10) Baltimore Ravens
Offense: The Ravens came a stripped pass away from making the Super Bowl. Feature RB Ray Rice had 1,364 yards rushing last season and 704 yards receiving. The Ravens have franchised Rice and he is hoping to get a long term contract with the team. The Ravens lost starting LG Ben Grubbs to the Saints but replaced him with veteran OG Bobbie Williams. They also drafted Iowa State OL Kelechi Osemele (#60). LT Bryant McKinnie has struggled with weight issues, surrendered 8.5 sacks last season and will turn 33 in September. QB Joe Flacco, may think he is the best QB in the league, but puts up average numbers (3,610 YDS, 57.6 Comp%, 20 TD, 12 INT). Flacco will be throwing to promising second year WR Torrey Smith (50 REC, 841 YDS) and veteran Anquan Boldin (57 REC, 887 YRDS) but he is turning 32 this season. They did pick up WR/PR Jacoby Jones and have TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta over 900 yards receiving last season.
Defense: The Ravens strength is the defense which ranked 3rd (288.9 YDS) last season. They also has 49 sacks on the year but have lost DE/OLB Terrell Suggs (70 TCKL, 14 SCKS, 7 FF) for probably the entire season with an Achilles tear. They hope rookie DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw (#35) can step in for Suggs.
Analysis: The Ravens would be ranked higher if not for losing Suggs he is a playmaker and will be missed. ILB Ray Lewis and FS Ed Reed aren’t getting any younger and while they have played at a high level they have to drop off at some point. The Ravens o-line is in transition and the receiving core is not very deep. They were able to beat Pittsburgh twice last season and win the division wonder if there good enough to do it again? The Ravens are a playoff caliber team with a top 5 defense but may struggle to repeat as division champs.
9) New Orleans Saints
Offense: How did San Diego ever let Darren Sproles go to the Saints, like their offense wasn’t potent enough, 1st (467.1 YDS, Per). Sproles had almost 2,700 all-purpose yards and Drew Brees threw for an amazing 5,476 yards last year. The Saints did lose WR Robert Meachem (40 REC, 620 YRDS) but still have stud TE Jimmy Graham (99 REC, 1,310 YRS, 13TD) drafted WR Nick Toon, former Jets WR Al Toon’s son, and Brees can make almost any WR look above average. Brees is looking for a long term contract with the Saints as he was given the exclusive-franchise tag. They also picked up LG Ben Grubbs to replace departed All-Pro Carl Nicks as the line and Brees’s quick release only gave up 24 sacks last season.
Defense: The Saints had 33 sacks and were 30th (259.8 YRS, per) against the pass. This is not surprising since most teams were so far behind they had to abandon the run. The Saints added some veterans to the defense this off-season: DT Brodrick Bunkley, LB Curtis Lofton and LB David Hawthorne. These pick-ups will help as LB Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire season and DE Will Smith was given a four games suspension for the bounty-gate scandal.
Analysis: Bounty-gate is bound to take a toll on the Saints season as they have lost their head coach Sean Payton for the entire year. Their offense will still be top notch given Brees is a coach on the field and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is proven. The Saints talented wise are still the best team in the NFC South but they will be/have been challenged on and off the field. They have a difficult enough schedule and usually don’t play as well on the road thus winning the division is not a given.
8) Pittsburgh Steelers
Offense: Job one, keep QB Ben Roethlisberger (4,077 YRDS) healthy. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley will implement a higher percentage of running plays to do just that. This will be more difficult as the Steeler’s best RB Rashard Mendenhall will miss most of the season with an ACL injury. They will look for Isaac’ Redman to fill-in until Mendenhall can return. The Steelers used their first two draft choices on offensive linemen: #24 OG David DeCastro and #56 OT Mike Adams. They are hoping both will start this season and improve on the 42 sacks allowed in 2011.
