NFC East Power Rankings

Out of all the divisions in the NFL, The NFC East (or the Beast as it is commonly referred to) is more competitive than any other. The winner of this division has changed nearly yearly, and last year, the least likely team headed into 2012 ended up taking it by the skin of their teeth in week 17. Heading into 2013, three of the four teams could easily be seen as division favorites, while the fourth is in a retooling stage that could result in their eventual ascension back to the top of the heap. In terms of purely ranking the four teams, this is no doubt the hardest division for me to predict.

1 – New York Giants

Eli_Manning

Overview:
The football Giants seem to take a step forward, then backward, then forward, in a strange cycle that has netted them two Superbowl championships and three seasons without a postseason berth since 2007. 2012 was a rough year for everyone in the East, and while their 9-7 record could have sent them to the postseason, it didn’t pan out that way. I expect the cycle to revert back in 2013, despite the heavy competition around them.

Strengths:
It all starts with Eli Manning, once a laughing stock and constant source of criticism, and today one of the NFL’s more steady and consistent QBs with a couple of rings to show for his improvement. When Eli drops back, he’s going to be looking at one of the most dangerous groups of passcatchers in the NFL, including Hakeem Nicks (who needs to stay healthy), Victor Cruz (who needs to live up to his new contract), ex-Raiders TE Brandon Meyers (who caught 79 passes in Oakland last year), and when things down the field look iffy, he’ll have a pretty good swing back in David Wilson to dump it off to. Wilson only caught 4 balls in 2012, but he averaged 8.5 yards per reception and should see his targets increase. There’s also a high level of expectation for him to shine as the starting RB, and he had some huge flashes of dynamic playmaking last year. Andre Brown is an excellent 2nd HB and could take more than a few carries away from Wilson, as Head Coach Tom Coughlin favors spreading the carries around anyway.

While the team was consistently put in bad situations due to their defense in 2012, certain players should help improve the unit. Jason Pierre-Paul’s season ending injury is a thing of a past, and he needs to return to his 2011 form, as he was one of the league’s most dominating defensive players that year. Justin Tuck may be past his prime, but if he can keep himself motivated, he’s still capable of disrupting things across the line. Overall, there isn’t a team in the NFL who isn’t envious of the Giants’ depth on their D-Line, and they’ve proven over the years to be adept at cycling players in and out and taking advantage of key mismatches. On the back end, Antrell Rolle is one of the better safeties in the league, and Stevie Brown is a ballhawk across from him, hauling in 8 INTs in 2012.

Causes For Concern:
All the skill position talent will mean nothing if the offensive line doesn’t come together, stay healthy and stay consistent. Throughout two preseason games, issues have already arisen, and between injuries to starters and key depth players alike, this unit could very well be the Giants’ undoing in 2013. Many were surprised to see the Giants take an offensive lineman in the first round, but Justin Pugh may have a lot of work ahead of him if, as it seems, he’ll be starting at RT.

The linebacking corps is one of the least flashy and vanilla in the NFL, and without improved play across the line, the weaknesses of this unit will be taken advantage of once again. Even with improved play from the front four, not being able to count on your LBs for anything more than (hopefully) meeting their assignments is a bad sign. The CB position is also iffy, with Corey Webster having a shaky 2012 and Prince Amukamara not quite living up to expectations to date. There is some…interesting…depth at the position, and maybe a young guy or two can step up and help round out the secondary. But that’s a big if at one of the most pivotal positions on the team.

Playoffs?:
I have them winning the division, but most certainly not homefield advantage. Even if my prediction is off, the team that does win the Beast will do it with a record no better than 10-6. The competition is going to be fierce, and if New York wants to rise above it, they’re going to need their stars to do what they do best, their offensive line to hold together, and the holes in their defense to be masked by improved D-Line play. Those are the keys to the division crown for the Giants.

2 – Washington Redskins

RGIII

Overview:
While it seems like everyone saw it coming, in retrospect nobody could have predicted that Robert Griffin III would lead the Redskins to the division crown in 2012. His emergence as both a solid passer and dangerous runner was only part of the equation, but it is the pivotal part nonetheless. Who nobody saw coming was Alfred Morris, the rookie RB who seemed to do everything right en route to a Probowl-caliber season. The Skins have just as much of a chance at the division as the Giants, but I am going out on a limb and saying they take a slight step backwards…or at least stay idle while New York takes the step.

Strengths:
Beyond RGIII and Morris, the team has some real weapons in the passing game. If Pierre Garcon stays healthy, he’s already proven the sort of dangerous deep threat he can be. Joshua Morgan and Leonard Hankerson are interchangeable at the 2nd WR spot, and both are improving talents. Fred Davis still needs to be accounted for at TE, and Darrel Young is one of the best lead blockers in the NFL at FB. The team is also stout on the left side of the O-Line, with Probowler Trent Williams keeping RGIII’s blindside clear and LG Kory Lichtensteiger a solid compliment. Will Montgomery completes the package and is a dependable center. Oh, and let’s not forget that this team has the sort of depth at QB that most teams would trade a couple year’s worth of 1st round picks for. Kirk Cousins may end up being the real deal as a starter on some other team down the line, and Rex Grossman is the sort of backup you want; one with experience and knowledge.

The return of Brian “Geico” Orakpo will help a defense that overachieved in 2012, and combined with Ryan Kerrigan they give the Skins a dangerous pass rushing duo. The ageless London Fletcher is returning for his 16th season, and his leadership and seemingly bottomless tank will be needed. The defensive line is underrated, especially with the strength of Barry Cofield in the middle. Washington is looking forward to seeing if Jarvis Jenkins can thrive at the right DE spot after a so-so 2012 campaign. On the back end, the team is crossing its fingers that their handful of draft picks and a healthy Brandon Meriweather, alongside the returning DeAngelo Hall, can help shore up the weakest part of the 2012 squad.

Causes For Concern:
Depth on the offense line is an issue, and the right side can often collapse, which necessitates the usage of the pistol offense even more so. Injury concerns abound on offense, from the centerpiece (and offseason go-to story for every sport media outlet known to man) RGIII to Garcon and a handful of others.

The secondary has to step up, along with the pass rush, or else the defense will once again have to play above and beyond themselves simply to keep Washington in contention. DeAngelo Hall is nothing more than a gambler, who will be burned about as often as he comes with with a big play. There’s simply no way to know, until the season starts, if the key pieces and rookies will come together and DC Jim Haslett’s job easier. Despite all the concern surrounding Griffin, this is the real question mark for the Redskins in 2013.

Playoffs?:
In an ultra-competitive NFC, projecting the two wild card teams is a tall order, but I fully expect Washington to be in the mix all the way into January. Whether or not they get over the hump, or possibly take the division again, will depend on a combination of staying healthy and making major strides defensively. Believe it or not, there’s also the issue of Mike Shanahan outsmarting himself, as he did more than once in his Denver days and showed signs of doing again in 2012. He needs to stick with what works, keep his injured players on the shelf until they’re cleared for action (and cleared again, just as a precaution), and more than anything stay out of the team he helped build’s way.

3 – Dallas Cowboys

romo

Overview:
Optimism, like every other season, is high and strong in Dallas coming into 2013. A change in offensive and defensive philosophies, a QB with more to say about what’s going on on the field, and a few key players returning from injury, and you’ve got a recipe for Jerry Jones and company to pat themselves on the back earlier than most teams would dare. The Cowboys have always given off a sense of confidence, but recent troubles getting to and then winning in the postseason have the doubters doubting and questions rising across the roster, and on the sidelines as well. This very well may be HC Jason Garrett’s last dance if some improvement isn’t seen from 2012.

Strengths:
While his critics are many, there’s little doubting that Tony Romo is a superior option to most QBs in the NFL. His tendency to collapse in pressure situations is a little overblown if you ask me, and the guy produces the sort of numbers that make most teams envious. Of course, he has some talent on the receiving end of his passes, including the suddenly emerging Dez Bryant, who has all the ability in the world and finally brought it to the field in the back half of 2012. Miles Austin, when healthy, is still a capable option, and despite Jason Witten’s age, he’s still Romo’s security blanket and puts up good numbers.

There is talent all across the defense, and it starts with a strong front seven. The transition to a 4-3 base defense will most likely incorporate plenty of 3-4 looks while talented LBs such as DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee adapt to the change. The team took a sizable hit recently when they learned that DT Jay Ratliff will be lost for the 2013 campaign, but he hasn’t quite played up to his early production the past few seasons. Anthony Spencer is still with the team for at least another year, and the team will count on his disruptive abilities as he transitions to playing with his hand to the ground. The team has envious talent at the CB position as well, with Brandon Carr and the young and steadily improving Morris Claiborne manning the edges of the defense.

Causes For Concern:
The running game has been an issue in Dallas for years now, and if Demarco Murray can’t stay healthy and stay consistent, the depth behind him is rather shallow. What exacerbates this, and may even limit Romo’s ability to generate in the passing game, is an offensive line that has question marks at almost every position. The team reached a bit in drafting center Travis Frederick in the 1st round, but he’s expected to start immediately and contribute to an interior that lacks solidity. While Tyron Smith looks like a solid bookend at LT, Doug Free is a wildcard at the opposite tackle position. If the line can’t maintain, the Cowboys are going to be in a dire situation.

