as a reserve. Ryan Diem isn’t anything spectacular at RT, but he’s far from the worst RT in the game. He’s strong and has good run blocking technique. If Ryan Lilja’s knee problems, which caused him to miss all of ’08, are behind him, they’re looking good at LG. At RG is second year versatile lineman Mike Pollak. I’m interested to see how he does in a starting role. That could be the start of something good or a failed experiment. Reliable Jeff Saturday is back, the recipient of a 3 year deal this offseason.

Defense –
On the other side of the ball, Indy’s poor run defense got two big boosts in rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Both rookies excelled at clogging up running lanes in college. Antonio and Ed Johnson are currently listed as starters, but expect the rookies to be worked in early; especially with Ed suspended for the first game of the season. If the interior proves to be stout, that should open things up outside for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. That’s kind of scary when you consider that the duo combined for 21.5 sacks and 2 Pro Bowl births last season. Imagine the numbers they could put up if offenses couldn’t run up the middle on this defense. Raheem Brock is a really good DT/DE backup who could start. He’ll probably see most of his time at end this year……….Gary Brackett once again mans the middle of the linebacking crew. He might be able to set a career high in tackles if the guys up front do their job. Second year linebacker Phillip Wheeler is their best backer in coverage, and he’s starting the year as their SLB. In combination with that move, last years SLB, Clint Session, moves to WLB, where he can use his speed and pursuit skills to make more plays……….At corner, Kelvin Hayden parlayed a solid 10 game performance into a new 5 year deal. He’s easily their best corner and has great ball skills. I can’t say the same for the starter opposite him, Marlin Jackson. He’s failed to live up to expectations since the Colts took him in the first round of the ’05 draft, and he’s coming off a torn ACL. Tim Jennings, Daymeion Hughes, and 3rd round pick Jarraud Powers will battle it out for the third corner spot. They could be better here. The Colts are being quiet about Bob Sanders’ health, and I think he’s going to be at less than full speed early, if he’s even on the field. Matt Giordano would start in his place, and the drop off in production is sizeable. Antoine Bethea mans the FS spot, and he’s noticeably better when Sanders is on the field. He’s also currently dealing with a broken hand; not a great injury for a DB.

The defense still has its question marks, but I like the addition of two big bodies in the middle. My only offensive gripe is the left tackle situation. That shouldn’t slow down Manning or the rest of the offense as they return to the top of the division in ’09.

2) Houston Texans
(2008 Record: 8-8, 3rd place)
Offense –
Matt Schaub is my breakout player of the year, so I’ve got to have fairly high hopes for his team, right? If (the biggest if of the year IMO) the guy can stay healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll end the year as one of the league’s top passers. Problem is he’s missed over 30% of his team’s games the last two years. Most of his time missed in ’07 can be blamed on a dislocated left shoulder, and last year’s absence can be chalked up to a questionable (at best) hit by Jared Allen. Schaub is off to a great start this preseason, and with karma on his side, I expect him to have an eye-opening season. The Texans better keep their fingers crossed because backing up Schaub is Dan “running out of the back of the endzone is a safety” Orlovsky and Rex Grossman……….Steve Slaton is a guy I wasn’t high on coming out last year. I thought he was too soft and wouldn’t succeed as a primary RB in the NFL. Well for at least one year he sure proved me wrong. Slaton totaled nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage and had double digit TDs. I never doubted his pass catching ability, just his propensity to shrink under pressure. They’ll need him to stay healthy because backups Chris Brown, Ryan Moats, and Andre Hall should be given as few snaps as possible. If both he and Schaub stay healthy, there’s no reason why Slaton can’t improve upon those numbers. Sometimes, I don’t mind admitting I was wrong……….At first glance you may think I’m crazy, but aside from the guys in Arizona, there may not be a better 1-2 WR combo in the league than the one in Houston. Andre Johnson is in the top 3 (if not #1) in conversations about the best receivers in the game. The man had 115 catches and nearly 1,600 yards receiving, and that’s without Schaub throwing him the ball for 5 games. He’s going to have another HUGE season. I’m a big fan of his counterpart as well. Kevin Walter is the ideal #2 receiver. He never complains about his number of targets, he catches everything thrown his way, and he’ll run any route in any situation. I think he tops 70 catches and 1,000 yards this year. David Anderson, Andre Davis, and Jacoby Jones are decent backups, but they could use a stronger #3 receiver. Fortunately, Schaub also has Owen Daniels at his disposal. Daniels is a real threat in the receiving game, evidenced by his 70 catches and Pro Bowl selection. I’m predicting a lot of catches from these guys, but I don’t see it being a reach with as explosive as I’m expecting this team to be……….Given their horrid history up front, the Texans have to be happy about the direction they’re headed. Last year was the first time any Texans’ team had all 5 lineman start all 16 games. I really like their LT Duane Brown, a guy who ended up a really high riser in last year’s draft. He entered the league really raw with all the skills (speed, athleticism, quick feet) and just needed to work on getting stronger and improving his technique. He’s still not there, and hopefully ’08 will prove to be a stepping stone to better things. Former Cane Eric Winston mans the right side and has started all 16 games the last two seasons. Like Brown, he could stand to work on his pass blocking. Dependable Chester Pitts still occupies the LG spot, and Mike Brisiel is passable on the right side. In the middle, the Texans drafted Antoine Caldwell to push/replace Chris Myers.

Defense –
The defense has its bright spots too. Mario Williams has become a beast at DE, making the Texans look like geniuses for passing on Reggie Bush and Vince Young. He’s totaled 26 sacks over the last two years, and with the help of the talent added this offseason, those numbers should go up. The Texans brought over Antonio Smith from Arizona to play the side opposite Williams, giving them a very strong run defender. He’s never been an elite pass rusher, so to help in that area, the Texans drafted Connor Barwin from Cincinnati (a pick I love). He’ll become an immediate situational pass rusher and work his way into regular playing time. Travis Johnson is their best interior player, but he’s currently recovering from a sports hernia. Deljuan Robinson has taken his place in the lineup and is making his case for a full time job. Amobi Okoye needs to put it together this year. I’ll give him a break because he just turned 22, but Okoye has yet to reach Houston’s expectations; especially with last year’s 24 tackle and 1 sack totals. Shaun Cody’s looking for a fresh start away from Detroit, and Frank Okam was added in last year’s draft……….At the next level, DeMeco Ryans is one of the best in the game. He’s a solid general in the middle of the defense. The Texans brought in the very active Brian Cushing from USC to flank him on one side, and he’s already won the SLB job. Cushing is an intense, instinctive, and versatile defende who should fit in great next to Ryans. The Texans hope Xavier Adibi solidifies the weak side, but he’s having a hard time holding off Zach Diles. Adibi spent more time on the sidelines last year than the Texans had liked, and he’ll be key to their continued progression in ’09. Cato June is currently recovering from a broken forearm and is a ways away from being a contributor on defense……….Those who’ve paid attention know I like Dunta Robinson. Their top corner is playing under the franchise tag and will look to break the bank next offseason. He’s still holding out, so he’ll need to get on the field first. Jacques Reeves had a nice ’08, but he’s starting this season with a broken left leg. Fred Bennett looks to be the third corner, but he figures to start if Robinson’s hold out continues. Deltha O’Neal and Antwaun Molden provide depth, as do draft picks Glover Quin and Brice McCain. Eugene Wilson and Dominique Barber return at safety, and the Texans are pleased with what they have in both of them. Wilson’s a versatile veteran who was cut by the Bucs last preseason, and Barber was a 6th round pick last year.

They’re a young team headed in the right direction, and I’ve got high projections for a lot of their players. I’ll be shocked if they aren’t a contender the entire 16 games, but they’re probably a year away from being serious.

3) Tennessee Titans
(2008 Record: 13-3, 1st place, NFL’s best record)
Offense –
I’ve got Tennessee slipping a bit because I don’t see Collins being as efficient in ’09. I’m not saying he was all smoke and mirrors last year, but they went 13-3 while he finished with a 12-7 TD-INT ratio. Prior to last year, Collins had only played in 10 games in ’06 and ’07 combined. That said, Vince Young doesn’t appear to be any closer to breaking the lineup. He’s got a better chance of losing the second string job to Patrick Ramsey than he does of passing Collins……….I love Chris Johnson. In his second year, he’s already one of the game’s most explosive weapons. The Ravens had no answer for Johnson in their playoff matchup. No telling how the game would have turned out had Johnson not missed the second half with an ankle injury. I remember that well because he was on my fantasy team (rrrrrrrrr). Fat LenDale White returns a bit slimmed down, a result of laying off the Patron this offseason. Will he maintain his focus? Javon Ringer is a “good but not great” back who will be a fine 3rd runner for the Titans. He can do everything well (run, catch, block), but he’s not a game changer. Chris Henry may be on the outside looking in……….Nate Washington received a nice deal to leave Pittsburgh, and while he’s being counted on to provide the receiving game with a field stretcher, he just went down with a hamstring injury and is questionable for the start of the season. I like him as a compliment to a #1, not as a #1 himself. Kenny Britt, the rookie from Rutgers, looks to take his place. He’s a big, tough dude with nice hands who should, at a minimum, give Collins a force in the red zone. Britt’s not likely to win many sprinting contests, and he battled inconsistency at Rutgers. Given the other names on the roster, he’s going to be even every chance to succeed early on. Justin Gage set some high expectations with a nice ’07, but he couldn’t build upon it. Whether it’s Collins or Gage’s own inconsistency, he’s entering his 7th year as a pro and needs to either shit or get off the pot at some point. I liked LaVelle Hawkins a lot at Cal where he played opposite DeSean Jackson, but he wasn’t a factor last year. Hopefully he takes some steps this season. It’s a tale of three TEs in Tennessee. Bo Scaife is the most well-rounded guy of the bunch, and he’ll see most of the time on the field. He set a career high in receptions (58), but I don’t like his chances of repeating that mark. Alge Crumpler found all of LenDale’s lost weight, and he’s predominantly a blocker at this stage of his career. The Titans took Jared Cook in the 3rd round of the draft, and he’s purely a pass catcher. He’ll see the field quite a bit; one of the reasons I don’t see Scaife repeating ’08……….I like the offensive line, but I think they could have addressed depth sooner than the 135th pick in the draft with tackle Troy Kropog. LT Michael Roos is one of the finest offensive lineman no one has heard about. He’s got nice size (6-7), excellent footwork, and is one of the best pass protecting tackles in the game. RT David Steward is no slouch himself. He’s as big as Roos, and what he lacks in technique he makes up for with very strong run blocking. Center Kevin Mawae is still a productive, well-rounded lineman, but he’s 38 and spent most of the preseason on the PUP list. Kropog might push Eugene Amano at LG, but I think he’s better suited as an NFL tackle. He’s not physical or enough at this point, and his footwork/technique would be of more value on the outside. RG Jake Scott proved to be a wise addition from Indy. He’s not among the best at his position, but he makes few mistakes and is big on effort.

