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.

The Rookie Wage System – Part Two: Positives and Potential Problems

This is part two of Jet-Nation’s articles on the improved rookie wage system under the NFL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which took effect in 2011.  (Click here to view part-one)

There was a problem in the NFL with the structure of rookie contracts even before the new CBA was being negotiated.  Teams were often forced to give an exorbitant amount of guaranteed money to unproven rookies resulting in years of financial damage if the player turned out to be a bust.

The best/worst example of this was the contract (6 years, $61 million, $32 million guaranteed) the Oakland Raiders signed with 2007 number one overall draft pick quarterback JaMarcus Russell.  After holding out into the 2007 season Russell then treated the Raiders to 25 starts over three years with 18 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, a completion percentage of 52 and quarterback rating of 65.  The Raiders finally released Russell in May 2010.

There was a rookie wage system in place in 2007 the problem was too many ways to circumvent it.  Agents would add escalators, advances and bonuses along with extended holdouts if the player’s demands were not met.  Often teams folded, like the Raiders, and entered into risky contracts.  Teams had no choice but to keep giving these high priced players more opportunities since releasing them would result in a huge salary cap hit.  So failing players continued with a team, which is supposed to get an advantage by drafting early, ends up in a situation where they cannot win. 

As discussed in part one the rookie salary guidelines are strictly set in the new CBA.  Most first round rookie contracts are now fully guaranteed since they are make less than in the past but 2011 first overall pick Cam Newton’s contract (4 years, $22 million) even fully guaranteed is $10 million less than Russell’s guaranteed money was in 2007.  Any amount of guaranteed money in a player’s contract accelerates onto the current year’s salary cap, maybe broken up over two years, if he is released so lower guarantees means less salary cap damage if a player doesn’t work out. 

Rookie holdouts have now become nonexistent since there is little to negotiate.  There are some precedents which were set last year and seem to be continuing.  Draft picks 1-16 are receiving all four years of their contracts guaranteed while 17-32 are getting about 3-3.5 years guaranteed.  For example number 17 pick Dre Kirkpatrick received a four year $8.6 million contract with $7.84 guaranteed, while number 19 pick Shea McClellin got $8.2 million with $7.5 guaranteed. 

Another positive of the improved system, teams are more willing to trade up into top draft spots where before they’d be scared off by the potentially huge financial commitment.  This year saw many trades in the top ten of the draft including the Saint Louis Rams trading back from number two acquiring picks from the Washington Redskins who wanted to select quarterback Robert Griffin III.  This is a real win-win for both teams the Redskins get what they see as a franchise quarterback and the Rams get more picks to help their rebuilding process.  Under the old system this trade may never have happen but teams now know the financial risk of signing a high draft choice is much less and worth making deals.

The CBA requires all drafted players to receive a four year contract but teams hold a fifth year option with first round picks.  The teams can exercise this option after the end of the players third season adding an additional year to the original contract.  The salary is figured like this: A player picked 1-10 receive the average salary of the top ten players at his position while picks 11-32 get the average salary of the top three through twenty five players at his position. The salary is determined at that time the option is exercised after the players third season entering their fourth.  The fifth year salary is guaranteed for injury only until the start of the players “Fifth League” year where it becomes fully guaranteed.

Rounds three-seven are provided an opportunity to receive an escalator to their fourth year salary.  If a player is involved in 35% of plays for two out of his first three years or 35% cumulative for all three years combined he’ll receive an increase in the fourth year’s salary.  The increase will be whatever amount “tender”, a salary offer made by a team, a restricted free agent at the “right of first refusal” level receives.  This is the lowest tender a team can give, $1.26 million in 2012, and the team has the right to match an offer made to one of their restricted free agents.  If a player hits the play percentage incentives his fourth year base salary will rise to the above mentioned tender amount, whatever that is at the end of their third year.

The NFL and the player association seemed to try and eliminate draft picks from becoming restricted free agents by forcing four year contracts.  After four years a player would become an unrestricted free agent but here’s the potential problem with the system as it moves forward.  The CBA allows for drafted rookie contracts to be renegotiated after the player’s third season and the new contract no longer falls under the CBA’s rookie salary limitations.  It seems that a player who is out performing his contract would want a new one after year three but the team has control at least four or five years, if they have the first round option. 

Let’s look at two examples of problems which may arise from this year’s Jets draft class:

First round pick Quinton Coples is going to make approximately $1.5 million base salary in 2015.  If the Jets exercise their team option under the CBA Coples would receive an estimated $9 million base salary in 2016.  That is $5.25 million average for 2015-16.  If Coples turns out to be an above average pass rusher during the first three seasons he’d be worth a lot more than $5 million per year.  Coples would want to renegotiate after year three getting the security of a long term deal and would not want to risk injury or decreased play for two more years preventing a potential big payday. 

Third round pick Demario Davis 2015 base salary is estimated at about $800,000.  So if he were to hit the escalator his salary would rise to the “first refusal” tender, estimated at $1.5 million in 2015.  If Davis is playing at a high level he’d be worth much more on the open market then $1.5 million.  Under the old system Davis could have signed a three year contract which would make him a restricted free agent in 2015.  The Jets would most likely tender him at a first round level, any team who signed him would forfeit their first round pick to the Jets, to protect Davis from being taken by another team.  That tender would be about $3 million so Davis could play under that offer for one year and then become an unrestricted free agent or try and work out a long term contract.  Basically Davis would rather renegotiate after year three than take the escalated salary the CBA offers.

While there is no perfect system the rookie salary terms under the CBA seems to set up a struggle between the players and teams after the third year of a rookie contract.  The player may have no choice but to use the only thing they can to get a new deal, holdout.  Since NFL contracts will never be 100% guaranteed there is always going to be some player unhappy with their contract who holdsout but it’ll be interesting to see if teams renegotiate after three years or stand firm trying to keep the player under their rookie contract for however long the CBA allows.