Friday, August 31, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - AFC North

1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Gets – David DeCastro (G, Stanford), Mike Adams (T, Ohio State), Sean Spence (LB, Miami)

Key Gones – James Farrior (LB, FA), William Gay (CB, Cardinals), Chris Kemoeatu (G, FA), Bryant McFadden (CB, FA), Aaron Smith (DE, FA)

Key Games – wk1 @ Broncos, wk2 v. Jets, wk5 v. Eagles, wk7 @ Bengals, wk9 @ Giants, wk11 v. Ravens, wk13 @ Ravens, wk14 v. Chargers, wk15 @ Cowboys, wk 16 v. Bengals

The Patriots may have been Super Bowl losers last year, but one could argue that the Steelers had the harder season ending loss.  A team with sights set on another championship took a shot to the gut when Demaryius Thomas took the first play from scrimmage in OT to the house for the game winning score.  If that wasn’t bad enough, their leading rusher, Rashard Mendenhall, tore his ACL during the last regular season game and isn’t exactly making an Adrian Peterson-like recovery.  The Steelers are conceding that he’s going to miss nearly half of the season.  Oh, and did I mention that Mike Wallace is doing his best Dwayne Bowe impression and has yet to sign his one year tender.  Is this team capable of winning the North for the fourth time in six seasons?

One offseason move that could pay off in a big way was the hiring of Todd Haley as OC.  The former Cardinals’ HC will implement an up-tempo passing offense, taking the Steelers away from their run heavy roots, something QB Ben Roethlisberger has been trying to do for a while now.  Look for Roethlisberger to have a big year.  Mike Wallace finally showed up and signed his tender, so Roethlisberger’s favorite heave it threat will be on the field when the season starts.  With or without Wallace’s holdout, Antonio Brown might have become Roethlisberger’s #1 receiver.  The Central Michigan standout busted out in a big way last year with 69 catches but only 2 scores.  I think he’s for real and has a shot of totaling double digits in TDs. Even if the run game is an afterthought, the Steelers have to be leery of their backfield situation.  Starter Rashard Mendenhall is out for a while recovering from his knee injury, and Isaac Redman has limited talents.  The guy who has made a big name for himself this preseason is Jonathan Dwyer.  He’s contributed surprisingly well in the passing game this preseason and looks like he might have a leg up on Redman for starter snaps.  I think the offensive line is finally approaching respectability again.  Willie Colon is thriving at LG, and Maurkice Pouncey is once of the game’s best centers.  Unfortunately projected RG David DeCastro tore up his knee in the preseason and likely will miss the entire season.  Marcus Gilbert looks like a fixture at RT, and they’re hoping rookie Mike Adams is the answer at LT.  I expect this unit to be really strong late in the season. 

You’ve got to think the league’s #1 defense is chomping at the bit to get back on the field and bust some heads after that Denver game.  When you talk about busting heads, you can’t help but think of Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers.  James Harrison keeps getting it done and pairs with LaMarr Woodley to give them arguably the league’s best pair of outside rushers.  Throw in stud ILB Lawrence Timmons and rotational rushers like Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, and that’s a formidable group.  Harrison is dealing with a knee issue this preseason that could turn serious, so that’s definitely worth tracking.  I really like Ziggy Hood up front at one end spot, and Brett Keisel’s beard will try and hold off the more youthful Craig Heyward at the other end spot.  The biggest question in the secondary is still the corner spot opposite Ike Taylor where Keenan Lewis looks to continue his progression as an NFL corner.  Ryan Clark had arguably a career year in 2011, and Troy Polamalu is still one of the game’s more dynamic defenders.  The former Trojan should be the healthiest he’s been in several years.  

I believe the Steelers will be a solid team this year, but their first place projections is also influenced by my thought this will be a down year for the teams of the AFC North.  Not stubbornly sticking to the run could also take this team to the next level.  A potent passing offense combined with one of the game’s best defenses is a combination most teams won’t be able to successfully combat. Heading into the season, I’ve got them as the second best team in the conference.

