Jets Top Bengals; 2 & 0 In Preseason

The Jets have improved to 2-0 this preseason, beating the Cincinnati Bengals 25 to 17.

While its nice to see a New York victory, it is worth noting that the Bengals were in control of the game, leading 17-3, before they sat their starters. Despite the win, this game showcased some serious issues that may affect the Jets well into the 2014-2015 football year.

The most glaring problem for the Jets is the defensive backfield. Bengals starter Andy Dalton never missed a pass, throwing for 144 yards and 8 completions while carving up the secondary. Mohamed Sanu caught a 43 yard touchdown reception from Dalton, and superstar receiver A.J. Green caught every ball thrown his way, racking up 69 yards on 3 receptions. Antonio Allen seemed to struggle while playing corner, only proving that the Jets need, desperately, a recovered Dee Milliner on the field as soon as possible. With that being said, it’s not fair to put all the blame on Allen, as he received no help at all from his fellow defensive backfield teammates. Not one member of the secondary recorded a pass deflection in the first half.

The Jets passing game was lackluster at best. By the time the first half was over, New York had less than 100 passing yards. Geno Smith threw a costly interception that resulted in a field goal by none other than Mike Nugent (the kicker drafted by the Jets in the second round of the 2005 draft). Stephen Hill cost the Jets 10 yards with an unnecessary roughness penalty in the second quarter, but hauled in a 17 yard reception later on. Can Hill finally break through and become the pass catcher the Jets need? Based on his performance tonight, the answer is, unfortunately, no. Hopefully Eric Decker, who sat this game out, can lift the quality of the Jets’ passing attack when he returns.

After most of the starters called it quits for the night, Mike Vick threw a screen pass to Clyde Gates who scored a 17 yard touchdown. It was impressive, but it did not come against the Bengals’ first team defense.

The Jets finished with 174 team passing yards.

Offensive line play way key for the Jets during their two year stretch of reaching the AFC Championship game. Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson are the only starters that remain from that elite unit, but the Jets are hopeful that this years o-line can, once again, become one of the league’s best. Brian Winters, who was recently listed as the starter at left guard, did not do himself any favors tonight, as he recorded two penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct and holding, on back to back plays in the second quarter. It remains to be seen if Winters will hold on to his starting role. Breno Giacomini was flagged for a personal foul in the same quarter, and Willie Colon was called for holding. Let’s see if the offensive line can show more discipline in the regular season.

Penalties were a problem for the team as a whole. The Jets were penalized 12 times, and cost themselves 133 yards in total.

There were, however, some positives for the Jets in this matchup. Geno Smith showcased his ability to scramble in critical situations, rushing for 20 yards, and scoring a touchdown with his legs. One of Geno’s rushes set up a first and goal for New York, which resulted in a 2 yard rushing touchdown for Bilal Powell, who recorded 41 rushing yards on the night. Powell, a personal favorite of this writer, really shined in this contest, averaging 10.3 yards per carry. His role in the offense may lessen when Chris Ivory returns, but this running back by committee approach seems to be clicking, as Jets rushed for 162 yards as a team, with newcomer Chris Johnson contributing 63 rushing yards on 10 carries. Daryl Richardson looked decent with the backups, recording 23 yards of his own.

Demario Davis, who may be poised for a breakout year, recorded a sack/forced fumble in a crucial situation. The Jets were down by 14 at the time. Davis’ forced turnover provided a much needed spark, and helped put the offensive in a position to score, which it did. It was nice to see Quinton Coples hook up with Garrett McIntyre to record a sack on Dalton. The Jets really need Coples to excel as a pass rusher this season.

In the fourth quarter, rookie Ikemefuna Enemkpali blocked a punt that resulted in a safety. As a sixth round pick, Enekpali is fighting for a job. One things for sure, he certainly didn’t hurt his chances of earning a roster spot with that big play.

