With training camps underway, it is a good time to introduce my conference previews. The first conference is the AFC where the Patriots came out as the champs but couldn’t quite pull it out in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won’t be able to repeat that easily as teams like the Colts,Chargers and Jaguars aren’t far behind and it should make for a very interesting season.
Baltimore Ravens: Until the quarterback situation is settled, it will be hard for the Ravens to be a successful team. Kyle Boller led the team in passing last year as he had 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Boller has had lots of opportunities to prove to the team that he could be a successful quarterback. So far, the Ravens haven’t seen any results. Troy Smith was solid as a rookie last year as he had very good game management skills and in two starts threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions. Then you add rookie Joe Flacco into the mix who the Ravens traded up to get in the 1st round. Flacco could be the Ravens quarterback of the future, but as of now is still raw and shouldn’t be thrown into the fire right away. Willis McGahee had another solid year as he had 1207 yards and 7 touchdowns. Look for McGahee to have a big season this year as the new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is known to make running backs the focal point of his offense. Ray Rice was picked in the 2nd round and if McGahee gets hurt, Rice is a solid backup option who proved to be very durable in his 3 years at Rutgers. Derrick Mason proved last season that he is one of the most consistent receivers in the game as he had 103 catches for 1087 yards. Cameron also loves using tight ends in his schemes and if Todd Heap is healthy, it will give the Ravens offense another dimension. The defense is still productive, but it is aging.
Ray Lewis had another great season as he had 120 tackles and two interceptions. Ed Reed had another season which shows why he is among the most feared defenders in the league as he had 7 interceptions. Bart Scott had 93 tackles but only had 1 sack while coming off a year where he had 9.5. Look for Scott to bounce back this year. One of the keys to the defense is Haloti Ngata as at 6’4 345, he has the size to clog the middle and stuff the run. Ngata had to get carted off the field in training camp with a leg injury and if serious, it will be a big blow for the Ravens. The corners aren’t getting any younger as Samari Rolle is targeted by opposing offense every week. Look for the newly acquired Fabian Washington to challenge him for his starting spot. Chris McAllister is still an elite corner but was bothered by injuries last year as he only played 8 games. Until the Ravens find the answer at quarterback, it will be hard to compete in the tough AFC. Smith should be the starter heading into the season but after that, it’s anyone’s guess. My prediction is 5-11 and 4th place in the AFC North.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills have the potential to make a push for a playoff spot this year as many key pieces are in place. They finally have settled on a quarterback in Trent Edwards who was solid as a rookie as he had 7 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. If not for Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch would have been rookie of the year. In 13 games, Lynch had 1115 yards and 7 touchdowns. Look for Lynch to be even better this year. The receivers were a weak spot last year but with the addition of the 6’6 James Hardy in the draft, the Bills now have a red zone threat who has the ability to take pressure off Lee Evans.
The defense is a very young unit that has the potential to be very successful. Aaron Schobel led the team with 6 sacks but usually is good for around 12. Look for Schobel to bounce back this year. Angelo Crowell led the team with 126 tackles and with the return of Paul Posluszny the linebacker corps should be strong. With the addition of corner Leodis McKelvin, the secondary could also be strong as Terrence McGee had a very good season. Donte Whitner is emerging as one of the best young safeties in the league and is becoming one of the leaders of the defense. With a relatively easy strength of schedule and a young talented team, look for the Bills to be one of the most surprising teams of 2008. My prediction is 10-6 and 2nd place in the AFC East.
