Ray Rice Signs 5 Year Deal Worth $35 Million

Rice gets new deal.

Just a few hours after Matt Forte gets his mutl-year contract for the Bears, Rice gets his. The agreement calls for 5 years  $35 million dollars with $17 to be paid in the first year alone. The suspicion on the wear and tear aspect may have a lot to do with why the  contract is so front loaded.  If a deal or release happens in 3- 4 years the cap penalty won’t be so heavy. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/07/13/2012-baltimore-ravens-preview/  In all reality it depends on if he is in Baltimore for the entirety of this contract. The Chancellor highly doubts it.

The Ravens feel as though they are primed for a Super Bowl run and Rice is the key to the offense. He accounted for nearly 40 % of their yardage from scrimmage and led the team in receptions with 76. The Ravens have to get him some relief. Unlike Forte in Chicago, there are no big name receivers to draw attention away from Rice. We believe in the present, he can only shoulder that heavy a workload for one more year. The Ravens are hoping it’s enough to get them to a Super Bowl

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Matt Forte Signs A 4 Year Deal Worth $32 Million

On the deadline to lock up your franchise player, Matt Forte signs a four year deal and should solidify the Bears offense this season. With Jay Cutler being reunited with WR Brandon Marshall, this could be the best offense the Windy City has seen in years. Forte is a space runner and flourishes on screens and draws. He should project out to 2,200 yards from scrimmage if this offense can hit the field healthy this season.

At 26, a four year deal was good for both Forte and the Bears organization. Teams are reluctant to pay running backs as they near 30 years of age and the Bears should have a succession in place by then. Forte has been a solid player who looks like he has many years left. He’s a slippery runner who rarely takes the solid hit. Compare this with the reluctance the Baltimore Ravens are taking with Ray Rice. Each runner was franchised but there is a growing suspicion that Rice may be on the verge of wearing down from a heavy sustained workload. He also takes a lot more solid hits than Forte and it may show up shortly. Rice still hasn’t signed his tenure and wants a longer deal like Forte.

Brandon Marshall and Forte need each other for this to work. If teams are keeping their safeties back and outside linebacker to Marshall’s side watching for outs, hooks and slants, Forte will have more space to operate than ever before. The NFC North is weak when it comes to outside linebacker play as well. Whether rushing or receiving this is going to open up for the Bears beautifully.

As for the Bears as a franchise, remember the sentiment that Michael McCaskey was handicapping his team with offseason inactivity?? You can lay that claim to rest. The trading for QB Jay Cutler, signing big time free agent Julius Peppers a few seasons back, then bringing in Marshall from Miami for cheap. The Bears front office deserves some credit for not overspending and finding players for specific points. They’ve kept the nucleus of the team together (Lance Briggs withstanding) while becoming a player in free agency. In reality the current roster has about a 4 year window to reach the Super Bowl. The aforementioned players and those of Devin Hester, Urlacher, “Peanut” Tillman are all in their prime. Do they have enough to cool down the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers??

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2012 Baltimore Ravens Preview

The Baltimore Ravens season came to an abrupt end in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, falling to the Patriots 23-20 on a chilly night last January. In the waning  moments, a flick of the wrist by Joe Flacco, floated a pass to Lee Evans streaking down the right sideline into the end zone for the apparent winning score. With that pass sailed the hope and promise of the Baltimore Ravens… First the fate of the 2011 season.  Then the promise that  Joe Flacco would finally become the big game quarterback his lofty draft status calls for that so far had been unfulfilled. Another promise that the Ravens could come through on offense and be the equal to their decade long excellent defensive counterparts. Finally Lee Evans had the chance to show he was the big play receiver everyone expected him to be after he was drafted out of Wisconsin. The ball cradled in Evans hands with his feet in bounds for a fleeting moment…and then… Sterling Moore knocked the potential game winning touchdown out of his hands. The ball falling harmlessly to the Foxborough turf. All the air had gone out of the Ravens balloon. They were a defeated team before Billy Cundiff shanked the 32 yarder that could have sent the game into overtime.

So the question has to be asked: For an aging team where do they go from here?? All of this psychologically before the setback of having All Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs tearing his achille’s tendon in the offseason. With several AFC North teams on the rise: Did the Baltimore Ravens let a golden opportunity slip away??

Will Joe Flacco return the Ravens to the AFC Championship or beyond??

Quarterback: There are games that define careers in the NFL and it’s going to be difficult for Joe Flacco to shake the stigma that he isn’t a big game quarterback. He had that opportunity in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He had outplayed Tom Brady on that fateful night throwing for 22 of 36 for 306 yards and 2TDs, to Brady’s 22 of 36 for 239 yards and 2 interceptions. Yet again playing it too close to the vest, the Ravens allowed the Patriots to stay close and score late to win it. It’s here where Flacco detractors such as our CEO ask: Where were the down field throws to get the Ravens a 2 score advantage in the 4th quarter?? Why does he not play with urgency to score during the middle part of games?? He’s often made great late throws like the one to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in  the final minutes a season earlier. Then his pass to Evans was… The sense of de ja vu’ in how the Ravens came scrambling downfield as they had in the 2008 AFC Championship Game came to mind. Then that of the 2010 playoffs when TJ Houshmanzadeh dropped a vital third down attempt, both playoff losses to Pittsburgh. Why does Flacco continue to put them in that position??

