Here are the starting lineups for the Cherries tomorrow night:
|* new starter or position change|
Even without LaDainian Tomlinson, who was traded to Connecticut, and Brian Dawkins, who was allowed to slip away to Denver of the PCFL, the Cherries should remain among the elite of the EFL.
The leadership mantle for the Delaware defense now rests squarely on the shoulders of Ray Lewis. We’ll soon find out to what extent Lewis will be able to motivate the unit, particularly the secondary where there are new starters at both safety positions, Sean Jones and Tyrone Carter. The Cherries’ front seven should be even more ferocious than last season with the addition of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who was acquired by trade with Charleston, and the return of Kelly Gregg, who missed last season due to injury.
On the offensive side of the ball for Delware, an intriguing pre-season development was the emergence of Sidney Rice as a starter at wide receiver. Rice displaces Lee Evans, who is coming off far and away his best season. The most pressing question about the offense, though, is how well the slashing running style of another Rice — young Ray — will fit in. Delaware coach Jon Brams traded a first round 2011 draft choice to Charleston for Rice. That and the fact that Brams then deemed Tomlinson expendable made it obvious that the Cherries expect great things from Rice. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie with the Cannons, but he was limited to 63 carries in his role as backup to Marshawn Lynch.
Speaking of Charleston, their impressive moves in the off-season, including the addition of first round draft choice Clay Matthews at linebacker and second rounder Mario Manningham at wide receiver, increase the likelihood that the balance of power in the EFL will swing in 2010 from the Cherries’ Central Division, where no team has had a losing record since 2007, to the Southern. In that division the Caps figure to be improved as well, a scary thought. Washington added beasts like tackle Albert Haynesworth and versatile rookie Brian Orapko to bolster their 2nd-ranked defense, as if it needed bolstering.
On the heels of that bit of foreshadowing, I move on to my annual prediction of the order of finish in each division.
Most Missed: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, S Brian Dawkins, RB Antonio Pittman, OT Willie Anderson, DT Maake Kemoeatu (injured)
Most Welcome: RB Ray Rice, LB Lawrence Timmons, NT Kelly Gregg, G Louis Vasquez, RB Fred Taylor
Outlook: 1st — Concerns about the secondary not withstanding, pound for pound the Cherries have more talent than each of the other teams in the division. Talent usually wins out over the long haul, eh?
Most Missed: RB Derrick Ward, S Abram Elam, LB Tedy Bruschi, LB A.J. Hawk
Most Welcome: WR Percy Harvin, RB Shonn Greene, WR Braylon Edwards, DE Tyson Jackson
Outlook: 2nd — The Lakers’ defense remains solid up the middle with Vince Wilfork, probably the league’s best nose tackle, and Stephen Cooper. Brett Favre has historically bounced right back from mediocre seasons. If he does Philadelphia should not only escape the cellar but move up two slots.
Most Missed: FB Lorenzo Neal, LB Napoleon Harris, S Jarrad Page, DE Turk McBride, CB Jabari Greer, S Dawan Landry
Most Welcome: S Jairus Byrd, NT Ogemdi Nwagbuo, LB James Lauriaitis, CB Drayton Florence
Outlook: 3rd — Although Hershey’s offensive line is nothing to brag about, they otherwise look pretty solid. I’m just not sold yet on ex-Blue Hen Joe Flacco. And Clinton Portis by now has to be getting long in the tooth. For Hershey Fred Jackson will play a role much like Ray Rice’s. If Jackson plays it well, things could get exciting in Chocolatetown.
New York Empires
Most Missed: WR Torry Holt, DE Igor Olshansky, CB Samari Rolle, OT Chris Samuels, S Troy Polamalu (injured)
Most Welcome: WR Terrell Owens, QB Matt Moore, G Andy Levitre, LB Michael Boley, OT Jason Smith, CB Ronald Bartell
Outlook: 4th — The Emps were decimated in the off-season, and I expect it will take them multiple seasons to recover. Maybe the bright lights of Gotham will have a positive effect on the attitude of new acquisition Owens. I wouldn’t bet on it, though, especially if the rest of the team is as mediocre as I expect.
Most Missed: LB Kawika Mitchell, G Randy Thomas, C Jeremy Newberry, FB Dan Kreider, S Bernard Pollard
Most Welcome: RB LeSean McCoy, RB Jonathan Stewart, WR Hakeem Nicks, LB Larry English, LB Shawne Merriman
Outlook: 1st — The Crush just missed the playoffs last season, and they continue on an upward trajectory with Merriman coming back, Aaron Rodgers getting even better, and Nicks bringing an abundance of riches to the receiving corps. Then there are two young, talented running backs — Stewart, and the rookie, McCoy. Syracuse could run away from the competition in this division.
Most Missed: LB Omar Gaither, LB Larry Foote, RB Correll Buckhalter, WR Hank Baskett
Most Welcome: S Atari Bigby, TE Randy McMichael, WR Mike Wallace, LB Demorrio Williams
Outlook: 2nd — The Albany offensive line is the best in the league and Thomas Jones is a workhorse who carried 278 times last year without fumbling. The Racers’ Achilles heel might be their linebacking corps. I can see their defense slipping quite a bit from their #3 ranking in 2009.
