There’s not long to go now before the meaningful action begins with the start of the 2013 NFL season. To give you an idea of what our team is thinking heading into the season we’re asking four of them four questions, for every division.
It’s our Four Analysts, Four Questions season preview.
The analysts are Khaled Elsayed, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Ben Stockwell — so let’s find out what they’re looking forward to seeing this year.
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
1. Which player from the division do you see having a breakout year?
Khaled: I suppose some of this depends on if the Steelers decide to give youth a chance, but I’m really keen to see more of former first-round pick Cameron Heyward. Despite suiting up on gameday, he’s managed just 312 snaps over two years, a low number for such a high pick. He’ still not starting if preseason is anything to go by, but how much longer can the team keep sticking Ziggy Hood out there (especially on passing downs) when they have a guy with far more potential behind him?
Sam: This may be stretching the terminology somewhat, but since Mr. Stockwell has gone for an ageing veteran ‘re-breaking out’ (see below) I’m going to do something similar. James Harrison as a 3-4 OLB looked pretty worn down and beaten up. He actually graded negatively last season as a pass-rusher (-1.1) but I think he might have a second career in Cincinnati as a Bart Scott clone — a wrecking ball of a SAM linebacker that seeks and destroys lead blocks. Harrison was always an unconventional build at his position, but at around 275lbs he is even more so for his new spot. That gives him the bulk and center of gravity that lead blocks aren’t used to contending with. Some people see him now as a third-down player, but I think his breakout role could come on downs one and two in 2013.
Steve: There were flashes of his potential last year, but this is the season Trent Richardson puts himself among the league’s best running backs. His hard-hitting running style sometimes imposes as much punishment on himself as it does opposing tacklers, and that may be the only thing holding Richardson back from being a three-down force in the league. He ranked seventh in the league in Elusive Rating a year ago and his 19 forced missed tackles in the passing game led all running backs. Expect more opportunities out of the backfield with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Ben: This might be more a re-emergence than a breakout, but I think Daryl Smith is going to use this season to remind everyone why he has been one of the best all-around linebackers in the NFL since 2008. There aren’t many linebackers in the league who excel in every facet of the game, but Smith is one of those few and it has gone largely unnoticed due to playing in Jacksonville and then his becoming a forgotten man due to injury last season. His +29.2 grade in 2009 and +25.4 grade in 2011 (bettered only by some guy called Von Miller) highlight the player Smith is, and he graded positively in every facet of the game both seasons. Smith has had a strong preseason in Baltimore (+6.2 through three games) and he’s ready to re-emerge on a Ravens defense seeking a new identity.
2. The Over/ Unders are Baltimore 8.5, Cincinnati 8.5, Cleveland 6 and Pittsburgh 9. Which team would you put your theoretical $100 on?
Khaled: Sure the Ravens have lost some talent, but they’ve replaced some ageing defenders with some younger models that could actually represent an upgrade on defense, especially when you account for Terrell Suggs being fully healthy. This team was always built on their defense and it looks set to be so again. I’d take the Over on the Ravens.
Sam: Vegas doesn’t seem sure what to make of this division given the over/unders they’ve placed on it so far, but I think the Bengals are better than 8.5 wins, so my $100 is going on that. The only thing that can potentially hold this side back is the (rather crucial position, granted) quarterback spot. Dalton doesn’t need to be amazing, he just needs to be a little bit better than he has been.
Steve: It’s hard to ignore the Bengals numbers, especially as they’ve emerged as America’s darlings in the past month with Hard Knocks and predicted Super Bowl appearances all over the internet. However, I’ll stray from the norm and go with Under 9 wins for the Steelers. The division is shaping up to be one of the toughest in the league and the Steelers just haven’t had the influx of youth necessary to maintain success. They’ve whiffed on some recent first-round draft picks, while missing out on much-needed depth from their later picks. They still have Ben Roethlisberger, which should keep them in every game, but I think a couple years of poor drafting exposes them this season.