Cincinnati Bengals: Last year the Bengals were predicted by many to win the AFC North and possibly make a run in the playoffs. What a difference a year makes. The Bengals are now coming off a disappointing 7-9 season but with Carson Palmer at quarterback, anything is possible. Palmer threw for over 4000 yards and 26 touchdowns. The only problem is he also threw 20 interceptions. Rudi Johnson is usually one of the most consistent backs in the game but last year he only ran for 497 yards and averaged 2.9 yards a carry. Johnson spent lots of time in the off season training and early reports from training camp say he looks as good as ever. The Bengals still have arguably the best receiver tandem in the league as both T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson return. Houshmandzadeh had a career year in 2007 as he had 112 catches and 12 touchdowns. Even though he is looking for a new contract, Johnson reported to training camp and should have another big year. The Bengals also signed tight end Ben Utecht in free agency who could have a very big impact as Palmer has never had a pass catching tight end to work with.
The defense took a big hit this off season as they lost Landon Johnson, Madieu Williams and Justin Smith. The team addressed the loss of Johnson though in the draft by drafting Keith Rivers in the first round. Rivers should come in right away and have a big impact. Williams should be replaced by Chinedum Ndukwe who performed very well as a rookie last season. The Bengals also have Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph in the secondary who will continue to develop this season and one day will become a feared duo. The Bengals still have lots of talent, but they have too many off the field issues and that will slow them down. My prediction is 7-9 and 3rd place in the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns: Last year, the Browns were predicted to finish in the cellar of the AFC North. Instead, they were a game away from making the playoffs. Derek Anderson came out of nowhere and ended up throwing for 29 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. Anderson threw 19 interceptions though and will need to cut down on that number for the Browns to go far in the playoffs. Jamal Lewis had one of the best seasons in his career as he had over 1300 yards and 9 touchdowns. Look for Lewis to have a big year. The Browns have a great receiving corps led by Braylon Edwards who broke out last year with 16 touchdowns. Edwards has a great connection with Anderson so look for him to put up more big numbers. Kellen Winslow had some big numbers at tight end as he had over 1000 yards along with 5 touchdowns. Winslow needed knee surgery this off season but he should still be very productive. The Browns added Donte’ Stallworth this off season and he will bring excellent speed to a high powered offense.
The Browns defense was one of the weakest in the league last year but this off season they did a great job to bulk up the defensive line as they added both Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. Both Williams and Rogers are among the best defensive tackles in the league and should give the Browns rush defense a major boost. The team also has young linebackers to build the defense around in Kamerion Wimbley and D’Qwell Jackson. Look for both Wimbley and Jackson to breakout this year. With the loss of Leigh Bodden, the secondary will have some problems. Eric Wright in his rookie year showed that he could be a very good corner for years to come. The problem is Daven Holly who was the front runner to start on the opposite side suffered a torn ACL in mini camp. Look for Brandon McDonald to step in and be on the opposite side of Wright come week one. Sean Jones has been one of the most productive safeties in the league the last couple years and he should make his first Pro Bowl this year. The Browns have the talent on both sides of the ball to go deep into the playoffs. As long as Anderson plays like he did last year, the team is in great shape. My prediction is 10-6 and 1st place in the AFC North.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos have a young and talented team but in the tough AFC, they are a year or two away. My prediction is 7-9 and 2nd place in the AFC West. Jay Cutler showed flashes of his potential in his first full year as a starter as he threw 20 touchdowns. Look for Cutler to be even better this year. With the departure of Travis Henry, Selvin Young now comes into camp as the starting running back. Young had a solid rookie year with 729 yards. Look for rookie Ryan Torain to have a big impact as well as he fits very well in the Broncos running scheme and the team is very high on him. Brandon Marshall is becoming one of the elite receivers in the league as he had 102 receptions in his first year as a starter. Marshall should be just as good this year. Tony Scheffler is one of the best young tight ends in the league as he had 549 yards and 5 touchdowns in his second year. Both Marshall and Scheffler have great connections with Cutler and will have a big impact on the Broncos passing game for years to come.
