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Sunday, August 3, 2008

NFL Preview: Pre-Season Edition - Part 2

Missed Part 1? Click here..


Miami Dolphins

Position battle(s): Josh McCown vs. John Beck vs. Chad Henne (QB), Ronnie Brown vs. Ricky Williams (RB1), Derek Hagan vs. Ted Ginn Jr. vs. Ernest Wilford (WR1)

Keep an eye on: Ronnie Browns recovery from his ACL tear

No matter who wins the QB battle, it’s not going to matter. John Beck has so far been a bust, Josh McCown is a career fill-in and Chad Henne wasn’t even that great in college. It’s an obvious rebuilding year but it’s surprising they didn’t try and go after Favre. It would have been logical for both parties.

The key to the offense being productive at all will be how well Ronnie Brown can bounce back after his ACL injury last year. Luckily for him (and hopefully my fantasy team), it happened relatively early in the year last year and he’s had a substantial amount of time to recover. Ricky Williams isn’t a threat to start unless Brown isn’t 100% and will likely fill a 3rd down back role to take some of the load off of Brown.

Minnesota Vikings

Position battle(s): Sidney Rice vs. Robert Ferguson vs. Bobby Wade (WR2)

Keep an eye on: Tarvaris Jackson’s progression

Although the Vikings have arguably the best one-two punch in the league in the backfield, their receiving corps (save for Berrian) is relatively unproven or mediocre. The good thing is that Jackson and the aforementioned receivers can all develop at the same time which is always good for building rapport.

Jackson has shown steady (if a bit slow) progression since he first began to start in 2006. It helps a lot that he has Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor behind him at any given time so he’ll be able to focus more on his reads and check downs and less on whether or not the defense is focusing on him. Heading into his second full season as a starter and possessing a strong work ethic, don’t be surprised if Jackson comes out in the pre-season with a little extra zing on his throws and a spring in his step.

New England Patriots

Position battle(s): Jabar Gaffney vs. Chad Jackson (WR3), Kevin Faulk vs. Sammy Morris vs. Lamont Jordan (RB2), Marcus Pollard vs. David Thomas (TE2)

Keep an eye on: The sideline camera guys -- just kidding, just kidding..

The Jabar Gaffney/Chad Jackson battle might not mean much in the grand scheme of things since the Patriots will likely be using a lot of 4-WR sets. As for the backup RB, Kevin Faulk is getting up there in age and it seemed like Sammy Morris was poised to take over the duties. That is, until Lamont Jordan showed up in town. If you didn’t know: Jordan > Morris. It really won’t matter though, since Bill Belichick has apparently decided to take the RB by committee to another level. Forget two backs, let’s use all four of them! It makes sense though, since they’ve proved themselves to be one of the most dangerous passing attacks ever assembled.

Being a Patriots fan, I’m naturally aware that the Spy Gate jokes have been beaten to death -- but I had to do it. Sometimes witty jokes pop into my head and sound really funny while in there but end up not really translating very well into the real world.

New Orleans Saints

Position battle(s): Devery Henderson vs. David Patten vs. Lance Moore (WR2), Terrance Copper vs. Robert Meachem (WR4)

Keep an eye on: Deuce McAllister’s health and Reggie Bush’s progression

The Saints receiving corps, believed to be so strong after an incredible 2006, largely disappointed last year. With the addition of Jeremy Shockey and everyone relatively healthy, the Saints passing game could very well return to 2006 form. Most of the battling in New Orleans will be among the receivers -- of whom there are a shit-load.

Reggie Bush has either hit his ceiling or will continue to get better. Unfortunately for him, no Deuce McAllister meant he had to take the entire running game burden upon himself. A healthy McAllister will do wonders for Reggie’s play and more importantly, his growth. But if Deuce ends up getting injured again, they at least have the talented Pierre Thomas waiting in the wings.

New York Giants

Position battle(s): Derrick Ward vs. Ahmad Bradshaw (RB2), Mario Manningham vs. Sinorice Moss (WR4)

Keep an eye on: Eli Manning to see if winning a Super Bowl helped him in some way or if he’ll remain the same aw-shucks, middle of the road QB

Some are saying that Ward and Bradshaw could compete with Jacobs for the starting spot, but I doubt that. Why tinker with something that works? You’ll probably break it. Why would you even want to tinker with something that’s working in the first place? The two young wide receivers that the Giants spent high draft picks on recently will be battling it out for the WR4 spot. They’re both very talented and possess some game-breaking ability. They might not play a huge role this season, but they should be prominently involved in the offense over the next couple of years. Something like that is always worth keeping an eye on.