Beyond the health concerns and lack of depth on defense, the safety position is a gaping hole that the team amazingly felt no reason to address in the offseason. Barry Church has shown little in past seasons, but is penciled in as the FS as of right now. Opposite him, the aged and limited Will Allen offers little beyond run support. If the pass rush doesn’t help compensate for this weakness, the Cowboys will once again watch the middle of the field turn into a playground for opposing offenses.

Playoffs?:
While it’s entirely possible, almost as possible as the teams I have ranked above them, something tells me Dallas will be on the outside looking in once again when the regular season concludes. The offense has talent to spare, especially in the passing game, but it won’t matter if the line doesn’t do its job. And the defense is an injury or two from being in trouble, not to mention questions regarding the change in scheme. The cards are stacked against the Cowboys just a little higher than the Giants or Redskins, and if it all plays out the way I think it will, somebody else will be leading this team into 2014.

4 – Philadelphia Eagles

chip-kelly-2013-9593abc82eb2c8d8

Overview:
After three progressively worse seasons, with decisions that seemed counterproductive in retrospect, Andy Reid was jettisoned to mixed comments of “It’s about time” and “He was the best coach we ever had and we’re going to regret this”. You’ll get no argument from me about Reid’s early success, but now it’s college hotshot and revolutionary offensive mind Chip Kelly’s time to shine. The only problem is, with his current roster and all the changes in scheme and personnel, that time is most likely a year or three off.

Strengths:
While he disappeared for much of 2012, LeSean McCoy is still a premiere HB in the NFL, and I think he’s going to return to form in a major way this year. Kelly’s offenses have always leaned heavily on the run, and there’s no way he doesn’t utilize the sort of weapon McCoy represents. The passing game took a hit when projected starter Jeremy Maclin was lost for the year early in the offseason, but with DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Brent Celek and Riley Cooper, the options in the passing game are there. I’m especially looking forward to seeing if Jackson can return to his younger, more productive form, and if Cooper can build on some solid play in 2012. Believe it or not, the Eagles may, may, sport one of the best offensive lines in 2013, especially if the injury-ravaged portion of it returns at 100%. Reports have been good regarding Jason Peters, who was, prior to 2012, one of a handful of top LTs in the league. With Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans, Jason Kelce and 1st round pick Lane Johnson rounding out the line, there is potential for great things here. Health, of course, is the key.

Defensively, things start looking bleak. The new regime let go of more than a few players who either underperformed or proved they weren’t justified in being on the field at all in 2012, and went on a signing spree to help fill the gaps. The new 3-4 scheme may take some adjusting to, but signing Issac Sopoaga to clog the middle at DT was a wise choice. The LBs, especially if Trent Cole takes to playing from a stand up position (or if new D Coordinator Billy Davis is flexible enough to show more 4-3 looks), look to be the strength of the defense. DeMeco Ryans is solid but unspectacular in the middle, and newcomer Connor Barwin could help with the pass rush.

Causes For Concern:
For most fans in Philadelphia, another year of Michael Vick behind center is concerning for a number of reasons. First and foremost? Turnovers. Few players in the NFL give up the rock as often as Vick, and he’s being doing this since his Atlanta days so there’s no reason to expect it to change. Also, there are very few who expect him to last 16 games, and many who would rather see Nick Foles starting anyway, even if Chip Kelly didn’t see enough from him to name him the starter. Everything around the QB position seems to be at least potentially great, and all eyes will be on Vick (or Foles when/if Vick goes down) to make it all come together.

The defense is going to have some major growing pains, and will be the main reason why the Eagles will be out of contention for the division this year. The secondary, the weakest spot on the D in 2012, will probably continue to hold this distinction in 2013 despite the additions of Cary Williams at CB (Baltimore) and Patrick Chung at SS (New England). Williams has plenty to prove, but Chung has at least shown the ability to play at a high level, even if it was three years ago. If the new scheme doesn’t click, coach Davis is going to have to adapt, because the talent is there along the front seven to at least stay competitive. But competitive in a division featuring Eli Manning, RGIII and Tony Romo isn’t going to be good enough.

Playoffs?:
Not this year. In a division where anything can happen, the least likely would be the Eagles finding themselves in the postseason, as division champs or otherwise. It is going to take time and the inevitable growing pains for Chip Kelly to implement his plan, and at least one more offseason to assemble the talent (particular on defense) to make it happen on the field. If anything, the Eagles under Kelly will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2013, even if the results aren’t what fans want to see.

AFC West Power Rankings

On the surface, and pretty much all the way down to the core of the division, this is a one-team race going into 2013. The Denver Broncos, quietly building their strength for several years before the addition of Peyton Manning brought them as close to the top as they’ve been since the Shanahan years, are that team. The rest of the division will have to reach deeper than deep to possibly contend for the title…but that may be asking too much, especially considering the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders all finished the 2012 season with losing records. Whether or not any of them can contend will depend on the new systems, schemes and roster additions they’ve made.

1 – Denver Broncos

peyton16

Overview:
While Tim Tebow and the bulk of the same Broncos team heading into 2013 turned many heads with their postseason appearance in 2011, the new regime, including head football man John Elway and new HC John Fox, quickly set about jettisoning Tebow and cashing in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. It paid off, at least in the regular season; 5 more games won and a 13-3 overall record. However, they got no further in the playoffs than they did when Tebow was behind center, losing a nail biter in the Divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens. Despite that, a few key additions and a year’s worth of chemistry-building between Manning and his deep receiving core make the Broncos easy favorites to represent the AFC in the Superbowl.

Strengths:
Where to start? Manning disproved many doubters by showing no ill effects from a series of neck surgeries, operations that many doctors claimed were career-threatening. His arm strength is still there, and his mental acumen, always his strongest suit, is peerless. The duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker provide Manning with an envious receiving core, and you can bet the bank on newcomer Wes Welker becoming a prominent part of the passing game as well. While his touches were limited, Ronnie Hillman provides the sort of swingback that should excel in Manning’s offense. Rookie Montee Ball may be the real deal, and Knowshon Moreno, despite his ups and downs, is a capable back, giving the team a stable in the backfield. Joel Dressen and Jacob Tamme provide reliable outlets at the TE position. Few teams in the league have the skill position depth and talent that the Broncos possess.

Denver tied for the league lead in sacks last year, a dominant pass rush led by Von Miller and his 18.5 contribution to the team’s 52 overall QB takedowns. Along with solid LB play, the Broncos defense in 2012 gave up a paltry 289 points, a number bested by only 3 other teams. Champ Bailey continues to play solid football at his advanced age, and overall the names across the defense may not jump out at you, but they play fundamentally sound and have a great leader in coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Causes For Concern:
Injuries across the offensive line are already starting to stack up, and that is a dangerous thing when the season hasn’t even started yet. When Dan Koppen went down for the season, the team turned to Peyton Manning, who in turn lured his ex-Colts teammate Ryan Lilja out of retirement to at least add depth to the position. Projected starter Manny Ramirez has zero starts in his career. LT Ryan Clady is recovering from shoulder surgery, and is being treated delicately at this point, the team knowing full well the importance of protecting Manning’s blind side.

The team’s Achilles’ Heel in 2012 was its safety play, and the projected starters (Mike Adams, Rahim Moore) are the same as they were last year, which has to raise some eyebrows. The team hopes that the aged Quentin Jammer can help provide depth and situational play at the position, and also that ex-Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can play more inspired than he did in Philly in 2012 at the CB position. The depth in the secondary is generally thin, and if the pash rush isn’t consistent, this is an area that can be (and was last year) exploited. Losing pash-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil to the now-infamous fax machine debacle will hurt, but the team has to hope that Shaun Phillips, taken off the hands of division rivals San Diego, can help lessen the loss.

Playoffs?:
The Broncos in 2013 are the closest thing to a sure bet for the postseason as you’ll find. Their division is more than a step behind them in terms of talent, and all Denver has to do is continue to play up to their capabilities to take it, and hopefully win a playoff game or two. The path to the Superbowl is longer than the regular season, and more than anything, Peyton Manning knows this and has to keep his eyes on the prize, because it wasn’t just the secondary that cost them an AFC Championship appearance in 2012.

2 – San Diego Chargers

philip-rivers

Overview:
The last couple of years in San Diego have been rough. The constant run of playoff appearances is a thing of the past, and many of the team’s best players have either moved on or moved past their prime. The current state of the franchise at the end of 2012 was seemingly the final straw for HC Norv Turner, as he was replaced by former Broncos OC Mike McCoy. Also in is new GM Tom Telesco, whose job now will be to replenish a roster that is notably thin on talent on both sides of the ball. That could start in-house, with young guys stepping up and established veterans (Phillip Rivers in particular) playing up to expectations.