Defense –
On the other side of the ball, the Titans are minus one big man in the middle. Albert Haynesworth may not have been worth the money he received by the Skins, but Haynesworth > Jovan Haye. Jason Jones was a big bright spot in his rookie season, and the versatile lineman will be counted on even more in Haynesworth’s absence. I’m not a fan of DT Tony Brown, and making matters worse is that he’s got huge shoes to fill. Haye adds to the rotation, but he needs to put up more sacks this year than my 2 year old. I’m not a big fan of draftee SenDerrick Marks, but he’s working into the rotation too. Jevon Kearse was their only DL to start all 16 games in ’08, but he’s not getting any younger. Kyle Vanden Bosch is coming off his worst year in 4, and he’s in a contract season. David Ball is a fine backup and will see plenty of snaps at DE……….The rest of the defense looks solid, if not imposing. Keith Bullock and David Thornton are still going strong at the OLB spots, and Stephen Tulloch is the MLB. He might not get as free this year without Haynesworth in front of him. They’re an unspectacular but steady group……….Courtland Finnegan and Michael Griffin are two of the best young DBs in the game. Finnegan is a solid cover guy with tremendous ball skills. Nick Harper isn’t bad, but he’s 34 and has already peaked. Look for Cary Williams to see the field a lot. Ryan Mouton from Hawaii was added in the draft, and despite taking a Josh Freeman INT to the house in the preseason, he’s a ways away from contributing. Griffin has tremendous range and ball skills. Like Finnegan (and to a higher degree) Griffin is ready to really take off. He and fellow safety Chris Hope both made the Pro Bowl last year. Hope took 7 years to get there, but he’s adjusted quite well to life as a Titan.

I don’t see a big drop in performance from the Titans in ’09, but I think less balls will bounce in their direction this year. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

4) Jacksonville Jaguars
(2008 Record: 5-11, 4th place)

Offense –
The Jags finished at 5-11 last year and as a result have a pretty significant roster turnover this season. There are too many questions with this team. David Garrard did throw for over 3,500 yards, but he had a pedestrian 15-13 TD-INT ratio. Points are worth more than yards, and with a lack of weapons, he’s facing an uphill battle to increase his scoring total this year. With Todd Bouman as the #2, they’re in poor shape should Garrard miss time……….Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the most entertaining players in the game as a multi-purpose threat, but he’s entering his first season as a starter. How will he respond to an increased workload and the security of a new fat contract? With franchise star Fred Taylor moving on to New England, the Jags are lacking the 1-2 punch of previous seasons. I love Rashad Jennings from Liberty, and while they still have Greg Jones too, the running game could stall a bit this year……….At receiver, the Jags cut ties with underachievers Matt Jones and Reggie Williams as well as Dennis Northcutt. In response, they brought in Torry Holt and three rookies, Mike Thomas, Jarrett Dillard, and Tiquan Underwood. Holt, the Rams long time star who’s coming off a really disappointing ’08, will be counted on to be Garrard’s #1. I think he still has some good football left in him, but he doesn’t separate nearly as well as in the past. Mike Walker’s currently dealing with an injury and despite some preseason highlight plays (I’m talking to you Ronde Barber and Sabby Piscitelli) Troy Williamson hasn’t done anything as a pro. I think Marcedes Lewis is an underrated weapon in the passing game, and he should be heavily-used in ’09……….I loved that the Jags spent their two first picks on tackles, as Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton should be long time fixtures on the ends of Jacksonville’s offensive line. Tra Thomas is a nice stopgap to Monroe on the left side. I’m not a fan of RT Tony “10 yard penalty” Pashos and expect Britton to push him early on. Brad Meester is the best center they have, but he’s had a bunch of injury issues. At guard, if healthy, are two stout dudes in Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams.

Defense –
On the other side of the ball, John Henderson is a mountain of a man, but he’s entering his 8th season and doing so with a separated shoulder. Rob Meier returns next to him, but they need an upgrade at that position. Undersized Derek Landri is a rotational guy, and the Jags spent a 3rd round pick on sleeper DT Terrence Knighton from Temple. I really like that guy as a prospect; very raw with nice size and aggression. At DE they need second year guys Quentin Moses and Derrick Harvey to be regular contributors, and of the two, I’ve got higher hopes for Harvey. Reggie Hayward is a nice contributor, but they’re not any better with him starting……….Longtime Jag Mike Peterson was sent packing last year for, among other things, not getting along too well with Jack Del Rio. What’s left behind ain’t too shabby. Justin Durant is a potential stud at MLB. He was an extremely active sleeper pick out of Hampton, and I think he’s got quite a future in this league. Daryl Smith is solid as WLB, and Clint Ingram may be the “worst” of this bunch, but he’s a quality starter……….Rashean Mathis has been one of the most underrated corners in the game during his 6 year career, but they’re not in great shape opposite him with Brian Williams. There’s zero depth too. Reggie Nelson can’t do it alone in the back of the defense, and Sean Considine looks to start at SS despite just coming off the PUP list and not being very good.

Again, too many questions for a team in what should be an ultra-competitive division. 2009 is going to be a long one in Jacksonville.

Division Awards
MVP – Peyton Manning
Offensive POY – Andre Johnson
Defensive POY – Mario Williams
Rookie of the Year – Donald Brown

Friday, August 28, 2009

'09 NFL Predictions - AFC North

1) Pittsburgh Steelers
(2008 Record: 12-4, 1st place, Super Bowl champs)

Offense –
The defending champs return strong. I’m not a fan of Ben Roethlisberger’s taste in women, but I can appreciate two Super Bowl titles at the age of 27. What might be of bigger concern is that he’s dealing with an Achilles injury caused by big Max Starks rolling into him. Assuming it’s nothing significant, a repeat could be more reality than reach……….I’ve never been a big Willie Parker fan, but there are worse starters in the league. I just wonder how he’d do on a lesser team. He doesn’t get the goal line carries, but he should have scored more than 7 TDs over the last 2 seasons. He also hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game. Last year the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall, a 3 down back well suited for Pittsburgh’s offense. Unfortunately, he spend most of his rookie season on IR with a fractured shoulder. Parker missed 5 games last season, and Mendenhall missed his chance to shine. Also in the mix is veteran Mewelde Moore; a solid pass catcher who is well suited for his role in this offense……….Surprisingly (at least to me), Hines Ward put up his best numbers in 4 years last season. He finished ’08 a little banged up, and he’s not 23 anymore. He’s still the Steelers’ #1, but maybe this is the year the torch is passed. How Santonio Holmes plays will help determine that. The Super Bowl MVP is capable of producing big plays, but I think the Steelers are going to count on him to increase his 55 reception total from last season. Expect him to get more targets. With Nate Washington leaving for Tennessee, Limas Sweed looks to take over the 3rd receiver spot. Despite a very quiet rookie season, word has Sweed looking impressive in camp. It wasn’t that long ago Sweed was making big plays for the Longhorns. The Steelers spent another draft pick on a receiver this year, bringing in speedy Mike Wallace from Mississippi. As long as he’s in Pittsburgh, Heath Miller will never lead his position in receptions. That’s not to say he’s incapable, but due to his solid all-round game, which includes being one of (if not the best) blocking TEs in the game, the Steelers don’t mind keeping him in at time and providing Big Ben with another reliable blocker up front……….Speaking of blockers, I’m not a big fan of their guys up front. Max Starks has been rewarded year after year (monetarily) for being a good backup lineman. Now he’s being counted on to start and protect Roethlisberger’s blind side. At the other tackle spot is Willie Colon, a fine run blocker but a guy who struggles against good pass rushers. First year starter Chris Kemoeatu was allowed to test the free agent market before re-signing, and despite a down year for free agent guards, Kemo drew little attention. Darnell Stapleton, another second year starter, starts again at RG. He’s not the biggest interior lineman in the game, and he’s also dealing with a knee injury this preseason. The Steelers drafted Kraig Ubrik, a big rookie from Wisconsin, and he may be in the lineup sooner than they had hoped. Justin Hartwig performed admirably in his first year as a Steeler and is playing for a bigger contract this season.