I’m still not sold on Eli Manning. I don’t mean to take away from the Super Bowl victory at all -- they deserved to win and the Giants as a team were fantastic. But if you ask me, the weakest link on that whole team during the Super Bowl run was Eli. Either he’ll gain confidence due to the Super Bowl ring on his dresser or he’ll be the same old Eli -- EG: Just as many interceptions as touchdowns, questionable leadership skills, the aw-shucks attitude no matter what the score. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

New York Jets

Position battle(s): Chad Pennington vs. Kellen Clemens (QB), Bubba Franks vs. Dustin Keller (TE2)

Keep an eye on: How Thomas Jones runs behind his newly improved offensive line

With a Favre to New York deal looking less and less likely by the day, the Jets will have to settle for the same situation they were faced with last year at this time. On one hand, they have Chad Pennington. He manages the game, he makes big plays from time to time and he gives them a chance to win. But his skills have been steadily declining with each passing year. On the other hand, they have Kellen Clemens. He’s a promising prospect who brings a lot of things to the table, most importantly being his big play ability. However, he is still young and inexperienced. If they decide to go with Clemens then they would likely be forgoing any chance at a post-season bid. We know who the Jets fans want, though, learning as such when they cheered after Pennington went down with an injury last year.

Thomas Jones was a huge disappointment in 2007, scoring a total of one -- count it -- one total TD. His season was blamed in large part to the incredibly poor play of the offensive line and so the Jets organization went out and remedied the situation during the off-season. Thomas Jones, meet Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. They actually know how to block! Crazy! This is officially the year that Jones can finally silence his critics who claim he‘s not starter material. If you can’t run well behind Alan Faneca, you can’t run well behind anyone. That’s a fact.

Oakland Raiders

Position battle(s): Justin Fargas vs. Darren McFadden (RB1)

Keep an eye on: JaMarcus Russell who is still essentially a rookie experience-wise

Even though Darren McFadden has been projected to be a cross between every Hall of Fame running back combined, the Raiders still insisted upon re-signing Justin Fargas to a three year contract. Call me crazy, but I think that’s a pretty clear indication that they plan on giving him some playing time this season. With JaMarcus Russell at QB, who is essentially still a rookie experience-wise, the Raiders will have to rely heavily on their running game. All in all, what everything means is that no matter who wins the starting job -- there’s likely going to be something like a sixty/forty split in regards to playing time.

Although JaMarcus Russell may have gotten the money he wanted, his holdout may come back to bite him in the ass this year. Under normal circumstances, he would be entering his second season as a starter and would have likely worked out a lot of the kinks that come with being a rookie QB. Instead, he’s in the same boat as he would have been last year, not to mention playing a large part in setting the Raiders offense back a year. But hey, I would probably do the exact same thing if given the opportunity. So there’s that.

Philadelphia Eagles

Position battle(s): Correll Buckhalter vs. Lorenzo Booker (RB2), Hank Baskett vs. DeSean Jackson (WR4)

Keep an eye on: How fresh Donovan McNabb looks

No matter how good a player is, they need a breather from time to time. Case in point: Brian Westbrook. Correll Buckhalter and Lorenzo Booker will be battling it out for the opportunity to be subbed in whenever Westbrook gets gassed. Buckhalter is a better runner where as Booker is a better receiver out of the backfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared the backup role with Booker seeing the passing situations and Buckhalter seeing the running ones. You know, since that would make sense.

The key to the entire Eagles season this year will be whether or not Donovan McNabb can stay healthy. When he’s on the field and healthy, he’s one of the best QB’s in the game. No matter how good you are though, it’s impossible to utilize your skills when your in a t-shirt and shorts on the sideline.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Position battle(s): Limas Sweed vs. Nate Washington (WR3)

Keep an eye on: How rookies Limas Sweed and Rashard Mendenhall adjust to the NFL

Ben Roethlisberger finally got his wish for a big possession receiver in Limas Sweed. Although it’s especially tough for a rookie receiver, it’s a lot less so when they wind up on a team with as many weapons as the Steelers offense has. Although Washington will probably edge out Sweed in camp, the Steelers will likely utilize Sweed in many red zone situations while slowly acclimating him to both their offensive system and to life in the NFL.