It may well be a systemic problem for the Ravens. The curse of Trent Dilfer still lingers for a team that plays too cautious and not take chances so they can turn it over to the defense. Subsequently, they never build big enough leads. Why are we bringing it up under quarterback?? It changes the quarterbacks mindset to one of not attacking the defense and taking the safe route. The best evidence of this is he takes his check down way too soon and way too much. He doesn’t wait for that second window (routes beyond the linebackers) to open and immediately throws it to Ray Rice on a check down route. Rice led the team in receptions with 76. Now think about that for a second… Throws to the running back are high percentage passes and in a year where most significant passing records fell, Flacco only completed 57.6% of his passes last year. In fact his 2011 stats show regression… In 2010 completed 306 of 489 (62%) for 3,622 yards, 25 TDs to just 10 interceptions. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/rav/2010.htm Last year those numbers declined to 312 of 542 for 3,610 yards with 20TDs and 12 interceptions. So now the Ravens bring in a new quarterback coach in longtime Colt assistant and former Head Coach Jim Caldwell to help restructure his game. It’s year 5 of the Flacco era and could be his last. His fight or flight mechanism has been damaged from playing too much Trent “Dilfer-ized” football. Those throws where he didn’t wait for the second level receivers to get open weren’t the coaches fault, those were his decisions. At quarterback the Ravens are very average.

Ray Rice was the Baltimore Ravens offense in 2011.

Offensive Backfield: Last year Ray Rice did everything for this team offensively. He was second in the NFL with 1,364 yards rushing with a 4.7 yard average while scoring 12 TDs from the ground. As we specified earlier, out of the backfield he led the team with 76 receptions for 704 yards and another 3 scores. As we approach year five, this team is on the verge of burning the hard charging Rice out. This generation’s Wilbert Montgomery. This might be why the Ravens have used the Franchise Tag where Rice wants a multi-year extension. The deadline for his signing is July 16th! The Ravens are thinking about their long-term future and Rice has some serious wear and tear in his first four years.

Rice is a small tough runner who plays bigger than his 5’9 195 lbs. stature. He has little wiggle and plows straight ahead as a shifty power runner. He may go another year or two with the present workload. The wear and tear on Rice could show up quickly with his taking a lot of hits. Why do you think the Ravens are so reluctant to offer an extension to a player that was nearly 40% of their yardage from scrimmage last year?? Read between the lines… Yet last year the team had former Dolphin Ricky Williams to take some heat off Rice. He rushed for 444 yards and 2 scores in a relief role yet has retired. The team has drafted a bigger running back with the selection of Bernard Pierce out of Temple. At 6’0 218lbs, he has a bigger frame and should be the second option and will play special teams. He’s also the insurance policy if this contract issue lingers with Rice. At running back this team is Super Bowl quality with Rice for another season but not after that.

Receivers: An adequate group of receivers that have shown flashes of being better than they are. Anquan Boldin had a solid year with 57 receptions for 887 yards and 3 touchdowns, yet we can’t help but feel Ravens brass envisioned better production from him. Torrey Smith had 50 receptions for 841 yards and led the team with 7 scores. To add to an average set of receivers they drafted under developed Tommy Streeter from Miami. He’s 6’5 and runs a 4.4  in the 40 and could be the deep threat the Ravens need. Smith can get deep but Streeter’s size may give Flacco more confidence to throw deep. As a group their average at best and gets you to wonder is it the receivers or Flacco holding back the Ravens passing game??

Steady center and a team leader, Matt Birk was one of the first free agents signed this offseason. He should finish his career a Raven.

Offensive Line: A line grounded by former All Pro Center Matt Birk, who was re-signed in March, is a solid one. There were only 5 linemen brought in this offseason which includes 4th round draft pick Gino Gradkowski from Delaware. Last year they had LT Bryant McKinnie fall to them after having a weight issue with the Vikings and they should get 3 more years of production out of a solid 9 year player. Overall this team was 10th in the league in rushing with 1,996 yards and both Ray Rice and Ricky Williams topped 4 yards per carry. They ranked in the upper tier when rushing the football on either goal line or 3rd /4th and short situations. Gaining the first down or touchdown 65% of the time to the weak side, and 63% rushing to the strong side.

When it comes to protecting the passer they could use some improvement. The Ravens line was 12th in sacks allowed with 33 yet were 21st in quarterback hits with 78. Keep in mind that’s with Flacco dumping off the ball to the running backs or this number could have been higher. With a full season with McKinnie from training camp on they may get their blocking audibles down. If Flacco is to make more downfield throws this will be a necessary fix and the line overall grades slightly above average.

Haloti Ngata is the NFL’s best defensive lineman.

Defensive Line:  This begins with the heft that is Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Haloti Ngata. Having played in the last three straight Pro Bowls and second consecutive All Pro season, this 335 lbs. demon is the best in the game today. Last season he amassed 68 total tackles, had 5 sacks, forced 2 fumbles and recovered 3. All this from a man who is supposed to protect Ray Lewis by chewing up double teams and holding the middle?? Yikes! Compare his stats to NFC Pro Bowl NT B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers (24 tackles/3 sacks) and you can see Ngata is the gold standard. He even had 6 pass defenses which was only 1 behind Ray Lewis who had 7. He could be up for NFL Defensive Player of the Year this season with Suggs not 100% and with Lewis slowing down. He will get more attention.

Ravens brass is hoping his play will rub off on Terrence “Mount” Cody who made 40 tackles yet needs to help push the pocket also. He didn’t register a sack yet did make improvement in his second year. This could be his breakout year and if he does this line is Super Bowl quality. This is before we get to steady Cory Redding who garnered 45 tackles with 4.5  sacks himself. This should be the best defensive line in all of football in 2012.