Ultimately, the victory was sealed when Darin Walls picked off third-stringer Matt Scott. The team has less than a week to prepare for the rival Giants, the two New York teams will face off on Friday, August 22nd. With any luck, the starters will rebound from their dismal performance.

Wilkerson Will Get Long-Term Deal

admin-ajax.phpThere has been much confusion over New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson’s contract status and the potential structure of a long-term deal.

Wilkerson is currently under contract with the Jets until 2014 and will receive a salary of $1.21 million in that year.  The Jets hold a team option to add a year on at the end of the 2013 season which would put Wilkerson under contract through 2015.

Former sports agent and National Football Post columnist Joel Corry explains that NFL teams will have some flexibility when looking at extensions for 2011 first round draft picks.

“The question for players like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green isn’t if they get a long-term deal but when,” Corry said. “Since teams can control 2011 first round picks through 2015, than use the franchise tag if necessary after that year, the organization has leverage in deciding when to begin contract negotiations.”

The Jets could easily keep Wilkerson through the 2017 season by adding a year onto his current contract than franchising him in 2016 and 2017.  This would cost the team approximately $33 million over the 2015-17 seasons but a player of Wilkerson’s abilities is certainly worth $11 million per year.

Having Wilkerson play under options and tenders is not preferred by either the team or the player, so a long-term deal makes sense.  The Jets along with Wilkerson’s representatives know the salary parameters it would take to keep him on the team through 2017.  This provides both sides with a starting point to begin negotiations.

The question is do the Jets increase Wilkerson’s salary for 2014 and lock him up long-term or wait until sometime in the future?  Wilkerson might have to give up some salary in later years to get more then he is currently scheduled to receive but the security of a multi-year contract would seem worth a sacrifice. 

Having the ability to restrict a player usually allows both sides to work out a deal since Wilkerson knows he will not be hitting unrestricted free agency anytime soon and doesn’t want to play under one-year contracts.  From the Jets stand point they know the team can keep Wilkerson if negotiations breakdown and revisit contract negotiations in the future.

The bottom line is Muhammad Wilkerson will be a Jet for the long run and it is simply a matter of time and negotiations before he is under contract for years to come. 

Jets At Bengals Preview

New York Jets Game PreviewThe New York Jets (4-3) will begin week eight on Sunday in Cincinnati to face the Bengals (5-2). Coming off an impressive home victory last week over the evil empire, the Jets will look to take back-to-back games for the first time all season. Cincinnati is one of the hardest teams to get a grip on, beating the likes of Green Bay, New England, and Detroit this year but also looking lifeless in a loss against Cleveland and narrowly beating Buffalo. Keep your legs rested as we dive into a huge matchup.

Cincinnati Offense

The Bengals are loaded on both sides of the ball. The offense features one of the best wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green (43 receptions, 619 yards, five touchdowns) and plenty of compliments. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are second and third in receptions respectively and pose unique threats. You’ll see Eifert split more out wide while Gresham is featured more on the line of scrimmage. Both are very big, fast and athletic. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are both a handful to cover and even rookie running back Giovani Bernard has 25 receptions on the year.

Speaking of Bernard, himself and the law firm BenJarvus Green-Ellis make up one of the better running back duos in the NFL. While Cincinnati doesn’t have the best run blocking line, you have to respect the toughness Green-Ellis brings and the versatility and quickness Bernard has. They compliment each other well.

It all comes down to third year quarterback Andy Dalton. He has everything he needs to elevate his (and thus the teams) play. His offensive line is second in pass-block efficiency per and his weapons are second to none. Dalton is coming off a really impressive game against Detroit but his team has won more this season more in spite of him instead of because him. If Dalton can prove to be consistent the NFL will be in trouble.