Defense –
Casey Hampton is a fine nose man when he’s got his weight in check. He’s in a contract year, and with him turning 32 soon, I’d expect this position to get some attention next offseason. Flanking him are Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Smith is still a beast at LE, but he’s a year older than Hampton. Like Hampton, Keisel is entering a contract year and will be 31 before September ends. Travis Kirschke is older than all of them but provides a nice rotational/backup guy. To begin re-stocking this line, the Steelers drafted impressive Ziggy Hood from Missouri. He’s a high motor, physical guy who should fit in quite well with the Steelers……….At linebacker, Pittsburgh fields (IMO) the best group in the business. I think James Farrior is in on every single defensive play for these guys. Who couldn’t use a 34 year old with his skills? Lining up next to him inside is Lawrence Timmons, one of my breakout candidates for ’09. I think he’ll easily make up for the loss of Larry Foote. Having these guys around Timmons will allow the Steelers to let him play loose this year. He’s tremendously athletic and should do a much better job getting in the backfield than Foote did (Timmons had 18 TFL in his last year as a Nole). Expect to hear his name a lot this season. At one outside spot is LaMarr Woodley, a bruiser who finished his second season with 11.5 sacks. Then he went out and put up another stunning 6 in the playoffs! He’s good. Rounding out the group is a monster in shoulder pads. How’s this for some highlights – 1) He set the franchise single season sack record with 16; 2) He was named the NFL Defensive POY; and 3) He single-handedly changed the momentum of the Super Bowl with his first half interception that he took back 100 yards for a TD. That dude seriously scares the hell out of me……….Pittsburgh let Bryant McFadden walk to the Cardinals, and I’m not sure I agree with that move. No, they didn’t have a lot of cap space, but reliable corners aren’t cheap. McFadden “only got $10 million for 2 years from Arizona. I do like his replacement, William Gay, but their depth takes a hit. Ike Taylor is solid at the other corner spot. Deshea Townsend is old and fighting for a roster sot. If he goes, they’re looking at rookies Keenan Lewis (a guy I really like) and Joe Burnett early on. There’s a depth issue at safety as well. Troy Polamalu is a force all over the field, and if Ryan Clark is recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, they’re fine. Anthony Smith headed to Green Bay, and Tyronne Carter is fine in a reserve role but shouldn’t be relied upon to play over any substantial length of time.

Looking at their schedule, a repeat of 12-4 might be setting the bar too low. This team is well coached, well focused, and hungry for a repeat. I like their chances.

2) Baltimore Ravens
(2008 Record: 11-5, 2nd place, Wild Card)

Offense –
The men in purple came within a game of reaching the Super Bowl, and again I’ve got them finishing second to the Steelers. John Harbaugh couldn’t have asked for a much better first season as a head coach (at any level). Fellow first yearer(?) Joe Flacco finished the season 9-2 in the Ravens’ last 11 games. I think Cam Cameron handled him perfectly in his rookie year, implementing game plans that reduce Flacco’s risk of costly errors. Expect the book to be expanded a bit this year. That said I think he’s at quite a greater risk of regressing that fellow first round QB Matt Ryan. I’m not calling for it, but if it happens, I told you so……….I think I like this three headed backfield better the one in New York. They ran the ball more than any other team in the game last year, and they’re likely to do it again. Willis McGahee had the lead role in ’08, but he was injured, inconsistent, and had the least productive year of his career. This year he’s coming off offseason knee and ankle surgeries. I like Ray Rice even with a healthy McGahee. He’s getting the first team reps, and if they feature him, I love his chances to put up big numbers. He runs hard every carry and is a very good receiver out of the backfield. Le’Ron McClain probably won’t duplicate 900 yards and 10 TD this year seeing as how he’s slated to play FB, but he’ll likely get most of the short yardage carries……….I don’t have many good things to say about the receiving options. Derrick Mason flirted with retirement this offseason and is coming off a shoulder injury. He’s still a quality performer, but there’s very little behind him. Can he be counted on to put up another 1,000 yards? Mark Clayton is supposed to be the #2 receiver, but he’s never developed as expected and is currently dealing with hamstring problems. Demetrius Williams is an incomplete receiver, Yamon Figurs is a return man, and Marcus Smith is already on IR. Given that Flacco was a rookie, I expected Todd Heap to be used often as a safety valve. That didn’t materialize, and Heap finished with his second disappointing year (numbers-wise) in a row. He’s also seemingly constantly banged/nicked up with various injuries but is “only” 29 years old. The Ravens signed LJ Smith, who has a lot of similarities to Heap (aging, pass catching role reducing, various injuries) to be his backup. Smith left his best years in Philly. Davon Drew, rookie from LSU, may have to contribute early is history is any indicator. Not a lot to like here……….Up front the Ravens have gotten a bit younger, but not necessarily worse the last couple of offseasons. Gone are tackles Jonathan Ogden and Willie Anderson. In their place are Jared Gaither and Michael Oher, a steal at #23 overall in this year’s draft. Veteran center Matt Birk was lured away from the Vikings. He’s no spring chicken, but the man hasn’t missed a start in over 3 years. Flanking Birk, are Ben Grubbs and Chester Taylor. Grubbs was a tackle convert upon entering the league, and after easily establishing himself in Baltimore, he looks like he’ll be around for quite a while. Taylor is ideally a reserve interior lineman, but starter Marshal Yanda is still out recovering from a pretty bad knee injury sustained last season. With a team that depends upon the run as much as the Ravens are likely to do yet again, the line needs to be a real strength. This one is.

Defense –
Those paying attention this offseason have noticed the Ravens seemingly bucking their traditional 3-4 base for a 4-3. There aren’t any significant changes as a result. The main difference is that Terrell Suggs will spend most of his time in a three point stance as an end. He finally got a long term deal from the Ravens and won’t have to deal with that pesky franchise tag again. At the other end spot is Trevor Pryce, a productive veteran, who just turned 34. To assist in the transition, the Ravens drafted Paul Kruger from Utah in the second round. Kruger brings a lot of what the Ravens love including a high motor pass rushing and explosive tackling abilities. Dwan Edwards is perfect depth. Inside at one spot is a huge beast of a man. Haloti Ngata has been everything the Ravens had hoped for when they made him the 12th pick of the ‘06 draft. He’s nearly 350 pounds and athletic as hell. Not only can he destroy a play at the line of scrimmage, he can chase down 99% of the runners in this league. The sky is the limit for this guy. Kelly Gregg manned the NT spot in the 3-4, and if he’s fully recovered from knee surgery, he’ll be another inside force. Justin Bannon is a nice rotational player……….Ray Lewis flirted with the Jets this offseason but eventually signed what will likely be his last NFL contract to stay in Baltimore. Although I wouldn’t say it to the man’s face, he’s lost at least a step, which still has him well better than the average LB. Second year player Tavares Gooden gets the first shot at replacing Bart Scott. Gooden is a pretty athletic backer, who if “protected” by Lewis, could produce some big plays on defense. If he can’t win the job, Jameel McClain, a steady yet unspectacular linebacker, looks to be the beneficiary. Rounding out the linebackers is Jarret Johnson. It’s hard to get exposure on a defense with guys like Lewis, Scott, Suggs, Ngata, Reed, and Rolle, but I really like what I see from Jarrett Johnson when I watch Ravens’ games. The man is a very sound tackler who swarms to the ball with the best of them. He’s a pretty punishing hitter who uses all of his 6-3, 270 frame……….Leading the back of the defense is All-World Ed Reed. He’s a lot of fun to watch with the ball in his hands, always looking for a way to break a play for 6. It’s like he knows where the QB is going to throw the ball before even he (the QB ) does. He’s one of the best football players I’ve ever seen. Returning next to him is Dawan Landry, a tough, likeable teammate who suffered a pretty nasty spinal cord concussion last year. I’m not terribly excited about the returning corners. I like both starters Fabian Washington and Dominique Foxworth as third corners, and Samari Rolle is literally on his last leg, playing in 16 games over the last 2 years. Sleeper rookie Lardarius Webb might see action early on.

I’m not looking for a fall off here, but I don’t see a reason to put them ahead of the Steelers. If they had made receiver or corner more of a priority (sound familiar Bucs fans?) I’d at least have a reason to consider it. Expect another year of conservative, yet wise playcalling from Cam Cameron. They’re definitely in consideration for a wild card spot.