Strengths:
Despite his struggles in recent seasons, Rivers is still an excellent QB. Problems arising around him are mostly to blame for his increased INT numbers and general statistical dropoff, something that needs to be rectified if San Diego wants to progress. Antonio Gates, even at 33, is still Rivers’ best option in the passing game, but he’s not quite the same unstoppable force he was in his youth. The WR position is essentially a handful of journeymen, and the Chargers have to work at developing 2nd year wideout Vincent Brown and promising rookie Keenan Allen to help improve a position that hasn’t looked the same since Vincent Jackson took his talents to Tampa Bay. The RB position is flaky at best, and it’s hard to tell what it will look like if Ryan Mathews doesn’t (finally) step his game up. The addition of Danny Woodhead offers a versatile option both running and catching the ball. The offensive line should be improved, with 1st round pick D.J. Fluker at RT and the consistent Nick Hardwick providing strength in the middle.

Defensively, things are looking up. DE Corey Liguet made a big jump in production in his 2nd season, and was probably a Probowl snub in 2012. Newcomer Dwight Freeney might still have something left in the tank going into his 11th season, and he’ll need to help soften the loss of pass rush specialist Shaun Phillips. One of the biggest moves the Chargers made this offseason (having nothing at all to do with the non-football headlines, mind you) was drafting Manti Te’o. I have a very good feeling about the kid, and he should end up being the piece that helps shore up the middle of the defense, a spot that was worrisome just a year ago. In the secondary, Eric Weddle is one of the absolute best at his position, and knowing he’s back there at FS making big plays is a definite comfort. The addition of Derek Cox (Jacksonville) should help the CB position at least moderately, as he does have solid ball skills but needs to improve his overall consistency.

Causes For Concern:
If improvement isn’t seen on the offensive line, the Chargers are going to be in serious trouble once again. Rivers was sacked a whopping 49 times in 2012, and the run blocking wasn’t much better, but that blame is shared with the lack of a quality running game. If the team is serious about putting Eagles castoff King Dunlap at LT, you can expect the rush coming at Rivers’ blind side to be problematic, as Dunlap is simply a huge body without the footwork needed to stop the edge rush. The running game looks thin behind Matthews, irregardless if he steps his game up, and as I mentioned, the lack of proven talent at WR is also a worry.

While the defensive side of the ball looks to be the team’s strength at this point, there are still questions. Cam Thomas had issues clogging the middle at DT. Rookie Kwame Gathers may have to step into this pivotal position and help improve the interior of the defense. The back 7 is a mixed back, and beyond Te’o (if he pans out, of course) and Weddle, things are shaky at best. Donald Butler is solid at one OLB, but Freeney’s motor may be depleted, and there are serious questions as to where the pash rush will come from. The secondary is in general solid, but depth concerns remain, and the entire unit, which was a top-10 in most statistical categories in 2012, needs to remain healthy and continue to progress in order to give the team a chance at success.

Playoffs?:
If a handful of pivotal situations play out in their favor, the Chargers could compete for a wild card slot, but don’t expect them to outplay the clearly superior Broncos this year. The offense is such a question mark at this point that it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of a postseason berth, something that was commonplace only a few years ago. Things have changed in San Diego, and that change may continue for another couple of seasons before the Chargers are back to where they need to be.

3 – Kansas City Chiefs

Jamaal-Charles

Overview:
2012 was a disaster for the Chiefs, and yet they still sent 5 players to the Pro Bowl. The changes that needed to be made were blatantly obvious, and with the departure of Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel, Kansas City hopes their replacements can make better use of what is a very talented roster overall. Andy Reid’s last three seasons in Philadelphia were bad, and being from the area, I can tell you that he had worn out his welcome well before the 2012 season even started. The fresh start that Kansas City represents might be just what he needs to bring him back to his glory days. At QB, Alex Smith’s sudden demotion and eventual dismissal from the 49ers may play to the benefit of the Chiefs, who grabbed him up early in the offseason and are looking forward to seeing if his increased productivity in San Fransisco can translate in another town.

Strengths:
It’s hard to call him a strength, but it’s also not fair to call him a weakness: Alex Smith is what he is, a capable QB whose game is often only as good as those of the players around him. Lucky for him, he’ll be handing off to one of the most electrifying HBs in the game in Jamaal Charles. Here’s a guy who has averaged over 5 yards per carry over his first four seasons; the real deal. For Alex Smith, when he’s not feeding Charles, he has one of the NFL’s better wideouts in Dwayne Bowe to target. Rounding out the offense are impressive bookend tackles, including this year’s first overall pick Eric Fisher starting on the right side, and after some confusion regarding what team he’d end up playing for in 2013, Branden Albert is back to solidify the LT position.

Defensively, Kansas City has some excellent pieces, including perennial Probowlers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. The former is a pass rushing specialist who has totaled 33.5 sacks over the past three seasons. Johnson is an all-purpose, playmaking OLB who gets to the ball consistently. The team has some solid depth in the secondary as well, with Brandon Flowers and Miami transplant Sean Smith projected as the starting CBs, with Dunta Robinson and Quintin Demps providing solid support as nickel and dime players. Eric Berry came off of a rookie season-ending injury to show flashes of high potential in 2012, and he has the natural ability to take another step forward this year.

Causes For Concern:
For whatever reason, a team with excellent playmakers on both sides of the field absolutely bombed in 2012. It’s up to the new regime and Andy Reid in particular to figure out why this happened, and to maximize the talent at hand. There’s little doubt the Chiefs have the talent to compete for a playoff spot, but until they prove it as a team, doubt remains.

The most glaring weakness on this team is its lack of passing options beyond Bowe. Alex Smith thrived in San Fransisco due to a combination of a consistent running game and a handful of reliable options to target. Donnie Avery, at this point in his career, is not the type of guy you want projecting as your 2nd WR, and Dexter McCluster has been nothing more than potential not being reached so far in his career. The team reached at a couple of players (Anthony Fasano, and former 1st round pick for the 49ers, A.J. Jenkins) in the hopes of rectifying what could be a one dimensional offense, but Fasano has been little more than an occasionally clutch 3rd down type of option, and Jenkins was let go far too easily by a 49ers team in need of WR depth to expect the lights to suddenly come on. The interior of the offensive line is also not as strong as one would like, but Fisher and Albert can do plenty to help mask that.

When you look at the team’s defensive roster, you scratch your head trying to find true weaknesses. I think their biggest problem in 2012 was a lackluster offense not keeping the ball long enough to spell the D, which resulted in a worn down and exhausted unit by the 3rd quarter of most games. If Reid and Co. can make the offense click, the defense should follow suit.

Playoffs?:
Kansas City are an enigma at this point; talent everywhere, results nowhere to be found. Will they end up in the postseason in 2013? I don’t think they will, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they stuck in as a wildcard considering the talent across the roster. But there has to be a real change amongst the roleplayers and non-stars across the roster for this to happen. If the support isn’t there, no amount of big runs by Charles or sacks by Hali are going to count for anything by season’s end.

4 – Oakland Raiders

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Overview:
The Death of Al Davis was, beyond the sadness it brought to Raider Nation, a wake-up call in Oakland. For far too long, Davis’ way was sinking the Raiders into the ground. Bad drafting practices, bad trades, and what you get is a playoff drought going on 11 years. For the first time, somebody other than Al Davis is the General Manager, and former Packers executive Reggie McKenzie has, to date, made some smart moves, including bringing in the defensive-minded Dennis Allen as head coach in 2012. While 4-12 is hard to consider progress, there’s no doubt the Raiders are headed in the right direction under new leadership. Regardless, a roster almost entirely depleted of top-end talent will take longer than a couple of offseasons to rectify, and Oakland fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for 2013.

Strengths:
I almost feel ashamed when looking at the projected depth chart, trying to find anyone beyond Darren McFadden and Sebastian Janikowski that could be considered strong players. Center Stefen Wiesniewski is a solid up-and-comer, and Denarius Moore has shown flashes of maybe being a dependable weapon in the passing game, but beyond them, the offense has holes everywhere, including at the most pivotal position: Quarterback.

The defense projects more or less the same way. Lamarr Houston is a real talent at DE, but he’s on a very lonely island amongst roleplayers across the rest of the line. The team drafted DJ Hayden in the hopes of shoring up one of the NFL’s worst secondaries, but 1st year CBs are notorious for being inconsistent at best. They also brought back Charles Woodson into the fold after shining with the Packers for years, but beyond his on-field experience, it’s difficult to see him being a difference maker.

Causes For Concern:
They’re everywhere, and 2013 is going to essentially be a tryout for next year’s roster. There are too many journeyman and so-so’s to count, and throw in the young, unproven talent, and the level of worry for the Raiders is about as high as any team in the league.

All that concern peaks at the QB position, where the team acquired Matt Flynn in the hopes that that one unforgettable game in Green Bay might translate into something consistent. Terrelle Pryor is working his tail off in practice and has shown glimpses of what he was in college, namely a force to be reckoned with, but he’s not quite NFL-ready at this point in his career. If Flynn falters, Pryor may have to get up to speed quicker than anticipated.