Team MVP – Ben Roethlisberger
Breakout Player – Jonathan Dwyer
Disappointment – Isaac Redman

2) Baltimore Ravens

Key Gets – Courtney Upshaw (LB, Alabama), Kelechi Osmele (G, Iowa State), Jacoby Jones (WR, Texans)

Key Gones – Ben Grubbs (G, Saints), Jarret Johnson (LB, San Diego), Chris Carr (CB, Vikings), Cory Redding (DE, Colts)

Key Games – wk1 v. Bengals, wk2 @ Eagles, wk3 v. Patriots, wk6 v. Cowboys, wk7 @ Texans, wk11 @ Steelers, wk12 @ Chargers, wk15 v. Broncos, wk16 v. Giants, wk17 @ Bengals

Oh Billy Cundiff.  The Ravens saw their run at another Super Bowl title thwarted when their kicker missed a chip shot FG to send the conference championship game into overtime.  Heck, Cundiff wouldn’t have had a chance to be the goat had Lee Evans held onto the potential TD pass just a couple of plays earlier.  It was a crushing loss for a team looking to reassert themselves as the lead dog in the AFC.  How much of a championship window remains for guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed?  Will the Ravens be able to keep pace with the teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Texans this year? 

Fortunately for Baltimore they still possess one of the game’s most valuable weapons in Ray Rice.  The fifth year veteran rushed for a career high 1,364 yards and added his second 70+ catch season in 2011.  There is no doubt who is the focal point of the offense.  I do worry that, for the first time, there’s no veteran depth behind him; no Willis McGahee or Ricky Williams.  Joe Flacco is one of the harder guys in the league to evaluate.  At times he looks like a guy who can be the guy, and then he goes out and has a stinker.  Flacco rarely ever seems to get into a true flow offensively and, while he has improved in this department, he still doesn’t handle pressure terribly well.  Typically, when he senses pressure, the play is over.  I still think he’s going to struggle to reach his potential as long as conservative Cam Cameron is his OC.  They’ve got to open up this offense and stop being as predictable as they are.  In Flacco’s defense, it’s not like he’s throwing to the Three Amigos.  Anquan Boldin can still catch what’s thrown his way, but he can’t separate and isn’t a difference maker anymore.  I believe Torrey Smith is the key to this offense’s success in 2012.  If he can build upon a commendable rookie campaign and become Flacco’s #1 downfield threat, that’s only going to open things up for the rest of the offense.  Expect Smith to have a huge year.  I do worry a little bit about the offensive line.  They lost guard Ben Grubbs to the Saints, and Bryant McKinnie was late in getting into camp.  Is this unit moving in the right direction? 

The defense isn’t without its questions as well.  First, they’re going to be without their leading pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, or most, if not all of the season with an Achilles injury.  Suggs led the Ravens in sacks last year with 14, and the next closest player was Pernell McPhee with 6.  Yes, he will be missed.  Rookie Courtney Upshaw is going to get a chance to replace Suggs, but that’s a hell of a lot easier said than done.  Ray Lewis is 37, and Ed Reed is about to turn 34.  Both are still among the best at their respective positions, but there’s no denying that both have lost a step (more so Lewis) and are no longer the play-to-play monsters they used to be.  I think the Jarrett Johnson and Cory Redding losses will be significant as well.  Having a front line of Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones will cure a lot of ails.  There’s a lot of beef and strength up front for Baltimore.  The most valuable player on defense might just be Lardarius Webb.  The fourth year corner from Nicholls State has quickly and quietly established himself as one of the more dangerous cover men in the game.  I’m a big fan of Jimmy Smith’s and think there’s a ton of scheme-altering potential in having both he and Webb on the field at the same time.  If Smith continues to make strides, you’re talking about having two corners you can put on an island, freeing up the rest of the defense to take more risks and make big plays. 

Will the offensive line be a strength?  Can they develop more than two or three receiving threats?  Who will step up in Suggs’ absence?  I like rooting for the Ravens, but I get a feeling that this isn’t going to be a (positively) memorable season for them.  Anything goes once you get the playoffs.  I just worry that they’ll have trouble getting there.