Linebackers:  The biggest story this offseason was the injury to Terrell Suggs achille’s tendon. Originally thought to be gone for the year, Suggs and the team’s front office have steadfast held to the belief that he’ll be ready to go in 2012. Our question is: To what capacity?? This is the defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year who will need to push-off that achille’s and go after the quarterback to the tune of 75 tackles & 14 sacks last year. Usually this injury sidelines one for a year and even if he does play, we think it would be in a diminished capacity. He is going into his 10th season and it takes longer to heal in your 30s. As for other outside rushers, don’t forget Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger combined for 11 sacks last year.

However the Ravens will still be solid on defense with future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis still leading the charge. Despite missing 4 games he still had 107 tackles 2 sacks and an interception. His strong play and the further improvement from Jameel McClain (83 tackles /1 sack) should keep the middle steady. However they did draft Courtney Upshaw as their #1 pick and possible Ray Lewis heir apparent. They may want to get him onto the field to get him ready for a succession to take place a year or two from now. For one more year this is a Super Bowl quality group.

The Ravens are still led by future hall of famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

Secondary: Unlike previous years, this secondary wasn’t just future Hall of Famer Ed Reed. Several youngsters stepped up to make this defense a formidable one ranking 4th in the NFL against the pass which vaulted the defense as a whole to a #3 ranking overall.

SS Bernard Pollard turned in a solid year with 87 tackles, 1 interception and 1 sack last year after coming over from the Houston Texans. He complemented Ed Reed well and should be even more productive just entering his 8th season. Next to Ed Reed he has the perfect ball hawk center fielder. Reed’s stats should return to loftier numbers (56 tackles / 3 ints. / 1 sack) as his mates play keep improving, quarterbacks won’t be able to avoid throwing into his area anymore.

The Ravens cut ties with CB Dominique Foxworthy, who couldn’t get on the field due to the impressive play of LarDarius Webb (74 tackles /5 ints /21 passes defensed) and solid play from Cary Williams (84 tackles /16 passes defensed). While Williams didn’t produce an interception he was 3rd on the team in tackles. Webb could make the Pro Bowl in 2012 with another season like 2011. However the Ravens signed 4 free agent corners to push Williams and should aid in fielding solid nickle and dimebacks. They also drafted a corner in the 5th round in Cal Poly’s Asa Jackson. Don’t doubt him because of his coming from a small school, remember Webb came from Nicholls State and we can’t tell you where that school is. This is a really good secondary and could be Super Bowl quality with a little improvement from Pollard and the corner position opposite Webb.

Overall: This is a year that will see the team’s defensive line become the focal point of the defense instead of its linebackers. In their 3-4 they have perfected drafting the defensive tackle and coaching them into defensive ends specific to this defense. The Ravens benefit from a division that should see some flux this year and may have a surprise champion. This team needs its offense to come of age this year or the team will be building with a new quarterback next year. Our crystal ball tells us more of the same on offense and with their first four games against the Bengals, at Eagles, then home to the Patriots and Browns. If they don’t come out of there 3-1 or better, this will be a 10-6 team at best. They finish with Peyton Manning’s Broncos, the world champion Giants, then finish at Cincinnati with the division title on the line. The Chancellor is looking at this team as a late entrant to the playoffs as a lower record division winner or wildcard. They won’t make it back to the AFC Championship Game.

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NEXT UP: Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos

2012 Detroit Lions Preview

After more than a decade of futility, the Detroit Lions returned to the NFL playoffs. Yet they served notice in the season finale, a 44-41 loss to Green Bay, and their 45-28 loss to the Saints in the NFC Wild Card game, that they’re a team on the move. In those games they weren’t overwhelmed as much as just slightly outclassed by two teams that were NFL Champions in two of the last three years. Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, you’re watching a team grow right before you with a run against the best their sport has to offer which will allow them to mature into champions. Will it happen this year??? Do you realize they did it without their best offensive draft pick in RB Mikel LeShoure, who missed the season with an injured knee??

Quarterback: Now last year we told you a Lion turnaround was imminent yet couldn’t happen without a healthy season from Matthew Stafford. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/05/19/2011-detroit-lions-preview/ Yet who could foresee the type of record  setting season he turned in. For the season, his 421 of 663 for 5,038 yards for 41 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions shattered team records. He joined Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady as the only other quarterbacks who threw for more than  40 touchdowns in a season. Only three other quarterbacks in history had thrown for more than 5,000 yards either. Not bad for a QB completing his first healthy season.

One aspect of his value is how he improved as the season went on. In the Thanksgiving Day game where the Lions could make the leap to NFL elite status with a win over the Packers, Stafford turned in a subpar performance throwing for 276 yards & 3 interceptions in a 27-15 loss. Five weeks later he turned in a performance for the ages throwing for 520 yards and 5 TDs including a last minute touchdown drive in Lambeau Field. Although the Lions lost 44-41, he had come within 32 yards of breaking Norm Van Brocklin’s 62 year old record of 551 yards in a game. In this game he showed the go for broke moxie he displayed in bringing the Lions from behind as he had at Oakland two games prior. He grew as the season progressed and stands to come into 2012 as one of the NFL’s best. At quarterback the Lions are Super Bowl quality.

Versatile Jahvid Best

Offensive Backfield: Injuries forced this backfield to be in flux in 2011. When 2nd round draft pick Mikel Leshoure went down with an achille’s injury, Jahvid Best was forced to be a feature back when he’s more of a 3rd down guy. Best’s season was down production-wise in 2011 which saw him rush for only 390 yards and 2 scores, while catching 27 passes for 287 yards and another touchdown. He had 58 receptions in 2010 but a heavier workload saw him face time lost due to injury as well.

