Friday, August 31, 2007

2007 NFL Preview

Like a sold-out concert tour with three big-name performers, the gods of football will spend the next few weekends rolling out a package of pigskin acts in reverse order of demand. High school football has already gotten started in many parts of the country, major college football gets its first full slate of games in tomorrow, and then, one week later, the NFL gets under way in its entirety. Here at Give-and-Go, we’ll spend the next few weeks breaking down the NFL in a tiered system designed to give you an idea of who’s got a shot at playing in January, who’s plodding along toward mediocrity, and who’ll be spending a lot of time in Fayetteville, Ark., scouting Darren McFadden. And much like any good musical montage, we’ll save the best for last. In reverse order of hope, away we go…

Start charging $6 per hot dog and $20 for a foam finger, because you’re gonna need it for that signing bonus next April

32. Kansas City Chiefs

Boy, talk about some Hard Knocks. HBO’s latest darling of the documentary snuck into the playoffs last year at 9-7 thanks to the West Coast’s own version of Santa Claus, the San Francisco 49ers. Alex Smith and the boys stunned Denver in Mile High in overtime to close the regular season and the Chiefs’ reward was a backdoor entrance into a world of hurt via the Colts on Wild Card Weekend. The offseason saw the offensive line take a big step backwards, losing Willie Roaf to retirement and Jordan Black to the Texans in free agency. Damion McIntosh was brought in to replace Roaf at left tackle, but he suffered a knee injury during training camp and may miss the season opener.

The man this makeshift line is supposed to be opening holes for is Larry Johnson, who should be no worse for the wear after holding out through most of the preseason. Now that his new, $43-million deal is done, he should be ready to go from opening week. Of course, if you want to question how healthy he’ll be after an NFL-record 416 carries last year, be my guest.

The major problem lies at quarterback, where Trent Green was traded to Miami, leaving incumbent 11-year vet Damon Huard to battle second-year man Brodie Croyle for the starting job. Despite practically having the position handed to him on a platter, Croyle has all but attempted to give the job away during training camp, looking at best average and at worst atrocious in the preseason. And oh yeah, the defense. The unit that ranked 15th a year ago lost Sammy Knight and Lenny Walls, a definite hit for the secondary. Patrick Surtain and Ty Law are getting up there in age, and Surtain in particular has looked it. But most importantly, they have little to no depth if those guys go down. The linebacking core should be fine with the additions of Donnie Edwards and Nap Harris to go along with Derrick Johnson, but the defensive line is a mess outside of Tamba Hali. Rookie Tank Tyler will have to step up.

Wide receiver is another trouble spot. Eddie Kennison is in his 12th year in the league, and rookie Dwayne Bowe held out during camp. He’ll need to contribute quickly because outside of Kennison and Samie Parker, there’s no dependable receiver (Tony Gonzalez notwithstanding) to throw to.

Best case: LJ stays upright and motivated, Huard guts out some wins and the defense is average.
Worst case: Offensive line crumbles, cornerback tandem plays its age
The verdict: 4-12, last place in the AFC West

31. Cleveland Browns

Eight years after their reintroduction to the NFL, the Browns might finally be headed in the right direction. But they won’t be getting there yet. For the first time since they came back, the front office used a pick on an offensive tackle before the third round, nabbing Joe Thomas with the third overall pick. Nineteen picks later, they traded back into the first round to draft a quarterback worthy of Thomas’ protection, Brady Quinn.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they’re in the right train but they’re headed down the wrong track. They are the only team in football that is far and away the worst team in their division. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all have at least a legitimate shot of making the playoffs, something even the most die-hard brown and orange fan would be sluggish to admit. The other problem is their coach – Romeo Crennel is a fine coordinator but there are some serious issues with him as a head man. From the way he’s handled the quarterback derby in the preseason – which has more than somewhat resembled the four ugliest girls from high school vying for the homecoming crown – to the seemingly bizarre lack of communication he seems to have with, well, anyone on the sidelines, Crennel finds himself on the hot seat. And after the forgettable tenures of Chris Palmer and Butch Davis, this is a franchise that needs some stability at the top.

Jamal Lewis has looked good since coming over from Baltimore in the offseason. Eric Steinbach will team with Thomas and possibly, at some point, the injured LeCharles Bentley to give the Browns an actual stable wall in front of whoever lines up under center. At least for the first few weeks that will be Charlie Frye, but the bet here is that by the time the team’s bye week rolls around in Week 7, Quinn will be the guy Crennel turns to.

The defense is at least average and the offense features some playmakers who simply need someone to deliver them the football (Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, this means you), but in this division, this season, it’s not going to be pretty for a team that will sooner rather than later be breaking in a rookie quarterback.

Best case: Quinn forces his way into the lineup and develops a rapport with Edwards and Winslow, Lewis finds his old form
Worst case: Crennel refuses to settle on a starting QB well into the season, the defense wilts from the realization they can’t allow more than 14 points and expect to win
The verdict: 4-12, last place in the AFC North, and due to the trade for Quinn they'll send their first-rounder to Dallas

30. Oakland Raiders

The Raiders accomplished what I like to call addition by demolition in the offseason. Art Shell is no longer coaching the team. That alone is good for probably three wins. Sure, they hired Lane Kiffin, who, at 32, is younger than eight of his players. But Kiffin has good NFL bloodlines (father Monte is the Bucs’ defensive coordinator), and, being the youngest coach in the history of the league, he’ll certainly be out to prove his worth. Randy Moss was dealt across the country to New England, and considering he played in Oakland like he was a shell of his former unstoppable self and was publicly unhappy (however understandable that may be), that can’t really hurt either.

