NFC Preview����� By Steel Holiday
The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight with New Orleans visiting the Packers, and so, that leaves time for one final season preview of the National Football Conference (NFC). The days of long, extensive, in depth anticipating have passed. Here is a brief, hard hitting take on each franchise, with comments about various areas I will be paying attention to.
As an aid to forecast future performance, there will be percentages to show how much Roster Stability each team has. To calculate, I took the starters from each lineup listed on NFL.com (as of the day I did my research) and traced their origin into the league. If a player is still with the team who selected him in the NFL draft, then he contributes to his team�s Roster Stability. Players who arrived on a team via free agency/waivers/trade/CFA (Canadian Football Free Agent) don�t count towards Roster Stability unless they have been with the team 3 years running, or the guy made a Pro Bowl in either of his first two seasons. This is a way of highlighting the stability that comes from choosing to build through the draft. (Because of how much passing goes on in today�s game, the #3 wide receiver and #3 corner will be counted with the starters. Specialty Players will be considered stable if they were drafted, or have lasted for at least one season.)
Pittsburgh�s NFC schedule points west this season. That�s the first division to look at.
What�s to like --- Arizona thought enough of its football team to get it a quarterback. The Cardinals had nothing to work with under center last season, so first chance they got, they traded for Kevin Kolb. Larry Fitzgerald, he of the tremendous 09 playoff run, is retained for the foreseeable future.
Where there�s concern --- Kevin Kolb is expected to generate offensive progress, but� nobody is running the ball. A complementary offensive attack is important for any quarterback, especially one that is under the gun.
Roster Stability --- Offense 8 out of 12, or 67% Defense 7out of 12 or 58% Specialty Players 4 out of 6 (Long snapper and Holder included) or 67%
ST. LOUIS RAMS
What�s to like ---Sam Bradford was very professional throughout his rookie campaign. He is quickly becoming the leader of this team. The defensive line likes to rush the passer, and the Rams added some young blood to the unit.
Where there�s concern --- The receivers �dropped� St. Louis out of the playoffs last year. The unit must improve in that area, and stay healthy for the team to take the next step. The back 7 (linebackers and secondary) on defense looks ho-hum.
Roster Stability --- Offense 75% Defense 50 % Specialty Players 100%
What�s to like --- Tavaris Jackson, like Kevin Kolb, is going to get an opportunity to be the man. The Seattle fan base shows up and is very loud. (It is not widely recognized, but an enthusiastic fan base can be an important factor in developing team chemistry.) The Seahawks have a lot of experience on defense.
Where there�s concern --- This team has a lot of new players. On paper it looks like a force to be reckoned with, but, even with their enthusiastic fan base, will the Hawks develop the necessary chemistry to reach their potential?
Roster Stability --- Offense 50% Defense 83% Specialty Players 83%
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
What�s to like --- Jim Harbaugh saved Alex Smith from the wheels of the bus that so many wanted to see roll over him. If Harbaugh can stabilize the disappointing Niner offense this season with Smith, then 2nd round draft choice Collin Kaepernick could potentially have a foundation to improve upon for next year.
Where there�s concern --- This once proud, first class organization has a ways to go before it is relevant again. Experienced players are there, the connection to tradition is not. (Connection to tradition is another important factor that makes for great team chemistry.)
Roster Stability --- Offense 75% Defense 75% Specialty Players 83%
PLAYOFF PREDICTION --- ST. LOUIS RAMS --- Adding the creative offensive mind of new coordinator Josh McDaniels is encouraging. Teaming him with the super sharp Sam Bradford will be something to watch. This is the weakest division in football, and presently the Rams are the most exciting team. I expect this franchise to continue its upward arc.
What�s to like --- During the 3 year tenure of head coach Mike Smith Atlanta has won a lot of games. It is an impressive 33-17. The Dirty Birds got better on offense by getting one of the Alabama studs from this year�s draft, wide receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons have a very stable core of players, and that is a good reason why they will continue to thrive this season.
Where�s there concern --- Although the team has an exceptional regular season record recently, they don�t have any playoff wins to show for it. No one on defense ever emerges to put them over the top.
Roster Stability Offense 100% Defense 83% Specialty Players 100%
What�s to like --- The starting line ups are full of players who have played together. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton should be in a stable locker room. There is lots of speed in the front 7 on defense.