Another real issue is the continuing health issues of HB Darren McFadden. When healthy, he’s undoubtedly one of the best in the business, but he’s been healthy far too irregularly for the Raiders’ liking. Last year, his issues were more stemmed in a ill-conceived zone-blocking scheme that didn’t fit his running style. That scheme was ejected for 2013, and if he can stay healthy, McFadden should prosper. If he ends up on the injury report, any chance Oakland has at at least competing against some of their weaker opponents will lessen significantly.

Playoffs?:
There’s always a chance. That’s why all 32 teams play the games. But there isn’t a team in the NFL that you could be safer in saying “not a chance” about when talking about the postseason in 2013. No, the Raiders, while in their infancy of catching up with the rest of the NFL in terms of putting a solid roster together, should be happy by simply matching their win total from last season.

Fantasy Focus – Top 10 Wide Receivers

While QBs may get the bulk of fantasy points as individuals, and the HB position may be the most vital in terms of sorting out who’s getting the most carries and the like, the position of Wide Receiver in fantasy football is like a buffet line in comparison. Taking one of the elite early is always a wise choice, but there will be plenty of time to build a corps of passcatchers throughout the early and middle rounds, with so many solid options available across the NFL. Here, I will attempt to project which 10 I think will have the most success. As always, a handful of sleepers will come afterwards.

1 – Calvin Johnson

calvin-johnson-catch

Megatron was not only the league leader in completions and yardage at his position in 2012, he was also targeted more than any other WR. Little should change in Detroit, where Matt Stafford still knows who to go to when it counts. Johnson’s 5 TDs were more than a small letdown, but that 5 could have easily been a double-digit number: Megatron was tackled within the 5 yard line 6 times in 2012. Draft him as the best WR in Fantasy with the utmost confidence, a definite 1st round pick.

2 – Brandon Marshall

Brandon had himself a terrific first season in Chicago last year, with over 1,500 yards and 11 TDs. He was also the 2nd most targeted WR in football, and to date nobody has stepped up who looks primed to take targets away from him. Cutler and Marshall have great chemistry, and the long ball is going to be their bread and butter again in 2013. Marshall is a borderline 1st round pick, and a steal anytime afterwards.

3 – A.J. Green

While my confidence in Andy Dalton isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, my confidence in Green, and his ability to produce at a consistent level, is comfortably high. While Cincinnati spent some resources in giving Dalton alternate options in the passing game, I still like Green in this spot. The scariest part about him? He’s only entering his 3rd season, and could actually get better.

4 – Dez Bryant

The first half of 2012 was a struggle for the Cowboys wideout, but he produced more throughout the last 8 games than many WRs did all season. If he can bring that focus and consistency back in 2013, he should be a stud. Romo’s confidence in him, and Romo’s ability to make more decisions in the offensive gameplan, should also result in more opportunities for the Cowboys’ best WR. A 2nd-3rd round pick.

5 – Vincent Jackson

Much hinges on Josh Freeman’s consistency in Tampa Bay, but if last year was any indication, Vincent Jackson is just the threat Freeman needs to keep things rolling. 1,300+ yards and 8 TDs are not stats to sniff at, but where I see an increase in Jackson’s production is that opposing defenses are going to be increasingly weary of fast-rising RB Doug Martin. Doubling up on Jackson may not be the best course of action, and fantasy players should reap the rewards of Jackson’s increased opportunities to stretch the field.

6 – Julio Jones

The tide is turning in Atlanta. Roddy White is no spring chicken, and while he and Tony Gonzalez will see their fair share of targets, it is the young and incredibly talented Jones who will end up being the apple of Matt Ryan’s eye. Furthering his chances will be a revived running game featuring newcomer Steven Jackson. If all goes as planned, 1,400 yards and double-digit TDs should be in store for Mr. Jones.

7 – Demaryius Thomas

On a pure skill level, thomas should probably be ranked higher than this, but with Eric Decker opposite him (who was a top 10 performer at his position in 2012 as well as Thomas was) and newcomer Wes Welker, I don’t think the same amount of targets await Demaryius in 2013. Still, Manning knows how to get the most out of his receivers, and he also knows that Thomas is the best he’s got at stretching the field and coming up with the deep ball.

8 – Reggie Wayne

The ageless wonder is going to have a year in 2013 that will rival any he had with Peyton Manning, mark my words. A fine preseason (including a play that is already going to be talked about when 2013 is in the books) and another year working with Andrew Luck will result in big things for the Probowl wideout. T.Y. Hilton threatens to breakout further, but Luck knows that Wayne is the safest target on the field and will take advantage of him often.

9 – Larry Fitzgerald

From top-3 fantasy WR all the way to 9th, in one season? I’m playing it safe here, but if Carson Palmer can stabilize the QB position, Fitz might end up back up amongst the top 3 or 4 best numbers-wise in 2013. The daring fantasy owner will look at Fitz as an early pickup, perhaps while some of the aforementioned names are still on the board.

10 – Victor Cruz

A healthy Hakeem Nicks is going to mean a productive Cruz. As long as Nicks is flanking him, Cruz is much harder to focus on. Hell, even when he is zeroed in on, he still makes opposing defenses pay. While Cruz finished a few spots outside the top 10 last year, I think he cracks it in 2013, and unlike many concerned fans and fantasy owners, I don’t see him lapsing due to the lucrative contract he recently signed.

3 Sleepers Not To Sleep On:

Mike Wallace

There’s no telling what he’ll do in Miami, mainly because it’s hard to gauge where he’s at in terms of chemistry with Ryan Tannehill…or where Tannehill is in terms of his progression, at that. But the recent loss of Dustin Keller for the year may equal more targets for one of the league’s most dangerous long-ball men. While not all that much of a “sleeper”, there are many who might disregard him simply because of his new environment and the lack of an established QB throwing him the ball. Maybe you don’t want to be one of those people.

Torrey Smith

His profile has been rising steadily since the Ravens’ Superbowl run in 2012, and it seems fairly obvious that his targets are going to increase with Boldin in San Fransisco and top TE Dennis Pitta out for what looks like the entire season, but still, his middle-of-the-pack fantasy performance in 2012 might repel some owners. If he keeps progressing, especially in the hands department, and the Ravens feed him the ball as much as it appears they will be, I would not at all be surprised if Smith ended up as a top-10 WR in fantasy this year.

Josh Gordon

Alright, it’s only preseason, but Brandon Weeden has looked like a much improved QB for the Browns so far, and Gordon is going to benefit from it if it carries over into the preseason. Gordon is the type of guy most owners will look to grab and stash in a reserve role, but if my pontifications are correct, he’s going to be starting material in 2013.

AFC South Power Rankings

The AFC South is a constantly morphing division, where each of the four teams seem poised to head in one direction, and turn around and do the exact opposite. For years, the Indianapolis Colts were the toast of the teams, with Peyton Manning consistently making his division rivals pay for their lack of comparable quarterbacking. With his departure for Denver, the division finally felt wide open for the consistently good (and occasionally great) Houston Texans to finally get their day in the sun. Well, they have won the South for two consecutive seasons, but the Colts have quickly turned around a 2-14 embarrassment in 2011 and rode into a wildcard spot last year on the strengths of rookie phenom Andrew Luck and strong inspirational support from their ailing head coach Chuck Pagano. With all the drama surrounding these two teams, it’s easy to forget the likes of the Tennessee Titans, who have made some key improvements since last year. The lowly Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be headed in the right direction, but are most likely a year or two away from competing with the rest of the division.

1) – Houston Texans

JJ Watt

Overview:
Back-to-back division championships were quickly cut short by early exits in the postseason. For too many years now, the rallying cry in Houston has been “So good…so what?” This is a team that desperately needs to take the next logical step, which at this point can be no less than a Superbowl appearance. Luckily for them, they have a roster stacked with the kind of talent that championship teams are made of.

Strengths:
While his inconsistencies have cost the Texans more than a few hard fought losses in the past, Matt Schaub is not even close to being a liability at the QB position. His TDs have dipped some over the last 2 seasons, but he’s ability done an admirable job of keeping his turnovers to a minimum. Of course, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison know their offense is geared almost solely on the abilities of Arian Foster, one of the league’s best. Andre Johnson has been a top-5 WR for years, and despite his age is still capable of making defenses pay for stacking the box. The Texans have to hope that 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins (already being referred to as Andre2 in certain circles) can help expand a passing attack that can become stagnant if that other Andre is limited. The Texans also happen to sport one of the league’s best offensive lines, anchored by the perennially underrated Duane Brown and supplemented inside by Probowlers Chris Myers and Wade Smith. Overall, you’re looking at one of the most well-rounded offenses in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, the emergence of J.J. Watt as an absolute powerhouse was more than welcomed. His 2012 numbers suggest NFL MVP-caliber ability, and he was a constant disruptive force, even throughout nagging injuries. His presence, along with some new blood and familiar faces fresh from injuries, should make the Texans defense more formidable in 2013. Brian Cushing is this unit’s heart and soul, and he needs to stay on the field to make the defense truly click. Inconsistencies in the secondary may be shored up with the addition of veteran Ed Reed, whenever he happens to make it onto the field. His experience and field vision will no doubt help his fellow DBs in adjusting to opposing offenses’ attacks. More than anything, the Texans are going to have to depend on healthy and improved play from their linebacking corps, generating enough pressure to help mask inefficiencies in the back 4 that have cost the team more games than they’d care to admit.

