With just a day left (!) until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?
In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:
In our last division preview, we take on the home of my beloved Dallas Cowboys…the NFC East.
This division was a graveyard of expectations last season, as the Eagles and Cowboys ignored their highly talented rosters in favor of mediocrity. The Eagles struggles, in particular, were shocking considering how aggressive they were in adding stars like Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin. Nevertheless, expectations for all four teams are high, from the defending Super Bowl champion Giants to the Robert Griffin-ized Redskins. As always, expect the unexpected when it comes to the NFC East…and by that I mean, expect the Cowboys to choke away three or four games and break my heart.
Here are my predictions for 2012:
1. Philadelphia Eagles: 11-5
Biggest Addition: DeMeco Ryans – Perhaps the Eagles ran out of money last offseason, or perhaps Andy Reid legitimately forgot all the different defensive positions (and also that offensive line coaches should NOT be defensive coordinators). Either way, the Eagles stuck themselves with one of the league’s most horrendous set of linebackers, essentially starting three backups. Given that, it’s safe to say that acquiring Ryans, a 2 time Pro Bowler, for only a fourth round pick easily qualifies as one of the biggest steals of the offseason. For many, many reasons, Ryans adds all kinds of legitimacy to this defense and the upgrade should pay huge dividends if he can stay on the field.
Biggest Loss: Jason Peters – The offensive line was bad enough as it was, so the loss of their best player is a massive blow. Obviously, the pass protection will be a huge concern without him, but the run blocking could be even more of a problem. Peters was terrific at sealing the edge for left end runs, something the Eagles did on a whopping 23% of their run plays. That number was easily the highest in the NFL, a full 12% higher than the league average. They blocked it up well too, averaging 4.78 adjusted line yards per carry. Unfortunately for them, that’s about all they blocked well for, as their adjusted line yards for every other run type were below league average. Big, big loss.
X-Factor: Demetress Bell – We switch from Peters to Bell, the guy brought in to fill the void at LT. Bell is a talented player, but has really struggled staying on the field. He managed just 6 starts last year and 8 starts in 2009, though he did post 16 in 2010. During that season, the Bills did the league in adjusted line yards on runs to the LT, though they only ran that way on 8% of rushing plays. Look, no one is saying Bell can ‘replace’ Jason Peters – not going to happen in a million years. The Eagles just need Bell to stay off the injury report and play solid, because if he fails, Vick will likely get hurt and the offense could potentially implode.
Biggest Question: Can Michael Vick stay on the field? The early answer to this persistent, never-ending question has been a resounding ‘NO.’ Thus far, Vick has already suffered a thumb injury and a rib injury, and though both turned out to be minor, they are just another reminder that the Eagles mega-talented QB is a porcelain doll. If he could stay on the field for just 14 FULL games – not counting those partial games where he gets knocked out early in the 4th – if he could do that, then I’d feel no trepidation in picking the Eagles.
Forecast: The Eagles were 6-4 after their bye week last year (despite three starts by Vince ‘I got cut for Tarvaris Jackson’ Young), with wins over Dallas (twice), the Giants, the red-hot Dolphins, and the Jets. In addition, their Pythagorean record was 9.8-6.2 and their DVOA ranking was 9th, giving an indication that at least some of their struggle last year was simply bad luck. Does that mean they’re a lock to succeed this year? Not by any stretch. Many of their problems last year were very real and their disappointing season is squarely on their heads. But with improved luck and a partially overhauled defensive scheme that isn’t designed to waste talent, the record should start to match the talent. If Vick can stay on the field, this could be a very dangerous team come playoff time.
2. New York Giants: 10-6
Biggest Addition: Keith Rivers – The G-Men didn’t tinker with the roster much, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering their roster just won the Super Bowl. However, if there was one area that needed addressing, it was at LB, and nabbing Rivers was a nice ‘buy low’ get for the Giants. Rivers has been productive when he’s been healthy, and at just 26, the upside is there for him to do even more. Of course, staying on the field has been the main problem. He missed all of last season and 13 games the previous three seasons, so this very well may not work out. It’s a worthwhile, low cost risk for them, however, as he is likely their most talented LB.