The defense had a few bright spots last year in Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams. Dumervil led the team with 12 sacks while Williams had 141 tackles along with 1 sack and an interception. A player to watch is second year defensive tackle Marcus Thomas who has the potential to be a Pro Bowl player but didn’t get to showcase all of his talents in his rookie year. The secondary coming into the year was supposed to be a strong point. But Dre’ Bly didn’t live up to expectations and Champ Bailey had a solid year but it wasn’t up to his usual standards. The Broncos have lots of potential but as a young team, they will have a hard time making the playoffs this year.My prediction is 7-9 and 2nd place in the AFC West.
Houston Texans: The Texans have done a great job of getting talent the last few years but in the AFC South, they are a few years away from contending for a division title. Matt Schaub was solid in his first year as a starter but was hurt for a good part of the year. Schaub could put up big numbers in the Texans offense this year. The Texans main struggle on offense is the running game as nobody on the team really stands out. Ahman Green will probably enter the year as the starter but both Darius Walker and Steve Slaton should get some looks. Andre Johnson was on pace for a career year and is one of the best receivers in the league. The Texans are still looking for a number two receiver to line up opposite Johnson and the team is hoping Jacoby Jones fills the void. Owen Daniels had another solid year and fits very well in the offense. Daniels has the potential to be a Pro Bowl tight end in a few years.
The defense could become one of the better units in the AFC this year. Mario Williams is becoming one of the elite pass rushers in the league as he had 14 sacks in his second season. Look for Williams to improve in his 3rd season. DeMeco Ryans also had a very good season as he had 128 tackles along with two sacks. Fred Bennett has the potential to be a great find for the Texans. In his rookie year, Bennett had 62 tackles and 3 interceptions. He has the potential to be a very good corner for years to come. The Texans have lots of talent but as a young team with a quarterback who is still pretty inexperienced, they should be a big factor in the AFC in a few years. My prediction is 8-8 and 3rd place in the AFC South.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts are only a year off from when they won the Super Bowl and they still have tons of talent. Peyton Manning is arguably the best quarterback in the league and had another good season last year with 31 touchdowns. Manning however needed knee surgery this off season so the Colts offense might be slow to start the season. Joseph Addai had a very good year with 12 touchdowns and is among the best young backs in the league. Reggie Wayne is starting to establish himself as the Colts number one receiver as he had over 1500 yards and 10 touchdowns. Look for Anthony Gonzalez to breakout in his second year as he fits very well in the Colts offense. Dallas Clark had a career season at tight end with 616 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The heart and soul of the defense is Bob Sanders. Depending on if Sanders is playing or not the Colts are a total different unit. When Sanders is healthy, the Colts have one of the best defenses in the league and when he isn’t playing, it could get ugly. Sanders was the Defensive Player of the Year last year and for good reason. He had 96 tackles 4 sacks and 2 interceptions. Robert Mathis led the team with 7 sacks and he will be even more effective when Dwight Freeney returns from injury. Look for Freddie Keiaho to breakout this year as he was having a great season until he got injured. The Colts have a very strong team again and there is no reason why they won’t remain among the elite in the AFC. My prediction is 12-4 and 1st place in the AFC South.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Many people think that the Jaguars are a team that is capable of making the Super Bowl this year. But all of those hopes ride on the shoulders of David Garrard. In his first full year as a starter, Garrard threw 18 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. No doubt Garrard was very successful, but it will be very hard for him to match last season’s totals. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew give the Jaguars one of the league’s best rushing attacks and should continue their success this year. Last season receiver was one of the Jaguars weakest positions but with the offseason additions of Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, that should change. The Jaguars hope Porter brings big play ability that the team has missed at the position since Jimmy Smith retired. Last year Reggie Williams was the number one receiver but with the addition of Porter, he will be the number two. That fits Williams better though as he doesn’t have all the qualities you look for in a number one receiver. The only problem now is that both Porter and Williams are on the PUP list and that leaves the Jags weaker at receiver. The team is very high on Mike Walker. He was drafted in the 3rd round last year but was placed on injured reserve in the pre season. Look for him to involved in the Jags passing attack this season. The wild card out of all of this is Williamson. If he starts catching passes and utilizing his speed, he could be the team’s go to receiver.