Causes For Concern:
It’s hard to really put your finger on what prevents the Texans from winning certain games, or from progressing further than just a playoff team and into a championship one. The talent is there at almost every pivotal position, but for whatever reason things seem to inevitably unravel. There’s been a fair share of talk regarding Gary Kubiak’s outcoaching himself, and certain special teams deficiencies dropping them into holes they can’t dig themselves out of. More than anything, opposing offenses managing to exploit DC Wade Phillip’s blitz-happy schemes has to be a problem the team addresses. The Patriots laid the blueprint for this in last year’s divisional round, and you can be sure the NFL took notice. It’s up to Wade Phillips to adjust his scheme to counteract the susceptible portions of his defense.

Playoffs?:
No doubt in my mind. One of the best offensive teams in the NFL would have to drastically drop off their production, or have their defense falter, in order to miss playing late into January. We’re not talking about a shabby defense here, either. On paper, the Houston Texans have a team that is as capable as any in the AFC at eventually representing the conference in the Superbowl. All they have to do is take that next big step, and show up prepared and healthy in the postseason. Easier said than done.


2 – Indianapolis Colts

andrew-luck

Overview:
The surprise team of 2012, the Colts managed to turn around a disastrous 2011 campaign, fighting their way into the postseason as a wildcard. All the hype surrounding Andrew Luck seems to have been justified, as he consistently made highlight reel deep passes and more than once rallied his team to come-from-behind victories. With a nucleus of young talent growing into the NFL together, and a handful of role players added during free agency, the Colts should at the very least compete for a playoff spot once again in 2013.

Strengths:
Much of their ability to return to the postseason hinges on Andrew Luck, of course. He pretty much lived up to the massive amount of hype coming into 2012, posting very impressive numbers in ex-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ deep-ball offense. Emerging as a great complement to the experienced capabilities of Reggie Wayne was young T.Y Hilton, who averaged over 17 yards per catch and made some dazzling plays amongst his 50 receptions and 7 TDs. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener could be the next great TE tandem in the NFL, as Allen in particular showed clutchness and the ability to split defenses. Darius Heyward-Bey arrives after a mostly frustrating few years in Oakland, and if he can stay healthy, should prove to be more effective in Indianapolis as another piece instead of the focal point of the passing attack, which remains Reggie Wayne.

While the offense has real potential to turn into an NFL powerhouse, the defense must depend on a smaller quantity of playmakers. Robert Mathis experienced some growing pains in the team’s switch to a 3-4 base defense, but still managed to produce 8 sacks and should be able to get back into double-digits with a year at OLB under his belt. It’s too early to tell, but top draft pick Bjoern Werner definitely has both the athleticism and track record to help improve the pass rush. The Colts also hope newcomer Aubrayo Franklin (previously in San Diego) can help solidify the pivotal position of nose tackle. Overall, the front seven needed improvement, and the combination of newcomers and the improved health of Robert Angerer at ILB should meet those expectations to some degree.

Causes For Concern:
Generally speaking, the offensive line is going to have to improve their play across the board. The Colts overpayed Gosder Cherilus to defect from Detroit, and need Anthony Constanzo to step up his game. Andrew Luck was sacked 40 times in 2012 to go along with 27 turnovers, and you can attribute a majority of both numbers to lackluster line play. With a change in offensive philosophy and more emphasis on getting rid of the ball faster, masking the issue may be the best course of action, because it’s hard to see much improvement on paper from 2012.

The running game isn’t where it needs to be, and it’s a crapshoot on whether Ahmad Bradshaw can turn it around. The Giants obviously had had enough with the constant injuries and perhaps also with Bradshaw’s stubbornness and emotional outbursts, but a career revival in Indianapolis feels like a long shot. Vick Ballard should still see his share of carries, but apart from a couple of great games, he’s little more than a spellback at this point in his career.

By far the most dangerous issue for this team is their secondary, which was widely regarded as one of the absolute worst in the NFL last year. Vontae Davis was expected to help shore things up, but he brought his penchant for being burned along with him from Miami. The scariest thing is that he is probably the best CB on the team. LaRon Landry is coming off of an impressive come-back season with the Jets, and may be the key acquisition of the Colts’ offseason, especially if he can avoid the injury bug that has limited him for most of his career. The team surprised a lot of people by not selecting a DB until the 5th round of the draft, and beyond the hope of some depth players stepping up, this unit may end up being their Achilles’ heel once again in 2013.

Playoffs?:
In my mind, the Colts and Dolphins are going to be the two teams fighting for the last wild card slot. The team that triumphs will be the one who can best overcome the weakest parts of their roster; for Indianapolis, the equation seems to be to score more points than your secondary gives up. A dangerous game, but one that can be won, especially if the young budding skill position players step their games up another notch and turn the offense into the juggernaut it appears capable of becoming. Of all the 32 teams in the NFL, this year’s Colts are one of the most intriguing in recent memory.

3 – Tennessee Titans

chrisjohnson

Overview:
Since their outstanding 13-3 2008 season, and sad loss to the Ravens in the Divisional round of the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans have been fighting to return to relevancy. A mixed bag of draft picks over the years have left the roster in that uneasy limbo between potentially something and potentially nothing. Looking forward to 2013, it is more than a little challenging to predict better things for a team that did little to upgrade after a disappointing 2012 season. Their are a handful of key jobs at stake, from HC Mike Munchak to former first rounder Jake Locker, whose inconsistencies have been a big part of the team’s recent woes. A small bump in consistency all-around, and big contributions from the newcomers, and the Titans may surprise the NFL in 2013.

Strengths:
The running game projects as the offense’s best chance at success, and for good reason. Chris Johnson is more than effective, he still has the capability to do great things, and Shonn Greene’s defection from the Jets offers a spellback with good experience. Signing stud guard Andy Levitre away from Buffalo, and drafting Chase Warmack, should solidify the interior of the O-line and further the running game.

Bringing in bountygate centerpiece Gregg Williams as a defensive “consultant” raised some eyebrows, but considering the less than stellar effort that side of the ball gave last year, his motivational attitude and attacking schemes should at the very least act as catalysts. Bernard Pollard is probably the biggest on-field addition to the defense, and while he’s always been suspect in pass defense, his aggression and imposing presence are more than welcome. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was an absolute steal in the 3rd round, and should, along with former-Bill George Wilson, add to a rotational defensive backfield that can be no worse than it was in 2012. The Titans have no established, dominant pass rusher, but bring solid pressure from across the front seven…something Gregg Williams will no doubt look to take full advantage of.

Causes For Concern:
When is Jake Locker going to become The Guy? Nobody knows, and you can be sure that if the Titans have to resort to yet another former Bill in Ryan Fitzpatrick, the position is going to have to be addressed yet again next offseason. Nate Washington isn’t a terrible receiver, but if Kenny Britt or 2nd round pick Justin Hunter don’t provide the sort of solid targets Locker desperately needs, this offense could become painfully one-dimensional.

Apart from the solid Jason McCourty, the secondary is a guessing game of newcomers that have to step up. The Titans were solid against the run last year, but one real concern is the injuries piling up on stud LB Colin McCarthy, who has the tools to be one of the best at his position.

Playoffs?
Not likely, but possible. If this year’s Tennessee Titans are going to be playing into January, Jake Locker is going to have to play like a postseason-caliber QB, and there have been too few signs of that so far. The typical questions of health concerns, depth, and potential not translating that haunt almost every NFL team are all there, but it all hinges on Locker first and foremost: if he tanks, he’ll be wearing a different uniform in 2014, and you can be sure a good chunk of the staff, including the head coach, will be looking elsewhere for work.

4 – Jacksonville Jaguars

012213-gus-bradley-600

Overview:
I’ve never been a fan of the term “rebuilding”; you’re always patching up a roster, whether you’re trying to fill a few spots or the majority of your team. “Rebuilding” sounds like you’ve just jettisoned your entire team, from the staff down to the special teamers…but this isn’t far from the truth in Jacksonville. New ownership, a new GM and a new head coach in Gus Bradley are attempting to totally 180 the attitude and popularity of Florida’s least loved football team. It won’t happen in 2013.

Strengths:
Offensively, beyond Maurice Jones-Drew (if he’s not injured) and a strong offensive line, there is little to be excited about. Blaine Gabbert has been nothing short of disappointing to date, and if Chad Henne somehow wins out the competition and is starting at QB week 1…well, it doesn’t quite matter either way, this position is inevitably going to have to be addressed again in 2014. Drafting Luke Joeckel wasn’t a terrible move, but taking a right tackle at #2 overall, with needs aplenty across the roster, may have been the wrong choice. Still, him and LT Eugene Monroe should be amongst the best bookends in the league. They just won’t get the attention they deserve considering what will most likely be going on around them.