Biggest Loss: Terrell Thomas – Thomas missed every game last season with an ACL injury, but the Giants thought so much of him that they brought him back and let Aaron Ross walk to clear a starting position. Thus, it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy that Thomas once again tore his ACL, knocking him out for the second straight season. Except this time, the Giants don’t have Ross to fill the void.
X-Factor: Prince Amukamara – He had his own injury concerns last year, struggling through a constant foot issue that clearly limited him on the field, and wouldn’t you know it, he suffered a high ankle sprain in preseason. Fortunately for the Giants, there was no fracture and he’ll only miss, at most, a few weeks. Given the injury to Thomas, losing Amukamara for an extended period of time would have been like receiving the ‘Death Blow’ from Mortal Kombat. He has a ton of talent, and could be a huge stabilizing force for the secondary if he can get healthy.
Biggest Question: Can they stay healthy? There are other questions, but this injury thing is getting out of control in New York. Already, they’ve lost Terrell Thomas and Shaun Rogers for the year, seen Chris Canty and Travis Beckum placed on the PUP list, seen Marvin Austin continue to struggle with back problems, and have had to contend with troublesome (and potentially nagging) lower body injuries to Prince Amukamara and Hakeem Nicks. That’s a tough start for the defending Super Bowl champs.
Forecast: Some may be appalled that I’m not giving the division to them, but there is a good reason why the Giants almost missed the playoffs last season. They have more flaws than are being recognized, and current injury problems are only going to exacerbate them. The secondary isn’t great, the LB corps is underwhelming, the run defense is so-so, the run offense is hit-or-miss, and the offensive line is aging and spotty. What they do have, however, is a high-flying passing offense and the league’s best group of pass rushers. That was enough to sneak them into the postseason last year, and it should be enough to keep them in the hunt this year.
3. Dallas Cowboys: 8-8
Biggest Addition: Brandon Carr – Long term, Morris Claiborne is (hopefully) the more important addition, but the Cowboys aren’t thinking about three years from now. The window is quickly closing on this group and Brandon Carr offers the assurance of immediate help in what was, perhaps, the worst secondary in the NFL last season. AND HE’S NOT ALAN BALL!!! THANK GOD!!!
Biggest Loss: Laurent Robinson – This isn’t mean to sound condescending in any way, but I watched every Cowboys game last year and I’m not sure if everyone quite gets how amazing Laurent Robinson was last season. Not just as a slot guy, either. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant spent the majority of the season vacillating between ‘out’ and ‘less than 100%,’ leaving Robinson to pick up a large share of the workload. He responded with almost 1000 yards and 11 TD’s in just 14 games. Even more telling is his #8 ranking in DYAR and #4 ranking in DVOA. In short, he was explosive and efficient. I don’t blame Dallas for not committing big money to him, but the downgrade to Kevin Ogletree is huge.
X-Factor: Bruce Carter – Carter saw little action as a rookie last season, but the former second round pick has gotten significant buzz during camp and preseason and appears to have won the starting job over Dan Connor. That’s great news for a front seven that needs more than “solid and steady.” Carter is still raw, but he has tremendous athleticism and could pair with Sean Lee as one of the better playmaking pairs of MLB’s in the league.
