I don’t come out with my NFL divisional rankings until after the third preseason game is finished. However, it’s mid June and people are starting to get anxious for some football talk. With that in mind, I’ve decided to come out with my 2012 AFC & NFC Paper Championships.
This is exactly what it sounds like.
I take an in depth look at all 32 NFL rosters and analyze each position, player, estimate development & aging, and depth of the team. By no means am I saying that these teams will be the best teams of 2012. This is a projection of teams that are setup to have the most success based solely off of being prepared for injuries with talented players at each position and quality players behind them.
After narrowing each division down to the final four teams, I ranked each four against each other on a point basis by position. The points were accumulated by having the most talented starter at that position(s) and I also awarded points to teams based off of having backups set at each position(s) that could step in to the starting lineup with minimal decline in the overall play of the team. Injuries are a part of the game and each year, the teams that usually make the deepest push late into the playoffs, are the ones who are most capable of maintaining success after losing key pieces. The Bears collapsed last season after replacing Jay Cutler with Caleb Hanie, the Texans made the playoffs with a 5th round draft pick, the Colts got the first overall draft pick after losing Peyton Manning, etc.
Starting from fourth to first, I give you the top 4 AFC “Paper” teams:
4. Philadelphia Eagles - To my surprise, the Eagles barely made the list. They edged out two divisional foes, in Dallas and New York. This isn’t a knock on their team as they have some elite talent at a lot of positions but what happens if the injury bug strikes? That’s where the Eagles could face a very disappointing season. It’s a known fact that all 32 NFL teams will have several key injuries, some more significant than others. Green Bay was able to win a Super Bowl a couple years ago, thanks in large to their preparation for overcoming the biggest hit of players placed on injured reserve that season.
One position that the Eagles fare well at in this topic, is at quarterback. Philly has one of the most exciting and talented quarterbacks in the NFL. If Vick does succumb to injury, it’s my belief that they’ll be in good hands with the young quarterback that they’ve been grooming the last few seasons, Mike Kafka. While Kafka may not be a franchise quarterback, I believe with his talent and the team around him, he could keep the team a float if Vick was to say, miss a four game stretch due to injury. Andy Reid and company were also smart enough to secure their future franchise quarterback in Nick Foles, with a third round draft selection. At running back, the Eagles are set with arguably, the best back in football. For everything that LeSean McCoy does great, there is still that fear factor that the team is one play away from losing a very huge part of their offense.
The running back position is one that sees their fair share of injuries. Teams that are prepared for the long haul of a competitive NFL season are usually stacked three deep at the position. As much as I like LeSean’s college teammate and now tandem counterpart out of the Eagles’ backfield, Dion Lewis, he wouldn’t be ideal to take the reins if the team was to lose McCoy for any period of time. The team added Bryce Brown through the draft this year and Chris Polk shortly thereafter. I never saw Polk as a viable NFL halfback. He may fill some type of role in short yardage or goal line, but that would be the extent of it. Bryce on the other hand has always shown promise, but never put it together after high school. He will definitely be worth keeping an eye on, but until I see firsthand that he can achieve in the NFL what he’s only proven against high school kids, I wouldn’t rely on him as my third option.
Philly has the proven guys at the receiver position. Jeremy Maclin is set to have a huge fourth season. I see a 2012 campaign that will be more on par with his 2010 numbers, especially in the touchdown category. DeSean Jackson will still display his explosiveness but teams know that they don’t have to fear him going over the middle of the field as Dunta Robinson has taken his heart away and head, in that aspect of his game. Jason Avant increases his play each season. He’s become a solid 50 catch target. Neither Avant nor Riley Cooper have provided much help when it comes to receiving touchdowns though. Both players have amassed two touchdown catches each over the last two seasons. Enter Marvin McNutt. The quarterback turned receiver will hopefully provide their missing red zone target. He was a big 6’3 target that could get physical with the defense and make impressive catches at Iowa, but then he would turn right back around and drop the easy passes. If he can sure up his hands and become a reliable end zone weapon, Philly will have plugged one of their biggest holes. Damaris Johnson is another prospect that intrigues me. Even as an undrafted player, he should be able to find his way on the team. He may take a detour through the practice squad, but the Eagles shouldn’t allow this guy to leave Philly.