The defense is still strong as John Henderson is among one of the premiere run stoppers in the game. Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves should also have big impacts on the pass rush as rookies. Mike Peterson has been injured the last few years and is getting older but the team found his replacement in Justin Durant as he stepped up in the playoffs and was one of the team’s biggest surprises. Rashean Mathis had an off year at corner and should return back to form this year. Reggie Nelson should also build off a strong rookie season at safety. Nelson has great range and instincts which shows that he could be a difference maker for years to come. The Jaguars definitely have the talent to make a deep run into the AFC the only problem is they have to get by the Colts first. My prediction is 11-5 and 2nd in the AFC South.
Kansas City Chiefs: For many reasons, this year looks like it will be a rebuilding year for the Chiefs. Brodie Croyle comes into camp as the starter but he hasn’t showed that much to convince the Chiefs he’s the quarterback of the future. Look for Tyler Thigpen to also get some looks at the position. Larry Johnson has been one of the best backs in the league the last few years but because of injuries was only limited to 559 yards. Look for Johnson to get back on track this year. Dwayne Bowe should be even better in his second year as he had 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in his rookie year. Tony Gonzalez also had a very good year as he had 99 catches for 1172 yards and 5 touchdowns.
While the offense struggled, the defense didn’t get much rest and it showed. The Chiefs lost Jared Allen this off season so the team needs Tamba Hali to step up and become an elite defensive end. Hali should be helped by the addition of Glenn Dorsey who has the potential to be a dominant force at defensive tackle. The linebackers were very productive as both Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris had over 100 tackles. Derrick Johnson wasn’t far behind as he had 94. The secondary is a weakness but Bernard Pollard is one of the few bright spots. Pollard had 90 tackles and 2 interceptions in his first year as a starter. Look for Pollard to breakout this year and possibly make the Pro Bowl. Brandon Flowers and DaJuan Morgan were both drafted this year and should make big impacts for years to come. Until the Chiefs are settled at quarterback, the team will be rebuilding. My prediction is 3-13 and 4th place in the AFC West.
Miami Dolphins: After a 1-15 season last year, it will be hard for the Dolphins to be any worse this season. John Beck should come into the year as the starter but he wasn’t that impressive in his rookie year. Both Josh McCown and Chad Henne should get opportunities to overtake Beck for the job. Before a season ending injury, Ronnie Brown was on pace for a career year. Look for Brown to bounce back from injury this year. Ted Ginn is coming into the year as the team’s number one receiver. Ginn had a solid rookie year and has game changing ability. Derek Hagan also showed some flashes of potential and should brake out in his 3rd season. With the addition of Jake Long in the draft, the offensive line should improve from a unit that allowed 42 sacks last year.
The defense isn’t like the defenses that the Dolphins usually have. The pass rush will really suffer after trading Jason Taylor to the Redskins. But Phillip Merling could soften the blow as he has lots of potential. Joey Porter didn’t quite live up to expectations last year but he still had a decent year with 6 sacks. Channing Crowder had a solid year with 78 tackles and should be one of the team’s leading tacklers again this year. Jason Allen was one of the bright spots of the defense last year as he had 62 tackles and 3 interceptions. Look for Allen to improve this year. The Dolphins are pretty inexperienced and with a whole new coaching staff, it could be a while until the team adjusts. My prediction is 3-13 and 4th place in the AFC East.
New England Patriots: The Patriots were the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl last year and they definitely have the talent to do it again. Tom Brady last year threw for 50 touchdowns which is an NFL record. Brady should put up big numbers again but he won’t come close to last year’s mark. Laurence Maroney had 835 yards and 6 touchdowns last year. Maroney should play a bigger factor this year as the Patriots are looking for a more balanced attack. When interested, Randy Moss is the best receiver in the game and he showed it last year. Moss had an NFL record 23 touchdowns along with 1493 yards. Wes Welker also had a very good season with 112 catches and 8 touchdowns. As long as Moss is getting defenses’ attention, Welker should be putting up big numbers.
