What's the difference between your dad's NFL and yours?
The free-agency period wasn't quite as hectic as it was last summer after the lockout was lifted. Nevertheless, we've seen a flurry of moves over the past two weeks, with the stakes of several franchises changing for better ... or worse. Insert your Miami Dolphins joke here: __________. Or should we? Are they really any worse than last year, when they went 6-10, just because they didn't get Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn? See below.
Speaking of Flynn, many readers were upset when I didn't mention the Seattle Seahawks (who signed Flynn) or Buffalo Bills (who signed Mario Williams) in my article on free-agency winners and losers. Everyone needs time to marinate, but as you'll see by the rankings, the Seahawks are right where they ended in my final regular-season tally (prior to Week 17) of 2011. Flynn should be an upgrade, but who really knows after two starts? The Jason Jones signing wasn't enough to jump up from the middle of the pack, although it might surprise you to see Seattle ranked higher than a few notable teams.
As for Williams and the suddenly non-frugal Bills ...
How do you not rank the Giants No. 1? Yes, they finished 9-7 last season. But remember, they were rarely firing on all cylinders because of injuries (much like the 2010 Packers). They still won the Super Bowl. And thus, barring any unforeseen historical revisions, they're still the defending champs -- by a hair. Signing a space cadet like tight end Martellus Bennett for the money they paid seemed like a stretch. Perhaps grabbing Stanford's Coby Fleener at the bottom of the first round would be the better move. That aside, New York is still top dog.
This spot is not a result of narrowly losing the Super Bowl. It's a result of being smart in free agency. Brandon Lloyd is an upgrade over Deion Branch. Re-signing Dan Connolly to start at center was the correct move. Even taking a flyer on the once highly touted Robert Gallery made sense. New England came this close -- an un-Welker-esque drop -- from winning it all. For now, they are the second-strongest team in the NFL. Still, not enough pass rush here to get to No. 1.
For the most part, the usual suspects are back, starting with Alex Smith. But after an NFC Championship Game in which Niners receivers caught only one pass, the front office went out and signed Randy Moss to an incentive-laden deal while also locking up Mario Manningham. The latter might not be a true No. 1, but in this offense, he doesn't have to be. That role belongs to Vernon Davis. If you think the Giants will regress because they won the Super Bowl, you might be right. Here's a query: How easily can Alex Smith regress? Thus, No. 3 feels OK at this point.
Love the Jeff Saturday signing. The departure of center Scott Wells hurt. Solid cover by Ted Thompson and company to go out and sign the long-time Colts center. Aaron Rodgers had to move around in the pocket quite a bit in the playoff loss to the Giants (in addition to being sacked four times). A vet like Saturday can help with protection calls while holding his own. You've got to hand it to these guys. They barely dive into the open market. In fact, the year they won their latest Super Bowl (2010), the Packers signed one free agent. It's tough putting Green Bay at No. 4, but no running game and a suspect defense seals it.
Voted repeatedly for the 2000 Ravens in NFL.com's Greatest Team of All-Time bracket. Wrote the blurbs for the Elite Eight, as well. As dominant as that defense was, I had them losing to the 1998 Broncos in the quarterfinals by a smidgen. As far as the 2012 edition, this is still one of the strongest teams in the league. John Harbaugh needs better depth behind Ray Rice, however.
Remember in "The Naked Gun," when Frank Drebin said, "Nothing to see here!" as explosions went off behind him? That pretty much sums it up. But still, it's tough in good conscience to put the Texans, Eagles or Manningmania ahead of this team. Drew Brees is still a coach on the field. The staff is in place. Steve Spagnuolo, if he becomes interim coach, can get guys to play for him (much like he did as defensive coordinator of the 2007 Giants). It ain't over because Sean Payton is gone.
Spoke to NFL.com colleague Steve Wyche in the hall the other day, and we both agreed the trading of DeMeco Ryans isn't easy to put together cerebrally. While Philly gets a good linebacker -- and even better leader who is widely respected -- it's Darryl Sharpton's baby now. He'll probably take a beating in Wade Phillips' defense, so hopefully the kid is ready. Meanwhile, this team lost tackle Eric Winston, as well. Oh yeah, Mario Williams, too. Big deal. The defense didn't miss him last year, finishing second in total D.
Detroit has quickly become the forgotten team in the NFC North, in light of Chicago's stockpiling of offensive firepower. The key here is the secondary. You know, the one that got lit up in the playoffs in a game that had nothing to do with bounties. Chris Houston, Aaron Berry, Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas have just as much effect on where the Lions go as Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
The Cowboys got better this offseason. But will it be enough? Brandon Carr > Terence Newman. Guard Kyle Kosier is gone. Dallas will be younger at inside linebacker. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter can run. Mike Jenkins and Carr should be OK at corner. The question, as it has been since 2004 (the year Darren Woodson couldn't play anymore), is can the safeties make a difference? DeMarco Murray being healthy for a whole season could make this offense scary good.
Dallas has gotten younger thus far this offseason. Pittsburgh needs to. Granted, several guys have gone fishing -- namely James Farrior and Hines Ward -- but seven of the penciled-in starters on D are still over 30. It's tough to ever count the Steelers out, but with question marks on defense, in the running game and potentially at guard, Pittsburgh might be looking at a 9-7 season.
