Thursday, August 11, 2011

TWIOT: NFL Training Camp Assessment

The AFC's two favorites?
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Well, thank God professional football will come back with no missed games outside of a meaningless Hall of Fame preseason game. Hallelujah, hallelujah, praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! The season may a month or so out, but now that its back, why not give a very rudimentary look at the way things will shape up. I'll save my full predictions for the Opening Night, but now, here are ten essential questions for the upcoming NFL season.

1. Are the Eagles a "Dream Team"?

No, and I'm saying this as a fan who has every reason to believe that they could be the best squad money can buy under the constraints of the NFL salary cap. I'm not saying that they won't be good, because I think they will. I think they win the division, and depending on how the Giants or Cowboys gel as teams, we may just win it running away, and I don't mean at 2002-04 levels, but with the way the Phillies right now seem to be running away with their division (knock on wood, for the love of God, don't let me jinx the baseball team). I mean, look at the collection of players on both sides of the ball. Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Steve Smith, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, Ronnie Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and Trent Cole all range from very good to the best at their respective positions. However, that's only really looking at things in a vacuum.

For one, the NFC East rarely, if ever, is won going away by anyone. Remember, the Eagles were challenged in their salad days by the Giants, and I don't see them really going away this year either. Two, the Eagles may not even have the most impressive collection of talent in the conference. That distinction may still belong to the Green Bay Packers, who still boast the singular best offensive and defensive players in the NFL from last season in Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Plus, the defending Super Bowl Champions will be getting back a lot of players from injury as well.

Plus, there's that whole deal about the lines really being questions for the Birds. Games are won and lost in the trenches. That's a fact. Granted, there were signings that addressed both lines, but will they be enough, especially on the offensive line? I mean, Vick can do a lot with his feet to diffuse a pass rush, but for all his talents, his blitz awareness can be absolutely terrible at times. When the line had trouble holding back the front four from getting penetration, you could imagine how many free blitzers they let get into the backfield. I saw a really bad example of this at the infamous Tuesday night game, when a Vikings safety came into the backfield untouched and clobbered Vick, forcing a fumble. Vick didn't even know he was there until impact. That's bad. So while you think Vick may not need a line to be effective, well, even he can't turn every play into a positive if he's getting no protection.

Plus, the players that I did mention have some question marks. Maclin is battling a mystery illness. Samuel is on the trading block and isn't exactly happy about it. Jackson is holding out. The newly-signed Smith is battling through a knee injury and probably won't be ready Week 1. So yeah, there are plenty of reasons to think the Eagles will crash and burn. That being said, I still think they're in really good shape. Just don't crown 'em yet.

2. Okay then, other than the Packers, what other teams do you see with a chance at winning the NFC?

The Falcons are definitely a squad to contend with. Last year, they gained homefield advantage, and although they squandered it away, it wasn't like they lost to the Seahawks, right? The Packers were not going to be denied. The scary part is that the Dirty Birds got better all around for the most part. They signed DE Ray Edwards, a guy I wanted the Eagles to pick up, and they may have gotten the best overall offensive talent in the draft in Alabama WR Julio Jones. With Roddy White on the other side and Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field, the Falcons all of a sudden have one of the scariest air attacks in the whole league. It's amazing that one of the three teams among the Eagles, Packers and Falcons is going to have to play on Wild Card weekend, because I think they may be three of the best four teams in the NFL right now, not NFC, but NFL.

Other than those three, well, anything goes. That's the beauty of the NFL; the best teams on paper in August rarely play out as the best teams on the field. The rest of the NFC right now has no fewer than ten teams that could make the playoffs. Right now, only the Redskins, Vikings and Panthers seem dead in the water to me, but who knows, I've been proven wrong before.

3. So what, is the AFC chopped liver?

No, but I think on the whole, it's a little more predictable, at least in the three divisions that aren't the West. I think there are fewer teams that are going to contend to go deep in the playoffs as well. For example, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Lions or 49ers make a deep run in the NFC, even at the expense of their big three teams. However, even though I'm not exactly sure that the Browns, Ravens, Jaguars or even the Broncos won't make the playoffs, I'd be utterly shocked if they crashed the party in the AFC Title game. There's less parity in the AFC this year. It's very top heavy.

Basically, it comes down to the Jets, Patriots, Steelers, maybe the Colts and possibly the Chiefs. That may seem like a lot of teams, but compared to how many I think can possibly make noise in the NFC, it's not that many at all.

4. Have we finally seen the last of Brett Favre?, no, NO MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP!! Err... I mean, I don't think you're ever going to hear the last of him, at least for a couple more years. Any time a team has QB issues or is looking for a backup, Favre's name is probably going to be dropped, either by the hive mind of reporters who for some reason flock to slobber the guy no matter if he's playing "heroically" or texting dick pics to Jenn Sterger, or by his agent who will call a big press conference just to say Favre is retired and has no plans of coming back.

That being said, there will be bluster, but I think the worst is over. I don't want to definitively say that he's not coming back because when he does, I'll catch some of the blowback, and believe me, I don't want anything to do with being seen as a guy who supports the notion that Favre is good for the game right now. However, I'd be less surprised to see Cam Newton lead the Panthers to a perfect season than I would be to see Favre starting any games for a NFL team this year. I just think last year, he got battered, and even his dumb hick self has to have gotten the hint that he's too old for this shit anymore, right? Right?

*knocks on wood*

5. The rookie wage scale, the new policy on holdouts from training camp and the decree on a salary floor has made this offseason unique and interesting. However, did it make things better?