Cincinnati Defense

This is another unit loaded with talent that might be under performing a little. The Bengals are ranked 16 in yards allowed per game and 26 on third down percentage. The front seven is pretty dominant with an even amount of play makers. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict leads the NFL in tackles (remember when he wasn’t strong enough to play in the NFL? Neither do I) and Ray Maualuga is a very solid middle linebacker. The defensive line has compiled 18 sacks and is lead by defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is an all-pro and his battery mate Domaka Peto is pretty good himself.

The secondary suffered a huge blow when cornerback Leon Hall tore his Achilles last week. No matter, safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka makes it tough to beat Cincy over the top and corners Adam Jones, Terrence Newman, and Dre Kirkpatrick can all make life difficult for receivers.

How To Win

So what Jets team are we going to get? As stated in the intro, the Jets are looking to win back-to-back games for the first time all year and the players know it. The Jets defensive line has their hands full again. They did a good job getting to Tom Brady (especially in the third quarter) last week and will need to keep that pressure up. Quinton Coples had a strip sack last week but needs to be way more consistent. He was largely nullified besides that. Getting to Dalton also means less big plays for A.J. Green. Antonio Cromartie was great last week and will have to be near perfect again.

Chris Ivory is a bruiser and showed that off in week seven and was consistently tough. Geno Smith was excellent again, routinely converting on third downs (more on that in a second), using his legs when needed, and spreading the wealth. Marty Mornhinweg’s game plan was excellent. The Jets took advantage of a banged up Patriots defense by getting big chunks at a time.

The Jets win last week stemmed from these two major factors: Third down conversions and field position. The Jets D held New England to 1-12 (!!!!) on third downs and went 11-21 themselves, including six receptions from Jeremy Kerley that extended scoring drives. The Jets special teams flipped field position, consistently holding New England deep into their own territory. Also, Josh Cribbs. How great is it having a real punt returner out there?

Time to get consistent now. Want to be considered real contenders? Win a tough road game. Mornhinweg has been extremely inconsistent in his game planning for the offense and that won’t fly on the road against a good defense.

There may not be a lot of Santonio Holmes fans out there, but I think he’ll be missed this week much like he was against Pittsburgh when receivers struggled to get separation. Jeff Cumberland did a very good job getting open last week but had two big drops. Cincinnati will likely make the Geno beat them, especially early, where I’m sure they’ll stack the box. Can Kerley, David Nelson, and Stephen Hill do enough? Only time will tell.

JetNation NFL Power Rankings – Part Two

(Part 1 link) 

21) Buffalo Bills

Offense:  The Bills rely on a balanced attack when it comes to offense.  They ranked 13th-15th in most major statistical categories: Points (14), Yards (14), Passing Yards (15), and Rushing Yards (13).  They are led by QB Ryan Fitzpatrick who threw 24 touchdowns but a league high 23 interceptions.  The Bills use a spread quick pass offense which helped limit the offensive line to only 23 sacks.  The loss of LT Demtress (former Demetrius) Bell has left a hole at that position.  Currently rookie draft pick (#41) Cordy Glenn is the front runner to fill the spot, although he is more suited to play guard, with second year lineman Chris Hairston also in the mix.  WR Stevie Johnson (76 REC, 1,004 YRS) is Fitzpatrick’s favorite target but he will drop a big one from time-to-time.  RB Fred Jackson had almost 1,400 all purpose yards in ten games before an injury ended his season and back-up C.J. Spiller had a 5.2 yard per carry average. 

Defense:  The Bills made waves in the off-season signing top pass rushing DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.  They also drafted CB Stephen Gilmore (#10) to improve their secondary.  They needed the help on defense as they gave up 371.1 yards (26th) and 27.1 points (30th) per game and only managed 29 sacks last season. 

Analysis:  The Bills are everyone’s sleeper team which means they are not a sleeper team.  They did add some pieces to a below average defense which should improve the unit but a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999 needs to “prove it” not just acquire a few big names.  Fitzpatrick will have to show he can throw the ball down field as last year’s hot start (5-2) had people on the Bills bandwagon then off quick as they lost seven straight.