The Steelers, Cowboys and Falcons are all in that 9-7 range. Like Pittsburgh, Atlanta has age concerns at a few key spots. Michael Turner has hit the dreaded age of a running back ... 30. Tony Gonzalez was a huge part of the offense in 2011, but he's 36. And there's my 41-year old colleague Jason Smith, who said this the other day: "I had a John Abraham Jets jersey while I was still in my 20s." While age might not be a team-wide concern, Turner, Gonzalez and Abraham are three key cogs in the machine. It's also time for Matt Ryan to take that next step and capitalize on his weapons outside.
Is Bud Adams on Twitter? For an 89-year old man, his quotes have been out in the mainstream a whole lot lately. Seriously, how many soon-to-be-90-year-olds want to win this badly? My grandpa was pouring salt in his beer at 90 and resting. Adams is darn impressive. Keep in mind, he was already 37 when he provided the financial power to complement Lamar Hunt's own fiscal might in forming the American Football League in 1960. To put it another way: Without Adams, the AFL probably wouldn't have happened. That means the Bills, Patriots, Chargers, Raiders, Jets, Chiefs, Oilers ( Titans), Dolphins, Bengals and Broncos wouldn't exist. Karmically speaking, the Broncos probably should have conceded Peyton Manning to the Titans.
This just in: Kansas City can be good. Real good. The only reason for the middle-of-the-road ranking is the question marks surrounding the Chiefs' major players coming off injury: Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry. The latter has the potential to be a certifiable force in the NFL.
Matt Flynn's arrival makes this an exciting organization. If he can play remotely as well as he did in two starts with the Packers, look out. Seattle can already be a tough team to play and has some good, young talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Marshawn Lynch re-sign was nice. What if Trent Richardson were to somehow fall to 12? Maybe that's a bit far-fetched. OK, what if Sidney Rice plays lights out? This is probably the 49ers' biggest challenger in the NFC West, although linebacker is a mess.
Plain and simple: Carson Palmer can't throw a pick every 20 passes, and Darren McFadden must play more than seven games. Those aren't damn lies and statistics.
Cincy is going to play the NFL's version of moneyball this season. Run the football with a guy who doesn't fumble (The Law Firm), start a quarterback who isn't careless with the football (Red Dalton) and play solid team defense (seventh in NFL last season.)
Interesting take by my colleague Michael Lombardi on Mark Sanchez's response -- or lack thereof -- to Tebowmania hitting Broadway. Mike is on to something. Beyond the issue of Sanchez's maturity, though, can someone provide him with WRs who get open? Santonio Holmes was terrible last year. Chaz Schilens is penciled in as the starter on the other side. Jeremy Kerley?
No way Philip Rivers plays like he did in 2011. Well, we think. He has a host of No. 2 receivers to throw the ball to: Robert Meachem, Malcolm Floyd, Eddie Royal. Somebody is going to have to step up. A larger issue is the lack of talent starting on defense. The club invested four of its first five picks on D in 2011. Time for these guys to start paying dividends.
Cardinals fans have to be wondering what the plan is: Is Kevin Kolb a sunk cost at this point? The team just paid the guy it didn't want to be its starter a $7 million dollar bonus. Enjoy. Meanwhile, let's hope Ray Horton's defense can play the full 16-game sked the way it played the back nine last year.
Buffalo fans are fired up about getting Mario Williams and the potential of having a defense that can stop somebody. Apparently, so was the retired Aaron Schobel, or at least about playing again. But, alas, he's not coming back. And neither is Bruce Smith. And that's the point with Williams. He's a good player when he wants to play. But the comparisons to Smith need to stop. Williams has two seasons of double-digit sacks in six years. Smith hit that mark in five of his first six seasons. Secondly, while Williams will no doubt improve the Bills' front wall, the club paid good coin for just that: $50 million GUARANTEED. Better hope he's motivated. On the positive side, it's nice to see Buffalo swinging for the fences. If Mark Anderson ends up bringing value to that line, the Bills will be much higher than 23.
It's hard to know how good Carolina is. The acquisition of Mike Tolbert was a bit of a head scratcher. Sure, he can help in short yardage so that the Panthers don't have to rely on Cam Newton to punch it in, but could Carolina be contemplating a draft-day (or before) trade, with Jonathan Stewart as a chip?
RG3 will sure have a lot of weapons to get the ball to ... "to" being the operative word, as the receiving corps is a bunch of No. 2's: Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and Santana Moss. The latter might be cut. Washington's running backs are a bunch of 2's, as well. Unfortunately for Redskins faithful, the NFC East figures to be tough sledding in 2012.
Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks are good players, particularly Nicks, but neither changes the fact that this organization is currently riding a 10-game losing streak. ... Or that Greg Schiano is a rookie head coach. ... Or that he had trouble getting a staff together. ... Or that LeGarrette Blount is still somewhat of an unknown commodity. ... Or that Aqib Talib may or may not be back.
Twenty-eight through 32 in these rankings could all be bunched together, but Jeff Fisher clearly inspires the most confidence of the head coaches in that group. Would you rather have Fisher or Pat Shurmur? Fisher or Leslie Frazier? Fisher or Chuck Pagano (although he might be a bit of a surprise)? Fisher or Mike Mularkey? OK, you probably get the point by now.
Sure would have been nice to see Cleveland get somebody in free agency who can make a play on offense. It's real fair to blame Colt McCoy when the guy has played with some dudes who could barely make DeVry's roster.