Defense: They are old and slow yet ranked 1st in yards and points allowed. They only had 35 sacks last season with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each having 9. NT Casey Hampton is coming off a torn ACL and may not be ready for opening day so the Steelers drafted DT Alameda Ta’amu (#109) in case Hampton is not ready.
Analysis: The Ravens will miss Terrell Suggs but the Steelers won’t. His injury just made winning the AFC North easier. Roethlisberger has plenty of weapons on offense and if the o-line additions workout the unit will be set for a long time. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the best in the NFL and the Steelers defense, while not dynamic, just seem to get the job done. If they split with Baltimore the Steelers will win the AFC North.
7) San Francisco 49ers
Offense: Head coach Jim Harbaugh got the most out of former bust label QB Alex Smith (90.7 QBR). Harbaugh put Smith into positions to succeed by running the ball (8th, 127.8 YRS, per) effectively and having Smith manage the game as he only threw 5 interceptions last season. The line did give up 44 sacks as RT Anthony Davis allowed 9.5. The 49ers let RG Adam Snyder sign with the Cardinals and it appears they will look to third year OL Alex Boone to take his place, although Boone has never started an NFL game. They did add to their skill positions with WRs Mario Manningham and unretired Randy Moss as well as RB Brandon Jacobs. They also drafted change of pace RB LaMichael James (#61).
Defense: The 49ers were ranked 4th in yards(308.2) and 2nd points allowed (14.3). They have excellent LBs lead by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (143 TCKLS). They were 1st against stopping the run (77.2 YRS, per) and were an impressive plus 28 in turnovers.
Analysis: The 49ers are the best team in the NFC West no doubt but even with a strong defense wonder if they overachieved some last season and can duplicate that plus 28 turnover ratio. Alex Smith is a game manager but his line has some question marks and feature RB Frank Gore is 29 and had 282 carries last season, wonder if he’ll wear down some. 13-3 seems unlikely given some very difficult match-ups this season but they will win the NFC West.
6) Detroit Lions
Offense: QB Matthew Stafford finally was able to stay healthy and proved why he was the #1 overall pick in 2009 with 5,038 yards passing and 41 touchdowns. The Lions will be looking to get more out of their running game 29th (95.2 YRS) as second year RB Mikel Leshoure should be back from an Achilles injury that cost him his rookie season and Jahvid Best (4.6 YRS per carry) only played six games due to a concussion but is expected to return. The Lions WR core is excellent led by Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (96 REC, 1,681 YRS) and TE Brandon Pettigrew (83 REC, 777 YRS). The offensive line gave up a respectable 36 sacks last season considering the amount of passing they did but LT Jeff Backus gave up 8.5 sacks and will be 35 this season. The Lions use their first draft pick #23 on OT Riley Reiff who could start at RT or play LT if necessary.
Defense: The Lions have a talented defense especially on the line. If they can keep from being arrested, see Nick Fairley, too often maybe the team can improve on their 41 sacks from last season. The Lions are hoping third year CB Aaron Berry can replace the departed Eric Wright but Berry was recently arrested as well on DUI charges. They also drafted DBs Dwight Bentley (#85) and Chris Greenwood (#148) to help their secondary. The Lions defense ranked 23rd (367.6 YRS, per) in 2011.
Analysis: The Lions have a talented team, their offense should be top notch and more balanced. The defense needs to stay focused and stop hanging around with law enforcement, in a bad way. The Lions defense had a rough time slowing the best offenses in the league as the Packers and Saints (twice) put up big numbers. If the Lions want to compete for a championship their defense will have to step-up against the better offenses. The Lions have the Packers and Bears in their very difficult division and it will be hard to beat out the Packers for the NFC North title but they should obtain a playoff berth again.