3) Cincinnati Bengals
(2008 Record: 4-11-1, 3rd place)

Offense –
In what will likely be the biggest gap/disparity from 2nd and 3rd place divisional teams, the Bengals end the year “just” behind the Ravens. Last year was another forgettable one for Cincinnati, finishing 3rd in the division and with the 3rd worst record in the AFC. Aside from being a bad franchise, losing Carson Palmer in October is a good way to have your season go south. Ryan Fitzpatrick tried to keep them competitive, but it wasn’t happening. Palmer returns after missing 12 games last year due to injuring elbow ligaments in his throwing arm. He’s reportedly firing the ball well, but he’s now dealing with a high ankle sprain; reportedly nothing major but something that could linger. Knowing the Bengals’ karma, my glass is half empty. JT O’Sullivan was brought in to be the #2, and he’s only marginally better than Fitzpatrick. Brother Jordan is 3rd on the depth chart……….Cedric Benson returns in the backfield, and he didn’t fare too poorly last year considering the surrounding cast. I’m intrigued to see how he does with a healthy Palmer behind center to force defenses to stay honest. They better hope Benson stays healthy because Brian Leonard and DeDe Dorsey are his backups……….#1 receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh left for Seattle, so the Bengals signed Laveranues Coles to take his place. I’d rather have Housh, but “Trouble” is usually a good bet for 70 catches and 6 or 7 scores. Not a bad replacement. Chad Ochocinco had a brutal ’08, and most of that can be traced to relying on Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw the ball over 20 yards. He finished ’08 with 40 less receptions than the previous season. I wish he’d focus a little more on football than marketing himself, but I’m not about to put all the blame on him for that ugly season. With Palmer back and Coles opposite him, there’s no reason to think he can’t approach 80+ catches yet again. Call me a believer. As I write this, Chris Henry has yet to be suspended again, so maybe he’ll actually contribute this year. Second year man Andre Caldwell apparently has the 3rd receiver job wrapped up with an impressive offseason. They’ll need he and Henry to be productive because Jerome Simpson doesn’t appear ready to contribute. The Bengals already lost #1 TE Reggie Kelly to a torn Achilles and are facing the possibility of being without Ben Utecht as well due to a history of concussions. The Bengals drafted pass catching TE Chase Coffman from Missouri this year, but he’s not ready to be a 3 down player. Those of you who’ve watched this year’s Hard Knocks know he’s got a ways to go as a blocker. Daniel Coats is the starter for now, and he’s basically a glorified lineman……….Up front, the Bengals are an unfinished product. Andrew Whitworth moves over to LT replacing Levi Jones who is without a job. At the other tackle spot is Anthony Collins, a second year player from Kansas. I personally don’t think he fits on the right side, as his athleticism and lack of real bulk would better suit him on the left side. First round pick Andre Smith is still a holdout, but when he signs I’m sure he’ll become the immediate starter at RT. It’s pretty ugly in the middle. Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams leave a lot to be desired at left and right guard, and Kyle Cook is untested.

Defense –
The most telling this about this Bengals defense is that they finished tied for 30th in the league last year with a measly 17 sacks. The unit returns free agent bust Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers at the ends. The duo put up 3 sacks each, and both battled injuries; Odom’s shoulder and Geathers’ knee. 3rd round steal Michael Johnson adds much-needed athleticism to the pass rush. Don’t be surprised if he’s playing ahead of Odom early in the year. They need to see what he’s got. Inside, neither Pat Sims nor Domata Peko is going to get to the QB with regularity, but those two did a really fine job against the run last year. In a head scratching move (at least to me) the Bengals signed Tank Johnson to be a part of the rotation……….Keith Rivers was off to a great start as a rookie last year but had his season cut rudely short on a blindside block by Hines Ward. He’s back and healthy at one outside spot, and I expect him to pick up where he left off. This year the Bengals drafted his USC teammate Rey Maualuga who is currently backing up Rashad Jeanty at the SLB spot. Rey will (should) be a MLB at some point, but that job belongs to veteran Dhani Jones for now. I doubt Rey finishes the year as a backup……….Leon Hall is Cincinnati’s best corner, and yes, that’s supposed to be a compliment. He could probably put up some dangerous numbers if the front four produced any semblance of a pass rush. Opposite him is Jonathan Joseph, a guy who could be pretty good in his own right if he can stay healthy and consistent. David Jones and Jamar Fletcher are mediocre backups. It could be a long year at the back of the secondary for the Bengals. Starters Chris Crocker and former Cowboy Roy Williams are both big hitters with a history of poor coverage skills. Big plays aplenty?

Cincinnati is only going as far as Palmer takes them, and not even he is going to make them competitive this year. They should put up more points this year, but I’m not sure the defense is going to help them out a ton.

4) Cleveland Browns
(2008 Record: 4-12, 4th place)
Offense –
Snitch Mangini is now running the show in Cleveland, and boy did he get off to a good start. It took him about 5 seconds to piss off the team’s best defensive player, Shaun Rogers. The are guy that are too cute for their own good, and Mangini is one of them. He’s doing his best to ruin both his QBs this preseason, being vague as hell and refusing to put out a depth chart for the position. IMO, Brady Quinn would have to fall on his face to not get the job. You’ve got to think the Browns’ brass wants to know if he’s got what it takes. It’s hard to judge Quinn at this point, as he only saw action in 3 games last year before spending the last 5 games on IR with a broken index finger on his throwing hand. I don’t think Derek Anderson is as bad as he showed last season, but I’m even surer that he’s not going to throw 29 TD in a year again like he did in ’07. I expect Quinn to get the job, but neither one is going to the Pro Bowl this year……….I think Jamal Lewis is going to have a hard time reaching 1,000 yards again. You’d like to think the line will perform better, but Lewis isn’t getting any younger. Jerome Harrison has been around a while in a reserve role, but I’ve never been impressed with his game. Rookie James Davis is getting a lot of good PR this preseason, and given their situation and Davis’ skills, I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw a good chunk of carries this year……….The receiver situation isn’t encouraging, and it doesn’t help that #1 Braylon Edwards had a huge drop (pun intended) off from his 80 catch 1,300 yard ’07 season. A guy with his talent has no business being as inconsistent as he’s been. There were whispers of him becoming a NY Giant during the offseason, but that obviously didn’t happen. Given the QB situation, the Browns can’t afford to have their #1 weapon be a complete no show for half the season. The #2 receiver spot will come down to Mike Furrey or Josh Cribs. Encouraging right? The Browns drafted Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie this year to add some talent to the position. I like Robiskie, but he’s having trouble breaking the lineup this preseason. David Patten returns to Cleveland after 8 years in New England, Washington, and New Orleans. With Kellen Winslow dealt to Tampa Bay, the Browns signed Robert Royal, who’s currently the starter at TE. Steve Heiden is a decent backup, and Martin Rucker is the receiving threat of the bunch……….It’s a tale of two sides with Cleveland’s offensive line. Hard to find any problems with Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach on the left side. The duo completed their second year together at LT and LG respectively and were easily their best blockers up front. Hank Fraley’s still listed as the starting center, but I can’t see it taking long for first round pick Alex Mack to get the job. Mack has a really nice size/athleticism combo and was know as a great commander of the offensive line at Cal. Starting RG Rex Hadnot suffered a torn ACL this preseason and is done for the year. In his place is Pork Chop Womack. Ugh. With a dire need for a RT, the Browns signed Bear vet John St. Clair. He’s 32, and his backup, Ryan Tucker, is 34.

Defense –
1 stud and a bunch of question marks. There’s not much to say about Shaun Rogers. He’s a mountain of a man who does more than just clog lanes. Rogers led the Browns in sacks last year with 4.5. Last year’s big acquisition, Corey Williams, suffered though a shoulder injury and poor production at one DE spot. There are whispers that he could be on the move. He’s probably better of as a 4-3 DT, but their depth is already pretty bad. As one of about 50 players Mangini brought with him from the Jets, Kenyon Coleman is expected to start at LE. He’s not bad, but I think this ’08 performance is about what you should expect from him. Robaire Smith lost his job to Coleman and is dealing with an Achilles injury. CJ Mosely, another ex-Jet, will work into the rotation as well……….Willie McGinest retired, but no worries, Mangini found another ex-Jet to plug in there. David Bowens will play outside, but don’t expect many big plays from him. At the other OLB spot, is Kamerion Wimbley, a guy the Browns were hoping to get more out of last year. I didn’t follow them a ton last year, but a guy like Wimbley doesn’t just lose his athleticism at 25 years of age. They don’t have many playmakers on this defense, so they’d be wise to move him around, take advantage of opportunities. Their most productive defender is D’Qwell Jackson, the ILB who led the NFL in tackles last year. He’s in a contract year, so the Browns might want to start thinking extension. Who starts at the other ILB position? You guessed it, another New Yorker. Barton’s a solid vet, but he’ll be 32 in September……….Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald make up one of the worst corner combos in the league. Throw in nickel man Rod Hood who was signed from Arizona, and that’s a poor group. They waited until late in the draft to address the position, but they did get Coye Francies, an athletic, high energy guy from San Jose State that I was/am really really high on. Their safeties are junk too. Abram Elam makes it four ’08 Jets expected to start (5 to contribute) on defense for the Browns. Some think he’s a good safety, but Mangini loves him. Brodney Pool is a non-factor FS.

This team is going to suck out loud in ’09. They can’t find a QB, half of their OL is junk, their only receiver is a league leader in drops, and their defense is littered with questions. The cherry on top is that they brought in a buffoon coach them.