20) San Diego Chargers

Offense:  QB Philip Rivers had a down year yet throw for 4,624 yards and 27 touchdowns however he also tossed 20 interceptions.  The team was 6th (393.1 YRS, per) in total offense last season.  Rivers will have some new faces to complete passes to this year as WR Vincent Jackson moved on to Tampa while the Chargers picked up WRs Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish.  Antonio Gates (64 REC, 778 YRS) will be back at TE and the team is expecting big things from RB Ryan Mathews as back-up Mike Tolbert went to Carolina but they did pickup HB/FB Le’Ron McClain.  The Bolts lost the entire left-side of their offensive line as they released LT Marcus McNeill (injury) and LG Kris Dielman retired due to concussions.  OT Jared Gaither filled in nicely for the injured McNeill and will start this season while Tyronne Green (8 starts in 2011) attempts to replace Dielman.

Defense:  The Chargers didn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of many QBs as they only had 32 sacks last season.  LB Antwan Barnes had 11 sacks alone but there wasn’t much of a threat after him.  The team drafted DE/OLB Melvin Ingram (#18), DT Kendal Reyes (#49) to help bolster the pass rush.  The secondary gave up a 7.5 yard average per pass so the Chargers used pick #73 on safety Brandon Taylor who will play with veteran Eric Weddle (88 tackles, 7 INT).

Analysis:  The Chargers still have Rivers and some weapons on offense but the defense lacks elite talent.  They seem to be stuck in neutral and head coach Norv Turner will blow a game or two with bad decisions.  Their division is weak but someone will emerge with double digit wins this season, it just won’t be the Chargers.

19) Denver Broncos

Offense:  The Broncos sure decided to go in a different direction offensively bringing in QB Peyton Manning.  It will be vital for the Broncos line to keep Manning upright but they did allow 42 sacks last season and given Tim Tebow’s scrambling ability that seems quite high.  Denver brought in some familiar faces WR Brandon Stokley and TE Jacob Tamme whom Manning has played with in the past.  The team will be expecting a big year from WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker but wonder if RB Willis McGahee can duplicate almost 1,200 yards rushing without Tebow, besides he’ll be 31 this season. 

Defense:  Often hear how the Denver defense held them in games which Tebow was able to pull out.  Well this is true to a point as the Broncos were 24th in points allowed (24.4 per) and were 22nd against the rush (126.3 per).  Losing DTs Brodrick Bunkley, Marcus Thomas and Ryan McBean and their 119 combined tackles can’t help their run defense.  The Broncos will be looking for immediate production from #36 draft pick DT Derek Wolfe.  SS Brian Dawkins has retired and the safety position as a whole is a concern.  D.J. Williams and his 90 tackles will be suspended six games but second year player Von Miller will look to improve on his impressive 11.5 sacks as a rookie along with Elvis Dumervil’s 9.5 sacks.

Analysis:  Tebow got the Broncos to the playoffs and even advanced the team one round, thanks for the memories as he was shipped out.  Denver has many question marks and who knows what Peyton Manning is now after four neck surgeries and a year off from football.  Their schedule is murder as they face seven playoff teams from last season.  It will be difficult for the Broncos to repeat as AFC West champs and don’t see enough wins for a wildcard as they will battle San Diego for second place in the division.   

18) New York Jets

Offense:  The team finished 25th in offense (311.8 YDS, per) but 13th in points scored (23.6 per).  The Jets brought in new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to try and improve the overall performance of the offense and really more on the running game which averaged about 105 yards per game.  QB Mark Sanchez threw 26 TD but 18 INT and had 8 fumbles.  Usually a team strength the o-line gave up 40 sacks and was inconsistent all year.  The Jets acquired QB Tim Tebow from the Broncos along with WR Chad Schilens (6’4”, 225) and rookie WR Stephen Hill (#43, 6’4”, 215) to provide speed and size to the receivers.  The Jets are looking at Tebow as a change of pace QB who can be used to run or throw.  They hope his unique skill set will increase overall offensive production getting crucial first downs preventing three and outs.