Although the team had to go running back by committee, each of the top three rushers on this team averaged 4 yards per carry or better. Kevin Smith #30 was the most productive back last year (72 car. 356 yds 4TDs) with a 4.9 yard average. Yet he also saw down time nicked with injuries. Lions’s brass must feel good about Mikel Leshoure’s recovery since they haven’t gone out to sign a more full time running back. http://prod.www.lions.clubs.nfl.com/news/lions-insider/article-1/RB-Mikel-Leshoure-participates-in-full-practice-for-first-time-since-Achilles-injury/ced9adaf-f263-4e05-a58d-66f0c3e3887d In fact he took several snaps in the June minicamp and came off looking like he was 100% healthy and ready for the new season. For those of you who can’t remember, he ran for over 300 yards in a game for the Illini and over 1,700 yards in his last collegiate season. He is 6’0 and 227 lbs, and an every down back. If he comes back 100% and takes the starting job, running back is average with a chance to be good. We have to wait and see… If he’s hurt and the backfield is thrown in flux again they drop back to below average…

Is a 2,000 yard season possible for Calvin Johnson?

Receivers: What else can be said of the electrifying talents of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson?? Going into last year, we felt he could possibly go for 90-100 receptions and 1,500 yards and he did not disappoint. Johnson’s 96 receptions for 1,681 yards  16 TDs made him a consensus All Pro. For the better part of the season he was on pace to break both Randy Moss’ touchdown record of 23 and Jerry Rice’s record of 1,808 receiving yards set in 1995. Do you realize he only needs 1,128 yards to hit the 7,000 yard mark for his career?? He’s the best weapon in the game today and his 11 catches for a team record 244 yards in the last game of the season put the Green Bay Packers and the rest of the league on notice. “Megatron” will flirt with a 2,000 yard season this year.

Last year this team received steady play from veteran Nate Burleson (73 rec / 757 yds) although he only caught 3 touchdowns. Will he be able to stay on the field with the Lions making Oklahoma wideout Ryan Broyles their 2nd round pick in the draft?? Keep in mind last year’s 2nd round pick Titus Young, from Boise St came on in the second half of the season. Of his 48 rec. for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns, 29 of those catches and 5 scores came in the second half of the season. All of this before we get to talented TE Brandon Pettigrew… No wonder this team couldn’t be stopped throwing the football. Even without a running game. This is already a Super Bowl caliber receiving corps. If Broyles can make the transition and come on late in the season…. dare we say it??

Offensive Line: This offensive line had mixed reviews last season as the team needs to protect Stafford better, they let him get hit 78 times last year along with 36 sacks. Too much for a quarterback who before last year had proven to be injury prone. To that avail the Lions made T Riley Reiff their #1 draft selection to help fortify the line. The question is will he fight for Left Tackle Jeff Backus’ job or Gosder Cherilus on the right?? Both tackles are  former #1 selections but Backus is going to be 34 years old when they go into camp. He will take over for Backus at Left Tackle later but he should unseat Cherilus as the starter on the right now. Why??

When you look at the statistics for this line everyone is expendable. On obvious rushing downs where it is 3rd or 4th and 2 or less, this team could only rush for the first down 57% of the time to the left, 54% of the time up the middle and 40% on the strong side. Are you serious?? Those rankings are 26th, 23rd, and 31st and have to improve. The strong side is your power rushing side and you need to have push. Have attitude about it. Yet how much can you attribute that to their not having their best running back out there for the season?? On second thought, it doesn’t matter we’re only talking 2 yards so the line has to take the blame for those short comings. This line had better play better or it could be the weak link that allows a promising team to fall to injury or short of it’s goal. Even with improvement this group still receives a below average grade.

Cliff Avril had a breakout year in 2011 and could hit the 15 sack plateau this year.

Defensive Line: This unit is one of the team’s strengths. Of the 41 sacks (10th in the NFL) last year, 19 came from Defensive Ends Cliff Avril with 11, and Kyle Vanden Bosch with 8. Avril has learned a tremendous amount from his counterpart and coming into his 5th season and 4th straight with improved sack totals, we see a Pro Bowl year for him with 15 sacks. The defensive ends did benefit from the attention DT Ndamukong Suh drew after his stellar rookie campaign. Suh suffered a sophomore slump though with 39 tackles and 4 sacks which was down from his 66 tackle 10 sack performance from a season before. The frustration for Suh boiled over with several personal foul calls when he lost his composure. The most visible was his ejection after kicking a Green Bay Packer lineman in a national televised game on Thanksgiving.

They need him to lead by example especially with fellow DT Nick Fairley coming into camp injury free and with the same temprament. Fairley needs to show up to back his high draft status and give Lions fans what they’ve been envisioning since his selection. If these two can channel that fire and brimstone energy into just going after running backs and quarterbacks, this group is good and can make the transition to Super Bowl quality if Fairley can start and make plays for the Lions. It’s critical to the team’s overall psyche and growth when players start to reach their potential

Former Tennessee Titan Stephen Tulloch fortified the middle of the Lions defense.

Linebackers: This is an uninspiring group at first glance and just like we said before last year they could use a free agent pick-up here. In space, The Chancellor doesn’t like the play of DeAndre Levy he seems stiff out in the open and a step slow reacting to plays. His great speed masks it to the layman football watcher but coaches can and do take advantage of that with intermediate passing routes to his flank. He moved back from the middle after playing inside for 2010. He did make a respectable 109 tackles but only forced 1 fumble and only defensed 1 pass. He needs to play more instinctive, especially behind this line. In Super Bowl XXXV, Ray Lewis playing in a 4-3, defensed 5 passes in that game himself!! So asking for more than 1 pass defensed over an entire season isn’t being difficult. Hopefully he can play more instinctive in his second season back outside.