Division Awards
MVP – Ben Roethlisberger
Offensive POY – Ray Rice
Co-Defensive POY – James Harrison and Haloti Ngata
Rookie of the Year – Rey Maualuga

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'09 NFL Predictions - AFC East

1) New England Patriots
(2008 Record: 11-5, 2nd place (lost 1st place tiebreaker to Miami))
Offense –
The Patriots played nearly the entire season without Tom Brady, yet the Patriots were a tiebreaker or two away from a another playoff spot and division crown. Well, he’s back, and he seems to be healthy. He hasn’t missed time in practice, and he’s already responded well to a shot on that knee. He may not touch 50 TDs again, but 35 is still a fine, reachable number. Is Kevin O’Connell ready to pull off a Matt Cassel-like performance should ’08 repeat itself?..........A couple of numbers for you – 23 and 11. Those are Randy Moss’ TD totals the last two years. While he may not repeat the 23 from ’07, the two superstars should connect quite a few more times than Moss and Cassel did last year. Brady completed nearly half (23 of 53) of his touchdowns in ’07 to Moss. The deep ball is back this year. Moss may be the more dangerous deep threat, but Wes Welker’s 223 receptions over the last two years leads the NFL for that period. Expect more of the same with Brady’s return. Joey Galloway is ahead of Greg Lewis in the race to be the third receiver, but I don’t expect either one to do better than Jabar Gafney did in that role. Rounding out Tom Brady’s passing targets are 4 average tight ends in Ben Watson, Chris Baker, Alex Smith, and David Thomas……….The backfield features 5 guys who could all see some starts. Fred Taylor was brought in from Jacksonville to finish his career; Laurence Maroney hasn’t been a terribly effective or healthy runner, and one has to wonder how much faith Belichick has in the guy; Kevin Faulk isn’t the best runner, but he gets the most touches due to his passing game skills; a healthy Sammy Morris probably gets the most carries; and despite doing well in spot duty last year, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is going to have a hard time making the team……….The Patriots return their same starters on the offensive line, led by LG Logan Mankins. They’re reliable, but it’s nearing time to put serious effort into restocking the offensive front; especially at the tackle spots. Intriguing rookie Sebastian Vollmer looks to provide backup to Matt Light and Nick Kaczur.

Defense –
They don’t come much better than Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren across the front. They’re entering their 9th, 6th, and 7th years respectively, all 22 with the Patriots. In addition to their tenures, the fact that Wilfork is in a contract year has to be a consideration. Big Ron Brace was added to the mix via the draft, and Mike Wright and Jarvis Green are veteran reserves……….The Patriots have a ton of bodies at LB and will try several guys in replacing Mike Vrabel. Jerod Mayo was money in his rookie season, and he returns alongside the combo of Teddy Bruschi and second year man Gary Guyton in the middle. Adalius Thomas is a beast outside, and the Patriots are 22-3 in games with him on the field. Back to replacing Vrabel. Play opposite Thomas will most likely drop off, but the combination of Pierre Woods, newly acquired Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain, and possibly Shawn Crable will attempt to soften the blow. Woods is the starter for now, as it’s likely to take some time for Burgess to make the transition to a new scheme. Don’t be surprised if Burgess takes over and plays well. It wouldn’t be the first former Raider the Pats have rehabbed……….In the secondary, the Patriots spent their first draft pick on the strong, versatile, and heady safety Patrick Chung. He’ll see the field a bit this year alongside James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. Saunders doesn’t have the best ball skills, but he’s a reliable tackler. Meriweather gives them a playmaker who’s looking to improve on his 4 INTs last year. That’s a solid set of safeties. This offseason, the Patriots focused on shorting up their greatest weakness, the cornerback position, by bringing in veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. Springs may be 34 years old, but he can still hold is own in man to man coverage. Bodden is a guy I wanted the Bucs to go after this offseason, but he’ll be making plays in Foxboro instead. As if that wasn’t enough, the Patriots drafted Darius Butler from U Conn, a corner with great feet, hands, and change of direction. Add in two draftees from ’08 in Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, and the New England’s looking pretty damn good in the coverage game.

I don’t see anyone in the division slowing them down this year. They’re re-focused and re-stocked, and I see them in the AFC title game, at least.

2) Miami Dolphins
(2008 Record: 11-5, 1st place)
Offense –
In the Phins’ first year under the Parcells/Sporano regime, the Dolphins pulled off a huge one year turnaround, going from 1-15 in ’07 to 11-5 this past season. After suffering through Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, and John Beck, the Dolphins were possibly the real winner of the Brett Favre derby. His landing in NY set up Chad Pennington’s release and eventual reunion with Parcells. Pennington started every game for Miami in ’08, throwing for more yards than he had in 7 previous seasons and finishing with his highest TD total since ’02. Pennington’s never been known as one of the best arms in the game, but he accumulated his ’08 stats by throwing to guys like Ted Ginn Jr, Greg Camarillo, Davone Bess, Anthony Fasano, and David Martin. There’s no reason to think he can’t/won’t repeat his success from last year. Pennington is firmly entrenched as the Dolphins’ starter, allowing Miami to slowly bring along future franchise QB Chad Henne. Miami also selected the electric Pat White in this year’s draft, and while things would have to get pretty bad in order for White to see snaps as QB in ’09, expect the Dolphins to get work him into their Wildcat plan……….Speaking of the Wildcat, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term? For me it’s Ronnie Brown. When Miami unleashed the package on the NFL and the Patriots, it was Brown who did the damage; running for 113 yards and 4 TD as well as another passing TD to Fasano. While he’s sure to be a focal part of the Wildcat again in ’09, Brown is entering his second season post-ACL surgery, and the word is he’s in top shape. I expect even bigger things from him this year and for the Dolphins to widen the gap in carries between he and Ricky Williams………Miami’s receiving group still isn’t going to break any records, but one guy I think folks need to pay attention to is Davone Bess. The rookie from Hawaii quietly had a strong finish to the season, catching at least 6 passes in 4 of their last 5 games. I think he finishes the year as their leading receiver. Ted Ginn has shown flashes of talent, but that’s all they’ve been so far. He needs to develop some consistency. Greg Camarillo missed those last 5 games where Bess excelled, and he’s having a hard time coming back from his knee injury. The Dolphins added two rookies to the mix in Brian Hartline and Patrick Turner. Hartline has the edge at this early stage, and he appears to be pushing the starters for playing time. Fasano and Martin return at TE, giving Pennington two unspectacular yet steady, large targets in the middle of the field. How bad are things for Earnest Wilford? He’s currently listed at the 5th TE on Miami’s depth chart……….On the offensive line, the Dolphins had to like what they saw from Jake Long in his first year at LT. He’s going to man that spot for quite some time. This year’s big addition was the signing of Jake Grove to hold down the center spot; big improvement there. Justin Smiley and Vernon Carey are at least serviceable at LG and RT, and several fatties are battling it out at RG.

Defense –
The ageless Jason Ferguson returns to man the NT spot backed up by third year man Paul Soliai. Flanking him are second year guys Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling. They’re both expected to step up this year, and I think Langford is a guy that will surprise a lot of fans. If Merling struggles to hold onto the right end spot, last year’s free agent signing Randy Starks could see a lot of time there. Lionel Dotson is an end that I liked as a DT in college at Arizona. He’s expected to contribute as a reserve……….Big mouthed Joey Porter walked the walk as well last year, finishing second in the league with 17.5 sacks. He returns on the right side. Speaking of returning, Jason Taylor is back in town and has a good shot of starting on the left side. Last year’s starter, Matt Roth, is still on the PUP with a groin injury and doesn’t look like he’ll be ready for the start of the season. Also on the left side is Cameron Wake, a developmental player who totaled 23 sacks in the CFL last year. Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele return inside. Ayodele does all the little things, but the Dolphins want to see more out of Crowder……….Miami had a bit of turnover in the secondary, replacing Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill with a couple of rookies and Gibril Wilson. Will Allen starts at one corner spot. He won’t be confused for Champ Bailey, but Allen continues to do a good job of not giving up the big plays. Across from him, the Dolphins brought in two early draft picks in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. The latter seems to have the edge at this point. The disappointing, yet versatile, Jason Allen provides depth.

Expect more of the same from the Dolphins this year. I don’t see them overtaking the Patriots for a second year in a row, but they’ll be in the wildcard hunt.

3) Buffalo Bills
(2008 Record: 7-9, 4th place)
Offense –
The boring Bills added a little spice to things this offseason by bringing in the human swine flu, Terrell Owens. The teary-eyed wideout heads north to give the Bills another sorely needed threat at receiver. Everyone outside of Buffalo is waiting with baited breath for him Owens to explode, but he usually waits a year before taking a team down. The Bills don’t have the structure and strong personalities to at least try to keep Owens in check like the Eagles and Cowboys did. Things could get messy hear, unless Terrell has changed. Yeah, I know. I laughed typing that. Trent Edwards is the unquestioned starter, as JP Losman now wings it in the United Football League. Last year, Edwards had a nice season, sprinkled with some injury issues. That’s been the case throughout Edwards’ playing career. He was a talented passer at Stanford but had trouble staying on the field and ended up being a late third round pick. If he struggles with health again, things could get really interesting (see horribly, horrendously scary) in Buffalo. Backing up Edwards is Ryan “pop gun” Fitzpatrick. I’d buy tickets to watch those sideline conversations……….Illegal gun charges cost Marshawn Lynch the first 3 games of the ’09 season. The second year man from Cal put up his second 1,000 yard season despite missing the last game of the year. In addition to being the team’s leading rusher, Lynch was the Bills’ third leading receiver, catching 47 passes out of the backfield. During his absence, Fred Jackson will get the majority of the touches. Jackson finished ’08 by putting 136 yards on the Patriots, and the Bills are confident in his ability to carry the rock. Backing him up is former 1,000 yard rusher and reliable backup Dominic Rhodes. Last year Rhodes shared carries with Joseph Addai, putting up his highest TD total since ’01……….Owens isn’t one of the game’s elite receivers anymore, but I’m sure the Bills would take his 69-1052-10 totals from ’08. On one hand, Edwards is going to feel compelled to get Owens the ball as often as possible, so his targets will stay high. On the other hand, the Bills don’t have as many weapons as the Cowboys, and he’s not getting any younger. He’s struggled with drops, and he’s not separating as well anymore. Lee Evans benefits the most from Owens’ arrival, as he finally has a legit threat to take away some of the defense’s focus. Look for him to bust some big plays. Josh Reed is a nice third receiver, but they’re hurting behind him. Roscoe Parrish isn’t a receiving threat, and last year’s draftee James Hardy won’t be ready for the start of the season after having ACL surgery earlier this year. Derek Schouman and Southern Miss rookie Shawn Nelson replace Robert Royal at TE. Nelson is out of the Antonio Gates mold, but he at least gives a legit attempt at blocking. He should win the job outright at some point……….The offensive line is ugly and doesn’t return a single starter (position-wise) from last year. Langston Walker moves over to LT, replacing disgruntled Pro Bowler Jason Peters who was shipped to the Eagles. Big drop off there. I like rookies Eric Wood and Any Levitre. They’ll be pressed into action early at right and left guards respectively. Veteran backup guard/center Geoff Hangartner was brought in from Carolina and should help the rookies along. Rounding things out is Brad Butler who moves from RG to RT.

