Last season became the one in which my annual predictions ceased to be a joke — at least for the time being. I correctly predicted three of the four playoff participants — two of the three division champions and the Empires as the wildcard. I missed only in the Southern Division where the Caps beat out my choice, the Bolts, by a single game.
Several big names changed hands during the off-season — among them Tony Gonzalez (to Providence), Steven Jackson (to New York), Willie Parker (to Connecticut), Randy Moss (to Syracuse), and Laveranues Coles (to Baltimore). Then there are the quarterbacks:
Those changes are just the tip of the iceberg to what made this season’s predicting task harder than usual. If it sounds like I’m offering advance excuses for failure, well … busted!
Most Missed: C-G Jason Brown, OT Chris Samuels, WR Chris Chambers, RB Michael Turner, G Shawn Andrews, NT Kelly Gregg (injured)
Most Welcome: DE Ray Edwards, WR Donnie Avery, CB Brandon Carr, G Derrick Dockery, OT Willie Anderson
Outlook: 1st — The offensive and defensive lines and the secondaries are question marks, but this pick is based more on the opinion that their competition in the division isn’t dramatically improved than on the Cherries’ prospects.
Most Missed: DB Eugene Wilson, WR Justin McCareins, K Lawrence Tynes
Most Welcome: RB Derrick Ward, DE Brett Keisel, G Jacob Bell, WR Muhsin Muhammad, S Charles Godfrey
Outlook: 2nd — There was arguably greater stability here during the off-season than anywhere else. That has to count for something. Derrick Ward and Muhsin Muhammad may perk up what was too often a sluggish offense. Favre isn’t getting any younger, though.
New York Empires
Most Missed: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Angelo Crowell, G Kendall Simmons, RB Willie Parker, OT Jonathan Ogden
Most Welcome: RB Steven Jackson, WR Torry Holt, DE Leonard Little, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Samari Rolle, RB LaMont Jordan
Outlook: 3rd — Troy Polamalu and O.J. Atogwe are the best pair of safeties in the league, and the secondary is bolstered by the addition of Rogers and the return of Rolle. Jackson should prosper in the limelight. However, changing the passing game, with Gonzalez gone, from being tight end-focused to wide receiver-focused will require Delhomme to adapt. Can he? Also, have those aging wideouts — Holt and Amani Toomer — lost a step?
Most Missed: QB Steve McNair, LB Victor Hobson, DE-DT Cullen Jenkins (injured), WR Derrick Mason
Most Welcome: DE Trevor Pryce, QB Joe Flacco, QB Tyler Thigpen, WR Santana Moss, NT Haloti Ngata, CB Jabrai Greer
Outlook: 4th — Neither the defense nor the offensive line excite me — although Ngata appears to have tremendous upside. No doubt Flacco will have growing pains, even with Moss, Greg Jennings, and Antonio Gates as targets.
Most Missed: LB Shawne Merriman (injured), S Marlon McCree, DE Ray Edwards, RB Derrick Ward
Most Welcome: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Randy Moss, WR DeSean Jackson, G Randy Thomas, LB Jerrod Mayo, S LaRon Landry
Outlook: 1st — Their fall last season from potential three-peaters to the worst record in the league must have been hard for coach John Heim to swallow. Well, he did something about it. The defense, with the addition of Mayo and Landry looks strong, especially up the middle. The receiving corps, with Moss and Jackson, has the potential to light up opposing secondaries. And yes, although there are only 6 appearances on which to base one’s opinion, I am a believer in Rodgers. Good thing the Cherries will face him only once.
Most Missed: QB Tom Brady (injured), WR Antwaan Randle El, G Mike Wahle, S Gibril Wilson, NT Haloti Ngata, CB Jabrai Greer
Most Welcome: WR Mark J. Clayton, WR Bobby Wade, RB Willie Parker, OT Jared Gaither, C Scott Wells
Outlook: 2nd — Brady out, Cassel in. The substitute will have some convincing to do. Plus I’m not sure Parker will be the cure for a weak running game. Their defense, with Justin Tuck, James Harrison, and Al Harris, will keep them in every game — it may be improved over last season and that’s saying something — so it’s hard to see them falling below second.
Providence Steam Roller
Most Missed: WR Torry Holt, DE Aaron Schobel (injured), LB E.J. Henderson (injured), TE Jeremy Shockey, DT Dewayne Robertson
Most Welcome: TE Tony Gonzalez, C-G Jason Brown, S Ryan Clark, DE Tyler Brayton, OT Damien Woody
Outlook: 3rd — They really should have tried to get a new quarterback. I think Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte are just about out of gas. It will be interesting to see how well they utilize Gonzalez. On the other side linebacking may prove to be an Achilles heel.
