Every year, the NFL sees a cellar dweller from the prior year’s campaign rises up from the ashes and shocks the public with a sudden boon of proficiency. Figuring out who that team might be before it happens is nearly impossible, mostly because team chemistry and confidence don’t show up on paper. Nevertheless, year in and out, we idiots try like hell to wipe the film off our crystal ball and, with careful analysis, get the edge over the random, dart-throwing mouth-breathers.
However, this time around, I’m not going to pronounce my most-likely-to-succeed. Instead, I’ve identified a handful of teams that bettered themselves the most in the off-season and hope that one of them on the list gels so I can finally prove that thorough examination of the facts consistently beats dumb luck and gut feelings.
Of all the teams on this list, the Bears might have the most upside – and it all started with the staff. Much maligned GM Jerry DeAngelo left along with OC Mike Martz. DeAngelo’s replacement, Phil Emery, brought immediate help to QB Jay Cutler by trading for Brandon Marshall and drafting a younger version of Marshall in WR Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina). Martz’s throw-to-a-spot philosophy coupled with a suspect offensive was a terrible combination and never a good fit for Cutler, whose arm strength is far superior to his accuracy.
With the receiving core shored up, attention moved to the running game. Matt Forte finally received a much deserved payday, despite concerns about his durability. The Bears addressed this by adding a stellar back-up and potential goal line/short-yardage back in Michael Bush. Emery capitalized on the Raiders’ post-Davis era close-out sale and solidified another weak point by acquiring what some say is the best back-up QB in the league, Jason Campbell.
Still a concern is the offensive line, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and with the Martz-system gone, it won’t be necessary for Cutler to hold the ball for an eternity. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice is an ex-offensive line coach and should be able to improve on the existing line’s technique. Also, look for the tight end to play or more prominent role in 2012 under the former TE, Tice. It’s a shame Greg Olsen isn’t still around to reap the benefits of this new scheme, but Kellen Davis could be the benefactor – especially inside the 10.
The defense is aging and feeling a sense of urgency, but the nucleus should be solid for at least another year. This may be the season that the Bears battle with Green Bay for the division.
It’s unlikely that Tampa can right the pirate ship in a single year, but new coach Greg Schiano (Rutgers) has made tremendous headway in the offseason. Schiano’s blue collar mentality should help a team that lacked discipline, drive and direction.
In addition to a solid draft, the team was active in free agency, landing one of the pond’s biggest fish in WR Vincent Jackson. They spent a second round pick on the dynamic RB, Doug Martin (Boise St), to help awaken a plodding run game.
Defensively, the team selected stud safety, Mark Barron (Alabama), as the 7th overall pick. Ronde Barber will return for his 16th season to help mentor Barron. The team is counting on second round pick, LB Lavonte David (Nebraska) to be the second-coming of Derrick Brooks.
To expect a team this young to regain the success they experienced in 2010 is a bit much. When you factor in the strength of the division, it’s unlikely that the Bucs can via for a playoff slot, but they should be much more competitive in 2011. If QB Josh Freeman and Jackson can develop some early chemistry, they could quickly become one of the more productive duos in the league. With Martin as a viable third-down option, you should see Freeman return to the form that had fantasy football owners drooling two years ago.
New Head Coach, Jeff Fisher has done quite a bit of house cleaning in St. Louis and the general consensus among the league pundits is that all changes are for the better. The defense should be immediately improved with strong additions in the secondary. Controversial Courtland Finnegan comes over from Tennessee and will likely work aside highly touted rookies, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. On the line, defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long make up one of the more formidable pass-rushing tandems in the league and make up the strength of the team.
Fisher has been known to run his RBs hard – especially when their worthy of carrying the load. Expect to see Steven Jackson get a glut of activity this year with rookie Isaiah Pead (Cincy) serving as a complementary change-of-pace back.
The receiving core offers lots of options for QB Sam Bradford, yet all come with major “buts”. Rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens both look promising, but asking them to step into starting roles might be a bit much, as both are unpolished. Fisher has been very high on former Giant, Steve Smith, but, historically, micro-fracture recoveries have been ruinous to a WR’s career. Danny Amendola should return from his dislocated elbow, but his tenacity far exceeds his raw ability. Donario Alexander and Greg Salas are both raw and both coming back from shortened 2011 campaigns. They should compete for first-team time, but it’s anyone’s guess at this point in the season who might surface as Bradford’s go-to guys.
On the less murky side, don’t forget about TE, Lance Kendricks. While he didn’t meet the high expectations fantasy owners had for him in 2011, a new offensive scheme and a year of familiarity with Bradford could pay off – especially with WR position so unsettled.
So who from the list will make the leap to success and be this year’s 49ers? Probably none of the above. The Seahawks have new uniforms, so look out for them. Something preposterous like that will be the difference. And when it happens, I’ll exhale deeply from my mouth and proudly claim, “I told ya so”.