Where there�s concern --- The rest of the division is full of proven NFL winners at their quarterback position. There isn�t anyone in the secondary that is a threat to take one the other way for a score.
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 100% Specialty Players 83%
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
What�s to like --- There�s a reason Drew Brees won a Super Bowl MVP. When his offensive line gives him time, it allows him to use his sniper like accuracy, and turn the game into a 7 on 7 drill. The Saints invested in the future of Mark Ingram. It cost them a second round pick this draft, and their first selection in the next, but it was worth it to get the former Heisman winner. Sean Payton is creative and takes risks. The defense is aggressive.
Where there�s concern --- Vilma is the only stand out at linebacker. The corners are undersized when matched up with some of the bigger receivers.
Roster Stability Offense 83% Defense 67% Specialty Players 83%
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
What�s to like --- Josh Freeman will give you everything he has. Tampa Bay developed a good young nucleus last season. The Bucs snatched LeGarette Blount off waivers before he was stashed his entire rookie season on a practice squad. Da�Quan Bowers was a great player to gamble on, and his risk is well worth the reward for this franchise.
Where there�s concern --- Like all professional teams who play in Florida, not enough people are watching. Whether it be Cubans or Americans, somebody has to support this team or the ship will go down.
Roster Stability Offense 92% Defense 83% Specialty Players 67%
PLAYOFF PREDICTION --- NEW ORLEANS SAINTS & ATLANTA FALCONS --- These teams are winning franchises that have improved areas of weakness since last season. I particularly like the Saints to challenge for home field and the conference title if they can resurrect a running game.
What�s to like --- When he took over a 1-7 team, Jason Garrett took a season that was a lost cause and made it into something. The Cowboys have committed to building a winner by drafting well in recent seasons, and less to the notion of buying a winner with free agents. If Dallas continues trending upwards with its young talent, then an imposing team of well rounded stars is in its future. The Cowboys have lots to work with defensively, but they need someone who can get the most out of what is there. Rob Ryan adds quite a bit to the coaching intensity, and was a better add to the team than any free agent available.
Where there�s concern --- Romo is something of an enigma. He can do good things, but he has an amazing ability to do the wrong things at a critical time. Maybe part of the problem is that he believes the hype that surrounds him. Hype doesn�t help win ball games in the game�s final drive. Dallas sometimes goes pass happy, and gets away from running the ball.
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 67% Specialty Players 100%
NEW YORK GIANTS
What�s to like --- New York has a dominating pass rush that is always a threat to take over up front. Brandon Jacobs didn�t get worn down last season, so he should be fresh this one. Hakeem Nicks was snubbed from the NFL Network�s Top 100. He will no doubt put up big numbers to punish those who underrated him. Kenny Phillips is back to help limit big plays given up in the secondary.
Where there�s concern --- Linebacker for this franchise carries quite a tradition. The Giants, already weak in that unit, lost the projected starter in the middle for the season in practice Monday. Eli Manning lacks consistency from one week to the next, actually, from one play to the next. Injuries have hit this team hard, and the games haven�t even begun to count yet.
Rosters Stability Offense 83% Defense 67% Specialty Players 67%
What�s to like --- Mike Vick is finally making plays like he was a Number 1 overall. In addition to Vick, the Eagles have tremendous speed on offense in receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and in running back LeSean McCoy. Philadelphia still boasts one of the heaviest offensive lines in the league.
Where there�s concern --- Taking a page from the division rival Redskins, the Eagles sold out to free agency. The hype started early and it hasn�t stopped. Hype may help advertise the team, and may put fans in the seats, but it won�t win ball games. In addition to all the new players, new coaches are everywhere also.
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 58% Specialty Players 67%
What�s to like --- Defensively, Washington looks like they have a solid unit. Jim Haslett promises to attack, and make things difficult for opposing offenses. Rex Grossman isn�t a superstar, but he has played on a �defense first� mentality team with Chicago. Mike Shanahan has a winning legacy to protect, so he will be sure that his Redskins play hard every week. The entire coaching staff from last season remains intact.
Where there�s concern --- Although the blockbuster guy never signed on for this year, plenty of other new faces did. The progression of team chemistry will basically have to begin from scratch.