Team MVP – Ray Rice
Breakout Player – Torrey Smith
Disappointment – Bryant McKinnie

3) Cincinnati Bengals

Key Gets – Dre Kirkpatrick (CB, Alabama), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (RB, Patriots), Terence Newman (CB, Cowboys), Jason Allen (CB, Texans), Kevin Zeitler (G, Wisconsin), Devon Still (DT, Penn State), Mohamed Sanu (WR, Rutgers)

Key Gones – Cedric Benson (RB, FA), Andre Caldwell (WR, Broncos), Kelly Jennings (CB, FA), Jerome Simpson (WR, Vikings)

Key Games – wk1 @ Ravens, wk7 v. Steelers, wk9 v. Broncos, wk10 v. Giants, wk13 @ Chargers, wk14 v. Cowboys, wk15 @ Eagles, wk 16 @ Steelers, wk17 v. Ravens

They stink.  They’re good.  They stink.  They’re good.  That’s been the pattern of the Cincinnati Bengals for the last four years.  Coming off a 4-12 season in 2010, the Bengals won 9 games and made the playoffs last year.  The biggest reasons for the turnaround were a pair of rookies – AJ Green and Andy Dalton – who set an NFL record for yards and receptions by a rookie QB and WR combo.  With those two in place for the foreseeable future, the year to year up and down routine should cease.

Dalton entered the league as arguably the most NFL-ready QB in last year’s draft and did nothing to disprove those thoughts.  He’s never going to have the league’s strongest arm, but Dalton’s  intelligence and leadership were on display the entire year as he amassed 20 TDs and nearly 3,400 yards passing.  His #1 target, Green, led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and TDs and is already considered one of the best at his position.  It’s very impressive to have two rookies in those key positions make a pretty seamless transition from the college game to the pros.  They should be fun to watch again this year.  What would really help Green is the emergence of another receiving threat.  I think that guy will be Jermaine Gresham.  He’s been a steady player his first two years as a pro, and I believe he’s a big bodied guy that they need to feature a lot more.  Jordan Shipley isn’t recovered from his ACL injury, and neither Brandon Tate nor Armon Binns strikes me as the Marvin Harrison to Green’s Reggie Wayne.  I don’t see how they can’t feature Gresham.  Cedric Benson is gone after three straight 1,000+ yard rushing seasons.  In his place is former Patriot, BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  I don’t think BJGE is a real upgrade over Benson, but I think you’ll see a more balanced running game with Bernard Scott getting increased touches.  Handling the dirty work is one of the league’s best offensive lines.  They’re more than solid at tackle with one of the game’s more underrated linemen, Andrew Whitworth, on the left and Andre Smith on the right.  Rookie Kevin Zeitler steps in and improves RG, but they’re going to have to play the year without LG Travelle Wharton who recently went down with an ACL injury. 

The key to this defense is their talent and depth up front.  Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are strong pairing inside.  Atkins was an All Pro last year, and it could be argued that Peko played near that level as well.  If they weren’t enough, the Bengals went out and drafted Devon Still and Brandon Thompson this offseason.  At end, Michael Johnson finally showed some of that pass rushing potential, but Carlos Dunalp took a step back.  I look for that latter to be closer to 2010’s 9.5 sacks rather than last year’s 4.5.  Rey Maualuga might be the most popular Bengal linebacker, but Manny Lawson is the most valuable.  He’s always around the football and rarely gets caught out of position.  Cornerback was strengthened this offseason with the drafting of Dre Kirkpatrick and the signing of Jason Allen and Terence Newman in free agency.  I think they’re both nice depth signings.  They also have veteran Nate Clements.  If Leon Hall is unable to make a healthy return from last year’s Achilles injury, they’ll have experienced guys to turn to opposite Kirkpatrick.  I’m not as high on the safeties.  Taylor Mays hasn’t figured out the NFL yet, and Reggie Nelson is still an incomplete player. 