Fumble-prone Aaron Brooks is also long gone, and to replace him, the Raiders drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick in the draft. Only thing is, Russell is still unsigned and having missed all of training camp and the preseason, his year is likely shot if and when he does sign.

It would be nice if Robert Gallery morphed into something other than a turnstile. The former second overall pick in 2004 has struggled mightily at left tackle since his rookie season. He’s headed back to right tackle, where he dabbled early in his career, and his stepping up is critical for a line that has some pretty decent talent for which to block. LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes (once he returns from his four-game, substance-abuse suspension) are a nice one-two tandem at tailback, and rookie Michael Bush could be a fine goal-line presence in time.

Daunte Culpepper looks to be the starter at quarterback as the preseason closes, which could be either great or terrible, depending on which version of himself he plans on channeling for the upcoming season: 2003-2004 Daunte, who lit up the league with 64 touchdown passes, or 2005-2006 Daunte, who was injured and ineffective with the Vikings and Dolphins. The defense, one of the league’s better units a year ago, returns mostly intact, and despite reason for optimism on the other side of the ball, they’ll need to dominate in order for the Raiders to approach seven wins.

Best case: Culpepper of old returns, Jerry Porter makes up for the absence of Moss, former busts Travis Taylor and Mike Williams combine with Porter to give Daunte lots of big targets
Worst case: Defense can’t repeat last year’s excellence, Culpepper channels his inner Aaron Brooks, Kiffin loses the players’ attention early
The verdict: 5-11, third in the AFC West

29. New York Giants

What can the Giants be doing here? They made the playoffs last season and nearly beat the Eagles in the Wild Card round? Two big reasons: Tiki Barber’s retirement (and conversely, the question marks surrounding his replacement Brandon Jacobs), and the growing reputation quarterback Eli Manning seems to be gaining as a poor leader in the huddle.

Barber was one of the league’s best and most versatile backs for the last five seasons of his career. Jacobs is a hulking 6’4”, 264 pound back who runs upright and lacks the all-around game that Barber brought to the team. Much like a three-point specialist in basketball, Jacobs is good at what he does, in this case, pounding the clock and dragging defenders in goal-line situations, but when he’s getting the ball 25 times a game, things could well be a different story.

The more pressing concern, though, is Manning’s struggles. He posted decent stats a year ago but often looked lost and frustrated. No one will mistake Eli for his brother as a quarterback, but more important is their difference in demeanor. Peyton is fiery and will take the blame if he feels he screwed up yet at the same time isn’t afraid to let it be known when one of his teammates failed him. Eli appears timid and uninterested in being a leader on the field. With the pressures of New York and some outspoken teammates still around (Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey to name a few), one has to wonder whether Eli will progress.

Combine those elements with Tom Coughlin’s lame-duck status as head coach (the players have lost any respect they might have had for him) along with the fact the Giants play in a strong division) and you have trouble brewing. On paper the Giants might look like an 8-8 or 9-7 team, but with a defense that was 25th overall in the league last year and a lack of stable leadership on the field and on the sidelines, this is a team that could be headed for a swift, ugly decline.

Best case: Eli lets his arm do the talking, Jacobs shows he’s a bruising, upright runner a la Eddie George and the offense clicks into a balanced attack
Worst case: Coughlin further loses the team, Manning continues to work on his verbal jousting abilities with current or former teammates, the defense gives up as many passing yards as they did last year
The verdict: 5-11, last place in the NFC East

28. Houston Texans

Perhaps never has one seemingly insignificant loss in the middle of a season so aided a player’s status as Matt Schaub’s performance on Oct. 9, 2005, against the Patriots. With Michael Vick injured, Schaub threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl champs, and despite losing 31-28 (and being relegated to the bench a week later when Vick returned), the Schaub mythos was created. It took another season-and-a-half before the Falcons finally submitted to letting him go – a move that, oh, they might be regretting given their current situation at the position – but he has given new hope to a franchise that tired of seeing David Carr lying at the bottom of a pile of opponents.

But should this still-fledgling franchise be so excited over a quarterback who has made just one start of note in his three-year career? Probably not. And considering hometown boy Vince Young could be under center for the Texans (or at the very least, Schaub could be handing off to Reggie Bush), and you have to wonder how fast fans will turn on Schaub when he is off.

Amobi Okoye was a nice pick in the first round, and the Texans might eventually have themselves the makings of a real, live defensive line along with Mario Williams. DeMeco Ryans had a wonderful rookie year at linebacker, and cornerback Dunta Robinson is one of the best players few fans have heard of.

It’s still going to take this team time though. They are still two drafts away from being able to mount a serious contender, and that may be optimistic given the fact that they share a division with Indianapolis and perennial playoff contender Jacksonville. The wide receiving corps particularly needs work; after All-Pro Andre Johnson, the other wideouts would struggle to play extras in The Longest Yard. Rookie Jacoby Jones, however, has apparently been lighting up camp, so hope may be on the horizon.

Best case: Schaub, a rookie in many ways, has many more Patriot-like performances, Okoye and Williams create havoc up front, Johnson leads the league in catches again
Worst case: Schaub stays upright less often than a Real Madrid midfielder, Ahman Green’s best days are behind him, spotty defense doesn’t make plays
The verdict: 5-11, last place in the AFC South