Now one player who did play well last year was Middle Linebacker Stephen Tulloch #55. Of the Lions’ back 7 on defense, he was the most consistent performer with 127 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes defensed. He’s in his prime and for management’s sake should hope his improvement can be mirrored by Levy. The Lions are looking to shake things up at linebacker and selected two in the draft who seem to be paying dividends in OTAs already. Fifth round pick Tahir Whitehead out of Temple, and seventh round pick Travis Lewis from Sooner Nation. We think Travis Lewis will get on the field and replace Justin Durant by season’s end. If the Lions can get these young linebackers making plays this could be an above average group. As of right now we have to give them a below average grade and see how the position battles of summer camp pan out.

Houston had a big year in 2011. Pro Bowl in 2012??

Secondary: What is FS Louis Delmas back there reading?? Although he missed 5 games, he made 61 total tackles yet didn’t register 1 interception for a second straight season. This is one of the reasons the team finished with 21 interceptions while giving up 26 touchdowns and finished 22nd against the pass. With a pass rush this strong more plays needed to be made by the safeties. Delmas makes big hits but needs to arrive two steps before and make the interception. He has to show up this season. Amari Spivey improved in 2011 yet needs to step it up just a little bit more. In 2011 he made 75 tackles (up from 33 in 2010) intercepted 3 passes and had 1 sack. At cornerback Chris Houston (56 tackles / 5 ints) was solid although Houston missed 3 games. Chris proved to be the playmaker on this defense returning those 5 interceptions for a whopping 225 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The Lions made a serious statement in the draft taking 3 secondary players: CB Dwight Bentley in round 3, CB Chris Greenwood in round 5, and Jonte Green in round 7. They were prepared to replace CB Eric Wright, who departed via free agency and penciled nickel back Aaron Berry as the starter. Competition should be fierce for this cornerback spot with the signing of former Indianapolis Colt Jacob Lacey. This team has a few “ifs” in the secondary yet if they can stay healthy and Delmas can begin to read quarterbacks this secondary can be good. We have to wait until after training camp to find that out so they get a slightly below average grade for now.

Stafford needs to be healthy to take the Lions deep in the playoffs.

Overall: This team grew up in a major way last season. However, Head Coach Jim Schwartz has to get his team’s head out of the clouds and clean up the off the field issues. He has to keep his players from thinking they have arrived because of a little success. This is where he has to prove his mettle this year. One thing the Lions have this year is a relatively easy schedule, http://www.detroitlions.com/assets/pdf/2012_Det_Schedule.pdf They don’t play the bulk of their division rivals until we get to the second half of the season. More important they play 5 of their last 7 at home and the team should have growing pains ironed out by then.  One game to circle is the week 6 matchup with Philadelphia. Each team wants to prove they are among the NFC elite and this game will have wildcard ramifications if either doesn’t finish strong. The winner of this game will have a championship building block level of confidence come playoff time.

The health of Mikel Leshoure and the running game, an explosive Nick Fairley to add nastiness to the defense and further bolster a strong pass rush, and an improved Delmas could pay huge dividends if all come to pass. How huge?? A trip to Super Bowl XLVII down in New Orleans awaits them if they do. Last year they went 10-6 and fought tooth and nail in their final games and playoff loss.  We shall see how the preseason shakes out but this season just like last year, should end in the Super Dome.

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NEXT: Baltimore Ravens

2012 Green Bay Packers Preview

Lambeau Field

As twilight descended upon Lambeau Field, an uneasy hush fell over the sellout crowd. There was no way Packer’s faithful were re-living the nightmare of being upset by the wild card Giants again as they had in 2007. The sense of de ja vu had hung in the air like a dense fog with New York controlling the game.  How did the Packers, who glided through the season 15-1, a record which was best ever for a defending champion, allow this to happen?? Uneasiness gave way to outright anguish, when Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham to balloon the Giants lead to 30-13 with 6:48 to go in the game…and it was over 37-20. One of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history

Quarterback: Despite that playoff setback, Aaron Rodgers remains one of the league’s best. At times last season he approached playing at a level only few in history have been able to achieve. Just about every Packer passing record fell last year. Ironically two fell when Rodgers sat out the season finale against the Lions. In that game former Packer Matt Flynn upped his worth in free agency with a performance for the ages throwing for 33 of 49 for 480 yards and 6TDs. He came within 74 yards of Norm Van Brocklin’s all time record of 554 set in 1950. His 480 yards and 6TDs are new all time Packer records. Yikes!! With his leaving via free agency, the system seems to be in place for this Aaron Rodgers kid to deliver on some of his draft day promise.

Surely we jest as Rodgers threw for a team record 4,643 yards & 45 touchdowns, to just 6 interceptions while completing on 68.3% of his tosses. He could have bested Tom Brady’s record of 50 TDs had he played that final game against the Lions and he did tie Brady’s all time TD/INT ratio at 9. Yet the question remaining from last year is: “Should he have played??” After sitting out that game and the two week layoff before the top tier playoff teams get underway, he came back rusty and off. Plays he had made all season were just out of his grasp that fateful night. He was his only true enemy last year as he had a season for the ages. As for going into the 2012 season, he is in the prime of his career and this team should have a Super Bowl quality quarterback for at least 7  more years.

James Starks will be the new featured back in 2012.