Defense –
Marcus Stroud and Kyle Williams form a nice tackle combo in the middle of the line. Good thing because former first round pick John McCargo has been nothing but a bust. Stroud got a new 4 year deal in the offseason, so the Bills are counting on him to produce quite a bit longer. Neither Williams nor Stroud gets to the QB on a regular basis, but they do shut down the middle of the line. Unfortunately the ends have a hard time applying constant pressure as well. Ryan Denney led the team with 4 sacks last year, and he’s not even a starter. LE Chris Kelsay shouldn’t be a starter, as he’s really struggled at getting in the backfield. Across from him is Aaron Schoebel, a nice pass rusher when healthy, who missed most of ’08 with the fun to say, hell to have Lisfranc sprain. To help in this area, the Bills spent their first round pick on the young underclassman from Penn State, Aaron Maybin, an exciting edge rusher. He just recently signed, so it’s going to take him a little time to get into a regular rotation……….Paul Posluszny is undoubtedly the best LB in Buffalo, and he’s a guy I expect to continue his forward progression. He’s going to be a good one for a long time. Kawika Mitchell and Keith Ellison are the starters flanking him, for now. Mitchell is a tough veteran who has the ability to play either the Will or Sam spots. Ellison was retained, but the Bills need more out of that position. Tough Nic Harris from Oklahoma was drafted to push him at linebacker……….Buffalo has two studs at corner in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. Jabari Greer signed with the Saints, so McKelvin won’t be splitting time with him. Donte Whitner is starting the year at FS with adequate Bryan Scott at SS. Second round pick Jarius Byrd, a college corner converting to safety, is dealing with a sports hernia, but I’m guessing that when he gets in shape, he’ll take over the FS spot, moving Whitner to SS.

The Bills have been a consistent 7-9 squad, and despite the addition of Owens, I’m not expecting a real playoff push from this team. Maybe they can finish ahead of Miami, but I’d be shocked if they’re contending for a wild card in the final weeks of the season.

4) New York Jets
(2008 Record: 9-7, 3rd place)
Offense –
The Brett Favre era lasted all of one year in New York, and the Jets are looking to replace him with a guy nearly half his age, 5th overall pick Mark Sanchez. The young QB from USC is competing with Kellen Clemens for starting duties, but I’ll be shocked if it’s not Sanchez. If he does start, it will make the third QB in 3 years that Clemens has sat behind……….Continuing the trend of 3, the Jets have a pretty formidable backfield this season with Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and Shonn Greene. Jones has his doubters, but he keeps putting up yards every year. I’m not sure he’ll approach 300 carries again this year, but that’s not a bad thing. Leon is looking for and apparently close to getting a new contract. I expect him to be a bigger part of the offense this season. They could use his big play ability. Rounding out the backfield is the roundish rookie from Iowa. Greene won’t break any receiving records, but he’s a nice short yardage back who can move the pile. Look for new head coach Rex Ryan to get the most out of this group……….Laveranues Coles is in Cincinnati, so it’s up to Jerricho Cotchery to headline a group of no-name receivers. He’s a definite starter, but IMO, he’s better off as a secondary target. Slippery Chansi Stuckey looks to be one of the weaker #2 receivers around, and Brad Smith and David Clowney will play roles in the passing game as well. I expect him to see plenty of targets and finish as the team’s second leading receiver……….Along the line, the Jets return all their starters from ’08. Manning the middle is Nick Mangold, the center who is quickly becoming one of the league’s best. He earned his first of likely many trips to the Pro Bowl in ’08. Fellow ’06 draft pick D’Brickashaw Ferguson isn’t approaching the elite at his position as quickly as Mangold, and ’09 could dictate whether he is still developing or is basically what he is, a solid, non-dominating tackle. Alan Faneca isn’t young anymore, but he and Brandon Moore combine to give the Jets a bruising pair of guards. Damien Woody mans the RT spot.

Defense –
Big Kris Jenkins is dealing with a calf injury, but he should be ready to occupy the middle of the defensive line by the start of the regular season. Shaun Ellis’ still starts at LE, but his marijuana arrest has him suspended for the first game of the season. At RE the Jets are starting Marques Douglas, one of three Ravens who followed Ryan to New York. Douglas is better off as a rotational player, and all three starters are at least 30. The Jets only had 3 draft picks this year and didn’t use any them on a defensive lineman……….At the next level, the Jets have another suspended player. Calvin Pace will miss the first 4 games of the year as a result taking a banned substance. In his place will be Vernon Gholston, the second year man attempting to make himself visible after a pathetic ’08 season. Bryan Thomas is adequate at the other OLB spot. Bart Scott follows Ryan to New York and teams with David Harris to get the Jets two physical, consistent forces inside……….Darrelle Revis is the best corner no one knows about. The Pitt product made his first of many Pro Bowls this past season. To play across from him, the Jets traded for Lito Sheppard, a corner with talent but one who was unable to stay in the Philly lineup. Dwight Lowery started most of the season at that position, but this year he looks to compete with free agent Donald Strickland for nickel duties. At safety, Jim Leonard made the third Raven to migrate north this offseason. He starts at SS, and Jet vet Kerry Rhodes plays the FS position. The secondary should be a strength of the team this year.

I don’t think they’ll be awful, but someone has to finish last in this division. The receiving game lacks a true #1 target, and playing without Calvin Pace for ¼ of the season doesn’t help. That said, even though I have the Phins, Bills, and Jets at 2-3-4, it wouldn’t shock me to see it reversed. These teams should finish within 3 games of each other.

Division Awards
MVP – Tom Brady
Offensive POY – Ronnie Brown
Defensive POY – Paul Posluszny (barely over Jerod Mayo)
Rookie of the Year – Mark Sanchez

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bucs Preseason Game 2 - @ Jaguars


Here's this week's version of "Like/Didn't Like". You'll notice I was a bit more pleased with this week's performance.

Luke McCown – A much better game for McCown tonight. He started with a 3 and out but followed that up with back to back TD drives. Luke seemed to be a little more focused/relaxed this week; comfortably completing passes in the pocket. On his first TD, Jerramy Stevens had good position on Sean Considine, and Luke put the ball right where it needed to be. On his second scoring drive, the Bucs converted two third downs, including one where McCown fired one in to Stovall who ran to the sticks. It was a nice sit down route, and both McCown and Stovall made nice plays. What I liked most from McCown tonight was the play where he went through his reads, avoided Derrick Harvey, and safely threw the ball away.

Sammie Stroughter – Wow, the only question now is how often the Bucs can get him on the field. The rookie only had one reception, but it was a big one. Stroughter caught a nice pass from McCown on 3rd and goal for the score. His dynamite kick return from the TB 5 to the JAX 16 set up a 2 play scoring drive for McCown’s first score. It was a very strong return; running up middle and fighting off a seemingly secure tackle, and busting it down the left sidelines.

Kareem Huggins – He did it again. On McCown’s second scoring drive, Huggins converted the first 3rd down on a run to his left. The defender had him stopped short of the sticks, but Huggins showed a nice shake, getting free for extra yards. Man this guy runs hard! I do want to see him stick his cuts a little better. When he’s drawing out a run play and finds his hole, he needs to stick his plant foot a little better/quicker and get through that hole. Hey TPE, how’s 4.2 yards per carry on the night for the Bucs suit you?

Gaines Adams – Where have you been Gaines Adams? He, Sims, and Hovan combined on a well executed pass rush. Adams rushed strong off the edge, and after the tackles collapsed the pocket, Adams continued his pursuit and brought down Garrard. On another play, Adams stretched out a run on 2nd and 4, stopping Maurice Jones-Drew for a gain of 1. Everyone wants to see him get to the passer this year, but he’s going to need to execute in run defense as well.

Josh Freeman – The guy doesn’t have to light the world on fire his rookie season, but I want to see him progress and show continuous improvement. He did it tonight going X of X for X yards and a nice 28 yard scamper for a TD. His accuracy was strong yet again, but I want to see a little more zip on his passes. One completion to Urrutia could have been made a little sooner. Urrutia made the catch but he was hit immediately. Nothing big; just an observation. Also, on a swing pass to Askew, I think he felt the rush a little too much and rushed his pass. His footwork was fine, but he looked hurried. Freeman’s follow up drive started with an intentional grounding penalty. Upon feeling the pressure up the middle, Freeman attempted to get outside to the left and made a sloppy ball flip to the line of scrimmage.

Maurice Stovall – Well, he looked like a receiver tonight making a couple tough catches in traffic; including his first reception of the evening on a nice 3rd and 16 conversion from Leftwich where he got to the sticks and made a tough catch in traffic.

