If you’ve come here to find out the Cherries’ prospects for the upcoming season and the prospects for the other 11 teams, you’ve come to the wrong place. Yes, if you read on you will indeed learn of my predictions. They’ll probably be inaccurate — they almost always are — but as they say, a stopped clock is right twice a day and one of these seasons — maybe this one — my picks will be on the mark.
Last season the balance of power shifted to the Northern Division with Providence and Syracuse posting better records than any team in the other divisions. So I start here. If anything the Northern has become even stronger.
Providence was the dominant team during the regular season in 2006, and I think they will dominate again. In fact, I think Providence will steamroller their way to the 2007 EFL title. Their workhorse running back Larry Johnson averaged 6.6 yards per carry and Torry Holt caught 103 passes. Their defense is strong, particularly at linebacker with Marcus Washington and Donnie Edwards and in the defensive backfield with Asante Samuel and Darren Sharper. Newcomer Antoine Randle-El adds some flash. What’s not to like? Well, maybe the left side of the defensive line could benefit from better personnel.
Syracuse will again be right behind Providence. I see them as the wildcard team. The Crush defense, with Shawne Merriman and Kevin Williams leading the way, looks even stronger than Providence’s. Mark Brunell silenced the doubters last season with 25 touchdown passes, more than any other quarterback in the league. I’ve been waiting for the Crush to better utilize Villanova’s Brian Westbrook. That wait is over for they have penciled him in to start at running back ahead of Clinton Portis. Westbrook will run behind the best offensive line in the league.
Connecticut and Albany — in that order — will once again lag behind.
Skipping down to the Southern Division, I like the Richmond Rebels, the 2005 EFL champion, to end up in first place. They finished strongly last season after a 1‑6 start. With Marshall Faulk having retired, Chester Taylor gets a chance to carry the bulk of the workload. I see him running effectively behind Nick Hardwick, Alan Faneca, and Tra Thomas. Donovan McNabb has a new target, Donte Stallworth, who will amplify the threats posed by Steve Smith and Todd Heap. Free safety Nick Collins is a weak spot on an otherwise strong defense led by end Aaron Kampman, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, and cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Washington has the talent, but there are too many unanswered questions for me to pick them to fend off the Rebels. Curtis Martin retired so one question is whether Ladell Betts is durable enough to make the jump to feature back. The acquisition of Brandon Jacobs from Philadelphia should help — getting the right chemistry between the two may be tricky. And the Caps may have left themselves too thin at wide receiver. Their defense is still quite solid, although Michael Strahan and Ty Law are aging and may have lost a step.
Baltimore’s defense looks to be improved, and Ben Roethlisberger will like throwing to first round draftee Keyshawn Johnson, so I like the Bolts for third.
Pittsburgh gets back center Matt Birk and safety Rodney Harrison, and their front four will be very tough. However, the distraction caused by their uncertain quarterbacking situation and weakness at tight end will be enough to keep them in the cellar. As of now, by the way, Chad Pennington will be at the controls for the Ironmen Saturday agsinst Richmond.
That leaves the Central Division.
I’ve been listening to Delaware coach Jon Brams throughout the pre-season, and I have to admit I’ve been affected by his optimism. Philip Rivers does indeed look pretty good. If his leadership qualities and obvious physical talent translate from the practice field to actual games the Cherries should manage to repeat as the division champ. I’ll go out on a limb and predict Rivers will be successful and the Cherries will repeat. And not just because the competition in the division isn’t that strong — although it helps.
After all, Ray Lewis is back. He alone could make a three points per game difference. Furthermore, Brams foresees career years for LaDainian Tomlinson, Lito Sheppard, Bart Scott, Brian Dawkins, and, despite accumulated rust, newcomer Isaac Bruce. Who am I to argue?
My pick for second is the New York Empires. After making the playoffs in 2002 and 2004, they plummeted to last in 2005 — then last season the pendulum started to swing the other way. They overhauled their wide receiver corps in the off-season, adding the very capable Eddie Kennison and Mark Clayton. Willie Parker runs behind an impressive offensive line. Newly acquired linebacker Junior Seau and strong safety Troy Polamalu should improve the Empires’ defense. Although O.J. Atogwe has Ed Reed’s formidable shoes to fill at free safety, I see him as having the talent to do that well.
Atlantic City’s defense was rocked in the off-season by the defection of John Abraham to the SFL, and the Gulls have too many question marks to rise above third. New quarterback Steve McNair is a wildcard. McNair, of course, will have Tiki Barber as a weapon, and Barber is still scary good.
Philadelphia will bring up the rear. The Lakers’ defense is rebuilding due to the retirement of Lance Johnstone, the trading of Mike Vrabel, and the defections of Nick Greisen and Alonzo Jackson. Who knows — maybe Brett Favre, who played poorly (13/28 TD/interceptions) last season, will enjoy a renaissance. Having rookie wide receiver Peerless Price as a target should help.
So to recap — I see Providence winning the Northern Division, followed by Syracuse, Connecticut, and Albany; Richmond the Southern, followed by Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh; and Delaware the Central, followed by New York, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia. I like Syracuse for the wildcard and Providence to go all the way.
The Cherries open against the Empires team I view as their primary challenger in the Central, so that will be telling right off the bat.