I see the Bengals taking a small step forward this year but falling just behind the Ravens for third place in the division.  I believe their play will improve, but I’m not sure they get to 10 wins or back to the playoffs. 

Team MVP – AJ Green
Breakout Player – Jermaine Gresham
Disappointment – BenJarvus Green-Ellis

4) Cleveland Browns

Key Gets – Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama), Brandon Weeden (QB, Oklahoma State), Josh Gordon (WR, Utah)

Key Gone – Peyton Hillis (RB, Chiefs)

Key Games – wk1 v. Eagles, wk2 @ Bengals, wk4 @ Ravens, wk5 @Giants, wk6 v. Bengals, wk8 v. Chargers, wk9 v. Ravens, wk11 @ Cowboys, wk12 v. Steelers, wk16 @ Broncos, wk17 @ Steelers

Cleveland finished 4-12 for the second time in four seasons and has gone a pathetic 18-46 over that span.  The team was recently sold, and the forgetful Mike Holmgren era will undoubtedly soon be a thing of the past.  They couldn’t run the ball.  Peyton Hillis saw his 2010 rushing total cut in half during a season that saw him injured and in a contentious relationship with management.  They couldn’t throw it.  Of the league’s QBs with over 400 pass attempts, only Blaine Gabbert threw for less yards than Colt McCoy.  They couldn’t catch it.  Greg Little led the way with 61 receptions which put him 41st in the league, tied with Kansas City’s #2 receiver, Steve Breaston, and Buffalo’s #2 receiver, David Nelson.  The picture above says it all.

They’ve attempted to rectify their offensive woes this offseason by addressing their skilled position deficiencies.  Brandon Weeden, the 28 year old rookie from Oklahoma State, already has the starting job.  He’ll be an improvement over McCoy, but I don’t think he’ll have as much early success as the two other QBs taken before him in the draft.  Trent Richardson goes from the NCAA’s best back to Cleveland’s savior.  If the Browns are going to put many points on the board this year, Richardson will need to live up to his billing.  He recently underwent a knee scope, so that will be worth watching as the regular season nears.  Whether he’s running hot or cold, Richardson is going to be the focus of the offense.  They don’t have any other option.  Joining Little at receiver is supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon.  Cleveland spend a 2nd round pick on the receiver and will expect him to join Little in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.  The most proven part of the offense heading into the season is the men doing the blocking up front.  Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack are among the best at their positions, and drafting Mitchell Schwartz will give them an upgrade at right tackle. 

The defense isn’t in as bad a shape as the offense.  They were a top ten unit last year and finished second in the league against the pass.   Their biggest problem is that they were among the worst in the league at stopping the run, and losing Phil Taylor for most of the season with a torn pectoral isn’t going to help things.  Left end Jabaal Sheard was the most consistent defensive lineman and was dominant at times in accumulating his 8.5 sacks which was good for second best ever by a Browns rookie.  D’Qwell Jackson is a real asset when healthy, and he made it through last year unscathed.  Cleveland rewarded him with a large contract.  They were dealt a blow in the preseason when Chris Gocong suffered a torn Achilles which will cause him to miss the season.  Gocong isn’t a spectacular player, but he did a lot of the dirty work and teamed well with Jackson.  The guys flanking Jackson with year will be under a microscope.  In the secondary, teams avoid Joe Haden about as much as they do Darrelle Revis.  The problem is that no one else is creating turnovers.  They finished with 9 INTs which was 22 less than the Packers had.  With more balls coming their way due to teams shying away from Haden, Cleveland defensive backs need to create more takeaways. 

They’re counting on a bunch of rookies on offense and are already losing players on defense before the season starts.  Barring a collapse by the Ravens or Bengals, I don’t see any way this team doesn’t finish in the basement. 

Team MVP – Joe Haden
Breakout Player – Greg Little
Disappointment – Brandon Weeden

Division MVP – Ray Rice
Division Breakout Player – Torrey Smith
Division Disappointment – Brandon Weeden

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