The biggest hope the Jaguars’ defense has of improving this year is Gus Bradley, and the knowledge he brings as the former D-coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Finding anyone amongst the projected starters to call a “strength” is a stretch. Jason Babin was a disappointment in Philadelphia, and did little when he was brought on board midway through 2012. He, or Tyson Alualu (Jacksonville’s sack leader in 2012, with a whopping 3.5 of them) or somebody needs to step up and bring the pash rush. The linebacking corps looks horrid, but there’s some hope that Bradley’s presence will ignite something in Paul Posluszny and bring some of that potential out to shine.

Causes For Concern:
Once this team cuts itself down to a 53-man roster, I’ll go out on a limb and say that 90% of it will be a cause for concern. That’s about all that needs to be said.

Playoffs?:
Not going to happen. The most Jaguars fans can hope for at this point is subtle progress, and that the new staff can show they know how to get the most out of one of the NFL’s most lackluster rosters. Jacksonville is an offseason or two away from bigger things, and the most problematic part of it all is that the most important position on the field is void of anyone to truly claim it. Gabbert is a career backup, Henne is essentially Gabbert, and this is going to be a tough year to be a fan of the Jaguars no matter how you slice it.

Fantasy Focus: Top 10 Running Backs

In the realm of Fantasy Football, the running back position is most likely the most pivotal. Not only does a team with championship aspirations need at least one workhorse, the stable behind him must be adequate and varied enough to ensure quality matchups regardless of his or her opponents. While I could spend a great deal of time touching on the different types of RBs and their importance to your fantasy team, in the interest of you, dear readers, I shall instead rank the 10 best possible options at the position, followed by a handful of sleeper options that you should keep your eyes on.

1 – Arian Foster

foster3In 2012, Arian Foster mirrored Adrian Peterson (who ended up taking the Fantasy rushing crown) in nearly all stats: except yardage. He actually scored three more touchdowns than A.D. did, and barring a miraculously improved season over Peterson’s nearly record-breaking 2012 campaign, Foster should be the slightly safer bet as the first HB to be drafted in most leagues. Ben Tate has shown flashes in limited playing time, but the Texans have rarely shown reluctance in giving Foster ample touches.

2 – Adrian Peterson

Many of us watched Peterson slip down draft boards, and we all understood why. The massive knee injury he was coming off of had ended the careers of numerous NFL players, let alone those playing perhaps the most physically demanding position on the field. I took him in the 4th round, crossing my fingers, and was rewarded with one of my all-time best steals. Don’t expect to find All Day anywhere past the 2nd round in your draft, and considering his inhuman abilities, draft him in confidence in either the 1st or 2nd.

3 – Ray Rice

Ray finished 6th overall amongst backs last year, but he gets a higher projected ranking from me considering some of the offensive changes Baltimore is going to at least strongly consider. Rice has always been a fantasy stud, but with the subtraction of Anquan Boldin and the season-ending injury of top TE Dennis Pitta, you can expect “Little Ray” (guess he’s “Big Ray” now that Ray Lewis is retired?) to pick up even more of the slack.

4 – Doug Martin

The Tampa Bay rookie burst onto the scene, ending the fantasy season below only Foster and Peterson in overall points. There’s no reason to believe the decision makers will back off of what is obviously their most dangerous offensive weapon. Although he only caught 1 TD, he was targeted 70 times, which bodes well for increased numbers through the air as well. Like Ray Rice, “Dougie Fresh” (not sure if anyone else gave him this nickname, but I’m sticking with it) should be off the board well before the 3rd round begins.

5 – Jamaal Charles

One of the few bright spots on an abysmal Kansas City team, Charles’ fantasy value is well known to anyone. But this ranking is higher than you might see from other so-called “experts”, and that’s fine. You can be confident in the knowledge that new HC Andy Reid will use Charles much in the way he used Brian Westbrook in Philadelphia, simply because he knows Alex Smith is not Michael Vick and won’t throw too many passing plays into the offensive game plan. Anything less than 1,700 total yards and 12 TDs would shock me for one of the league’s most dynamic athletes.

6 – Marshawn Lynch

Lynch is about as vanilla as it gets, in the best way possible; you can count on 300+ carries, a nice chunk of yardage, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 scores. His value isn’t as high as a couple of the guys I’ll be ranking behind in him PPR leagues, as he is not utilized in the passing game all that much. Still, Lynch is a #1 back and should be drafted as such in all leagues.

7 – C.J. Spiller

A recent quote from new HC Doug Marrone will either inspire confidence or terror in Spiller’s prospects: “We’re going to run him until he throws up”. Concerns about his size and ability to stand up to an increased workload are justified, but this fantasy player is here to tell you that Spiller has the potential to end up being the best fantasy back in football. It all depends on how many carries backup Fred Jackson gets…and, of course, whether or not Spiller remains durable.

8 – Alfred Morris

There will be a fair amount of hesitation from fantasy players in drafting Morris as their #1 HB, and for good reason: Mike Shanahan is well known for shuffling his backfield for reasons that aren’t always clear to anyone who isn’t Mike Shanahan. Still, Morris’ performance in 2012 is hard to ignore, and even Mr. Stable himself has to see that. If you do end up taking him as your first HB, I’d be more aware of taking another a round or two sooner than you might otherwise…you know, just in case.

9 – LeSean McCoy

Remember him? That guy in Philly who once looked like the next top 3 fantasy producer? Well, in a year where nothing went the Eagles’ way, and Andy Reid seemed to lose his mind when it came to playcalling and gameplanning, McCoy became more or less a fantasy no-show. Enter Chip Kelly, who proved during his time in Oregon that running the ball is essential to what he wants to do. With a talent like McCoy in his hands, I would be much more confident in taking LeSean somewhere between the 3rd and 5th rounds.

10 – Trent Richardson

I debated long and hard here, believe me. Make a note that Chris Johnson is 10-B on my list, if you will. But I am buying into both the potential for Richardson to improve in his 2nd year as much as I am in the fact that, beyond him, Cleveland is a ghost town of offensive talent. Some minor injuries during the offseason might worry some, but until something major happens, there’s no reason to make a mountain out of a molehill. Keep in mind that Richardson was ranked 10th overall at his position as a rookie, and keep in mind that Brandon Weeden is throwing the passes to…some people…and you’ll feel much better about drafting Richardson as a #1 option.

3 Sleepers Not To Sleep On

Reggie Bush

Detroit has needed balance in their offense for years, and you can be sure they’ll utilize Bush in any way they can to make that happen. Expect a substantial APY number, but his TDs could be few and far between.

Steven Jackson

Again, offensive balance will be strived for in Atlanta, despite the unbelievable trio of weapons at Matt Ryan’s disposal. At this point in their respective careers, Jackson is a definite upgrade over Michael Turner, and should produce respectable numbers as opposing defenses scramble to keep the likes of White, Jones and Gonzalez covered at all times.

Lamar Miller

Yes, I’m sneaking in a homer pick here, but Miller has the chance to do some good things in Miami. He has an incredible skill set, including the sort of speed that will appeal to OC Mike Sherman getting him the ball on swings and screens. He may need time to develop is passblocking, and therefore his ability to stay on the field for three downs, but don’t be surprised if Lamar surprises the league in 2013. (Hey, a guy can hope, right?)

Fantasy Focus: Top 10 Quarterbacks

I’m going to touch on each of the standard fantasy positions with these lists, starting with quarterbacks (duh). I’ll also throw in a handful of sleepers below the list. Recognize that my fantasy skills are potent; not the best, but far enough from the worst that you should trust my opinions as if they were your own. Hell, maybe they are your own?

1 – Aaron Rodgers

Aaron-Rodgers-beltFinishing only a couple of points behind last year’s fantasy champion (see below), Aaron Rodgers still gets my nod as the top QB going into 2013. The loss of Greg Jennings may actually see him slip a few places in drafts, but if you’re smart (you’re reading this, so you’re heading in that direction already) you’re going to grab him with your first round pick regardless of who else is available. The man has weapons galore and produces like Packers fans produce cheesehead hats on Sundays.

2 – Drew Brees

It came as little surprise to me that Brees took home the scoring title in last year’s fantasy campaign. With a makeshift backfield that rarely produces, an offensive line geared towards pass protection, an impressive list of weapons at his disposal, and one of the worst defenses in the history of the NFL, there was little else to do in New Orleans but snap it to Brees and watch him work his magic. There is a very real possibility, with the reinstatement of head coach Sean Payton, that Brees could actually improve on his 2012 outing. Another worthwhile 1st round pick.

3 – Peyton Manning

With the emergence of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Peyton Manning had everything at his disposal to produce big numbers. And while he only finished 6th amongst QBs in points last year, scenarios have played out that have launched the ageless wonder a few spots ahead of his competition. The least of which is not the addition of Wes Welker, a reception machine who, if he plays anything close to what he did in New England, is going to propel Denver’s passing game a mile high. Draft Peyton with confidence either towards the end of the 1st round or at any point afterwards, but don’t expect him to sit on draft boards for long.