The tight end position on the team is similar to the running backs. Brent Celek should be good for another 60 receptions and 6 touchdowns. Basically, what he’s averaged over the last three seasons. Clay Harbor had a few costly drops in 2011. Two rookies that both add value as receiving threats would be Chase Ford and Emil Igwenagu. Philly is hoping to have found the next raw, Jimmy Graham with Ford. Emil falls under the recent trend of H-back, mismatch problems. They don’t fit an ideal position, but if you get them on the field, they’ll cause problems for the defense. Aaron Hernandez, Charles Clay, James Casey, and Dorin Dickerson are a few other up and coming players that are finding roles in this trend. On the offensive line, Demetress Bell has some big shoes to fill. It doesn’t matter if Mike Vick is left handed and Bell isn’t the blindside protector. Jason Peters did amazing things for Vick and McCoy in run pro. Bell needs to try to play up to at least 80% of what Peters was providing. It was amazing what Jason Kelce did as a rookie in 2011 with no off-season. Philly is hoping that it just took Danny Watkins an extra year for the light bulb to fully come on. Their line shouldn’t be an issue.
Let’s talk defense now. I can only start at one place…defensive line. I’m sure that if you could buy stock in an individual, Jason Babin would have bought every share possible in Jim Washburn. His whole 401K is centered around that man. Not to take away from Babin but Washburn has sculpted Jason into a wide 9 bullet. He’s ready to shoot out the barrel and explode into the quarterback. Opposite of him is the inverse Frank Sinatra. The man they call old brown eyes himself, Trent Cole is the opposite bookend in this Philly vice grip. Behind them the team has Darryl Tapp, who hasn’t been the force as he was in Seattle but still a capable rusher. The team has two young guys that they are hoping stays healthy and finally takes that next step, in Phillip Hunt and Brandon Graham.
Lastly, you can’t forget about this year’s second round selection, Vinny Curry. He has one of the most impressive inside shoulder dips out of this year’s prospects. He doesn’t quit on the play and he has some punch to him. Moving inside on the line, Philly should see increased play this season. There was a hole straight down the middle of the Eagles’ defense in 2011 and they looked to plug it this off-season. The team already had Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson up front but then they made a draft pick that made too much sense. With the wide 9 opening up so much room on the inside of the defense, Philly selected a defensive tackle that is big enough and athletic enough to cover a ton of ground, plug holes, and rush the passer. Fletcher Cox will give an immediate return on the investment. The weakness of the team’s linebackers last season will actually pay off for the team this year. Those players that got valuable game action and experience last season will mostly all fall into backup positions.
The addition of DeMeco Ryans, who was a team leader in Houston but no longer fit the scheme and rookie Mychal Kendricks, who can play all three linebackers spot and is quick, will be an immediate upgrade. Brian Rolle finishes off the starting unit and outplayed all of the other younger guys in 2011. So, not only are they much improved but they also have some of the most experienced, youthful backups. The biggest weakness remaining on this defense is in the secondary. While they fixed two of the three holes up the middle, the last one, the safeties, still remain open. Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen will benefit from the athletic talent of Cox and Kendricks in the front seven, along with Ryans but if the pressure doesn’t come, they’ll be liabilities.
The scary part is that there is no one of note behind them, if injuries were to hit. Coleman and Allen aren’t horrible by any means but when you grade them against the players around them, you quickly see the weakness on the defense. They’ll have a security blanket, thanks in large to the play of the front seven and playing next to Dominque Rodger-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha as bumpers on the outside. They drafted Brandon Boykin out of Georgia and also have Joselio Hanson to round out the group of corners. The intention is that Boykin can hopefully win the starting nickel position but after watching his play in college, I came away liking his explosiveness, especially on returns and on offense but felt his coverage skills were lacking. Returns shouldn’t be of issue on this team, as they have DeSean and Dion returning and the addition of Boykins give them another potential threat on special teams.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - This is a little bit more of a risky pick. The whole pretense is based on Josh Freeman playing within himself, instead of forcing the outcome of plays. The key to the Bucs 2012 season is Josh Freeman’s success. He’ll be able to rely more on the rushing attack and now his receivers are in more suitable positions. The fear factor in placing the Bucs at three based off of paper lies in more than Freeman’s ability. The names behind him play a huge role. The team doesn’t have the security of Josh Johnson behind him anymore. That name has been replaced by Mr. 20 yard end zone, Dan Orlovsky who is still best known for running out of the back of the end zone on accident, to surrender a safety. Freeman will get more help out of the backfield, as mentioned.