Defense:  The Jets finished 5th overall (312.1 YRS, per) but was 13th against the run (111.1 YRS, per).  The Jets drafted DL Quinton Coples (#16) to help against the run as well as rush the passer as the Jets only had 35 sacks in 2011.  They also added rookie LB Demario Davis (#77) to bring some youth/speed to an aging LB group.  New DL coach Karl Dunbar was brought in to improve the d-line play.  The Jets philosophy is simple stop the run make the opposition one dimensional and scheme blitzes while their great corners Revis/Cromartie cover top receivers.  Rookie FS Josh Bush (#187) will be used in passing situations to provide support to the CB.

Analysis:  The Jets are a veteran team but lack depth on the offensive line so their health will be important as last year showed when center Nick Mangold went down leaving inexperienced lineman to fill big shoes.  They did not beat a team with a winning record last season and QB Sanchez can’t have 26 turnovers if the Jets want to make a playoff push.  Their schedule is not that difficult but the Bills are formidable and New England will be favored to win the division again.  The question is was 2011 just a down year and the Jets will bounce back or a sign of what will be in 2012?  An 8-8 2011 finish puts the Jets here for now only time will tell the answer to the pervious question.

17) Tennessee Titans

Offense: The Titans have a QB competition on their hands as veteran Matt Hasselback will battle second year back-up Jake Locker for the starting job.  It seems like the job is Hasselback’s to lose for now but Locker did well in limited action as a rookie.  The team added top OG Steve Hutchinson to a line that only surrendered 24 sacks a year ago but the team was 31st in rush yards (89.9).  RB Chris Johnson rushed for over 1,000 yards last season but took some time to get going after a contract holdout.  All indications are Johnson is in top shape and ready to perform more like his 2009 season when he rushed for over 2,000 yards.  The receivers are solid as Nate Washington led the group with 1,023 yards along with Damian Williams and Kenny Britt who is returning from a knee injury which cut his 2011 season short.  The Titans also drafted WR Kendall Wright (#20) to add more depth to the unit.  TE Jared Cook had 49 receptions for 759 yards in 2011.

Defense:  While giving up 19.8 (8th) points per game the Titains struggled to get to the QB only having 28 sacks.  They picked up DE Kamerion Wimbley and drafted LB Zach Brown (#52) in an effort to improve their sack total.  They did lose top cover CB Cortland Finnegan but still have a decent secondary led by safety Michael Griffin (75 tackles, 2 INT).

Analysis:  The Titans were in the playoff hunt last season and their division is weak, except for Houston.  Given the schedule they can be in the hunt again. A December 17th match-up against the Jets may put the winner in position to make the post-season.  They have some tough out of conference games against the NFC North but there is no reason to believe they will not finish second in their division. 

16) Cincinnati Bengals

Offense:  Rookie QB Andy Dalton was able to bring his team to the playoffs last season.  Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011.  The big question is will he progress or have the well known sophomore slump?  Feature RB Cedric Benson (1,067 YRS) was not retained so it will be up to Bernard Scott, free agent pick up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Dan Herron (#191) to handle the rushing duties.  The Bengals drafted to WR Mohamed Sanu (#83) and Marvin Jones (#166) to play along with second year receiver A.J. Green (65 receptions 1,057 yards).  Their offensive line played well only allowing 25 sacks but the Bengals lost both guards from last season.  They picked up veteran LG Travelle Wharton and rookie draft pick Kevin Zeitler (#27) will play RG as the offense looks to improve on its 20th ranking (319.9 YRS, per).

Defense:  The Bengals defense ranked 7th (316.2 YRS, per) last season and recorded 45 sacks on the year.  DT Geno Atkins led the team with 7.5 sacks last season.  They are hopeful to have CB Leon Hall back for the start of the season as an Achilles injury ended last season after 9 games.  The Bengals did use the #17 draft pick on CB Dre Kirkpatrick as insurance if Hall is not 100% or ageing CB Nate Clements falters.