Most Missed: S Atari Bigby (injured), OT Marshal Yanda (injured), DE Kenechi Udeze, OT Matt Light, WR Santana Moss
Most Welcome: LB Larry Foote, OT Mark Tauscher, WR Derrick Mason, TE Kevin Boss
Outlook: 4th — After a strong start last season, they lost 8 of their last 9. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that happen again. The defense has several top flight players — Casey Hampton, Kerry Rhodes, and Charles Woodson — but last season they failed to jell as a unit. New tight end Boss may spark an offense that was fine statistically but next to last in points scored. Tauscher improves a pretty decent offensive line.
Most Missed: S Dawan Landry (injured), DE Michael Strahan, RB Darren Sproles, OT Jon Jansen, S Chris Harris
Most Welcome: S Brandon Meriweather, QB Trent Edwards, CB Chris Gamble, DT Marcus Stroud, RB Jonathan Stewart, K Mason Crosby
Outlook: 1st — Coach Clint Hillary typically gets the most out of his squad, so despite some questionable personnel moves — Darren Sproles to Baltimore … really? — I’m not going to make the mistake of picking against the Caps as I did last year. Even their peculiar under-the-wire trade of David Akers for Crosby may turn out to be a master stroke. Look for these guys to pound the rock, even getting fullback McClain involved, as Edwards, if he gets the quarterback nod — and I think he will — gets acclimated to an excellent collection of receivers. Stroud and Gamble are excellent acquisitions.
Most Missed: WR Randy Moss, RB Steven Jackson, LB Clark Haggans, CB Chris Gamble, S Reed Doughty
Most Welcome: RB Darren Sproles, WR Laveranues Coles, OT Jon Jansen, S James Butler, OT Orlando Pace
Outlook: 2nd — Maybe coach Franny Key knows something I don’t about DeAngelo Williams. Roethlisberger should like throwing to Coles; he didn’t mesh that well with the departed Moss. The front seven on defense isn’t that good. Will Sproles be a difference maker or has Hillary outsmarted Key? (It wouldn’t be the first time.)
Most Missed: DE-DT Dwan Edwards (injured), OT Mark Tauscher, LB Paul Posluszny, S Rodney Harrison, OT Marvel Smith
Most Welcome: S Chris Harris, RB Ray Rice, RB Jamaal Charles, OT Matt Light, OT Jeff Otah, WR Bernard Berrian
Outlook: 3rd — This is a team heading in the right direction with some excellent young talent in the backfield. Watch for Eli Manning to build rapport with new wide receivers Berrian and Domenik Hixon. They should have tried harder to upgrade at tight end, however. Unfortunately for coach Moe Irons, they didn’t do much to improve their leaky secondary, so they are probably still at least a season away from contending.
Most Missed: DE Osi Umenyiora (injured), DT Corey Williams, WR Mark J. Clayton, TE Kevin Boss
Most Welcome: LB Paul Posluszny, WR Antwaan Randle El, DT Kris Jenkins, CB Fabian Washington, G Keydrick Vincent
Outlook: 4th — The loss of Umenyiora really hurts an otherwise solid defense. Also damaging to their prospects is the undeniable fact that the relationship between Donovan McNabb and coach John Dillard has soured. One or the other probably will go after this season, especially if I’m right about them finishing in the basement.
Philadelphia is my pick for the wildcard.
I’m looking for 10 or 11 wins from the Cherries. They face a key stretch early on — a three-game home stand ending in week 4 that includes two games against the relatively weak Racers and Steam Roller sandwiching a nationally televised contest with the Caps. Delaware has performed well against Washington in recent seasons. The Cherries will need to have a minimum of 3 wins by the time the home stand ends to stay on target for their 4th straight division title.
Key newly acquired or promoted players to watch for the Cherries are the rookie wide receiver Avery, right guard Max Jean-Gilles, nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, and cornerbacks Carr and Corey Webster. The possible worst case scenario associated with the failure of some or all of those players would be aggravated by LaDainian Tomlinson losing a step or the returners Yamon Figurs and Dante Hall being kept out of the end zone. Neither of those developments is particularly unlikely given Tomlinson’s age and the vagaries of opposing kick coverage. And unlike last season, the Cherries would be hard-pressed to survive an injury to quarterback Philip Rivers. His backup this season is the very green Kevin O'Connell.