It was probably the most unique off-season we’ve experienced in 20 years with the lockout. Teams and players didn’t start working out together, let alone figure out their free agency stuff until about a month ago. Usually everyone starts figuring free agency out in May, camps and OTAs start in late May or early June. The preseason is just a tune-up for starters (who are pretty much figured out by preseason game 2) and essentially auditions for rookies and walk-ons. This year, it’s preseason game 4 where starting positions are still up for grabs for a lot of teams. That’s uncommon and it’s going to produce some different football this year than we’ve had for a couple of decades.
On top of that, free agent signings have totally altered a lot of lineups for teams. Decent teams last year are really good (at least on paper) because of some big signings. A few teams that were playoff contenders last year could be Super Bowl contenders this year. One of them is the Eagles. Michael Vick at QB made these guys great last season. They kept Machlin and Jackson at WR, both playmakers and game changers. Vince Young’s the backup (I’m still not sold on this guy though) and their O line seems pretty solid. The defense got a big boost with CB Nnamdi Asomugha, arguably the best in the game last season. Add to that Asante Samuel on the other side of the field and you now have a defense that, if it can stop the run, should be a shut-down unit all around. That could be the make or break point for these guys to be in the big game at the end of the year. I predict that if they stay healthy, will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC this season.
Speaking of free agency and team makeovers, what about the Vikings? These guys made one big change and that was at QB. Thank goodness that (at least with one game left in the preseason) Brett Favre is actually done. The Vikings recognized last season that Tavarus Jackson really isn’t an NFL quarterback. He can’t hack it. Mark my words, Seattle will have an abysmal year this season. So Minnesota picks up Donovan McNabb. Last year McNabb looked bad, most of that because the Redskins have a pretty awful management and administrative office. Their coaches don’t really have much cohesion. Remember last year when McNabb was promised to be the starter by coach Shanahan, only to be replaced the next day by Rex Grossman? That was a lot of confusion for an organization that was pretty chaotic to begin with. So you put McNabb in an organization with some solid receivers like Bernard Berian and Devin Arishamadou (both former Bears receivers), and you include Adrian Peterson in the backfield, that’s going to be one powerful offense in the NFC.
Green Bay didn’t change much in the free agency, but why would they? These guys didn’t lose really anyone to free agency and they were the best team in all of football last year. I expect them to be solid this season too. Detroit ended last year looking good after being pretty horrible the year before (the season they finished with zero wins). They have a QB that’s slowly becoming a solid starter in Matthew Stafford. Their RB Javid Best will have another solid fantasy season and hopefully be a cause of some wins. And their defense continues to improve. They could be a sleeper pick for the playoffs come December.
Which leaves the Chicago Bears in the NFC North. I’ve spent the past 5 seasons as fans of this franchise, and have a pretty deep knowledge of their rosters over the past few seasons. Though I started following the team after they drafted Danieal Manning in 2006, I have subsequently moved a lot of my loyalty to Houston following Manning’s signing with them this off-season. Call it fickle if you want, but Manning was the reason I liked the Bears in the first place. But they still have another ACU alumni Johnny Knox, so they still have some of my allegiance.
They don’t, however, have much of my faith in a good season this year. My prediction for the Bears in 2011-12 is bottom of the NFC North Division. Last season they excelled in offense when Matt Forte was given carries. The first several games when the the run/pass ratio favored the pass, the Bears couldn’t drive and couldn’t score. Their scoring drives ended in FGs due to great field position from the kick-off returns of Manning and Hester. Once they balanced the play calling, Forte and Taylor led them down the field along with some good passing attacks. But that came later in the year. The O-line was bad from the beginning. The only steady and consistent presence was veteran center Olin Kreutz. This off-season they refused to give him a solid deal so he left. He was the only bright spot on the O-line.
Last season I really questioned Jerry Angelo’s management and Lovie Smith’s coaching. This off-season proved to me (and to many others) that these guys may have been good a few years ago, but they really can’t make solid management decisions. Add to that the constant moving of Manning 2 years ago from FS to SS to nickel back. He didn’t get a chance to solidify his position, so his play suffered. Last season he had his best year at FS alongside Chris Harris. The defense last season was a shutdown lineup. This year I think they will have a hard time stopping the pass, mostly because Urlacher is not in the form he was a few years back and there’s no noticeable sign of cohesion in the secondary. Their D-line will be solid again, but the secondary makes or breaks your defense. Look for the Bears to hold most teams to under 21 points, but not have the offense to put up numbers to win games.Here’s why: Jay Cutler is not a winner. Going back to the mention of poor management from the front office and coaches, these are the same guys who chose to start Rex Grossman after seeing what Kyle Orton could do. These are the guys who chose to trade Orton for Cutler, a QB who (while he was in Denver) didn’t have a lot of defensive challengers in pass defense and did pretty well. He also had Brandon Marshall. Then he comes to a team with no all-star receiver (until Johnny Knox of course) and a slew of defensive powerhouses all in the same division. Cutler plays like a young Favre, a gunslinger who will throw pick after pick and then josh about it on the sideline, and do so in a championship game. Caleb Hannie proved in the NFC title game last year that he not only has the skills, the knowledge of the playbook, but also the raw fire and leadership to be the starter. But all of us TV viewers must have been watching a different game than the coaches and management, because Cutler will start and lose games this year. Hester and Knox are the bright spots on the offense. Roy Williams will be just as bad as he was in Dallas and Sam Hurd will end up being a name like Juaquin Iglasius, a great player who everyone had high hopes for but just couldn’t hack it.
Without going into too much other detail, I also predict in the NFC that Carolina will have a decent year, going about 8-8. Cam Newton looks like the real deal, DeAngelo Williams is solid, and Greg Olsen will be another point to my contention that the Bears can’t see talent while it’s on their roster, so they have to see it when the talent goes elsewhere. He’ll have a breakout year. Tampa Bay will do the same. The Falcons and the Saints are playoff contenders, as are the Giants and the Cardinals. Kevin Kobb in Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald is a match made in heaven. It will look like Kurt Warner came back in a different body. Dallas will be at the bottom of the rung again, due like Chicago to poor management and lack of insight into talent. Romo might have a decent game here and there, but without adequate protection and against solid defenses, they won’t be able to hang. The Rams and the 49ers could go either way, good or really bad. Time will have to tell.
Pt. 2 is coming soon with my predictions for the AFC.