Offensive Backfield: After jockeying for position with Ryan Grant a season ago, running back looks like it’s going to be James Starks job to lose. Last year he and Grant had identical stats: (Grant 134 car/ 559 yards, 2TDs) (Starks 133 car / 578 yards, 1TD) Yet Grant wasn’t re-signed and the emerging Starks is 4 years younger. He needs to produce more near the goal line and in power rushing situations. Fan favorite John Kuhn made the Pro Bowl for his versatility, having scored 6 times last year (4 rushing / 2 receiving) while providing punch when blocking for Rodgers. One of the last true fullbacks in the NFL. He sees his time limited thanks to Green Bay going with more 3 and 4 receiver sets. Because of Kuhn’s presence running back is only average when it comes to grading them.

This team needs more from it’s running backs in case Rodgers is having an off game, they can carry the day. In last January’s playoff loss to the Giants, the coaching staff didn’t commit to the run when they realized Rogers was off. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/201201150gnb.htm With 14 rushes for 78 yards they could have slowed the Giants pass rush down a bit had they been utilized more. Yet the confidence to run the football wasn’t there for one reason or another. Right now, this group is supplementary to say the least.

Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings may not be the best receiver on his own team.

Receivers: Funny thing that Pro Bowl voting. Greg Jennings makes it after a 67 catch season for 949 yards and 9 touchdowns. Where the odd man out was Jordy Nelson who tallied 68 receptions for 1,263 yards and 15 scores. Huh?? That has to be the only time in NFL history that a receiver that caught 15 TDs didn’t make the Pro Bowl. This is easily the best starting set of receivers in the NFL.

At 6’3 and 215 lbs, Nelson has come on the national scene and should have been in last year’s gala in Hawai’i. He gained confidence with his play during the 2010 Super Bowl run. In that game he went 9 for 140 yards and 1 TD. Had he not had three drops, one a 40 yarder, he could have broken Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record of 215. He’s a big target and he can get deep. A 90 reception season for Nelson in 2012 is not out of the question.

In healthy competition with him is the aforementioned Mr. Jennings, fellow wideout James Jones (38 rec. 635 yds/ 7TDs) and soon to be Pro Bowl tight end Jermichael Finley (55 rec. 767 yds / 8TDs). Do you realiz                                                                                                                                     e we hadn’t even brought up Donald Driver yet?? Yikes! This is the most complete set of receivers and all four can get deep and run great pass routes. This might be the best stocked position since the Greatest Show on Turf and these guys are bigger. Unlike many teams of the past where you had one possession receiver and one deep receiver, you knew how to defense them based on that premise. Here it’s pick your poison and with Rodgers throwing them the football this is easily a Super Bowl caliber group. They’re just coming into their prime as a unit.

Offensive Line: The Packers finally released longtime starter T Chad Clifton yet let’s face facts…it was a move that was overdue. Last year the Packers allowed 41 sacks (22nd in the NFL) while allowing their QBs to be hit 73 times which ranked 15th. Rodgers mobility and quick decision making kept that second stat respectable. Many times, blind side pressure forced Rodgers to move his feet to avoid contact. Clifton was past his prime and injuries caught up to him. In the 2011 draft the Packers selected T Derek Sherrod and it’s time for the succession to commence. At 6’5″ 325 lbs, he blocks out the sun and coming from an SEC school he should make the transition facing speed rushers. As a contingency, the Packers have signed four offensive tackles this offseason.

A curious free agency pick up was the signing of former Indianapolis Colt Jeff Saturday who replaced Pro Bowl center Scott Wells who departed for St Louis. Saturday is a veteran who is 7 years Wells senior wouldn’t it have been more prudent to keep the younger player?? Saturday is going into his 14th season and is walking that fine line where he could get old in a hurry. Facing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley could prove to be a handful. Right now the Packers offensive line has to be viewed as below average.

Defensive Line: The first mistake the Packers made was allowing DT/DE Cullen Jenkins to leave before last season via free agency. He was good against the run and gave an inside pass rush presence to offset the blitzing linebackers. He was missed terribly last season as Ryan Pickett didn’t record a single sack in 14 games and situational rusher Jarius Wynn could only muster 3. Green Bay moved quickly to improve this by drafting DT Jerel Worthy from Michigan St. In the 3-4 defense the ends have to be more stout against the run so Worthy will see time as a DE burrowing into the line allowing linebackers to rush from the outside. Anthony Hargrove, formerly of the Saints was also signed to give the line more juice.

At nose tackle, the Packers are set with Pro Bowl B.J. Raji who can hold ground against the run, and push the pocket as he had 3 sacks last year. However he seemed to disappear in a lot of games. From time to time you would go entire quarters without knowing he’s out there. Last year he only had 24 total tackles on the year….24?? He has to split double team blocks better and should have a bounce back season. He made the Pro Bowl on reputation last year more so than performance. Defensive line is below average until we see this team improve later in the summer.

Steady Desmond Bishop applying pressure in last year’s playoff game against New York

Linebackers: The linebacker that should have gone to the Pro Bowl last year was Desmond Bishop. Overshadowed by Clay Matthews III and A.J. Hawk, Bishop turned in a year worthy of defensive player of the year candidacy. Although he missed 3 games due to injury, he recorded 121 tackles, had 5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles. He’s coming into his prime and helps bolster this defense.

Last year’s Pro Bowl LB Clay Matthews III had a down year. His sack total fell from 10 to 6 a year ago while making just 55 tackles. Most of his issues had more to do with drawing double teams as much as anything else. However he did make several plays with 3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. AJ Hawk is still playing some solid football and garnered 86 tackles with 1.5 sacks despite missing two games. This group suffered from teams successfully running the football on them with linemen getting out onto the linebackers. Their own defensive line had a lot to do with that. With the emergence of Bishop this is a playoff caliber linebacking corps.

