Saturday, August 31, 2013

NFC North Preview

The NFC North is now one of football's most competitive divisions, with 4 teams all thinking they have a good shot at the postseason. Green Bay are the current kings, but with 3 very game challengers nipping at their heels, will they be staying there for long?

Now 3 seasons off their Super Bowl win, the Packers are starting to experience a bit of a slide. 2 straight divisional round exits have pumped the brakes on the dynasty talk, but not so much on Aaron Rodgers being one of the best QB's in the game. When it comes to his weapons, Rodgers still has talented receivers despite losing Greg Jennings to the dreaded Vikings, and the running back situation is an interesting one with both Eddie Lacy and DuJuan Harris looking promising. The biggest worry for Green Bay will be their offensive line, which has taken some blows this offseason due to injuries. If Aaron Rodgers stays upright, the Packers will be just fine. Their defense is the exact opposite of Pittsburgh's; able to force tons of turnovers, but allows gobs of yards. If they could drop the yards allowed average from 30th to 20th, they'll probably be right back in the Super Bowl conversation. Oddly enough, the talk's gone quiet in Green Bay, and that may just be a good thing.

Marc Trestman returns from his Canadian odyssey to take over the Chicago Bears who were a tiebreaker away from the postseason a year ago. If Trestman can work his magic with Jay Cutler and make the Bears a prolific offense, then they have the potential to snatch the division away from Green Bay. The offensive line might still have some problems, but should be better than it was a year ago. On defense, sure the Bears lost Brian Urlacher, and the narrative states that their defense should be worse because of that. It won't make any difference. Jon Bostic is a talented rookie, and James Anderson should help with depth. Their secondary does worry me a little, but not enough to knock them down any pegs. Whether they can win the division is debatable, but the playoffs aren't that far of a stretch.

Adrian Peterson is amazing. He might very well break Eric Dickerson's rushing record. He is the best running back I've seen since Barry Sanders. Oh I was supposed to talk about the rest of the Minnesota Vikings? I thought they were just Adrian Peterson. It's not that far of a stretch to say the Vikings made the playoffs last season on the strength of Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings have attempted to fix that by getting Christian Ponder some new weapons in Greg Jennings and Cordarelle Paterson. Defensively, they still have Jared Allen and other pieces that are pretty good fits, but they are a young unit with 3 1st round picks that need to mature. We hear a lot with advanced statistics about regression to the mean, and the Vikings I think might experience some of that this season, unless Christian Ponder plays much better than he did a year ago.

The Lions broke their playoff duck in 2011, only to watch it all go up in smoke last season with 4 wins. Their offense was certainly not the problem, and they've added Reggie Bush to the mix this season to help fix a moribund running game. They have talent everywhere on offense, and should be able to score tons of points. The problem is will they also allow a ton of points? They added Ziggy Ansah to help rush the passer, as well as Israel Idonije, and they still have Fairley and Suh to stuff the middle. But, everything behind that is a major concern. Their linebacking corps has little depth, and their secondary is very young. They're hesitant to blitz because they know they don't have the talent behind the front 4 to sustain any defense for very long. They're going to improve, but only as much as the defense grows along with it.

To summarize... The Packers have offensive line issues that could derail them, but Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers. Marc Trestman should fix some of Jay Cutler's issues on offense, but how much? The Vikings will likely experience some regression because Adrian Peterson can't carry the team again... right? And the Lions will improve as much as their defense allows them to. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

AFC North Preview

The Super Bowl Champs reside in the AFC North, and despite that, the Ravens have had to make some pretty massive changes to their roster, more than any usual Super Bowl Champ would have to. Many people think the Ravens are in for a drop off, but do I? The Bengals don't look all that different from the team that has made the playoffs two consecutive seasons, but can they finally win a playoff game? The Steelers are in a state of flux, and with all of their roster changes, can they compete? And will the Browns make the postseason for the first time since 2002, or short of that, be competitive?

In Baltimore, the narrative states that the Ravens will be worse off without some of their leaders from last year, namely Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Anquan Boldin. Now if you are a dedicated reader of this site, you know what I think of narratives. So, I will make the bold prediction here that the Ravens will in fact be better than they were a year ago. Now before you bust down my internet door, I didn't think the Ravens defense was all that good last season, and despite all of the new starters, they are very good. They now have to replace Ellerbe, Kruger, Lewis, and Reed the good group of Arthur Brown, Marcus Spears, Daryl Smith (criminally underrated throughout his career), and Matt Elam, need we forget Elvis Dumervill. They will have to workout some kinks in the early going, but by the stretch the Ravens D should be better than it was a year ago. On offense, they have some depth issues at WR and TE, but that's not a major concern based on preseason performances. So the retooled Ravens are better than the team that took them to glory last season. Funny league, this.

The Bengals have had the HBO spotlight on them this training camp, and it's put some important pieces into perspective for them. They still have depth everywhere offensively, including adding talented rookies Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert into the mix. They have one of the best defensive lineman in the league in Geno Atkins. Their secondary and linebacking corps are both solid. So why don't I see them winning the division? They've hit the glass ceiling, where the supplemental pieces added to the roster are good, but won't likely put them over the top. They should be in the playoff mix once again, and maybe this year they'll get around to winning a game when they get there.