Analysis:  Even though they made the playoffs the Bengals have yet to prove they can overtake AFC North powerhouses Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  Dalton will need to improve upon a quality rookie season if they want to try and win the division and the running game will have to help him.  The schedule has enough winnable games that they should be in the hunt just don’t think they are on par with elite teams in the league. 

15) Dallas Cowboys

Offense:  The Cowboys offense ranked 11th (375.5 YRS, per) QB Tony Romo threw for 4,184 yards, 31 TD, and only 10 INT.  RB DeMarco Murray (5.5 YRS per carry) is expected back after an ankle injury cut his season short.  The Cowboys spent the offseason trying to upgrade the offensive line bringing in OG Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livingston as the Boys look to improve on the 39 sacks allowed.  Undrafted rookie OL Ronald Leary has turned some heads in pre-camp workouts and could push for a major role on the line. 

Defense:  Giving up 244.1 yards per game passing was the Cowboys down fall as their secondary was torched often.  To remedy this they signed free agent CB Brandon Carr and traded up to #6 overall to select CB Morris Claibourne.  They have an elite pass rusher in OLB DeMarcus Ware (19.5 sacks) so they need players to cover long enough to allow the pressure to get to the opposing QB. 

Analysis:  If the games ended after 3 quarters the Cowboys would have been in the playoffs.  Their offense has the fire power to be very good as long as Romo doesn’t make bonehead mistakes down the stretch of games, something he’s done often.  With the additions on defense the Cowboys should be able to maintain some fourth quarter leads.  They play in a difficult division but Dallas has a good shoot at double digit wins this season. 

14) Atlanta Falcons

Offense:  QB Matt “Ice” Ryan had another good regular season 4,177 yards passing to go with 29 touchdowns but he has yet to win a playoff game and had an early exit last season.  RB Michael Turner had 1,340 yards rushing but is 30 years old and may not be able to handle the same workload as years past.  Second year receiver Julio Jones will look to build on his impressive rookie season (54 REC, 959 YRS, 8 TD).  While the Falcons offensive line only allowed 26 sacks last season there is some concerns.  They used their first pick (#55) on OL Peter Konz who is expected to start at RG.  LT Sam Baker allowed 11.5 sacks in 2010 and had an injury prone 2011 season reserve Will Svitek may push to start over Baker but both lack the talent needed at the most important o-line position. 

Defense:  The Falcons ranked 20th against the pass (236.6 YRS, per) and only had 33 sacks last season.  Ex-Jet John Abraham led the way with 9.5 sacks but he is 34 years old and will hit the wall eventually plus there is not much else after him.  They traded for CB Asante Samuel who will play across from Brent Grimes.  The Falcons lost LB Curtis Lofton’s 147 tackles and will look to replace him with Lofa Tatupu who underachieved with Seattle and didn’t play last season. 

Analysis:  While Julio Jones is a true asset the Falcons lost important picks in this year’s draft to acquire him.  Just feels like the Falcons, while still good, have taken steps backwards personnel wise.  It is possible their best chance at a championship past them by two years ago and have been declining since.  They could easily end up third in the NFC South. 

13) Kansas City Chiefs

Offense:  The Chiefs struggled to put up points last season only 13.2 per game.  Injuries really took a toll on this team as back-up QB Tyler Palko in four games and his 2 TD, 7 INT, 59.8 (QBR) didn’t help the already depleted Chiefs.  They have had a nice off-season picking up RB Peyton Hillis, OT Eric Winston and TE Kevin Boss.  RB Jamaal Charles is expected back after missing last season with an ACL injury. QB Matt Cassel is also expected back after breaking his hand in November.  Cassel will have a full complement of receivers Dwayne Bowe had 1,159 yards even with Palko starting 4 games, second year wide-out Jon Baldwin should improve and veteran Steve Breaston had 785 yards receiving last season.  TE Tony Moeaki is expected to be healthy after a knee injury kept him out last season, he’ll share time with Boss.  The Chiefs have a solid rush and pass protection line, giving up 34 sacks last season, which isn’t bad given the QBs at times.