Secondary: This unit was the negative beneficiary of a deficient pass rush. Yes the Packers amassed 41 sacks which ranked 12th but 22 of those came from blitzing linebackers and secondary personnel. So when they got there, great, but when they didn’t receivers were running wide open. Witness Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and his 11  catch and team record 244 yard performance in the season finale. This team is forced to blitz and exposes their secondary. Yet this team has several good corners and safeties. Injuries forced S Nick Collins to retire. Yet in his absence, new safety tandem Morgan Burnett (109 tackles /3 ints / 1 sack) and Charlie Peprah (103 tackles / 5 ints) made plays on the ball and were 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles. Just too many they were forced to make in open spaces.

Charles Woodson is showing no signs of slowing down. He had another all around great season.

Cornerback is still solid with All World Charles Woodson still playing at a high level. he recorded 75 tackles, 7 interceptions and 2 sacks in a great all around performance. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields also gathered in 4 interceptions. The secondary is playoff calibur and if the Packers aren’t forced to blitz so much are actually Super Bowl caliber.

Overall: This team is loaded and will be there in the end. However I see a fall from the record of 15-1 a year ago to one of 11-5. They have a tough division with the Chicago Bears making significant moves and the Detroit Lions growing before your eyes. Make no mistake about it when Matthew Stafford came in and threw for 520 yards and 5 touchdowns IN Lambeau Field, they showed they’re a force to be reckoned with. The Packers start their 2012 hosting the San Francisco 49ers. Their defense has to yield far less than 411 yards per game. That was one of the worst in NFL history. The Chancellor isn’t certain they did enough to fortify their lines on both sides. Everyone forgets that in 2010, Aaron Rodgers was a concussion away from sitting out the rest of the season. So offensive line issues and getting him hit can  prove an issue again. The motivation from last year’s playoff loss needs to feed the monster in 2012. Can they return to the Super Bowl?? We think the NFC Championship is about the furthest they can push it in 2012

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Next Up: Detroit Lions

2012 San Francisco 49ers Preview

Alex Smith celebrating with Vernon Davis after “The Catch III”

With all the excitement that Candlestick Park saw last season, it’s hard not to think of the contrast between the ending of their two playoff games. First the frenzied, raucous crowd who witnessed “The Catch III” as the Niners beat New Orleans in the final seconds. Then, the  fans that quietly filed out after Lawrence Tynes overtime field goal sent the Giants on to Super Bowl XLVI. It was a season where the ending was so abrupt, you could feel everyone in the stadium felt the 49ers let a golden opportunity slip away. Then have to watch with abject horror the Giants throttle the Patriots, and San Francisco had an even better defense… Yes, they let a possible sixth Super Bowl trophy vanish like a mirage in the desert. So will they come back baring emotional scars from the NFC Championship meltdown, or will they gain psychological momentum from a triumphant season culminating with the win over the Saints??

Quarterback: Back in 2009, the Packer insider had an article comparing the paths that Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith had taken since they hailed from the NFL ’05 draft. http://packersinsider.com/2009/11/class-of-2005-alex-smith-vs-aaron-rodgers/ Of course it was written because Rodgers, having the better path of the two, was going to face Smith in a regular season game. That was nearly our match up in last year’s NFC Championship. Yet unlike Rodgers, who laid an egg in an upset playoff loss to the Giants, we saw Smith come of age in his first playoff game. Sure Smith still has his detractors, however they were nowhere to be found in the midst of the noisy celebration in the comeback win.

Coach Harbaugh will have his work cut out for him to do better than his 13-3 inaugural season with the club.

Last year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh “Trent Dilfer-ized” the offense. By asking Smith to acquiesce throwing high risk passes downfield, the offense played to it’s strengths. The running game and the defense carried this team through the early part of the season yet he started to mature into his role and started to take shots downfield with TE Vernon Davis. The Chancellor believes Smith has turned a corner. First off he comes into the 2012 season having gone his last 8 games without an interception which includes two playoff games.  You have to go back to the November 24th game with the Ravens when he last threw a pick. If you look at his 7 games going into the NFC Championship, he had gone 111 of 189 for 1,327 yards and 7 TDs. Even in the championship against the Giants he threw 12 completions in 26 attempts for 196 yards and 2 more TDs. He didn’t force the ball downfield into coverage and the 49ers have given him weapons this year. Has the emotional fallout completely healed from Niners brass courting Peyton Manning and letting Smith dangle in free agency?? We’ll have to wait for a rough patch during the season to see if it has… Until then, we have to give the quarterback position a playoff caliber grade.

Frank Gore is a workhorse running back.

Offensive Backfield: Now who can remember all the “I want to be traded” talk from Frank Gore (The [[_]]) as the team came back from the lockout?? Funny how winning cures all that negative talk in the locker room huh?? Not a peep out of Gore as the team stormed to a 9-1 start. Gore bludgeoned his way to 1,211 yards, 8TDs and had an average of 4.3 yards per carry. His 2011 yardage was second highest for his career, and  was his fifth 1,000 yard rushing season in the last six seasons. He is the last of a dying breed…. The big running back that can control the game and the clock.

Kendall Hunter was a good change of pace running back that had a combined 668 yards from scrimmage, 473 of which rushing.  Yet the 49ers drafted speedy LaMichael James out of Oregon. James brings an explosive element to an offense that desperately needs it. We know he’ll play on 3rd downs, passing situations and special teams at least. With his falling to them in the draft, we believe the odd man out will be free agent Brandon Jacobs. His lack of versatility will make him expendable as we reach September. With Hunter and James to take some of the load off, it should keep Gore fresh for the stretch run. Running back is above average or as we say around here, playoff quality.