Roster Stability Offense 42% Defense 50% Specialty Players 50%
PLAYOFF PREDICTION --- WASHINGTON REDSKINS (This year�s surprise team in the league) --- This is the most difficult division to forecast. The Eagles, Giants and Cowboys could all contend for the top spot. I�m not a fan of any of their quarterbacks, though. For now the Giants are getting slammed by injuries, but the schedule opens up for them rather soft. New York should have time to work things out on defense, and be ready to contend when the schedule gets tough late in the season. Dallas has plenty of ability, and if the new regime can restore some of the past glory then the Cowboys should have an advantage. Philadelphia can be overwhelming offensively, but I�m not sold that it can stop anybody itself on defense. For the winner, it will be about whoever can get themselves the favorable breaks. In the Redskins preview area, I said that the team would have to build its chemistry from scratch. The �Lockout� prevented Washington from quickly attempting to fix its previous season�s issues by throwing money down its personal rat hole, free agency. That was a �favorable break� for the �Skins. Shanahan made a bunch of perceived nobody running backs into somebody in Denver. He�s set up nicely to work with the Redskins here.
What�s to like --- Mike Martz has a system proven to work with speed and a multipurpose half back. Jay Cutler is the best quarterback the Bears have had since I can remember. Chicago will bring a tough defense as long as Urlacher fills the middle linebacker role. Julius Peppers has elite defensive talent.
Where�s there concern --- The offensive line was a revolving door last season, and the leader of the pack, Olin Kreutz, was bounced to New Orleans. Mike Tice will have to continue to run the show up front and keep improving this unit. Bears fans would be wise to take it easy on Cutler, or they maybe they miss Rex Grossman?
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 83% Specialty Players 67%
What�s to like --- Matthew Stafford has been a winner when he starts. The Lions have some receivers who can go get his passes. Jim Schwartz has brought a blue collar mentality to the team. The historically imposing defensive line is starting to return. There is a young nucleus forming. Detroit was successful in the face of adversity last year.
Where�s there concern --- The Lions have been competitive, but in order to challenge for the playoffs Stafford has to stay healthy. That hasn�t happened for a full season yet. The secondary lacks a big play guy.
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 42% Specialty Players 67%
GREEN BAY PACKERS
What�s to like --- Green Bay is the standard for developing young talent and having them ready to play. Because the Packers draft so well, the team has no radical weakness. Aaron Rodgers is mobile, athletic and remarkably tough. Clay Matthews and his �Fabio On Steroids� appeal is very iconic. Important offensive weapons return from injuries to start the season.
Where�s the concern --- The Packers were Super Bowl Champs last year, but not division champs. The NFC North should be even tougher this season, and the rest of the NFL can be counted on to give the Packers their best effort as well. Green Bay was 1 game away from being finished for quite awhile down the stretch last season. We�ll see how it handles not being up against the wall, and how it endures being a consistent straight up heavy favorite.
Roster Stability Offense 100% Defense 92% Specialty Players 67%
What�s to like --- The Vikings have a tradition of tough defense. Minnesota has a lot of experience on that side of the ball. Donavan McNabb brings a veteran presence to the quarterback position.
Where�s there concern --- When the Vikings catch on that first round pick Christian Ponder is their quarterback of the future, what happens with McNabb? Drama seems to find McNabb, and will this team have chemistry issues if it becomes clear that he is in a one and done scenario? Despite the experience, the Vikings lacked a big play defender last season. Jared Allen appeared to be slowing down.
Roster Stability Offense 75% Defense 92% Specialty Players 100%`
PLAYOFF PREDICTION --- GREEN BAY PACKERS & CHICAGO BEARS ---I was impressed that the Packers lived up to the hype at the Super Bowl. In professional sports nothing ever seems to live up to the hype, but Green Bay did it. The hype is only going to grow now that Rodgers is entering legendary status, and Green Bay is the defending champion. The Packers didn�t flinch before, so I don�t expect them to now.�
POST SEASON PREDICTIONS
WILD CARD WEEKEND --- #6 CHICAGO over #3 Washington, #4 ST. LOUIS over #5 Atlanta.
�DIVISIONAL ROUND --- #1 NEW ORLEANS over #6 Chicago, #2 GREEN BAY over #4 St. Louis.
NFC TITLE GAME --- #2 Green Bay at #1 New Orleans makes up the NFC Title game, with the SAINTS marching onward to the Super Bowl.