Not So Fast
Heading into the 2011 season, the Philadelphia Eagles have been dubbed the "Dream Team" by many. After acquiring five former Pro Bowlers through trade or free agency, the Eagles are the heavy favourites in the NFC East.
Head coach Andy Reid made his biggest acquisitions in the defensive secondary, where they were able to add former Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who many believe to be the best corner in the NFL. The Eagles also acquired Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals (part of a deal that sent QB Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals).
The Eagles also added firepower up front on the defensive line, adding former Green Bay Packer Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin from the Buffalo Bills.
Offensively, the Eagles running game received a boost after signing Ronnie Brown as a compliment to LeSean McCoy. The most underrated signing may have been WR Steve Smith, who agreed to a one-year deal after leaving a division rival in the New York Giants. Former Pro Bowl QB Vince Young was even added to build depth at the QB position after the loss of Kolb to Arizona.
And that leads us to Michael Vick. After starting only 12 games last season, Vick set career marks in completions, passing yardage, passer rating and both passing and rushing touchdowns. As a result, the Eagles made Vick one of the highest paid players in the league, signing him to a 6-year $100 million contract.
So we now know who the NFC representative is at this year's Super Bowl in Indianapolis right? Not so fast my friend. This has been a very awkward off season in the NFL thanks to the lockout, and I believe the teams most affected are the ones that either expect rookies to play impact positions (i.e. QB), or the teams that made changes within their coaching staffs.
While the Eagles don't have a rookie QB expected to start this year, they do have a new offensive line coach and a new defensive coordinator. Juan Castillo takes over as the DC, after spending 13 years as the Eagles offensive line coach (I've never heard of such a transition on a staff!) When new systems are installed on either side of the ball, a new philosophy and a new terminology come with it. Because of the lockout, players weren't able to participate in mini-camps, or organized team activities to learn the subtleties needed to perform at the highest level when the season begins. Instead, they've been forced to take on a one-month crash course throughout summer training camp, before the games begin to count this upcoming Sunday.
Can the Eagles defence gel in time? Is Michael Vick a one-year-wonder since his return from prison two years ago? Nobody denies the talent level on this Eagles team, and the Eagles should be the favorites to win the NFC East, but I'm not ready to crown them Super Bowl champions just yet.
Finally Their Time?
Could this finally be the year the Detroit Lions make some noise in the NFC North? The Lions showed tremendous promise late last season, when they won their final four games of the regular season. I thought the Lions had an outstanding draft in April. Unfortunately, many of their incoming rookies have been forced to miss time due to injuries this past summer. Defensive tackle and first-round pick Nick Fairley suffered a foot injury that required surgery and RB Mikel LeShoure was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles.
It wasn't only the rookies who got hurt, as mainstay left tackle Jeff Backus tore a pectoral muscle, and is questionable for Week 1.
Even with all of the injury concerns, I think the Lions can still compete to make a post-season run. QB Matthew Stafford has suffered multiple injuries in his first three seasons as a starting QB, but he bulked up this off-season in hopes of playing all 16 regular season games. Stafford spent the entire off-season throwing to big-play WR Calvin Johnson, who is coming off a 1,120 yard, 12 TD campaign in 2010. This past spring marked the second consecutive off-season Stafford and Johnson have spent together. You can never underestimate the chemistry between a QB and his top WR, and this will be the season that fans begin to see the fruit of their labor. Stafford and Johnson have only played 13 games together in the past two seasons, but they each have enormous big play ability. Johnson is already one of the best deep threats in the NFL, and Stafford's best attribute is his ability to throw the football downfield and stretch defences.
While the passing game expects to receive a major boost with a healthy Stafford, the running game can benefit from a healthy Jahvid Best this season. Best has the quickness and the speed to gash defences in the run game, and he catches the football extremely well out of the backfield. It was unclear whether or not Best would be the feature back this season, but with the sudden loss of rookie LeShoure, it becomes critical that Best stays healthy.
Over the past three years, the Lions have been systematically building one of the NFL's best defences, and they've been able to construct one of the league's best defensive units through the draft. Last year's first-round pick Ndamukong Suh was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and played in the Pro Bowl. Suh will team with former Auburn standout Fairley on the interior of the defensive line, and cause major schematic issues for opposing offences.