Receivers: Here is the position that let the team down last year and could be the difference between the 49ers playing in Super Bowl XLVII, or watching it. TE Vernon Davis is one of the emotional leaders of this football team. Last year Davis had 67 receptions for 792 yards and 6 scores. He has been the target most teams try to take away first in the Niners passing game and he still manages to get the football. Davis should return to the Pro Bowl now that he will receive some help on the outside. With the signing of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and the drafting of A.J. Jenkins in the first round, the Michael Crabtree / Ted Ginn Jr experiment is over. Ginn should be cut this summer. These two can’t get open on a consistent basis and neither has been able to get deep. If Randy Moss can provide that element as he did for the 2007 Patriots, this could swing the offense wide open. Three receiver sets may become more prominent which could even open space for James coming out of the backfield. Moss as a veteran, could be a locker room presence since most of these players grew up watching his exploits. If he can still get deep, this is a playoff quality group yet will have to go through some growing pains to start the season and find everyone their role.

Offensive Line: Last year this line was good enough to rank a respectable 8th rushing the football and 10th in rushing first downs with 101. However protecting the passer they were 25th in allowing 44 sacks and ranked 24th in QB hits allowed with 82. Let’s face it,  on some of those plays Smith held the ball too long, yet at times against top defenses this line couldn’t hold up. When rushing the football in obvious power situations, they converted 44% to the strong side and 67% up the gut. Those need to improve on the strong side for a heavy rushing team. They spent two draft picks in G Joe Looney of Wake Forest and they took C Jason Slowey from Western Oregon with the 199th selection. Looney should be able to contribute immediately. Slowey could push journeyman center Jonathon Goodwin who is entering his 10th season. This line will be asked to protect better or they may be relegated to another “Trent Dilfer-ized” season as an offense. They want a vertical passing game with Moss and Manningham which calls for 5 and 7 step drops. They have to get better.  Until we see them improve in the pre-season we have to give them a below average grade.

Ray McDonald making his presence felt in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

Defensive Line: Aside from Patrick Willis on the defense, has there been a steadier performer than Justin Smith?? He’s a complete motor guy who gets by on hard work who plays the run as well as the pass. He just came off his 3rd straight Pro Bowl berth with his best season. With 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles he paces a defensive line that was stout against the run. Pass rush specialist Aldon Smith teamed with Smith to form a formidable rush and he tallied 14 sacks. As a team they produced 42 sacks which was 7th best in football.  Keep your eye on Ray McDonald #91. This could be his breakout year. He recorded 43 tackles along with 5.5 sacks, all produced from the lines interior. He was all over the place in the NFC Championship game sacking Eli Manning 2.5 times. He should be in Hawai’i in about 7 months. Mark it down.

The three man line even more so than a four man line is there to keep blockers off the linebackers. This unit didn’t allow a rushing touchdown for the first ten games of the season. Every team in NFL history that was able to do that made it to the conference championship game. Smith (Justin) is going into his 12th season and they may want to sub for him a little more to keep him fresh by seasons end. He did record sacks in each playoff game last year but there is a lot of mileage on his spedometer. Defensive line is Super Bowl quality by the Bay.

Linebackers: Did we say something about the defensive line keeping blockers off of the linebackers?? How about to the tune of 305 tackles by the top three guys… Navarro Bowman with 150, Patrick Willis with 105 although he missed a game, and Ahmad Brooks with 50. Yikes!! That is a lot of scraping into the hole and meeting runners before they can get started. How Bowman was named 1st team All Pro (along with Justin Smith & Patrick Willis) and NOT the Pro Bowl is beyond me. This group is active and instinctive and plays extremely fast. Willis forced 4 of the team’s 20 forced fumbles on the years. In addition, Bowman and Willis produced 2 sacks each during the regular season. This is a Super Bowl quality group who should actually get better given their relative youth.

Rogers has found a home after leaving the Washington Redskins

Secondary: Retaining CB Carlos Rogers was essential in keeping this defense playing at a high level. Last year he went to the Pro Bowl with a 55 tackle, 6 interception season. He can man up against the fastest receivers and turn and run with them. He should make it to Hawai’i again. The quiet secret to this defense is the safety play of safeties Dashon Goldson and Dontae Whitner. At first glance SS Whitner’s 65 tackles don’t impress you until you realize how many were gobbled up by the linebackers. He did intercept two passes and was rarely out of position. Folks, like our CEO still wish he were in Buffalo. Goldson covers serious ground and did make the Pro Bowl thanks to a 69 tackle, 6 interception season. Whitner and Goldson are 26 & 27 respectively and should be stout for another 3 seasons. A veteran secondary that is Super Bowl quality as well.

Overall: This team is returning all of the starters from the 4th best defense in football. One that held opponents to 35% conversion rate on 3rd down (76 of 216) and should have another outstanding season. It’s imperative that they do since they start the 2012 campaign in Green Bay, then host the Lions on Sept 16th. They could be 0-2 to start the season. Hopefully they can keep the same hunger as they did last year. They were 6-2 on the road yet this year bring not only the aforementioned trip to Lambeau, add a trip to New England, and another against the revenge minded Saints. They also host the tough Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl champion Giants, so anticipate a tougher year. They should still win the west but their record will slip to to 11-5. They face some potent offenses from the AFC East which are better than the AFC North offenses of a year ago. In the Chancellor’s crystal ball, the 49ers should return to the NFC Championship Game barring injuries. Games one and two against the Packers & Lions could well decide which team will host it.

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Next up: Green Bay Packers