5) Houston Texans
Offense: The Texans had one of the best offensive lines last season as they led the league in rushing (153 YDS, per). RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate had over 2,100 yards rushing combined. The only problem is they have to replace the entire right side of the line as RG Mike Brisiel signed with Oakland and RT Eric Winston was released “failed physical” although it was a salary cap move, later signed with the Chiefs. They hope OG Andre Caldwell, OT Rashad Butler or rookie OG Brandon Brooks (#76) can replace the lost linemen. QB Matt Shaub should be back after a Lisfanc fracture ended his season after 10 games. He will have All-Pro WR Andre Johnson to throw to as long as he is on the field since he only played 7 games last season. The Texans don’t have much at WR after Johnson, they drafted WR Devier Posey (#68) and Keshawn Martin (#121). They’ll be looking for more than 39 receptions 492 yards from veteran Kevin Walter and they hope second year receiver Lestar Jean can contribute. TE Owen Daniels led the team with 54 receptions for 677 yards.
Defense: The Texans are just loaded on defense even after losing DE/OLB Mario Williams, who only played 5 games and they never missed him, and trading LB DeMeco Ryans. They drafted DE/OLB Whitney Mercilus (#26) to replace the departed Williams while second year DE J.J. Watt (68 TCKLS, 5.5 sacks) looks to improve on an impressive rookie year. The Texans defense was 2nd (285.7 YDS, per) last season and there is no reason to think they won’t be at least as good.
Analysis: The Texans do have some questions on the o-line and at WR depth but the offense was 10th in points scored (23.8) last season and will be formidable. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense should be excellent as they have playmakers all over the field. The AFC South is weak with Tennessee being the only team with a chance to be above .500. The Texans will win the AFC South and be in the hunt for the #1 or 2 seed in the AFC.
4) New England Patriots
Offense: The #2 ranked offense (428 YRS, per) from 2011 goes out and gets WR Brandon Lloyd who had almost 1,000 receiving after spending most of the season with the Rams and their terrible offense. Lloyd knows offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel’s system since he played for him at Denver while McDaniels was the head coach. The Pats picked-up WRs Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth also adding RB Joseph Addai to replace departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They are also looking for big things out of second year RB Stevan Ridley. They did lose LT Matt Light to retirement but have OTs Nate Solder or Sebastian Vollmer as a replacement. The pass heavy Patriots line only gave up 32 sacks last season.
Defense: Their defense was 31st (411.1 YDS) per game, 31st in passing yards (293.9) but only 15th in points (21.4) last season. The Pats went hard after defenders in the draft picking DE/OLB Chandler Jones (#21) and ILB Dont’a Hightower (#25), six of their seven picks were used on defense. They also picked up DL Jonathan Fanene, DE/OLB Trevor Scott, CB Will Allen, former Jets DB Marquice Cole along with safety Steve Gregory. Second year CB Ras-I Dowling is returning from a hip injury that cost him most of his rookie season. The Pats lost DE Mark Anderson and his ten sacks and DL Andre Carter (10 sacks) remains a free agent, reports say Carter is seeking a long term deal from the Patriots, but he is still recovering from a season ending injury.
Analysis: The AFC champion Patriots are primed for another run at the Super Bowl as they may have the best offense in the league. They will have to improve on a poor pass defense and might need to carry the offense, for once, during the tough post-season stretch. The Patriots will win the AFC East the only question is will they get a post-season bye week?
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Offense: The Eagles finished 4th (399.1 YRS) in total offense in 2011. They have signed WR DeSean Jackson (58 REC, 961YRDS) to a long term contract, so maybe he’ll try harder now. They also locked up RB LeSean McCoy, 1,309 yards rushing, 315 yards receiving last season. They did lose LT Jason Peters to an Achilles injury but replaced him with former Bill’s LT Demetress Bell. TE Brent Celek had a solid year (62 REC, 811YRS).
Defense: The Eagles had 50 sacks last season but were 16th against the run (112.6 YDS, per). They used their first three draft picks on defensive players: DT Fletcher Cox (#12), LB Mychal Kendricks (#46) and DE Vinny Curry (#59). They also acquired MLB Demeco Ryans from Houston since he didn’t fit the Texans 3-4 defense but Ryans excelled in the 4-3.