4 – Matt Ryan

Julio Jones, Roddy White, and guess what? Tony Gonzalez is back for one more shot at the big game. Matty Ice has weapons galore, and the addition of Steven Jackson to replace the runned down Michael Turner is going to help keep defenses just a little more honest, opening up a bit more down the field. There’s a possibility that some of the guys I have ranked lower could outshine Ryan, but based purely on prospects, you’ve got to love the Iceman and his bevy of targets. A 2nd round target for sure.

5 – Tony Romo

Aaaand this is where you’re probably going to slap your head. “Over Cam Newton? RGIII? Mathew Stafford? You’re nuts!”. No, but I am more often right than wrong on my projections, and I have a strong feeling that the Dez Bryant of 2013 is going to eclipse the Dez Bryant of 2012, who was money down the stretch. Add to that Miles Austin (if he can just stay on the field) and a still capable Jason Witten, and you have a great recipe for success. Romo is a guy who, based solely on his reputation for mucking it up in big games (which is not as consequential in fantasy), may slip down draft boards. Be smart enough to see the opportunity, and snatch him up as a steal in the 4th or 5th round.

6 – Cam Newton

Cam was the 4th best QB in fantasy last year….so why do I have him ranked 6th? Because I believe HC Ron Rivera and new OC Mike Shula when they say they’re actually going to start using that stocked stable of RBs they have. Newton will still have plenty of room to produce, but keep in mind that his best target (besides his own legs) is reaching the end of his career. Of course, the emphasis on running is going to help Cam, but I see a loss of rushing yards and overall TDs in store for the 3rd year QB.

7 – Tom Brady

I took Terrific Tom in the 1st round of my main league last year, and I did it with a smile on my face. The guy was primed for another fantastic fantasy season, and he delivered, finishing behind only Brees and Rodgers in overall points. But things have changed in New England, and its harder to justify positive projections for him. Hernandez is gone, Gronkowski is a ticking injury bomb waiting to go off, and Wes Welker is most likely going to be Tom’s nemesis’ new favorite target. I still like him as a solid starting QB, but without the stable of dangerous weapons at his disposal, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him slip further than this ranking by the end of the year.

8 – Matthew Stafford

Reggie Bush. Need I elaborate? One of the NFL’s best swing men is going to give Stafford a chunk of numbers he just wasn’t getting from previous HBs. It’s still tough to see anyone at WR taking pressure off of Megatron, but the dude’s still the best WR in the game and is rarely stopped by anyone other than himself or Stafford. If Matt finds his offense just a touch more balanced, his numbers are going to improve for it, and he could end up being a top-5 fantasy QB.

9 – Eli Manning

Eli didn’t even finish in the top 10 at his position last year, but I’ve got a gooooood feeling that’s going to change in 2013. Hakeem Nicks should be healthy, Victor Cruz is going to be happy with his new contract and I don’t see him as the type to let his abilities slip after being paid. Don’t sleep on new TE Brandon Myers, either. To top it off, Rueben Randle could make a big jump in his 2nd season. All this makes me think Eli is primed for a substantial jump in fantasy relevancy.

10 – Andrew Luck

He stormed the league and made a big impact in fantasy in 2012, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Luck will regress slightly in his 2nd year. With Bruce Arians and his deep-ball offense gone to coach the Arizona Cardinals, we may see more check-downs and restrained play, which could result in a lower yard total at the very least. Reggie Wayne is still a viable threat, and T.Y. Hilton looks like the next great deep threat in the league, but much of Luck’s fantasy potential rests on the potential of the players around him. He’s still going to be worth a starting job on any fantasy team.

3 Sleepers Not To Sleep On

Ryan Tannehill
With a host of new weapons including the dangerous Mike Wallace and the dependable Dustin Keller, Tannehill’s progress into 2013 just might translate into noteworthy fantasy work.

Carson Palmer
He hasn’t been the same QB since leaving Cincinnati, but with Larry Fitzgerald and Bruce Arian’s penchant for the deep ball, Palmer could see a bit of a resurrection take place in the desert.

Andy Dalton
Everybody knows A.J. Green’s name and capabilities by now, but the continued improvement of Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham, and with rookie TE Tyler Eifert, just might result in a glut of weaponry where before there was only one truly threatening option. I might not draft Dalton with starting him in mind, but he could be a risk worth taking this year.

AFC North Power Rankings

Not only did the AFC North give us last year’s Superbowl champs, it also features two other teams (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh) with playoff aspirations. Not to be left out, Cleveland has steadily upgraded their roster over the past couple of seasons, but may be more than a step behind the daunting competition in front of them. However things play out in 2013, this division should be one of the most competitive in the league.

1 – Baltimore Ravens

Flacco

Overview:
After a rather unexpected trip through the playoffs, culminating in Baltimore bringing home their 2nd Lombardi trophy, the 2013 offseason has been rather more eventful than the team and its fans would care for. The retirement of Ray Lewis was all but guaranteed, but his loss still leaves a considerable gap of leadership. There are a handful of very serious questions that need to be answered, one way or another, before we know whether or not these Baltimore Ravens can ascend to the top of the league once again.

Strengths:
Despite the losses, the roster is still plenty stacked with talent. At the heart of their offense, Ray Rice is still one of the best all-purpose threats in the NFL. New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has already shown the sort of diversity and adaptation in playcalling former OC Cam Cameron lacked at times, and this should mean more opportunities for Rice and backup HB Bernard Pierce to exploit opposing defenses. Caldwell’s playcalling also seemed to unleash more of Joe Flacco’s deep ball capabilities, and it payed off more often than not. Expect the Superbowl MVP to benefit the most from this change. On the whole, the Ravens’ offense has all the tools to succeed, including the emerging Torrey Smith, whose YPC average was good for 3rd best in the league amongst WRs with at least 45 catches.

With the losses of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, there has been an overload of sentiment that the defense will be a shadow of itself. Many fans don’t seem to recall that the defense in 2012 was average at best. Fewer fans seem to realize that, with recent additions, there is a very real possibility that next year’s unit will be superior. The additions of DE Chris Canty and safety Michael Huff were relatively under-the-radar moves that are definite upgrades. Elvis Dumervil will make for a solid 2nd pash-rush specialist alongside Terrell Suggs. Ozzie Newsome also utilized the draft to re-stock the defense, and Matt Elam and Arthur Brown have the natural ability to step in early and contribute.

Causes For Concern:
The recent news of TE Dennis Pitta being lost for the year due to a dislocated hip is troubling for many reasons. After trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, it was widely assumed that Pitta would be the “Next Man Up” and help soften the loss. His clutch hands (only 3 passes dropped in 2012) and red zone ability will be sorely missed. If Ed Dickson can’t step up and produce similar to his 2011 campaign, the offense will be missing a key dimension in the passing game.

While the offensive line played admirably, particularly during the postseason, concerns are justifiable. The retirement of Matt Birk leaves the center position up for grabs, and early reports have Colts castoff A.Q. Shipley projected to start, and that would be a definite downgrade based on last year’s film. Bryant McKinnie is a wildcard at LT; whichever version shows up is a guessing game, and recent reports of him showing up overweight do not bode well.

Ray Lewis was on his last leg, far from the player he once was, but his instincts and leadership will be missed. Ed Reed was a very similar player in the secondary, instinctual and quick to help his fellow DBs correct their mistakes and remember their assignments. There is a gaping void of experience on the defense, one that needs to be filled by current elder statesmen Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Depth at certain positions may also become problematic, but this is a general concern across the NFL and Baltimore is really in no better or worse a position as most other teams when it comes to filling their roster.

Playoffs?:
It definitely doesn’t feel inevitable, but the odds of the Ravens missing at least a wild-card berth are slim. From Joe Flacco and his shiny new contract down to the impressive list of newcomers on defense, the 2013 Baltimore Ravens look primed to continue their streak of playoff appearances to six straight seasons.

2 – Cincinnati Bengals

nfl_a_green_dalton_wm_600

Overview:
The Bengals under HC Marvin Lewis have been perpetually up and down, going from a playoff team one year to no-shows the next with alarming frequency. However, the with drafting of QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green and a steadily improving defense, these same flaky Bengals made their presence felt with a postseason berth last year. They appear geared to do the same once again, with a couple of solid additions and very little in the way of subtractions. But can they avoid the apparent curse of one step forward, two steps back? I think so; there is too much proven talent here to believe otherwise.

Strengths:
It all starts with the most obvious talents: A.J. Green is perhaps the most dangerous wideout in the AFC, rare natural athleticism combined with determination to improve. On the other side of the ball, Geno Atkins has finally become recognized as a premiere talent at the defensive tackle position, with an incredible combination of size, speed and lateral agility. These two players represent the absolute top at their respective positions, and there is an impressive overall roster besides.