Derrick Ward – More tough running from the veteran tonight including a gain of 10 on a hard run off the right side and a highlight run off the right side where he hopped over Sean Considine and juked Clint Ingram (?) for a few more yards. He’s the starter IMO.

Davin Joseph – He was key on Ward’s highlight run, completely taking his man out of the play. I like that the right side seemed to clear some lanes in the running game.

Roy Miller – He’s arrived. Two solid games in a row has the rookie as a certain fixture in the DT rotation. Very nice.

Kyle Moore – Here’s another rookie who made a few plays on the evening, including a sack of Garrard where he rushed from the DT position and showed nice pursuit pulling him down for a loss of 3. Moore capped off his evening with a nice TFL of 9 on a Jags running play. Moore has shown nice pursuit skills and the ability to finish a play when he gets there.

Angelo Crowell – Good to see him on the field tonight and blowing up Alvin Pearman on a running play.

Michael Clayton – He made a couple of nice catches on the night; going to the ground to secure the football.

BJ Askew = workhorse

Josh Johnson – It wasn’t a terribly special night for Johnson as the Bucs stayed fairly conservative up 7 late. He did complete a nice pass to Marcus Maxwell, perfectly thrown in stride for a 15 yard gain on 2nd and 11.

Chris Bradwell – Nice job of fighting the RG and taking Todd Bouman to the ground on 2nd and 10, setting up 3rd and 21 with less than 4 minutes to go in the game. He also combined with Louis Holmes to rush Bowman and cause an intentional grounding penalty.

Louis Holmes – In addition to the play mentioned above, Holmes showed nice aggression off the right side forcing a fumble by Todd Bowman and getting a sack for a 7 yard loss. Nice job by the backup linemen.

Ronde Barber
– I don’t care how old you are or what coverage you’re running, you cannot let a receiver like Troy Williamson run past you uncontested on the first play of the game for a 74 yard TD. A 13 year veteran doesn’t do that.

Sabby Piscitelli – Wow, he was as bad this week as he was good last week. Troy Williamson made him his bitch early on, taking the Jags’ first play from scrimmage to the house for 74 yards. After toasting Ronde Barber off the line, Williamson was met with zero resistance from Piscitelli. In the second quarter, Piscitelli was victimized by Williamson again. The receiver beat Elbert Mack in coverage and Sabby made a high schoolish attempt at breaking up the play; completely overrunning it in ugly fashion. I’ve said that discipline and consistency are the things we need to see from him, and he definitely didn’t show those skills tonight. I’m not liking how thin this secondary is getting.

Elbert Mack – He and Piscitelli didn’t have a great night. To make things worse, Mack’s evening ended with him limping off the field after covering a 4th quarter punt.

Byron Leftwich – He still showed the arm strength and completed a couple intermediate strikes that the other QBs wouldn’t have, but I didn’t see the progress I wanted from last week. He was also only 1 of 4 on 3rd down conversions. I think he’s still got the #1 job, but I want to see longer drives.

Maurice Stovall – If I praise the good plays, I’ve got to call out the boneheaded ones. Near the end of the first quarter, Stovall had a chance to down a Dirk Johnson punt inside the Jaguar 10 yard line. Stovall fielded it like a rookie and sauntered into the endzone. Uh, touchback genius. He’ll hear from Morris and Bisaccia on that one.

Chris Bradwell – Don’t jump offsides or hit the QB in the head when you’re up seven with two minutes to go. The second one was just plain stupid. The ball was clearly out of Bouman’s hands, and Bradwell smacked him in the helmet after a couple of steps. Plays like this are why he’s a practice squad guy instead of a 53 man guy.

All in all, good performance by the Bucs. The QBs are stating their cases for the starting job, and I like what I’m seeing from the running backs. Stovall needs a couple more games like this, but Stroughter looks like a player. The young defensive linemen are working hard, but the secondary is showing weaknesses.

Short week this week, as the Bucs hit the field Thursday against the Dolphins in their last “meaningful” preseason game.

Go Bucs!


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Crowded Backfield


The one are of this team with suitable depth is the RB position. Earnest Graham is still slotted as the starter, but I believe Derrick Ward will finish the season with more touches. Not a bad 1-2 combo. Graham is the fan favorite vet, the late bloomer who came on strong in ’07 but had ’08 cut short due to injury. He’s a guy who’s shown the ability to take the ball into the teeth of the defense and gain positive yardage, and I’ve admired the way he seems to always fall forward, getting the most out of his runs. He also adds a reliable weapon to the passing game, totaling 72 receptions over 25 games the last two years. In addition, Graham has also shown the ability to fill in as a lead blocker if/when needed.

Ward comes to the Bucs after playing the dash to Brandon Jacobs’ smash for the Giants. He has slightly less career carries than Graham, but his YPC is a full yard better (5.1ypc vs. 4.1ypc). New York’s line has quite a bit to do with that, but Ward is a talented runner in his own right. Like Graham, Ward is no stranger to catching passes out of the backfield. With receiving numbers similar to Graham, Ward caught 68 passes over 24 games the last two years, averaging an impressive 9.4 yards per reception in ’08. Like Graham, Ward is a hard runner who always seems to get the most out of his totes.

Like I said, I still think Ward will finish with more touches, but I do believe that this carries-sharing scenario is better for both runners. Add to that the Bucs’ passing game weaknesses, and having two lead backs is a necessity, not a desire. Those two backs should account for the majority of the carries, but the Bucs have 3 other backs on their roster who could make some noise of their own in ’09.

Clifton Smith – The Pro Bowl return man brings another dimension to the offense. He’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball, but due to his tremendous contribution to special teams, I’ve been hesitant to want him included as a regular part of the backfield. I’d hate to see our dynamite return man get hurt in a “secondary role”. Well, I just may have to suck it up. The guy simply makes plays, and the Bucs are going to need all of them they can get this year. He’s a runner who can turn a 2 yard gain into a 20 yard scamper.

Carnell Williams – Coming off his second patellar tendon tear in two years, Williams is no longer being counted on as a major offensive contributor. I salute the man for the physical and mental strength to rehab and recover from not 1 but 2 major knee injuries, but how much more can he take? I’d like for him to prove me wrong, but I don’t see him contributing more than Clifton Smith in ’09. Is Williams going to be explosive? Can he take the pounding and physical stress on a weekly basis? Does a 27 year old back coming off 2 major knee injuries have any trade value? Is he worth keeping on the roster at the expense of a guy like…

Kareem Huggins – A.K.A. Mr. August 2009. The free agent product from Hofstra had quite an impressive debut for the Bucs, making quite a bit out of his 12 touches against the Titans. After dropping a catchable pass by Byron Leftwich, Huggins proceeded to turn in positive play after positive play. He’ll have to work a little harder on ball security, evidenced by his 4th quarter fumble, but all in all, there was a lot to like. Huggins (5-9, 198) runs harder than his size and showed the determination you want to see from a guy fighting for a roster spot. I look forward to seeing more of the same against the Jags this week.

So that leads me to my question. With Graham, Ward, and Smith likely to account for nearly all of the backfield carries, is there room or a dire need for Carnell Williams? Huggins can contribute on special teams; something you won’t see from Carnell. Huggins is also 4 years younger and isn’t coming off two major knee injuries. If the rookie continues to show promise out of the backfield, do the Bucs keep Carnell and chance getting Huggins on the practice squad, or will the youngster earn a spot on the final 53 and bring the Cadillac era in Tampa to an end?

There are a lot of questions surrounding the ’09 Buccaneers, but this is one I like.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Buccaneers Kick Off the 2009 Preseason

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw their first semi-meaningful action of the ’09 season on the road against the Tennessee Titans. Although they came up on the losing end of the 27-20 contest, there were more than a couple of bright spots in Raheem Morris’ coaching debut.


Byron Leftwich
Go ahead and call me biased because he’s the free agent QB I wanted the Bucs to bring in, but I think any reasonable fan would say that Leftwich had the better game. Yes, for the most part he was going against a lesser defense, but he was doing so, for the most part, with a second string offense. Leftwich showed the poise, pocket presence, and arm he’s known for.

His first pass of the game was a little behind tight end John Gilmore, but his rifle was evident. On the next play, Leftwich faked, pulling the defense to the right and then made a very strong throw back to the left, connecting with Brian Clark for a 24 yard TD. Leftwich demonstrated his poise under pressure on one play completing a short pass over the middle to Derrick Ward for 7 yards.

There were a couple of other plays that really don’t easily stand out as you watch them at game speed, but Leftwich showed the ability to calmly go through his reads and make the proper decisions. This is an area where Luke McCown has consistently struggled, and it was again on display tonight.

Leftwich almost became Tom Brady II when Jovan Haye went low on him. He shook off the hit, and on the next play, Leftwich shook off a couple defenders before going down for a loss of 17. I didn’t like the decision to hold onto the football, but I do like the toughness he showed after nearly getting taken out on the previous play. In the regular season, I’d be a bit more critical.

Cortez Hankton killed Byron’s 4th drive of the game, dropping a pass Leftwich placed where only Hankton could catch it. On his 5th and final drive of the game, Leftwich got a second chance after a personal foul by reserve DT Kevin Vickerson. Hefty Lefty proceeded to complete two passes to running back Kareem Huggins for 15 yards, setting up an impressive 51 yard first half ending FG by Mike Nugent.