The addition of rookie, all around back, Doug Martin, to the power and athleticism of LeGarrette Blount, means that Freeman no longer has to force passes in hopes of opening the running lanes. Instead, Martin can power through holes with excellent vision between the twenties and Blount can come in fresh to pound the line for short yardage gains and red zone carries. Blount has always been at his best in the fourth quarter when the defense is worn down. Now, he’ll have that advantage for the full game. The team also adds a home run threat with seventh round draft selection, Michael Smith. Add to that the fact that the Bucs have been praising the play of Mossis Madu and you start to see the blueprint of an effective backfield. It doesn’t hurt matters that they’ll be running behind an offensive line that starts the likes of newly acquired Carl Nicks to join Donald Penn, Davin Joseph, and crew. These backs will be fresh and have nothing but a clear, green path in front of them. That is if the line can stay healthy and remain intact. Depth could be an issue if they lose any of their big three. Well, it seems as if everything is falling into order for young Joshua.
What am I leaving out? Oh yeah, the team also decided to add a 6’5 deep threat. With Vincent Jackson joining Tampa, it allows Mike Williams to go back to a role that he’s best in. He’ll be the complimentary, #2 option. In the domino effect of positional changes on the roster, Arrelious Benn now gets more favorable match ups as well. But first, Benn has to prove that he can keep Briscoe off the field, which won’t be an easy task. Regardless, giving Freeman this roster of 4 receivers that all stand 6’2 or higher has to feel like a dream. Next enters Sammie Stroughter and Preston Parker. They add some extra speed talent to that size. Last year’s tight end selection of Luke Stocker should pay off as well. Stocker should step into a bigger role now that Kellen Winslow is off to destroy team chemistry in another city. Even if Stocker doesn’t develop as he should, the Bucs were wise enough to add the savvy veteran, Dallas Clark. I can’t leave out the Bucs quietly joining the H-back movement. Drake Dunsmore will be a perfect problem for opposing defenses as the Bucs develop him into his H-back role.
As we switch to the defensive side, we will see the difference in depth at a position and a skeleton front. The linebacker position is the ideal model for talented, youthful depth. The defensive end position, not so much. Michael Bennett has been a pleasant addition since coming over from Seattle, but you have to believe that the team didn’t expect him to be their starting defensive end. Adrian Clayborn lived up to his first round billing. It’s just too bad that their second defensive end selected last season, Da’Quan Bowers, seems to be living up to the injury fears that made him slide from a possible top five selection to the middle of the second round. Behind their starters is a couple of guys that enjoy the food that the team serves at the facilities. Okay, that may be a little unfair. Wallace Gilberry has the potential to play at a high level, but outside of him, there is no one to get your hopes up about.
At defensive tackle, it’s more of the same. Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were both drafted high in hopes that the team has found their starters for the next 10 years. They’ve struggled to stay healthy as well. If they go down again, the defense could be looking at Amobi Okoye as a starter, who showed increased play last season, but we still don’t know what his ceiling is and he’s been in the league for 5 full seasons. Don’t look for support after those three because all you’ll find is Frank Okam, Gary Gibson, and Roy Miller. It’s not all doom and gloom on defense. Actually, the linebackers should be extremely fun to watch. They drafted the best 4-3 outside linebacker in this year’s draft, in Lavonte David. They pair him with last year’s selection of middle linebacker Mason Foster. I’ve enjoyed the battle at the other outside linebacker position between Quincy Black and Dekoda Watson. The linebacking competition doesn’t stop there as newly drafted Najee Goode and free agent signing Rennie Curran can both step in to play behind Foster and David. While it’s a youthful bunch, there shouldn’t be any questions surrounding that unit.
Behind them though, the secondary is praying for a healthy season and a not guilty verdict. Aqib Talib has a court date around the corner and the Bucs can’t afford for him to miss any time. Opposite of him is the newly acquired Eric Wright. It’s a solid tandem, if they get to play all 16 games together. If not, the defense will have to watch EJ Biggers, Myron Lewis, and possibly undrafted rookie, Leonard Johnson step into bigger roles. Tampa Bay thought awful highly about the team’s first draft pick this year, safety, Mark Barron. The pairing of him with veteran cornerback, Ronde Barber, who’s making the switch to safety, will be a nice grouping. Once again though, the team will need Barron to catch on quick and for Barber to not lose a step. They don’t want to see the backup safeties get much playing time in south Florida. In the return game, the duo of Stroughter and Parker should still handle the duties unless the new blood, Michael Smith, can make it a three-way race.