While Andy Dalton has had his ups and downs, he has been mostly efficient as the starting QB. He must show improvement this year, however, or the quiet whispers about his long-term viability will start to become more audible. Another year under his belt, along with talented weapons such as Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham, limits the excuses for Dalton going into his 3rd season. The offensive line has some excellent foundational pieces, including bookends Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, and last year’s first round pick Kevin Zeitler, who has already established himself as an unquestionable starter at RG.

Much of the talk regarding the Bengals defense as one of the league’s best is an overestimation; the potential is there, and this is the year when it should come together. The addition of James Harrison will help establish a more physical presence, but his double-digit sack years may be behind him. Much will weight on the likes of newly resigned Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Ray Maualuga and newcomer Margus Hunt progressing as a whole if the defense is going to be considered upper echelon. The strongest part of the Bengals defense, to my eyes, is at the CB position, where the elite skills of Leon Hall, coupled with the heady experience of Terrence Newman, create one of the league’s best duos. Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick provide excellent depth at the position as well. Reggie Nelson is a solid safety, who has a knack for turnovers.

Causes For Concern:
While the offense should click on all cylinders, there are questions. The progression of Andy Dalton is paramount to the Bengals taking the next step towards title contention, and whether or not he can make the leap depends in some part on forces beyond his control. Benjarvis Green-Ellis is a solid contributor out of the backfield, but lacks the dynamics that force opposing defense to plan accordingly. Cincinnati hopes Giovanni Bernard (North Carolina) can add more explosiveness to the position in what is shaping up to be a backfield committee. A.J. Green is not flying under anybody’s radar, and if Sanu, Gresham and rookie TE Tyler Eifert cannot provide relief by making opponents pay for doubling Green…well, there were many times last year when the one-dimensional nature of the Bengals’ offense lead to their demise.

There are no real wholes on defense, but the underachieving Ray Maualuga needs to become more of a central force. In general, the front seven need to step up around their strongest force (Geno Atkins) and take better advantage of the chaos he causes.

Playoffs?:
I have Cincinnati penciled in as the 1st wildcard in 2013. I do believe they have eclipsed Pittsburgh in terms of overall talent, and their youth should also help them get over that hump. The first month of the season will say a lot about how good these Bengals are prepared to be: early games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England will challenge them early and often. If they emerge from this stretch with 3 victories, I’ll feel much better about predicting the playoffs for a team that has yet to find consistency despite their ever-growing talent base.

3) – Pittsburgh Steelers

ben-roethlisberger-image

Overview:
It is starting to feel like tables are turning in Pittsburgh, but I’ll be the first to admit that, in terms of persevering in the face of adversity, few teams have done it as gracefully and regularly as the Steelers. A healthy Big Ben, playing for 16 games, gives them their best chance at overcoming the strength of the AFC North, but even that may not be enough. Mike Wallace, despite frequently underachieving or causing turmoil behind the scenes, was a loss that leaves the passing game one weapon short. James Harrison’s absence should be less felt in terms of overall numbers, but his domineering presence and tone-setting toughness will be missed as well. Overall, the Steelers roster is reaching a critical point where the age is showing and the youth needs to step up, and fast, to keep them in contention.

Strengths:
As erratic as he seemed at times last year, Ben Roethlisberger is still an elite QB in the league and keeping him upright and on the field is priority #1 in Pittsburgh this year. There are questions surrounding Heath Miller, one of Ben’s favorite targets, but the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown should produce steadily as the offense enters year two under the direction of OC Todd Haley. Also, don’t sleep on Plaxico Burress, whose redzone capabilities should see him haul in at least a handful of TDs.

One of the weakest links in Pittsburgh’s steel chain last year was the offensive line, whose pass blocking was mostly sound but showed little ability to get upfield and attack the 2nd level. Maurkice Pouncey is a great piece in the middle, but the four guys around him have to consistently step their game up and improve their run blocking in particular.

Despite all the hype surrounding the defense of division rival Cincinnati, the Steelers actually ranked better in most defensive categories in 2012. The linebackers, so often the heart of the defense, remain a mostly solid group including Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Recent quotes from HC Mike Tomlin have underachiever Jason Worilds penciled in at ROLB, but rookie Jarvis Jones could blow past him in offseason work with his impressive set of skills…so long as concerns surrounding his neck don’t prove to limit his time on the field. The back four is solid, but prone to giving up big chunks of yards. Troy Polamalu is still a physically threatening force, but age and numerous injuries have already begun to lessen his effectiveness. Ryan Clark is a stable force opposite him, and the starting CB duo of Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen are certainly capable, if prone to occasional lapses.

Causes For Concern:
There is no clear-cut starter at the HB position, and it seems like the stable of journeyman cannot consistently provide the balance the offense requires. If rookie addition Le’Veon Bell works his way to the starting position, he has the body frame to hold up to the inevitable punishment he’ll receive running behind a retooled offensive line. Otherwise, the likes of Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman will probably continue to provide inconsistent play at the position. As for that retooled o-line, it’s hard to say if Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams, whichever sides of the line they start on, will make for capable bookends. The improved health of David DeCastro is a necessity in helping this group come together.

The defense is aging, and it’s no secret. A lack of turnovers (a staple of the better years of Pittsburgh’s defense) has to be rectified, but with age comes the loss of speed and this makes INTs, at least, harder to come by. The loss of Casey Hampton (still possible he returns, but this is assuming he’s gone for good) is a major gap in the center of their 3/4, and to this point Ziggy Hood has not lived up to his promise at DE. Brett Kiesel is more beard than gamebreaker, but at this point he’s the best option on a shaky defensive line. If injuries take their toll again this season, do not expect the offense to suddenly become a powerhouse capable of masking defensive inefficiencies.

Playoffs?:
While I’ll never write the Steelers off without lingering doubt, I am not convinced they have the ability to overcome the two obviously more talented teams ahead of them. Cincinnati may stumble, and Baltimore may struggle, but Pittsburgh has more to overcome than either of them. I do fully expect the competition for the division crown to be heated, at first…but at some point, a team that isn’t Pittsburgh (or Cleveland, for that matter) is going to pull away and leave questions regarding the overall direction of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises demanding answers.

4) Cleveland Browns

Trent Richardson

Overview:
Each season in Cleveland seems to bring a host of new faces on the field and off, and 2013 will be no different. With ownership changing mid-season in 2012, it was inevitable that pieces would be shuffled. Out are head coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckart, replaced by former Cleveland employee Rob Chudzinski and former NFL Network analyst (and Cleveland employee, pre-reboot) Michael Lombardi, respectively. Chud brings an intense offensive pedigree from his time with the University of Miami, and the quick turn-around he helped bring together as OC of the Carolina Panthers during Cam Newton’s rookie season. There have been a handful of moves so far, but it will take longer than one offseason for the new regime to fortify the roster with talent of their own choosing. In the meantime, struggles will abound for the limited talent already present.

Strengths:
Offensively, the easy projection is to see Trent Richardson take the lion’s share of touches, and in the process produce the lion’s share of Cleveland’s offense. In a handful of games last year, Richardson showed a rare combination of strength and agility, and definitely has the frame and toughness to be one of the league’s few featured backs.The offensive line should help contribute to what looks to be a breakout season for the 2nd year RB. Joe Thomas continues to reign atop the elite LTs in the league, and 2012 2nd round pick Mitchell Schwartz, while taking his share of rookie bumps and bruises, looked solid at the opposite tackle. Center Alex Mack is a definite strength, and on the whole Cleveland sports one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.

Sporting one of the league’s premiere cornerbacks in Joe Haden is one of the lone superstars on a somewhat underrated defense, one that allowed less than 20 points per game last year. A host of newcomers, including highly touted rookie Barkevious Mingo and ex-Raven Paul Kruger, should help push an average pass rush to another level. At least, that’s the idea. D’qwell Jackson is still a top linebacker, one whose nose for the football helps key the strongest side of the Browns’ roster.

Causes for Concern:
There is no telling what the Browns have in Brandon Weeden; his up-and-down rookie season was highlighted by a 2-TD effort in a win over the rival Bengals…on his 29th birthday. If Weeden takes unexpected steps forward, he’s still going to be hurting for targets. Josh Morgan was an undeniably smart pull in last year’s supplemental draft, but beyond him things get a bit dicey. Cleveland gave up a 5th round pick to get Davone Bess, a possession receiver who was well liked in Miami but never showed the ability to break away and make larger contributions beyond the odd chain-moving snag. The tight end position is a mystery, and the defensive line is no different. However solid Cleveland’s back seven are, there will still be too much of an emphasis on exploiting the line of scrimmage and center field of their defense, something they do not seem prepared to counter. The amount of time Cleveland’s offense spent on the field in 2012 (just over 28 minutes a game on average) has to change, otherwise the defense will once again wear down and let close games get away from them.

Playoffs?:
Not going to happen. Not in 2013. As regular bottom-feeders, this prediction will probably feel unfortunately natural to Browns fans, but there’s no getting around the severe lack of skill position talent, a questionable QB situation and a defense that isn’t quite elite, even if it appears to be heading in that direction. There is hope for improvement over last year’s 5-11, if the Brandon Weedens and Trent Richardsons continue the upward climb, but a postseason berth would be borderline miraculous.