There is more anticipation for the 2012 NFL campaign than for any season I can remember. All 32 teams boast fascinating storylines. Can Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning maintain his impeccable standard of play with a new team in a new town? Can his replacement with the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, live up to all of the hype? Were the San Francisco 49ers a one-year wonder, or is this a championship-caliber squad?
2012 NFL predictions
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As we head toward opening kickoff, seemingly every television analyst, newspaper beat writer and Internet contributor out there has weighed in with thoughts on the upcoming season. While those folks always have something interesting to say, I thought it would be more valuable to talk with people who are actually inside the NFL.
I reached out to 20 different player personnel officials from 20 different teams and asked them to each answer 20 questions about a variety of topics. Some of their answers will seem obvious, but others will surprise. To protect the integrity of the survey, the respondents were instructed to avoid choosing their own teams or players.
1. Who will win the AFC?
According to our panel of personnel men, the Patriots remain clear-cut favorites in the AFC. The Ravens likely would have received a few more votes, if not for an offseason injury to Terrell Suggs. The Texans, meanwhile, were described by one panel member as "a younger version of the Ravens." The Steelers remain part of the conversation regarding the conference elite.
2. Who will win the NFC?
The pool of championship contenders is much deeper in the NFC than it is in the AFC. Our panel members cited Green Bay's prolific offense as the main reason to pick the Packers. Three different favorites came from the NFC North, solidifying its status as the toughest division in football.
3. Who will win the Super Bowl?
The 20-member panel chose 10 different teams to win the Super Bowl, proving that parity reigns in the NFL. Several panel members had the Patriots and Packers squaring off in New Orleans. One panel member said, "I'll take Green Bay over the Patriots. Chandler Jones will be a great addition, but he can't fix all of (the Patriots') defensive issues." Another member saw it differently: "I'll go with the Patriots. I can't see (quarterback Tom) Brady and (coach Bill) Belichick losing back-to-back Super Bowls."
4. Who will be the MVP?
5. Who will be the Offensive Rookie of the Year?
6. Who will be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?
Twelve different rookie defenders received at least one vote from our panel. Kuechly, who figures to pile up impressive tackle totals for the Carolina Panthers, is the favorite. Kendricks (Philadelphia Eagles) and Wolfe (Denver Broncos) are solid sleepers who have both been outstanding in the preseason.
7. Who will be Coach of the Year?
There was no real consensus in this category. Belichick is the slight favorite, but more than a third of the NFL's 32 head coaches received support. Vitt, the New Orleans Saints' interim head coach, will be suspended for the first six weeks of the season, but he still received two votes from our panel.
8. If you were starting a franchise tomorrow, which player would you choose?
Rodgers is the oldest of these three quarterbacks, but he is just entering his prime and should have several more seasons of elite production ahead of him. Luck and Newton are two of the most exciting young signal-callers to enter the NFL in the last decade.
9. If you were starting a franchise tomorrow, which coach would you choose?
There was no clear-cut choice here. Belichick supporters pointed to the fact that he can run the entire operation and install a comprehensive system that works. Coughlin supporters mentioned his prior experience with an expansion team (the Jacksonville Jaguars) and his tough, discipline-oriented philosophy. Dungy was the one surprise selection.
10. You're down four points on your own 20-yard line with less than two minutes on the clock. Which quarterback would you want leading the offense?
Brady is still viewed as the most "clutch" quarterback, according to our panel. Eli will never eclipse his brother Peyton statistically, but he might already be perceived as a better performer under pressure.
11. Who is the most explosive offensive player?
12. Which offense is the most explosive?
According to one panelist, there is a simple reason that the Packers' offense was by far the top choice: "They have the best quarterback in the league and they have so many different weapons on the outside. You can't key on just one player."
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13. Who is the most physical defensive player?
Willis has been arguably the top linebacker in the NFL since he burst onto the scene with the San Francisco 49ers in 2007. His teammate, Smith, and the Ravens' Ngata are game-plan wreckers along the line of scrimmage. Aging veterans Lewis and Polamalu still play a violent brand of football for the Ravens and Steelers, respectively.
14. Which defense is the most physical?
One panelist had this to say about the 49ers: "They swarm to the football like no other team and they hit harder than anybody else. They are constantly hurting opposing players with clean hits."
Baltimore and Pittsburgh have long-standing traditions of playing physical defense, while the Texans are quickly gaining a reputation for doing the same.
15. Five years from now, who will be the best offensive player?
Age was definitely a factor in this category. Rodgers should still be playing great football in 2017, but he'll be turning 34, while Luck will just be hitting his prime. Richardson was the one surprise name among these players. Five years can be an eternity at the running back position.
16. Five years from now, who will be the best defensive player?
17. Who is the biggest overachiever?
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The panelists interpreted this question in two different ways. Guys like Cruz, the Woodhead and Foster were considered overachievers because they went undrafted out of college. Guys like Kerrigan, Allen and Tuck, meanwhile, were considered overachievers because of their high motors. The panelist who chose Fitzgerald said that "what (the receiver) accomplishes with the quarterbacks in Arizona is an amazing example of overachieving."
18. Who is the biggest underachiever?
There wasn't an easy answer to this question. In other words, JaMarcus Russell is out of the NFL. Bryant has the ability to be a top-five receiver, but he's topped 100 receiving yards just once in 27 career games for the Dallas Cowboys.