Defense:  Considering how bad the Chiefs offense was their defensive numbers 11th (333.3 YRDS, per) is fairly respectable.  They did have problems stopping the run 132 yards per game so they drafted DT Dontari Poe (#11) and picked-up DL ex-Jet Ropati Pitoitua to help the run defense.  CB Stanford Rout was brought in to replace the departed Brandon Carr and will play across from stand out CB Brandon Flowers.  The return of SS Eric Berry from a knee injury and his 92 tackles in 2010 will also help the run/pass defense.  The Chiefs will need to improve on their 29 sacks with DE Tamba Hali having 12 last season. 

Analysis:  Matt Cassel is an average QB but fortunately for him the team is surrounded with talent.  It was obvious former head coach Todd Haley had lost the team as Romeo Crennel led them to victory over the undefeated Packers after Haley was fired.  If the Chiefs can avoid the injuries they are a very dangerous team and will win the AFC West. 

12) Carolina Panthers

Offense:  The Panthers were 7thin team offense (389.8 YRS, per) and rookie QB Cam Newton accounted for 4,800 yards of offense throwing/running and 35 touchdowns.  The Panthers have a solid line with some depth if often injured RT Jeff Otah or rookie OG Amini Silatolu (#40) struggle.  RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for close to 1,600 yards rushing last year.  They also picked up HB/FB Mike Tolbert to add depth to a talented backfield.  WR Steve Smith had 1,394 yards receiving last year and the team will look for increased production from third year wide-out Brandon LaFell (613 YRS).

Defense:  The Panthers defense ranked 28th overall (377.6 YRS, per) and struggled against both the run and pass.  Head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will have a full off-season to try and implement their defense.  The Panthers drafted LB Luke Kuechly (#9) and he will likely start at MLB with SLB James Anderson (145 tackles in 2011) and former MLB Jon Beason returning from an Achilles injury will likely play weak side LB.  Another LB returning from injury is Thomas Davis who would add some depth at the position. 

Analysis:  The Panthers defense should improve with better LB play but they still have some question marks on the d-line and secondary.  The offense should be excellent and balanced which will keep the defense off the field.  The Panthers are good enough to take the next step with the Saints hurting from bounty-gate and the Falcons possible coming back to the pack. Carolina will have a chance to win the NFC South or at least contend for the playoffs. 

11) Chicago Bears

Offense:  The Bears season fell apart last year after losing QB Jay Cutler.  Job one is to keep Cutler healthy and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice will use a much different approach than his predecessor Mike Martz.  Don’t think Cutler will be sending Tice profanity laced messages via the sidelines as Martz’s play calling led to many Cutler beatings.  The Bears picked up former Cutler teammate WR Brandon Marshall and RB Michael Bush.  Franchised RB Matt Forte is currently in holdout mode but reports say he’ll be there opening day.  Besides Marshall the Bears drafted WR Alshon Jeffery (#45) to go with Earl Bennett and Devin Hester.  The offensive line gave up 49 sacks last year and has been a problem for awhile.  It has already been reported Tice will have Cutler getting the ball out early and using the running game more, this should help lower the sack numbers. 

Defense:  The Bears have a solid defense but would like to improve on their 33 sacks from last year.  Julius Peppers led the way with 11 so the bears drafted DE Shea McClellin (#19) to play across from Peppers. 

Analysis:  The Bears play in probable the toughest division in the NFL which could produce three playoff teams.  If they can keep Cutler upright and health the Bears will battle for a spot in the postseason as double digit wins are likely.