Analysis: The “Dream Team” turned into a nightmare fast last season but Philly seemed to get it going down the stretch. Maybe the new additions needed sometime to gel and the lack of off-season preparation hurt them. They can move the ball on offense and can get to the QB on defense so why didn’t they make the playoffs last season? A minus 14 turnover ratio doomed the Eagles as they gave the ball up to often especially in the red-zone. They have a difficult schedule and play in the division with the champion Giants and improved Cowboys but they have enough talent to challenge for a championship if they can hold onto the ball.
2) Green Bay Packers
Offense: QB Aarron Rogers and his 4,643 yards passing and 45 touchdowns led the Packers to the #1 scoring offense in the league, 35 points per game average. The Packers gave up a surprisingly high 41 sacks given Rogers abilities. LT Marshal Newhouse allowed 11.5 sacks alone and will likely start at LT again as the Packers released former LT Chad Clifton and second year OT Derek Sherrod is still recovering from a broken leg. The Packers also lost center Scott Wells but replaced him with veteran, long time Colt, Jeff Saturday (age 37).
Defense: As good as the offense was the defense was bad. The Packers ranked 32nd (411.6 YDS) and only had 29 sacks in 2011. They spent their first six draft choices on defensive players and are hoping DE/OLB Nick Perry (#28) can be a pass rushing threat taking blockers away from DE/OLB Clay Mathews who only had 6 sacks last season as teams focused on him after 13.5 sacks in 2010.
Analysis: The Packers were an impressive plus 24 in turnover ratio as they had 31 interceptions to their opponents 8. The offense is elite and with Rogers at QB they will have limited turnovers as he had a 45-6 TD-to-INT ratio. The defense usually plays with a lead so don’t expect them not to give up yards but will need to improve the pass rush and overall performance if they want to win the Super Bowl again. The Lions and Bears are tough competition in the NFC North but Green Bay is just too good and will be entering the post-season with a week-off.
1) New York Giants
Offense: Where would the Giants be without QB Eli Manning (4,933 YDS, 61% COPM, 29TD), well they wouldn’t be Super Bowl Champs. Manning carried the Giants offense as they ranked last in rushing yards per game (89.2). The Giants used their first draft selection on RB David Wilson (#32) hoping he and RB Ahmad Bradshaw (659 YRS), who was missed time to injury last season, can carry the running game. They did lose longtime RB Brandon Jacobs and WR Mario Manningham to the 49ers. WR Hakeem Nicks (76 REC, 1,192 YRS) is dealing with a broken foot luckily the Giants drafted WR Rueben Randle (#63) and are hoping second year receiver Jerrel Jernigan can replace Manningham and fill-in until Nicks is full healthy. They also lost TE Jake Ballard (38 REC, 604 YDS) but picked up TE Martellus Bennett from the Cowboys. The o-line only gave up 28 sacks last season, thanks in part to Manning, and they will look to replace former RT Kareem McKenzie and want to keep LT Will Beatty healthy for the season. Second year OT James Brewer is in the mix to replace McKenzie.
Defense: The Giants had 48 sacks in 2011 led by Jason Pierre-Paul’s 16.5. The Giants fought injuries all season last year but got healthy when the playoffs began. They have an excellent d-line with depth and they are hoping second year DT Marvin Austin can contribute as an injury prevented seeing any action last season. They picked-up often injured LB Keith Rivers in a trade with the Bengals but he was the #9 overall pick in 2008 and could be a real steal if healthy. They will need to improve on the 27th defensive ranking (376.4 YRS, per) if they want to repeat as champs and will need to remain healthy to do so.
Analysis: On paper the Giants (9-7, 2011) are not the number one team but you don’t play games on paper. The saying is “To be the champs you have to beat the champs” and since the Giants have the Lombardi Trophy they are ranked first until someone proves why they should not be. Nine victories will probably not win the NFC East this season but the Giants will battle for the division’s top spot and could make a run at another championship.