Most Missed: CB Aaron Ross (injured), QB Matt Cassel, KR-PR Will Blackmon, S Gibril Wilson, CB Jabari Greer
Most Welcome: QB Tom Brady, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, TE Jermichael Finley, WR Bernard Berrian, CB Terrence McGee
Outlook: 3rd — With Brady out the Comets slipped from 8 wins to just 3. Now Brady is back and that alone should enable Connecticut to escape the cellar. The front office there is in disarray, though. It was amazing to see Yale Waterbury foraging for a backup offensive tackle in the closing minutes of the spring owners meeting. I think he’ll find Tomlinson, though I love the guy, to not have enough left in his tank to have justified giving up a 2nd round pick to the Cherries.
Providence Steam Roller
Most Missed: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Stewart Bradley (injured), S Darren Sharper, CB Ken Lucas
Most Welcome: QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Rashard Mendenhall, FB Leonard Weaver, LB E.J. Henderson, TE Fred Davis
Outlook: 4th — The Steam Roller pin their hopes for a revival on Roethlisberger, who was no great shakes in Baltimore. He had to have been disappointed when Gonzalez took his all-star tight end credentials to Atlanta of the SFL. Still, Mendenhall, Weaver, and Davis may help Roethlisberger put a charge into their moribund offense. The issue with Providence last season was turnovers — they were an ugly minus-17. Big Ben is unlikely to help in that respect — he personally turned the ball over 24 times in his last season with the Bolts!
Most Missed: WR Plaxico Burress (incarcerated), CB Ty Law, OT Langston Walker, RB Jonathan Stewart, OT Jeremy Bridges
Most Welcome: LB-DE Brian Orapko, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, DT Albert Haynesworth, OT Nick Kaczur, LB Ben Leber, DE Dwan Edwards
Outlook: 1st — Uh oh. Clint Hillary’s champions look to be much improved. Their secondary is hands-down the best in the league. Their front seven is every bit as good as Delaware’s. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield on offense, Trent Edwards — or perhaps the newcomer Fitzpatrick — need only control the ball and avoid mistakes.
Most Missed: RB Ray Rice, DE Kenyon Coleman, WR Bernard Berrian, CB Ronald Bartell, DE Dwan Edwards
Most Welcome: DT Brodrick Bunkley, TE Dustin Keller, LB Clay Matthews, WR Mario Manningham, LB Bart Scott, CB Carlos Rogers
Outlook: 2nd — Everything appears to be coming together for the Cannons. Unfortunately for them, the Caps are in their way. Charleston excels in the trenches, and the rookie Matthews drew raves in scrimmages. Jamaal Charles surprisingly beat out Marshawn Lynch at running back. He looks to be the real deal. Eli Manning took great strides last season and figures to continue to improve. And Keller gives Manning a legitimate weapon at tight end.
Most Missed: QB Ben Roethlisberger, DT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Aaron Smith, OT Orlando Pace, OT Jon Jansen, WR Laveranues Coles
Most Welcome: QB Donovan McNabb, WR Jeremy Maclin, LB Dannell Ellerbe, OT Phil Loadholt, CB Leigh Bodden
Outlook: 3rd — Veteran McNabb takes over the controls for a team that was minus-13 in turnovers. To McNabb’s credit he led Richmond to the championship in 2005, but that was awhile ago, and many observers, including myself, think he has lost at least a step in the past few years. League-leading rusher DeAngelo Williams is back. Franny Key implemented the 3-4 defense in the off-season, but his timing may have been off in that he needed linebacking help and still does. The secondary is very strong with Ed Reed and Darrelle Revis.
Most Missed: QB Donovan McNabb, DE Osi Umenyiora, C Nick Hardwick (injured), S Corey Chavous, OT Tra Thomas
Most Welcome: QB Matt Cassel, S Dawan Landry, OT Sebastian Vollmer, C John Sullivan, OT Michael Oher
Outlook: 4th — The Rebels finished last season on a down note. Cassel is the new quarterback. He didn’t particularly distinguish himself with Connecticut. In fact, the addition of Mike Vick, fresh from prison, as Cassel’s backup has provoked more talk (what is John Dillard trying to prove?). Todd Heap is back at full strength, but the wide receivers are lackluster outside of Steve Smith. Unless Cassel matures more quickly than expected, it’s hard to picture Richmond finishing anywhere but the basement.
I’m tabbing Charleston to capture the wildcard berth. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cannons upset the Cherries or Syracuse in the first round and make the championship game an all-Southern Division affair. I guess if Charleston instead more often plays like they did when they were, excuse the expression, cannon fodder for Delaware in week 8 last season, I’m going to feel rather silly.
As for the Cherries, yes, they will challenge for the EFL title in 2010 if Rice — Ray, that is — is the player Brams thinks he is. Actually the pair of running back trades Brams executed could end up working out very well for the Cherries. If Delaware has a good season but Connecticut has a bad one, the second round pick the Cherries gave up for Tomlinson would be only a pick or two after the first round pick the Cherries gave up for Rice. Effectively, the Cherries will have replaced an older player in a key position for a much younger one without giving up anything significant.
However shrewd those moves turn out to be, I continue to question Brams’ selection of Jones and Carter with his pair of first round picks in this year’s draft — not so much Jones, who was the best of a lean crop available to replace Dawkins, but Carter. I could see Brams stewing as other teams repeatedly passed up chances to pick from a dearth of talent at strong safety. Top EFL quarterbacks like Rodgers and Brady will be licking their chops. I hope that the front seven Brams fields is as sack-happy as he feels they will be.
One new acquisition in a backup role bears watching. That would be running back Fred Taylor, who brings to Delaware a boatload of experience with Jacksonville in the SFL. I recall how Priest Holmes was a stabilizing influence for the Cherries as a backup running back in their 2008 championship run. I can envision Taylor playing that same role and even taking Ray Rice under his wing so to speak.