Right about now seems to be the perfect
time to start making calls about how teams will fare for the upcoming season.
Depth charts are starting to smooth out and players are indicating they're
ready to breakout. I've tried to make some predictions more daring than others,
but not for the sake of it. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and if you make a
prediction in the comments I'll mention it at the end of the year and see if
you were right.
So without further adieu...
Prediction: Joe Flacco has a career year, but the Ravens finish second in the division and miss
a wildcard spot.
Baltimore have a reasonable early schedule, then a brutal seven-game stretch to end the year. Any chance of a playoff berthwill rely on them carrying momentum over from the beginning of the season andutilising it to topple the bigger opponents. It's just not their year, and defensive veterans such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are really on their last legs now. Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee won't be able to replicate the impact of Terrelle Suggs, and they might put up some nice stats, but the loss will be severe. The defense has real stars - Ladarius Webb, Haloti Ngata and Jimmy Smith headline that crew - and the unit should be typically dominant, but
they're still missing final pieces on both sides of the ball, and they need time to jell. Last year was a great run, but they overachieved. The offense has the potential to be pretty powerful, even if they don't have the firepower to be an elite unit. Ray Rice is a coach's dream at runnin g back, and his overrated running ability is masked by superior receiving skills. They're
finally forming some sort of passing attack, but it's just a really weird makeup: Ed Dickson trailed off late in the season while Dennis Pitta improved, Anquan Boldin isn't that great anymore, and Torrey Smith ran one route all last year (which makes his stats all the more impressive). Furthermore, the team scraped the bottom of the barrell to find Jacoby Jones to be their no. 3 receiver; a guy who couldn't find targets even when Andre Johnson went down
last year. Look out for Joe Flacco to emerge with a much better year than his sub-50%-completion-rate-2011, mostly because he wants a new contract. The guy reminds me of circa-Super Bowl Ei Manning - you know, the crappy one - and likewise, if it clicks for him he could win them a Super Bowl. But not this year, and not until the Ravens find him a legit primary target.
Breakout Player: Ladarius Webb... The best young cornerback in the NFL, this year he'll get the recognition.
Prediction: AJ Green catches 90 balls and 10 touchdowns.
The Bengals really weren't a playoff team in 2011, but they managed to sneak into the wildcard spot on the back of some impressive defense. That unit should really only improve with potential superstars in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, overachieving veterans like Thomas Howard and Reggie Nelson, and the rookies - Dre Kirkpatrick, Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. They should only improve after another year, but it's the offense that will determine success in 2012. Andy Dalton is an accurate QB that relies on timing routes - think Matt Flynn - but he played with a very conservative offense penned by OC Jay Gruden, and it's difficult to recognise whether the Red Rifle has the moxie to command an elite offense. His receiving corps should improve, but the Bengals are rolling the dice by taking an "open competition" approach with players who haven't yet produced on the field. Brandon Tate and 6"3 Armon Binns return from last year and are said to be having strong offseasons, but Tate caught nothing all last year and Binns needs to just think about making the roster. The rookies -Mohamed Sanu and Donald Jones - are interesting players; Sanu is a short-yardage specialist while Jones is more in the mould of a more polished Jerome Simpson. Meanwhile, Jordan Shipley returns from a severe knee injury and 5"8 Andrew Hawkins, who played impressively last year, will get a decent shot. I see A.J. Green and Sanu taking the outside positions, while Jordan Shipley will probably retain his position in the slot if he's healthy and Hawkins missing out on a roster spot (a team will be smart enough to grab him). In any case, the offense will live and die by A.J. Green; I predicted he would struggle with expectations last year but that certainly wasn't the case. He has the complete skill-set of a No. 1 receiver - a tall, lanky jumper - who was even better than he got credit for last year. He's projecting to get a lot of targets as well, because BenJarvus Green-Ellis can't carry the full load, and the team has little faith in Bernard Scott. The Bengals won't return to the postseason this year, but they're beginning a period whereby they could emerge as legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl.
Breakout Player: Carlos Dunlap and all-purpose tight end Jermaine Gresham were candidates here, but Geno Atkins has revealed himself to be the best pass rushing defensive tackle in the NFL, and that's a trait many defenses would kill for.
Prediction: Trent Richardson is third in the league in rushing yards.
I really do feel sorry for Browns fans. First off, Mike Holmgren has made two critical errors in personnel decisions the past two years: #1. Passing on Julio Jones and then #2. Passing on Robert Griffin. Cleveland spent two years pretty much wasting their time and energy with Colt McCoy, but it was even more pointless when you remember that he was throwing the ball to Greg Little and Mohammed Massaquoi for the majority of that time, which is like asking Roger Federer to play tennis with a dilldo, and this year won't be much different. If Adrian Peterson has taught us anything, it's that running backs are the last piece of the NFL puzzle - despite being the greatest halfback in the league as soon as he entered, the Vikings have only had one really serious run at the Super Bowl. Realistically, Brandon Weeden is really holding the torch and trying to elevate the Browns into perennial playoff contenders until a younger face takes over (if Eli Manning was 29 when he started playing for the Giants, he wouldn't have lasted long enough to win a championship with New York). It's a shame, really, because a defense with names like Joe Haden, D'Qwell Jackson, Phil Taylor (injured) and T.J. Ward will be good this year. Trent Richardson will get rave reviews all year, and I think he'll only lose out to Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew for the rushing title, but he'll be high-fiving his buddies while he watches the playoffs on his Plasma TV.
Breakout Player: Joe Haden... Patrick Peterson (undeservedly) got more headlines than him last year, but Haden is in a select group of defensive backs who can play with any receiver in the league.
Prediction: Antonio Brown leads the Steelers in receptions and receiving yards.
Quietly, the AFC North is shaping up to be a more level playing field than it recently was, and it's a disadvantage to Pittsburgh. The defense is beginning to reveal some cracks; Troy Polamalu isn't as dominant as he once was, but guys like James Harrison and Lamar Woodley will keep them elite for another season. In any case, the 'new guard' led by Jason Worilds, Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood need to indicate whether they can succeed players in their respective positions this year. The offense should still be strong, and while Rashad Mendenhall is a more talented runner than Isaac Redman, Redman makes up for it with sheer aggressiveness. The passing attack won't suffer at all from the change of Bruce Arians to Todd Haley because Ben Roethlisberger is too advanced as a passer to really be influenced by schematic changes. The biggest surprise will come in the passing game, where Antonio Brown will take advantage of the coverage attracted by Mike Wallace (and his contract disputes) to be the most productive Steelers receiver. Overall, the Steelers are in decent shape even if they probably won't challenge for the whole thing, and smart drafting by GM Kevin Colbert will help them avoid a brutal rebuilding phase if they can find Big Ben's replacement in the coming years.
Breakout Player: Jason Worilds... Pittsburgh have so many veterans on defense that it's supremely difficult to break into the starting lineup, and Worilds is the No. 3 outside linebacker behind the excellent duo of Harrison and Woodley. He impressed enough in spot starts last year to suggest he could replace James Harrison soon, and Mike Tomlin will make a point of getting him on the field. OT Marcus Gilbert could also breakout if he matures.
Remember, leave a prediction as a comment and I'll include it when I review them at the end of the year.