The other high-profile Steelers rookie, Rashard Mendenhall, has been generating a ton of buzz since the day he was drafted. Some have even gone so far as to write off Willie Parker and suggest that Mendenhall will eventually be the starter sooner rather than later. I like Mendenhall, I do and I think he’s going to be a very good RB. However, Willie Parker has rushed for more than 1200 yards in each of his last three seasons. Yes, he only got into the end zone twice last year. And yes, he broke his leg in Week 16 of last year -- which isn’t even that far away. But to write him off completely due to those reasons -- especially when he has been and still is one of the top backs in the NFL is just wrong. I don’t like this trend of over hyping rookies and predicting they’ll win a starting job when they haven’t even played an NFL down yet. Let’s just relax and wait until we have some tape of them in actual NFL games, shall we? Thanks.

San Diego Chargers

Position battle(s): Eric Parker vs. Craig Davis (WR3), Darren Sproles vs. Jacob Hester (RB2)

Keep an eye on: How healthy Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers look

Historically, LaDainian Tomlinson’s backups have found themselves in some very favorable situations. For one, whenever they come in the opposing defense is so relieved that LT is out for the time being that they don’t really pay too much attention to the replacement that’s spelling him. And two, the backups tend to get more carries as the game goes on which means the defense would be tired even if they weren’t trying to chase after LT all game as well. So it doesn’t really matter who wins the battle, as long as they’re halfway decent at running forwards.

It’s never a good thing when your starting QB partially tears his ACL late in the previous season and your top TE is coming off foot surgery going into the season. Even if Philip Rivers bounces back and is okay, Gates may miss some time in order to fully recover. Obviously, having Gates miss some games wouldn’t benefit the team -- but it’s even worse when you take into account that Antonio Gates has accounted for 29% of Philip Rivers total career passing yardage. Suffice to say, the organization is hoping they both make speedy recoveries. And yes, I calculated all of that all by myself. I try, I really do.

San Francisco 49ers

Position battle(s): DeShaun Foster vs. Michael Robinson (RB2), Ashley Lelie vs. Arnaz Battle (WR3)

Keep an eye on: The new look Mike Martz offense and if it can save Alex Smith’s career

Reports out of 49ers camp is that Martz has taken a liking to Alex Smith and that he is showing vast improvement and seems capable of running the offense. So barring a massive collapse by Smith, he appears to have the starting QB job on lockdown. Whoever wins the Foster/Robinson RB2 battle will see a bit more touches than your average backup due to Martz’s utilization of his entire depth chart.

Although Mike Martz’s track record of improving offenses and QB’s is impressive, San Francisco will be his toughest challenge yet. Good thing he’s considered an offensive genius because the 49ers offense last year was run by what is considered the exact opposite.

Seattle Seahawks

Position battle(s): Courtney Taylor vs. Logan Payne vs. Ben Obomanu (WR3), Julius Jones vs. Maurice Morris (RB1), Will Heller vs. John Carlson (TE1)

Keep an eye on: The entire RB situation, in particular whether or not Julius Jones can prove he deserves the majority of the carries

It appears that T.J. Duckett will be the short-yardage goal-line back and Julius Jones and Maurice Morris will battle it out for the starting job. Although, Holmgren has said that he is remaining open to the idea of using a RB by committee. And head coaches just don’t say that stuff off-hand, especially a Mike Holmgren type.

All three contenders for the WR3 spot are young and inexperienced but with the sky as their limit. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding both Payne and Obomanu although Taylor will be right in the mix once he gets back from a hamstring injury. With Deion Branch’s ACL tear keeping him out until late in the season at the earliest, the opportunity to move up the depth chart and become a mainstay Seahawks WR is ripe for the taking.

St. Louis Rams

Position battle(s): Dante Hall vs. Donnie Avery vs. Dane Looker (WR3), Travis Minor vs. Antonio Pittman (RB2)

Keep an eye on: Whether or not the offensive line can improve it’s pass protection over last year

The void left by the departure of Isaac Bruce was filled by Drew Bennett, who was the next in line on the WR depth chart. With Bennett moving up, the WR3 spot opened to all applicants and those applicants have turned out to be Dante Hall, Donnie Avery and Dane Looker. Along with being a rookie, Donnie Avery also cracked his hip bone and will miss up to two weeks of practice. Although that should give him time to study his playbook and learn the mental side of his position, so it may not be all bad. After an impressive 2003 season, Dane Looker has progressively declined in the four years since. This is mainly due to his limited playing time and if given the opportunity, he has the talent to succeed. Lastly, there is Dante Hall who is known primarily for his kick and punt returning prowess and not his receiving skills. Regardless, Hall apparently recognizes an opportunity when he sees one and has reportedly came to camp in excellent shape and is staking his claim for the WR3 spot.