2. San Francisco 49ers - After all of the Peyton Manning talk, it’s Alex Smith who’ll be back and under center for the 49ers. The team proved that they could win with Smith last season, but just in case he falters, Jim Harbaugh has brought in Josh Johnson, another quarterback that he’s familiar with to compete with Colin Kaepernick as the backup quarterback. I believe the 49ers are in the ideal position for another lengthy postseason run. I’m a big believer in the abilities of Colin and Josh, if Smith doesn’t perform well or gets injured, San Francisco will have two capable starters ready to step in. The depth doesn’t stop there.
San Fran has seemingly borrowed the multiple, talented backfield formula that the Saints implemented last season. The group of Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James is equally impressive, if not more so, than what the Saints trotted out with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory. The 49ers’ backs each fit a unique role in the rushing attack. It’s such a talented group that Anthony Dixon, Jewel Hampton, and Rock Cartwright may all get cut from the squad. Dixon has the talent to play in this league, Rock was just signed but more as a special teams player, and Jewel has the tools, if he could just stay healthy. Stepping out to receivers, it seems as if they wanted to mimic the backfield.
They signed Randy Moss this off-season. Moss hasn’t showed anything recently, but if they could squeeze one more season out of him, then the rest of the core group of receivers will all be better off. Michael Crabtree isn’t made to be a premier target. He’s more of a possession guy that can go out there and perform, but he doesn’t need to be the face of the unit. Mario Manningham is another perfect complementary piece. He has a tendency to fall between the cracks of the defense. In a successful passing offense, he’s good for 50 catches, 750 yards, and 6 touchdowns. The 49ers may not throw enough for him to attain those numbers, but it’s proven that he has that type of ability. Speed won’t be an issue. They already have Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams. Now with the addition of AJ Jenkins, they have a speed guy that combines good route and hands with that speed. Williams and Ginn can still come on the field fresh and provide a home run threat that the defense has to respect.
Obviously, the main focus at tight end will be one of the best in the game, Vernon Davis. I really felt that Harbaugh would add a threat to go with Davis in the first round, especially with Coby Fleener coming out. It’ll be Delanie Walker, back for another year, hoping to fill that role. The offensive line is shallow when it comes to talent and is by far the scariest position on that side of the ball.
Changing gears now, I want to jump into one of the most exciting groups to talk about in the NFL and that’s the 49ers’ linebackers, Ahmad Brooks, Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith. Wow, it’s crazy to think about the damage that this unit can do. Even with that type of talent starting, they still have some quality players and potential behind them. It surprised me when Cam Johnson was still available when the 49ers selected him. He appeared as a better fit in a 4-3 scheme to me, but with his talent, I’m sure Harbaugh can find a role for him. While the whole defensive line played well last season, it’s hard to focus on anyone other than Justin Smith. As talented as that group of linebackers are, their skill set is magnified due to playing behind Justin. It’s easy to say that the secondary benefits from playing behind those linebackers, but they actually have talent there. It’s not all about Carlos Rogers. We all saw how well he played in this defense last season, but the other guys can play too. Tarell Brown will have a lot required of him this season and that will be a key piece of this defense.
Behind Rogers and Brown, Chris Culliver turned some heads last season and looks to grow on that. Perrish Cox hasn’t had any positive news surrounding his name lately, but if he can stay out of trouble, the 49ers may have found a steal in this year’s free agency. Cox has already proven he could play when he was in Denver. They just cut ties with him after the ugly details came out about his arrest. This league is tough on safeties. A lot of teams have two quality safeties, but don’t have the quality replacements behind them. We can lump San Fran into that group. For as well as Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner played in 2011, no one on this defense wants to see them come out of the game, especially for an extended period of time. I think everyone and their mama knows who the 49ers’ return men are. Kyle Williams became a household name after his two fumbles in a key playoff game. He was only in the game due to Ted Ginn’s injury.
1. Green Bay Packers - Much like the Patriots, I wish I could have given you some huge shock of who the 2012 NFC Paper Champs were, but I can only report what the paper shows and it shows a Green Bay team that is built to compete with any team and survive through most injury issues.