Depends on whose perspective you're taking here. It's clear the owners won the lockout because they now have way more leverage over players, both rookie and veteran, with the wage scale and the holdout policy. A guy wants more money, especially one drafted in rounds 2 or later from previous years (the dropoff into the second round for salaries is pretty epic... DeSean Jackson is only slated to make $565K whereas Darrius Heyward-Bey makes $2.42M), and not only does he have to grin and bear it, but now his holdout will cost him money and eat more into his bottom line. The first round picks now will make a fraction of what their forebears made. From that standpoint, the greedy shitbag owners got what they wanted with a minimal deflection of the salary floor, which really still amounts to pennies out of their pocket relatively speaking.

That being said, "only" $565K? While I can baffle at the average fan's siding with the owners over players (or at the very least their equal disdain for both sides in conflicts such as these), I can wholly understand their lack of sympathy for a guy like Jackson or Chris Johnson. Fans who plunk down their hard-earned cash to watch grown men play school yard games don't necessarily want to care about the economics (hm, sounds familiar on this, The Wrestling Blog, eh?). Quite frankly, this improves the quality of the game. It'll force more players into training camp on time, they'll be more prepared, and the quality of play will theoretically be sharper in week 1.

6. How long do you see Kyle Orton staying in Denver?

I thought he would have been gone already, and in fact, that Miami hasn't already traded for him means that I don't think he's going anywhere. If the Dolphins, a team struggling to find a QB for about a decade now in the post-Marino area, won't give up half of what the Cardinals gave up for Kevin Kolb, then I seem to think Orton, a valuable fantasy QB and not a whole lot else it seems, doesn't have the demand that the Broncos thinks he has. Looking around the league, there aren't a whole lot of teams that seem to think they have a need for a QB right now. Tennessee got themselves Matt Hasselbeck, a guy who may be washed up, but don't tell the Titans that. The Seahawks have hitched their wagon to Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Whether you think Orton is better than both those guys or not, it doesn't matter what you think. Pete Carroll thinks he can salvage T-Jax, so that's what's going to happen.

The best thing that can happen for Denver is for a marquee name to get injured and for Tim Tebow to prove everyone wrong and make the jump from college-fabulous player to sound NFL signal caller. It would make Orton expendable, but given that he's a capable QB being bandied about midseason, he'd still command a big price tag. Until then, I expect him to be a Bronco until the end of the year.

7. How will Albert Haynesworth fit in with the Patriots?

Bill Belichick has this track record of taking problem guys and reining them in at the very least. Look at Randy Moss. He was enough of a problem in the locker room everywhere he went that you could at least loosely correlate his behavior to the on-field performance of the team on the whole, but in New England, he was summarily kept in line. When he started to become remotely close to a problem, they shipped his ass to Minnesota.

Haynesworth at the very least was lazy and at the very worst a malignant sore sport on the field in his previous two stints in Tennessee and Washington respectively. That being said, he's doing and saying all the right things right now, which leads me to believe that he'll be useful to the Pats for a year or so, which is good for them, because their defense is coming along nicely and is ready to be a dominant force again. A motivated, healthy, in-check Haynesworth only makes them deadlier.

8. What player would you take first overall in fantasy this year?

As of right now, before any preseason games played, the top player on my radar is Jamaal Charles. Arian Foster produced out of his mind last year, but reports are saying that he's battling a sore hamstring. It's always troubling to see backs struggle with their legs. To me, that catapults Charles to the top of the heap. He split carries last year and still busted out with 1400+ yards rushing/1900+ total yards from scrimmage and 8 total touchdowns. Impressive for a guy who gave up most of his goal line carries to Thomas Jones. In TD only leagues, he may not be as enticing an option due to Todd Haley's refusal to use him at the goal line, and even in yardage leagues, his 6.4 yards per carry last year is a major red flag in that I doubt he keeps it up this year with increased carries. That being said, I'm not sure there's a better candidate in a traditional league.

In other types of leagues, other players may have more value. Leagues that weigh passing yards the same as yards from scrimmage dictate that you take hard looks at both Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers at the top spot. Point-per-reception leagues put LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and Peyton Hillis near the top along with Charles and Foster. It depends on the league, but I think you can't go wrong going with Charles.

9. I know you said you weren't doing predictions, but what team is your bust-out candidate this year?

The Rams seem to me to be on the verge of something special. Last year, Sam Bradford shocked the world, coming back from a year inactive in college to take every snap for his team and lead them to the doorstep of the playoffs despite the fact that they didn't have a receiving threat greater than the world's most famous shoot German suplex victim, Danny Amendola. This year, they brought in Mike Sims-Walker from Jacksonville, a proven threat who will give Bradford someone to target more reliably than last year's crops.

Their defense really impresses me too. They have a good young core with the right coach molding them into a fierce unit. I wouldn't be surprised to see them take the NFC West this year with a record better than the 7-9 slate posted by last year's divisional Champion Seattle Seahawks.

10. Again, I know you said you weren't doing full predictions right now, but who do you have in the Super Bowl this year?

It's a tough call, because we haven't seen any teams play live ball, even in somewhat-meaningless preseason play. There are also a lot of injury questions that have yet to be posed. My gut feeling is to say Packers and Jets. My super optimistic homer glasses tell me Eagles and Jets. My ultra-pessimistic outlook says Giants and Patriots. I dunno. I'll get a better feeling for this after week 4 of the preseason, but for now, let's pencil in Eagles and Patriots and go from there.

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