When looking at the big picture, the majority of the veterans on the Lions roster have now played in the same system for three seasons. Familiarity often breeds success in the NFL; and if the Lions can stay healthy this year, watch out.
I'm very curious to see how the NFL lockout will impact incoming NFL rookie quarterbacks. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder were all selected in the first round of this past year's NFL draft.
While Newton and second-round pick Andy Dalton are the only one's expected to start Week 1, I'm expecting the lack of preparation this off-season to affect every rookie QB's performance early this year. The jump from college football to the pros is a steep one. Quarterbacks often need a full off-season of mini-camps and organized team activities to allow themselves the best chance of success if they are pushed into the starting lineup in their rookie season.
Rookie QBs need to spend countless hours in the playbook, familiarizing themselves with foreign schemes and complex passing attacks. They also require time on the field with their receiving targets, to find the rhythm and timing that every successful passing game has. Without ample time to prepare for training camp, offensive coordinators around the league had to limit the amount of offence they could install this summer, opting for simpler schemes that their rookie QBs could digest.
Players like Newton and Dalton were spoon fed throughout four pre-season games, often facing more vanilla looks on defence from their opposition. But now the training wheels come off, as the regular season is about to get underway. Defensive blitz packages will begin to look a lot more unfamiliar, and coverage schemes much more complex.
I can't help but feel for Panthers play-caller Rob Chudzinski and Bengals play-caller Jay Gruden, because they have to keep things simple enough on offence so that their QB can execute, while trying to remain balanced and multiple enough so that they aren't easy to defend.
On a side note, many people (including myself) thought Stanford QB Andrew Luck made the wrong decision this past spring, when he decided to forgo the NFL draft in order to return for his junior season at Stanford. Luck was expected to be the 1st overall pick had he come out, but wanted to return for his junior season to polish his game, and compete for a PAC 12 title.
Looking back in hindsight, he made the right decision. The lockout would have only hampered his chance of success this season, and his value goes up with another year of college football under his belt. Expectations are always high for QBs that get drafted early, but the QB position is the most difficult position to play in team sports. The lockout didn't do several rookie QBs any favours this season.
Super Bowl Prediction
It's always fun to predict which team will win the Super Bowl before the season has even started. Many believe the Green Bay Packers return the fire power needed to make another run at the Vince Lombardi trophy.
While Green Bay has to like their chances with Aaron Rogers returning at QB, I believe it will be another QB hoisting the trophy in Lucas Oil Stadium come February: Tom Brady.
The New England Patriots are mad. The Patriots lost in Super Bowl XLII, blowing their chance of becoming the second team ever to go undefeated throughout the course of a season. The 2009 season ended with a crushing defeat at Baltimore in the wild card round of the playoffs. Last year, the Patriots carried the AFC's No. 1 seed into the post season, and promptly lost at home to their hated division rival, the New York Jets. Three straight playoff losses, each one more embarrassing than the next.
NFL MVP Tom Brady returns after throwing 36 TD passes versus only four interceptions, and is in search of his fourth Super Bowl championship. Bad news for opposing defences this year, as the Pats are loaded at the wide receiver position. The Patriots signed former Cincinnati Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco, who now pairs with Wes Welker and Deon Branch. Second-year TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez team to make one of the best pass catching TE tandems in the league.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots became a whole lot more multiple, and a whole lot more dangerous this off-season. After two tumultuous seasons in Washington, former Pro Bowl DT Albert Haynesworth was traded to New England in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Many people viewed this as a potentially risky acquisition for the Pats, but the change of scenery has been uplifting for the massive 6'6 335 lbs defensive tackle. Haynesworth said that he feels rejuvenated in New England, and that unfortunately spells bad news for Patriots opponents this year. Bill Belichick will have the option of lining Haynesworth up alongside Pro Bowl DT Vince Wolfork, who normally lines up at nose tackle. The Pats ran a 3-4 scheme 40% of the time a year ago, and with the addition of Haynesworth, may now opt for more of a four down look along the defensive line.
One key ingredient missing from the Patriots a year ago was the presence of a pass rusher on the outside of the defensive line. The Patriots feel they've filled that void, stealing DE Shawn Ellis away from their division rival New York Jets, and signing him to a one-year deal.
Head coach Belichick is in his 37th season coaching in the NFL, and is now the most tenured among active head coaches. He's already coached three New England teams to the Super Bowl championship; this year's team could be the fourth.