Matt Flynn is gone, but what he did when Aaron Rodgers went down gives me hope that if Rodgers goes down again, Graham Harrell will be more than capable of taking the reins for a few games. Rodgers is a technician from under center, so that speaks for itself. I’m also interested in following the development of BJ Coleman. He’s a raw prospect, but from his game play in college, I think he has the mind and the arm to play well in the NFL. I’m still dumbfounded that the Packers didn’t select Isaiah Pead in this draft. Pead would have been perfect in their zone system and would have finally made them more of a complete offense. With Pead not on the roster, it’s Alex Green who’s expected to get the bulk of the workload. I like what Green showed at Hawaii, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with him coming off of injury and being the team’s number one option. James Starks can have a role on the team, but that role doesn’t require more than 5-7 touches a game. Duane Bennett is a guy that no one is talking about and the Packers were able to sign for some magic beans or something, but he’s my dark horse. I think he has the potential to be the best back out of the five that is currently on the roster.
The Green Bay wide receivers are all household names by now. Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Randall Cobb. It’s hard to find any negatives in this group. Cobb is a big play threat and usually comes into the game fresh. Jones may drop far too many passes for my comfort, but he usually makes up for it with a huge gainer down the sideline. Driver is getting a little long in the tooth, but can catch everything. Jordy is the perfect complement to Jennings, who can do anything that’s asked of him. The group is so talented that Tori Gurley, Jarrett Boykin, and Dale Moss will more than likely not make the active roster, despite all having the talent to play well in the NFL. Gurley turned down a few teams that wanted to sign him last year, just so that he may remain on the Packers’ practice squad. If Green Bay keeps six, he may make the cut. If not, he could pay costly for his decision.
Jermichael Finley is on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Behind him though, the team needs someone out of the group of Andrew Quarless, DJ Williams, or Tom Crabtree to step up into a bigger role. The Packers lost Scott Wells, but replaced him with Jeff Saturday. Outside at the tackle positions they have Marshall Newhouse, Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod, and added Andrew Datko. It’s a solid group that doesn’t have much falloff if an injury was to occur.
Dom Capers is going to have a chip on his shoulder over the way his defense looked last year. You can expect an increased pass rush and much better play from the back end of the defense versus the pass. His lineman are big, athletic and versatile. The front is headlined by BJ Raji and has a great supporting cast of Ryan Pickett and Jarius Wynn. Green Bay added three players this off-season that should give this front unit some depth and a steady dose of competition for playing time. Jerel Worthy is an extremely gifted athlete. He’s expected to play mostly at the 5 technique and the team has discussed giving Raji more rest this season, so either they may kick Pickett inside to nose and have Worthy play predominantly outside or have Worthy spell BJ on the inside. Two other new players that should factor in are Philip Merling and Anthony Hargrove.
Dropping back further in the defense to the linebackers, there will be a huge focus on if Clay Matthews can get back to his 2010 form. He’ll get some help from his former USC teammate, Nick Perry. The team selected Perry fairly early, in hopes that he may take away some of the offense’s attention on Clay. This will allow Erik Walden and Brad Jones to fall back more into a depth position with the team. On the inside AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop will look to handle most of the workload. Now to the key of the defense in 2012… Can the secondary bounce back from their horrific 2011 performance? I think the corner position on Green Bay is one of the deepest in the NFL. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams will see the bulk of the snaps, but behind them, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush, and Davon House will all be asked to contribute. I thought House may have been more up to speed last season, but reports are that he’s much more of a complete player after a full off-season with an NFL team. Hayward is perfect in this defense and should see quick movement up the team’s depth chart.
Now, at the safety positions there are far more questions. Of course, Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett are capable of maintaining and put forth a better effort than what we saw from this team last season. The concerns come in the youth that’s lined up behind them. The oldest veteran behind Burnett and Peprah has only been in the league since 2010, only one of them was drafted, and other than Sean Richardson, who played at Vanderbilt, none of them played Division I football. Finally, Randall Cobb rounds out the special teams and hopes to make a splash in the 2012 season, much in the same manner he did to open 2011.
Congrats to the Green Bay Packers as my 2012 NFC “Paper” Champ! I’m sure many will have discrepancies as to why these teams shouldn’t be rated in the top four but as for me, no other teams have done a better job in the NFC at building and preparing for the course of a season, like the Eagles, Bucs, 49ers, and Packers.