The Patriots defense is aging, but they are still very effective. Mike Vrabel led the team with 12 sacks and should have another good year. Vince Wilfork is one of the best defensive tackles in the league and should have another Pro Bowl caliber season. Tedy Bruschi has still been very effective as he led the team with 92 tackles last year. Jerod Mayo who was drafted in the first round of this year’s draft, should make an immediate impact. With the departure of Asante Samuel, the secondary could be in trouble. Ellis Hobbs takes over for Samuel while the battle for the opposite side is still up in the air. The Patriots are still a very good team with load of talent but it will be hard to match last years success. My prediction is 13-3 and 1st place in the AFC East.
New York Jets: The Jets spent lots of money this season to boost the offensive line but without solid quarterback play, the team won’t be going anywhere. Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens continue to battle for the starting position. Pennington was solid last year but he is very injury prone. Clemens struggled for the most part but showed flashes of potential. Thomas Jones was a disappointment last year as had over 1100 yards but only one touchdown. Jerricho Cotchery is turning into one of the league’s best young receivers as he had 82 catches for 1130 yards. Laveranues Coles also had a solid year as he had 6 touchdowns. Dustin Keller was drafted in the first round this year and should make a big impact at tight end. Keller doesn’t have great size, but he’s an excellent pass catcher.
The defense should improve this year as the team had some big off season pickups. Both Calvin Pace and Kris Jenkins should help the defensive line in a big way. Vernon Gholston should also come in and immediately help a team that only had 29 sacks last year. Both David Harris and Darrelle Revis had great rookie seasons. Harris had 127 tackles and 5 sacks while Revis showed skills that could make him a shutdown corner. Both should have even bigger impacts this year. Kerry Rhodes is one of the best safeties in the league as he had 67 tackles along with 2 sacks and 5 interceptions. Look for Rhodes to be even more dominant this year. The Jets have the makings of a solid defense but unless the quarterback situation is settled, it could be a long season. My prediction is 5-11 and 3rd place in the AFC East.
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders should improve in Lane Kiffin’s second year as a Head Coach. JaMarcus Russell, who looks impressive at times in limited play in his rookie year, has now had a full off-season to learn the offense. The Raiders have a great ground game to help out Russell in Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden. Fargas had a career year with over 1000 yards and 4 touchdowns. McFadden was drafted in the first round this year and even though he wasn’t a need pick, he will have a big impact this season. The team lost Jerry Porter to the Jaguars in free agency, but brought Javon Walker in to be the number one receiver. Walker has had some injury problems the last few years but when healthy, he is one of the best receivers in the league. Ronald Curry had a good year as he had 55 catches for 717 yards and 4 touchdowns. Look for Zach Miller to get more involved in the offense as he has a good connection with Russell and had a solid rookie year with 44 catches and 3 touchdowns.
The defense is one of the strongest in the league as the defensive line is led by Derrick Burgess who had 8 sacks last year. The Raiders also resigned Tommy Kelly who was on pace for a career year before a season ending injury. The linebacker corps has great talent and speed with Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard. Both Morrison and Howard are quietly becoming two of the better linebackers in the league. Nnamdi Asomugha has already proven to be one of the elite corners in the league and now with the addition of DeAngelo Hall, teams aren’t going to enjoy throwing on the Raiders. The Raiders are also set at safety as Michael Huff played well last year and the team signed Gibril Wilson away from the Giants in free agency. The Raiders should be a very good defensive team but until Russell develops, the team will struggle. Look for the Raiders to play spoiler for some teams later in the year though. My prediction is 6-10 and 3rd place in the AFC West.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers still have lots of talent but with the emergence of the Browns, it will be hard for them to win the division again. Ben Roethlisberger had a career year as he threw for 32 touchdowns. Look for Roethlisberger to put up big numbers again this year. Willie Parker had another good year running the ball as he had over 1300 yards rushing. The team also drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the first round which will give the Steelers a great tandem at running back. Santonio Holmes is turning into a number one receiver as he had 942 yards and 8 touchdowns in his first full year as a starter. Hines Ward was also very effective last year with 7 touchdowns but at 32, he’s slowly starting to decline. Heath Miller also had a career high with 7 touchdowns. Look for Miller to be one of Roethlisberger’s go to guys in the red zone.