Leftwich isn’t going to complete every pass he throws, but considering the lack of separation ability from the Bucs receivers, having Leftwich’s strong arm on the field may be the Bucs’ best chance of consistently putting up points.

Clifton Smith
Well, it is only the preseason, but I may (eventually) have to recant my “limit Clifton Smith’s touches” statement. Considering this team’s lack of weapons, I’ve repeatedly stated my desire to keep our Pro Bowl return man healthy and doing what he does best; give the Bucs tremendous field position. Well, Peanut looked like the Bucs’ best offensive weapon against the Titans.

The second year free agent signee just consistently makes plays. The young man turns empty plays into positive gains. 6, 10, 7, 3, 3, 5 – those were the yards gained on his touches. He brings the ideal combination of straight-ahead running and the shiftiness to shake a guy in short space to move ahead for a couple extra yards. There are zero wasted steps with this guy’s game.

It was only one outing, but I really liked the chemistry between Leftwich and Smith. Hopefully we see more of that when Leftwich draws the start next week in his homecoming against the Jags.

Sabby Piscitelli
The first defensive series of the year for the Bucs was owned by Sabby Piscitelli. The 3rd year Beaver made a nice open field tackle on slippery Chris Johnson one play after a executing a solid tackle on fat Alge Crumpler. Three plays later, Piscitelli took advantage of a sloppy Kerry Collins pass, intercepting it in the Buccaneers’ endzone.

If this is what we can come to expect from our new SS, call me enthused. It looks like Sabby’s going to have plenty of opportunities to make plays this year, given the early apparent lack of a pass rush. More importantly, I want to see him consistently complete his assignments and do the little things that the Pro Bowlers do. Great start!

Brian Clark
Aside from the touchdown reception, Clark showed his ability to go over the middle of the field, catching an early McCown pass. Clark also got the Bucs 2 more points, causing a second quarter safety when reserve TE Craig Stevens tackled him in the Titans’ endzone during a Craig Hentrich punt attempt.

I’ve mentioned, on more than one occasion, that I’m a fan of Brian Clark’s game, and the guy looks like a sure thing to make the ’09 Buccaneers. If he continues his consistent ability to make move the chains, Clark will be the Bucs’ third WR to start the year. I’ve already said that I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended the season with more catches than Michael Clayton, and he didn’t cause me to change my mind with tonight’s performance.

Stylez G. White
Like Sabby Piscitelli, Stylez G. White hauled in an errant Kerry Collins pass. On the play, White played a soft defense, staying in his zone, tipped the pass and secured it before falling to the ground. Very nice assignment execution by the veteran.

He also owned the next defensive series. On the drive that preceded the Brian Clark safety, White accounted for 15 lost Titans yards on back to back plays. First, he sacked Kerry Collins for a loss of 10 yards after Dre Moore flushed him outside. On the next play, following another solid flush by rookie Roy Miller, White was able to corral Chris Johnson for a loss of 5.

White is a guy who entered camp as a big question, but he stepped it up in game one. This needs to become a pattern.

Torrie Cox
I liked what I saw from the Miami native tonight. I’ve never been a huge supporter of his coverage skills, but Torrie did a more than admirable job against the speedy Nate Washington. He did get outrun on the play where Kenny Britt caught one between him and Will Allen for 38 yards, but you’re not going to win them all.

Dirk Johnson
The new addition yielded only 12 return yards on 5 punts; 11 of them coming on a punt coverage breakdown following a 46 yard boom by Johnson. Of his five punts, two were fair caught, two were muffed, one went for no gain, and another was returned for only one yard. Nice debut for Johnson.

Josh Johnson
I realize he’s 4th on the depth chart at this point, but don’t you have to find a way to keep a guy like Josh Johnson; especially considering the lack of explosive talent the Bucs have? What a sramble on a “blink-and-he’s-gone” QB keeper off the left side. Johnson takes it 43 yards for the score and follows that up with perfectly executed pass to Ryan Purvis for the two point conversion.

I did say there was a shot he could make the club, but it would cause the Bucs to show some cajones and cut either McCown or Leftwich. At this point, I’d say McCown would be closer to receiving a visit from the Turk, but we’re only one game into this. With a team that by all guesstimations won’t be competing for a title in ’09, why keep the loser of the Leftwich-McCown challenge? Freeman’s the future, so let’s keep Johnson and see what spark he can bring. Wildcat? Two QB on the field at the same time? I’m not saying we go all video game or anything, but it wouldn’t hurt the Bucs to get creative.

Kareem Huggins
The rookie from Hofstra may be 5th on the depth chart and fighting for spot on the practice squad, but he didn’t do anything to hurt his stock tonight. He played with a lot of aggression, fighting for positive yardage on every touch. Huggins totaled 43 yards on 9 carries (over 4.5 yards per) and caught 3 passes for 14 yards. His back-to-back receptions of Byron Leftwich passes for 8 and 7 yards set up Mike Nugent’s 1st half ending 51 yard field goal.

The only mark against Huggins on the night was a dropped pass on a 2nd and 2 from Leftwich that would have converted a first down and possibly saved Leftwich from being slammed to the ground by Vickerson on the following play. Huggins’ energy was a refreshing sight in tonight’s game. Maybe we have a new Mr. August.

Reserve Defensive Tackles
The first string guys weren't awful, but I felt the youngsters were worth mentioning. I want/need to go back and watch the game again, but in live action, I liked what I saw from both Roy Miller and Dre Moore. Did I see Kyle Moore disrupt things when he moved inside?


Luke McCown
He didn’t have an awful night, but Luke again displayed his fidgety nature and happy feet in the pocket, giving up on plays too early. Even John Lynch called him out on one play where Luke headed to the sidelines when he had Jerramy Stevens wide open downfield.

I did like his mobility and quickness to the sidelines, but he needs to do a better job of securing the football. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the fumble where his facemask got yanked. I’m guessing he knew a penalty would be called and just flopped the ball outside. That was a sloppy play, but again, maybe he knew a penalty was / would be called. On the next play, he was flushed to the left and scrambled outside. If he continues to hold the ball so freely when running outside, he’s going to lose it on too many occasions.

I didn’t like how quickly he gave up on his reads and either checked down or headed for the sidelines. He still looks uncomfortable and indecisive, and I need to see some chemistry with at least one receiver.

Maurice Stovall & Cortez Hankton
Neither one had a single bright spot in tonight’s game. Stovall, given the starting assignment, couldn’t separate or make plays tonight, hauling in only 1 pass for 8 yards on 5 targets. Hankton was shutout on 3 targets. On his second target, Hankton not only failed to haul in the pass, but he caused an illegal formation penalty by covering up the tight end on the line of scrimmage.

The top 4 receivers at this point appear to be Bryant, Clayton, Clark, and Stroughter. I know there’s virtually nothing behind them, but Dexter Jackson, Maurice Stovall, and Cortez Hankton look like longshots for the 53 man roster. Stovall may make it due to a combination of no other viable options and his special teams play.

1st Team Defense
I didn’t like how little pressure the first unit put on Collins. He had far too much time to complete passes to Bo Scaife and Kenny Britt. Yes, the tackles did a fine job clogging Chris Johnson’s running lanes and seemed to consistently complete their assignments, but the ends weren’t getting to the QB.

I didn’t like how Barber and Mack played a 3rd and short that resulted in a Kenny Britt first down. Both were far too off on the 3rd and 2, and at first glance, there appeared to be miscommunication between them. Gotta clean that up. Ronde did follow that play with a nice unblocked, open field tackle on Chris Johnson for a loss of three. Nice to see the veteran display his fundamentally sound tackling ability.

Mack was also lucky Nate Washington couldn’t make a play on another Collins pass. Mack hung with him the whole way, but he never saw the ball. I want to see better positioning by our third corner.

Jermaine Phillips needs to work on his timing and point of attack approach, but I’m not about to get on a guy playing LB for the first time in a “meaningful game”. I can settle for a couple missed tackles at the line of scrimmage if he’s not being reckless and giving up big plays.

*Josh Freeman
I’ll throw Josh Freeman in here, but I’m really not trying to pick on the youngster who got his first bit of NFL action tonight (hence the *). He was accurate with most of his passes, but displayed the typical rookie tendencies of locking onto his primary receiver. His interception was another rookie mistake; underestimating the speed of the pro game by trying to force one outside on soft coverage. Ryan Mouton stepped in front of it and easily took it back for 6.

I did like how Freeman came back on the next series and completed his first pass to Sammie Stroughter for 20 yards. Another plus for Stroughter is that he made the catch knowing that he was going to be on the receiving end of a pretty good hit by the Titans’ defense. Freeman has a long way to go, but hopefully Leftwich or McCown does well enough as a starter that Freeman can be eased into action, say in ‘10.


Sammie Stroughter +1 / Dexter Jackson – 1
It wasn’t a huge sampling, but Stroughter was certainly the more determined return man tonight. He also showed toughness in the passing game. Jackson needs to step it up big time if he wants any shot at making the team.

Derrick Ward +1 / Earnest Graham -1
No explanation needed.


Going by tonight’s performance, I think Byron Leftwich is clearly ahead of Luke McCown in the QB battle. His 2 scoring drives vs. McCown’s 0 certainly doesn’t hurt. It was only one preseason game, but the arm strength, pocket poise, and calm reading of his progressions were the main reasons I wanted the Bucs to sign Leftwich this offseason. Hopefully he keeps it up.

The good guys didn’t score enough points in this one, but there was plenty to like from their first outing. I look for continued progress next Saturday at the Jaguars.

Go Bucs!