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.
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Starting from fourth to first, I give you the top 4 AFC “Paper” teams:
4. Buffalo Bills – The Bills have made several aggressive moves this offseason. Everything they have done in free agency and the NFL draft has made perfect sense. I guess you could say that they are the anti-Dolphins. Buffalo has one of the best 1-2 punches coming out of the backfield, with CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson. They’ve shown that if either one goes down, the other can carry the load. While many fans despise Vince Young, the acquisition to pick him up was brilliant. This offense is more conducive to his style of play. If Ryan Fitzpatrick’s play declines again like last season, than Young could step in immediately. Where Buffalo falls short is in the wide receiver department. The team has Stevie Johnson and a lot of talented guys that could step into a bigger role this year but no one has proven to be that secondary, reliable guy.
Adding Plaxico Burress as a situational receiver, like in the red zone, would have made as much sense as the addition of Young. Scott Chandler surprised a lot of people last season, including myself. Chandler should still be able to produce again in 2012 but Buffalo added a perfect H-back fit, in Dorin Dickerson. Some may ask why Dickerson was released from Houston and New England, the answer is simple. Both places had the prototypical H-back in place. The Texans have James Casey and the Patriots have Aaron Hernandez. The combo of Dorin coming out of the backfield from the fullback position and Scott as a traditional tight end, will create defensive headaches. Buffalo found their new Jason Peters, when Cordy Glenn slid to them in the second round. This will allow Chris Hairston to move back to the right side or be the team’s swing tackle. They also added Zebrie Sanders for depth. The interior of the line played well last season and helped Spiller prove that he’s more than an off tackle runner.
The defensive line is just insane. I can’t talk about it without getting excited and I’m an unbiased writer but I love great football and that’s what the unit of Mark Anderson, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus will be. In San Francisco last season you had the Smith brothers (Aldon & Justin) creating havoc. In 2012 we will be introduced to the Williams brothers from Buffalo. They will have Dwan Edwards, Shawne Merriman, and Chris Kelsay behind them to keep them fresh.
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The linebacking group takes a hit for the team. It’s the weakest unit on the team. They have guys who can play and rookie Tank Carder will be a great addition once he’s up to speed but they lack elite talent and depth here. That takes us to the defensive backs. The selection of Stephon Gilmore will pay huge dividends when the team faces off against the athletic tight ends, like Rob Gronkowski, who burnt the Bills for 15 catches, 217 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2011 in two games. After the starters, there isn’t much depth at the safety position but they do expect a big step up from second year player Aaron Williams and also, Leodis McKelvin at the corner positions. Finally, CJ Spiller and Brad Smith give this team all the return ability that they could ask for.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers - Pittsburgh finally got wise to protecting Ben Roethlisberger. For the last three years they have used four, first or second round draft selections on offensive lineman. David DeCastro is one of the best offensive guard prospects that I’ve ever seen come out of college. If this unit can mesh together during the offseason, Ben will be sitting nice and cozy in the pocket as if he had a black & yellow snuggie on. They brought back the usual cast behind him in Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich but Jerrod Johnson is the intriguing addition to the club. Johnson is a similar build and style as Roethlisberger and if he can get back to his pre college injury form, he would make for a great replacement if Big Ben was to go down again.
The running backs are an intriguing position. Isaac Redman looks ready to take over for Rashard Mendenhall. That is if he’s not mourning the death of Osama Bin Laden as well. Baron Batch and Chris Rainey also bring more intrigue to the table. Rainey has track speed but he’s not an ideal NFL back. Pittsburgh will have to get clever in how they use him. Batch has shown flashes, both before and after his injury last season. The receiver talk starts and ends with Mike Wallace. When will he show and will he pull a season-long temper tantrum a la DeSean Jackson circa 2011. As I said before last season, Antonio Brown is the most complete receiver on the team.
The tandem of Brown and Wallace is nice but the fear factor comes in after those two names. Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery have talent but Sanders is mostly a speed threat and Cotchery is getting long in the tooth. After them the depth disappears. The Steelers do go four deep at tight end and I believe this will be a position that sees increased work this season. Heath Miller is a given, Todd Haley is comfortable with Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders earned his spot the hard way last season, and David Paulson is a diamond in the rough.
The defensive line needs Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to come back 100%. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding how Ziggy Hood turned all his fat into muscle and that he will be causing havoc this season. The team was wise enough to add Cameron Heyward last season for depth. They also go two deep at nose tackle behind Hampton, including rookie Alameda Ta’amu. The linebackers speak for themselves and Pittsburgh added some young pieces to develop behind them, like Sean Spence. The defensive backs will need for Curtis Brown to show growth from last year and the safeties have to stay healthy. The one and only Antonio Brown will provide the return excitement for the Steel city. It goes without saying but Pittsburgh really needs Brown to stay healthy.
2. Cincinnati Bengals - Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This team is young, talented, and most of all…deep. Cincinnati has six guys that can start at cornerback on a lot of NFL teams. Nate Clements, Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jason Allen, Adam Jones, and Terence Newman. Add in another draft pick in Shaun Prater, who could surprise the team. He showed up on film and can make plays in the league. The Bengals get it. They understand that it’s a passing league, they understand injuries, and they understand depth. In a league where you can’t have too many cornerbacks, nobody has as many talented corners as Cincinnati. Then, you have to factor in the type of safeties they now have on the roster. They have four guys that measure in between 6’2 and 6’4. If these bigger safeties can prove to stay tight in coverage, they will be setup to slowdown the monster, athletic tight ends that are running wild around the NFL.