Biggest Question: What is going on with this offensive line? If not for the Tyron Smith pick a couple years ago, I’d seriously wonder if Jerry Jones knew the offensive line was part of the game. For years it has been ignored, being patched up with late round rookies and castoff veterans. That strategy could very well end up being the undoing of this year’s team. Bad Bengals castoff Nate Livings was brought in to play LG, bad Panthers castoff Mackenzy Bernadeau was brought in to play RG, and bad incumbent center Phil Costa was kept on board to snap 15 or more balls over Tony Romo’s head. I don’t know how all this plays out in Jerry Jones head, but I’m pretty sure I know how it will play out in real life…(bad)
Forecast: 8-8…can’t accuse me of being a homer, can you? Really though, what is there to be excited about? This is the exact same team they always have! Tons of skill position talent, horrendous interior blocking, one-dimensional pass rush, awful safeties, even worse coach. The only things that have changed for the good is the additions of Carr and Claiborne, which drastically upgrades the CB spot. Unfortunately, that is off-set by the inexplicable downgrade of the offensive line, the continued insistence on paying/playing Anthony Spencer, and the already underway decimation of the team by injury. There will be great moments, there will be excruciatingly painful moments, there will be thrilling victories, there will be unbearable losses…all part of being a Cowboys fan.
4. Washington Redskins: 8-8
Biggest Addition: Robert Griffin III – The last time the Redskins had a true franchise QB was…was…umm…I guess Joe Theismann? For perspective, Theismann’s last year on the Redskins was the same year I was born, 1985. So yeah, it’s been awhile. As a Cowboys fan, I hate the Redskins with all my heart, but I have to applaud Mike Shanahan and the organization for their aggressiveness in landing Griffin, who is one of the few prospects legitimately worth such aggressiveness. Not only is he an immediate upgrade over what they have, he re-energizes the fan base and gives this team a legit superstar going forward. Great move…and I hate them for it.
Biggest Loss: The cap space they used on all those WR’s – Wait, you’ve heard this one before? Oh yeah, that’s right, the Redskins ALWAYS overspend on fringe starters and one year wonders! This year it was Pierre Garcon’s and Josh Morgan’s turn to rake in the money. At least with Garcon, the talent and a realistic hope of a ‘breakout’ is there…not so much with Morgan, who has never really given an indication that he is starter quality. The team better hope Garcon cleans up his routes and learns to actually catch the ball, or else they will have purchased $42.5M of go-route’s and deep posts.
X-Factor: Trent Williams – The team has wisely focused on adding key core pieces like a QB and pass rushers, giving them a solid foundation to build on. Trent Williams was supposed to be one of those core pieces when the team drafted him fourth overall to play LT. While he’s had moments of dominance, he’s had even more moments of being really high…on marijuana. Williams needs to get his act together both on and off the field or he’ll soon go down with Heath Shuler as one of the biggest draft busts in Redskins history. If he ever does get it going, he can be really special, and goodness knows a young QB like Robert Griffin could use a dominant blind side protector.
Biggest Question: How will the secondary hold up? This wasn’t a particularly talented or effective group last season, and there’s a distinct chance they’ll be even less talented and even less effective this year. That chance grew even more likely when starting safety Tanard Jackson was suspended indefinitely for substance abuse violation. That leaves Washington with Brandon Meriweather (horrible last season) at one safety, Madieu Williams (not even the Vikings wanted him) at the other safety, oft-torched DeAngelo Hall (completion percentage against of 67%) at one corner, and Josh Wilson (solid) at the other. The ‘Skins have to hope for a surprise player (or two) and a career year from one or two guys or else this could be a disaster.
Forecast: Pains me to say, but the Redskins are finally trending upwards. Griffin is an electrifying talent and acquiring a franchise QB like him is exactly what it takes to succeed in today’s NFL. So why only 6 wins, you might ask? Growing pains. Griffin is not Andrew Luck. He did not have the luxury of having an NFL QB for a dad. He did not have the luxury of playing in an NFL system, for an NFL coach who started 140 games as an NFL QB. Griffin played in a gimmicky spread system in a watered down Big 12 and his adjustment to the NFL will likely be far more like every other rookie QB. So while his surrounding cast might be better than Luck's, his ability to maximize it likely won’t be. And hey, it’s not the supporting cast is great or anything. Even if he does blow up Cam Newton-style, the defense might similarly let him down. Not this year, Redskins fans…but not far down the road, it will be.