The biggest question for the Rams going into 2008 is how the offensive line will hold up. After an astoundingly unusual amount of injuries last year to the O-line, Matt Bulger found himself basically being protected by practice dummies. He was consistently sacked, never had any time to throw and ended up with a serious concussion and some broken ribs. I think it’s safe to say that Bulger is quite excited about getting his offensive line back and healthy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Position battle(s): Jeff Garcia vs. Luke McCown (QB), Warrick Dunn vs. Michael Bennett (RB2), Michael Clayton vs. Ike Hilliard vs. Antonio Bryant (WR2)

Keep an eye on: Jeff Garcia’s health and overall performance

Although Jeff Garcia has defied the odds and put together a string of pretty impressive seasons these past few years, he’s not getting any younger and is likely feeling it more with each passing year. At the moment, Garcia is out of action with a calf injury that will likely keep him out of Tampa’s pre-season opener. In the other corner we have Luke McCown who fortunately appears to possess some talent unlike his brother, Dolphins QB and perennial mediocre QB Josh McCown. Luke looked impressive in his five games last year and despite some inexperience, is 11 years younger than Garcia. Always a good thing.

It would be unfair to say that Garcia had a poor 2007 season because he didn’t. With 2,440 yards, 13 TD’s and 4 INT’s it was actually quite respectable. The cause for concern with Garcia is injuries. While not a concern for his entire career, he has since been known to get banged up from time to time. At age 40, that risk will only get larger. He has also gotten a lot more conservative in his play, something the old Jeff Garcia was not known for. But he’s defied the odds before and he can surely do it again. Keep an eye on his health because as long as he can steer clear of the injury bug, the man can still play some quality football.

Tennessee Titans

Position battle(s): Chris Henry vs. Chris Johnson (RB2), Justin Gage vs. Roydell Williams (WR1), Justin McCareins vs. Brandon Jones (WR3), Alge Crumpler vs. Bo Scaife (TE1)

Keep an eye on: The progression and cohesion of the Titans young receiving corps

With the starting RB job all but wrapped up by LenDale White, Chris Henry and rookie Chris Johnson are left to battle it out for the backup role. The team went with a variety of backs last year, so whoever wins the job will probably be used to not just spell, but supplement White. Although many (including myself) have ripped the Titans organization for failing to get Vince Young a competent WR, I have to say that the more I take a look at the group of receivers they have, the more I think I understand what they’re trying to do. Even though Justin Gage and Roydell Williams will do battle for the top WR spot, whoever loses will fill in the WR2 spot. Both Gage and Williams had breakout 2007’s and with prominent roles in the offense can only get better especially as they get more and more acquainted with Vince Young. Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife, while not upper-echelon TE’s, should compliment each other well and give the Titans the opportunity to run double TE sets in a variety of situations.

Looking further down the depth chart at the wide receivers, you’ll stumble upon Brandon Jones, another promising young receiver. He’s seen limited action so far in his career but has produced when given the chance and showed a nose for the end zone as well. Justin McCareins looks to challenge Jones for the WR3 spot but has progressively declined since his best year in 2005.

Washington Redskins

Position battle(s): Devin Thomas vs. Malcolm Kelly vs. James Thrash (WR3), Todd Collins vs. Colt Brennan (QB2)

Keep an eye on: Jason Campbell’s progression in the West Coast offense

The Redskins surprised many people when they drafted two WR’s and a TE -- all in the second round of the recent 2008 Draft. While many are saying Thomas is the better of the two receivers, we’ll all be able to make our own decisions on that soon enough. Rookie TE Fred Davis won’t be the featured TE anytime soon with Chris Cooley ahead of him, but he should have a prominent role in Zorn’s West Coast Offense if he proves he’s capable.

Should some of the second round selections pan out then Jason Campbell will have himself some nice weapons to acquaint himself with for the foreseeable future. Yes, that would mean Campbell would have to pan out as well, but as long as he picks up on the West Coast Offense system, he’ll be fine. The Bengals refusal to trade Chad Johnson for many of the Redskins draft picks might just turn out to be the best thing that happened to the Redskins all year.

Enjoy the pre-season boys and girls!

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