The depth doesn’t stop at defensive back. They have one of the deepest defensive lines in the NFL. Cincy got great play out of Domata Peko and Geno Atkins last season. So, what did they do in the draft? They added two explosive defensive tackles to go with Peko and Atkins. Devon Still and Brandon Thompson are NFL caliber starters. Throw in Pat Sims and the Bengals can keep a fresh rotation of defensive tackles that will just wear down opposing offensive lines. Outside of these guys will be athletic freaks like Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson, and Robert Geathers. Harvey and Anderson were both selected in the top 8 picks of their respected drafts. The team is hoping to keep a fresh defensive line rotation and use the athletic guys that showed so much promise and have them perform based off of natural ability, their coaching, and the talent around them.
The Bengals have talent in the middle of their defense but there is fear of depth due to their affection for troubled guys. Dontay Moch has been suspended for violation of league rules, Rey Maualuga has his issues, everyone knows about Vontaze Burfict, and Brandon Joiner’s troubled past.
Switching sides of the ball, this team can only go as far as Andy Dalton takes them. I don’t see a sophomore slump on the horizon but I also didn’t expect the falloff that we saw from Josh Freeman last year. The Bengals were smart enough to have Bruce Gradkowski already on the roster and he can step in and play decent enough if there is an injury. The receiver position reminds me of the corner position on the team but with more youth sprinkled in. We all know about AJ Green and whoever is playing on the field with him will benefit off of him. Mohamed Sanu is an ideal possession receiver and the team’s other draft selection, Marvin Jones was one of the steals of the draft. Jones can play all three receiver positions and I compare him to a faster Brandon Lloyd.
The Bengals get Jordan Shipley back from injury and they’ve also been raving about the development of Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. Jermaine Gresham is the best tight end that no one talks about and he’ll have a running mate this year in Orson Charles. Charles fell to the Bengals in the draft due to an arrest and a slow forty time. Orson will have to fight Donald Lee for those reps behind Gresham. Cincinnati moved away from a workhorse type ball carrier last season and made it official by not re-signing Cedric Benson this offseason. The addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis will head up the team’s running back by committee. Bernard Scott has been hungry for a bigger role for the last few seasons and will get it as the compliment to Green-Ellis. They’ll be competition between Cedric Peerman, Aaron Brown, Brian Leonard, and Dan Herron to join this committee. The Bengals have a quality offensive line and I love the pickup of Kevin Zeitler but as a whole, the team lacks depth past the starters on the line. The return duties could be handled by a number of different individuals on kick and punts. Marvin Jones is the ideal candidate in my mind.
1. New England Patriots - I wish I could be more original but this team has built a winner and is prepared for injuries. Even if Tom Brady went down, this team could be more than competitive with Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett under center. That’s right, not one but two backup plans if they lose the key piece to the team. Even after losing BenJarvus Green-Ellis, they still have five running backs that could contribute out of the backfield. Stevan Ridley just needs to fix his fumbling issue, Shane Vereen has to stay healthy, Danny Woodhead fills a certain role as he does every year, Joseph Addai will keep Tom Brady clean in the pocket, and Brandon Bolden played well in the SEC when he wasn’t nicked up.
The receiving targets are a nightmare for anyone who faces this offense. Even if a corner has Brandon Lloyd blanketed, he’s still open. Wes Welker is maddening to cover because he just scoots through the holes in the defense. It should be illegal for Rob Gronkowski to block as well as he does, when he’s such a receiving threat and a huge, athletic target. Aaron Hernandez is the disappearing man, due to how he shifts all over the field in different looks. Now just for the hell of it, throw in Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, Donte’ Stallworth, Julian Edelman, Daniel Fells, and Bo Scaife…oh yeah, they stole Jake Ballard from the Giants to hold onto until next year. Brilliant. They’re solid across the offensive line, led by Nate Solder who’s now ready to step into his role as the franchise left tackle for the next ten years. They have great depth behind the starters and got a steal in Markus Zesevics. Zesevics tore a pectoral muscle at the combine but his work at Iowa was amazing. He’ll be a starter in this league, if he can stay healthy down the line.
Any defensive line that has Vince Wilfork on it, is a great defensive line in my book. They added Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette in the draft. Bequette was a great value pickup and Jones has raw athleticism. Chandler could develop into a talented pass rusher but he has to learn to do more than just slam into the line. His unorthodox style worked in college, due to being such a freakish player with great size, power, and lengthy limbs. If he adds some technique to his repertoire, he could be deadly.
The linebacker grouping of Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower is scary good. These are physically, intimidating individuals. Opposing backs have this trio to look forward to, if and when they make it through the front line. The fear is the lack of quality behind these three, if one of them were to go down. Now to the biggest weakness of 2011, the secondary. The keys to this units success are in Ras-I Dowling’s development, Devin McCourty getting back to 2010 play ability, and how much does Will Allen have left in the tank. The Patriots pulled off a good signing in Steve Gregory but if either him or Patrick Chung go down, the foundation of the secondary collapses once again. Woodhead and Edelman will probably handle the return duties, especially seeing how both should have a declined role as running back and receiver.
Congrats to the New England Patriots as my 2012 AFC “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 AFC at building and a preparing for the course of a season, like the Bills, Steelers, Bengals, and Patriots.