Ben: I think the Bengals at Over 8.5 wins looks like easy money. They’re bringing back pretty much everyone from the past two seasons in which span they’ve made the playoffs twice and shown an ability to win all the games they should and, after two first-round playoff exits, will come into the season with a chip on their shoulder eager to go one step further. I expect them to start the season fast which will carry them a long way toward their over/under line, but it’s what they do in the second half of the season that is how they will be judged.
3. Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in regular season action?
Khaled: The Steelers hype machine may have been going overboard with him, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious to see what kind of impact Markus Wheaton can have in that offense. They’re short on the offensive side of things and he’s already showed that he is capable of getting in behind defenses.
Sam: I heard a lot about linebacker Arthur Brown before the draft. From most of the people that were talking it sounded like this was a guy with no flaws, and yet everybody seemed somewhat resigned to him being drafted lower than they all thought he should be. This kind of dichotomy always intrigues me in the draft and I’m eager to see him in the NFL to see who had it right — the people who were telling me he was a sure first-round talent, or the teams that passed on him.
Steve: I’m going off the cuff for this one as the most intriguing rookies will be a pair of pass rushing outside linebackers in Barkevious Mingo and Jarvis Jones. Mingo is the better athlete, and likely has more upside, while Jones has the college sack production and some experience as a rush linebacker. Cleveland and Pittsburgh fans are already at odds as to which player will have the better career so it will be interesting to see if either player can make an instant impact getting after opposing quarterbacks.
Ben: Livewire running backs are always a fun watch and this is what the Bengals reportedly have with Giovani Bernard. It will be interesting to see how they fare moving from one of the league’s most consistent backs in the shape of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to one who could add the much needed spark to the Bengals’ ground game to match the impact AJ Green has in the passing game. The Bengals have been inherently conservative in giving difference-making defenders like Carlos Dunlap more playing time, so it will be interesting to see not only how Bernard fares but whether that conservative nature on defense filters onto the offense, with the knowledge that coaches are often hesitant to trust young running backs if they can’t stand up in pass protection.
4. Who will make the playoffs and can they win it all?
Khaled: I think the Ravens return to the playoffs, but I just don’t think Super Bowl-lightening will strike twice with regards to Joe Flacco. If another team is to make it then it will be the Bengals, but it depends on Andy Dalton taking a big step forward. They’ve surrounded him with a great line, some terrific playmakers and a downright scary defense, but if he isn’t better then they’re standing still while everyone else takes a step forward.
Sam: Cincinnati will win the division. They’re the most talented roster among the group, and though they may only have the third-best QB in it, they have too much else going for them not to take it. I think one of the Ravens or Steelers will fight for a Wild Card spot from this division. Ironically, I think if one of those two gets it they’re a bigger threat to go the distance in the postseason, unless Andy Dalton has a 2012-Flacco-esque playoff epiphany.
Steve: Count me in the crowd that thinks the Ravens could be better this season, especially if QB Joe Flacco continues his strong play under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. The defense has re-loaded in the right places and they should find themselves in the playoffs again. The Bengals look poised to join them as they have playmakers all over the roster, though — as my colleagues have said — improvement from QB Andy Dalton is a necessity if they plan on making some noise in January. The Browns appear to be right on the cusp, and they’ll play some tough games, but I think they’ll fall short in the win column by the end of the year.
Ben: The Browns seem to be becoming a trendy dark horse for improvement in the AFC North this season and while I think they might improve they’re in the wrong division for those strides to show a great deal in the win column and making a threat for the crown. With the Ravens losing defensive leaders and, more crucially, their physical presence in the passing game I don’t see them defending their division title, but I think they are a wildcard team. The division, I feel, is the Bengals’ for the taking this season — they have stability on their roster and after playoff failure there should be no excuse in terms of their hunger and intensity for success. I can see them making a fast start and getting to a dozen wins, which could be good enough for a bye week. If the Bengals stay aggressive I think they could yet be a genuine threat in the playoffs.