Over the years the Steelers have had one of the most consistent defenses in the league. James Harrison led the team with 8 sacks and should be just as effective this year. James Farrior had a very good season as he had 94 tackles along with 6 sacks and an interception. Look for LaMarr Woodley to breakout this year as in limited time as a rookie he had 4 sacks and is now getting the chance to start. Troy Polamalu is one of the best safeties in the league and was very effective last year. Polamalu can single handedly change a game by himself and the fact that he missed 5 games hurt the Steelers in a big way. It is possible for the Steelers to make a run at the playoffs but in the AFC, if you don’t win your division it is going to be tough to make it in as a wild card. Plus the Steelers, have the hardest strength of schedule in the league. My prediction is 9-7 and 2nd place in the AFC North.
San Diego Chargers: If not for injuries, the Chargers probably would have been representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Philip Rivers had a solid year as he threw 21 touchdowns and had a gutsy performance in the AFC Championship game. LaDainian Tomlinson had another big season as he had 1474 yards and 15 touchdowns. Don’t look for Tomlinson to slow down this year. Antonio Gates had another good season as he had over 900 yards and 9 touchdowns. Gates was bothered by a toe injury in the playoffs but don’t look for him to show any signs of slowing down this year.
The defense is among the league’s elite as Shawne Merriman led the team with 12 sacks. Look for Merriman to have an even bigger impact this year. Shaun Phillips also had a solid year as he had 8 sacks along with 2 interceptions. The secondary is among the best in the league as both Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie are among the league’s elite corners. Cromartie also led the league with 12 interceptions and is one of the most electrifying players in the league. Antoine Cason should also have a big impact as a nickel back in his rookie season. Many people thought that Cason was the best corner in the draft last year. The Chargers still have lots of talent on both sides of the ball and if fully healthy could make another run at the Super Bowl. My prediction is 14-2 and 1st place in the AFC West.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans made the playoffs last year but to get any farther than the first round, they are going to need to improve on offense. In his second year in the league, Vince Young was supposed to become a star but that didn’t go as planned. Young only threw 9 touchdowns and also threw 17 interceptions. The Titans now have a thunder and lightning tandem in the backfield as LenDale White is a bruising back who had over 1100 yards in his first full year as a starter. The team also drafted Chris Johnson out of ECU in the first round. Johnson ran the fastest 40 yard dash at the combine with a blazing 4.24 and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The Titans don’t have a true number one receiver yet, but they got solid years out of Roydell Williams and Justin Gage. Both had 55 receptions for over 700 yards.
The defense does a great job of keeping the team in games as Kyle Vanden Bosh led the team with 12 sacks. Both David Thornton and Keith Bulluck had good years at linebacker as Thornton had over 120 tackles and Bulluck had 88 tackles with 5 interceptions. Cortland Finnegan is developing into one of the best young corners in the game and opposing teams are always aware of where he is at on the field. The key to the defense is Albert Haynesworth as when he was healthy, he was having the best year of his career. Haynesworth was also doing this all in a contract year so it will be interesting to see if he turned the corner as a player or he just cashed in on a big payday. Overall the Titans have the potential to make the playoffs, but with the lack of offense and playing in the AFC South, it doesn’t look good this year. My prediction is 7-9 and 4th place in the AFC South.