It has been quite a long time since we could accurately describe the Steelers as a bad team. Now we aren't there yet, but this team is on the precipice of the bottom falling out. Last year, they had the traditional stout Steelers D of old, but they didn't force turnovers. Also, their offense slipped massively due to offensive line problems and a lack of a running game. And... those problems haven't really been fixed this season. They are one or two offensive line injuries away from disaster, their running back situation is still massively in flux, and Big Ben can't constantly take the punishment he keeps getting. Most of their defense is good on the top end, but lacking in depth as well. The Steelers could easily win the AFC North if all goes well. They could also finish 5-11 if it all goes wrong, too.

For Cleveland, their new regime under Rob Chudzinski has to take time in order for the full changes to take effect. They have got good pieces in place, like Trent Richardson, Joe Haden, Josh Gordon and others scattered across their roster, but they are not a complete team yet. Brandon Weeden might be in only his second NFL season, but he'll be 30 in October. Is he the answer to the Browns long standing QB issues? The preseason has shown some positive signs, but the true answer is probably not on their roster right now. The wins won't come until their QB situation isn't in a constant state of flux, and the new regime hasn't yet picked their guy, so we won't know until that happens whether the Browns will finally escape the grip of a losing cycle.

In summary... Against conventional wisdom I think the Ravens are better than they were a season ago, the Bengals are pretty much the same but the playoffs are still very likely, the Steelers are primed for the bottom to fall out, and the Browns are starting over... again.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

NFC East Preview

Leading up to opening Thursday Night of the 2013 NFL Season, I will preview each division with snippets on each team in that division. They will lead up to opening night when my full predictions and first fantasy column will be released.

The NFC East is always a talking point of a division, despite the overall lack of quality in the division. Thanks to the brands in the division, we get to hear about this division race every day in perpetuity. Sometimes it makes me wish the Cardinals were back in the division. For the last two seasons in a row the division title was won in the final game of the season, and will this year make it 3?

The Giants are a fascinating football team, with their great strengths matched by puzzling weaknesses. They seem to always have injury concerns, which are continuing to mount with Jason Pierre-Paul still on PUP, David Baas likely to miss some time, and Victor Cruz in a walking boot. Couple that with depth issues in place, and the Giants aren't inspiring all that much confidence from some corners. While Eli and his receivers will be fine, they will need David Wilson to break out in order to really improve on offense. On defense there are depth issues in the secondary and on the defensive line, and they have a terrible group of linebackers. Yet, they're my division favorites. Tough crowd, eh?

The emergence of the Washington Redskins wasn't entirely a big surprise, but just how they turned around what looked to be a dead season was amazing. So, how do they improve in year two? By improving very little, actually. They will get Brian Orakpo back after missing all of last season with a pectoral injury, and their young team is one year older, which means they should be more game this season. But, there are no visible personnel improvements anywhere on the roster, which means their defense still has holes in the secondary and on the front 3, and there's the ever-lingering worry that Robert Griffin III won't be able to stay healthy. They could certainly win the division, but they're not my clear cut favorites.

Ah, Dallas. The NFL's bluster team. So much talk, yet so little of anything on the field to back them up. They are also a lot like the Redskins in that personnel improvements are hard to find at this point. They'll still have a potent offense with Bryant, Austin, Witten, and Murray being the main weapons for Tony Romo, and they'll still have a very good pass rush with Ware and Spencer. But, their offensive line still has massive holes, and their secondary is still likely to have problems, especially with the QB's in this division. If those units can play a little bit above their heads this season, the Cowboys can win the division. But they'll more than likely finish 8-8 and Jason Garrett's seat will burn once again.

In Philadelphia, the first regime change at HC is one that provides a lot of intrigue. With Chip Kelly at the helm, their offense is going to be one to watch, and it suits newly anointed starter Michael Vick very well. And, LeSean McCoy might actually get a consistent amount of carries this season since Andy Reid is no longer the coach! But, their defense is problematic everywhere, not only because of the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but because the personnel changeover will take some time in order to take effect in more noticeable form. The Eagles will likely be involved in some of the league's most interesting games all season, mainly because the score will likely be 38-35 more often than not.

To summarize... The Giants have injury problems and personnel holes that are sizeable but are my division favorites because the other teams don't inspire confidence, the Cowboys and Redskins are almost spitting images of themselves from a year ago, which means not much will change with them, and the Eagles will be an entertaining team because their offense will light it up and their defense will get lit up. It might not be a division filled with great teams, but at least the games will be entertaining.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

AFC East Preview

Leading up to opening Thursday Night of the 2013 NFL Season, I will preview each division with snippets on each team in that division. They will lead up to opening night when my full predictions and first fantasy column will be released. 

The AFC East has never been the most competitive division, has it? It certainly doesn't seem in 2013 that's going to change much, if at all. The Pats are still the Pats, despite the Patriot Way having holes punched in it seemingly, and the other 3 teams aren't all that different from last season. Is there any way that the Dolphins, Bills or Jets surprise and take the division away from the Patriots? (Spoiler... Nope).

The Patriots are going into 2013 almost exactly the same way they went in 2012, at least on the field. They lack a game-breaking receiver, and they have unknowns at the offensive skill positions, even though some answers have emerged. But really, do they matter at all because Tom Brady will still light everyone up? Issues with the defense cropped up a season ago, but they seem to be fixed with last years rookies a year older and more experienced. The regular season won't be the problem for the Pats, it will be getting by the tougher teams in the AFC once they have to.

Miami spent big in free agency, as one would expect from a desperate GM like Jeff Ireland. Experience dictates that means that Ireland will end up falling on his sword, but is that so? Mike Wallace should dramatically help Ryan Tannehill, but the injury to Dustin Keller and the lack of clarity at RB will hurt. Their secondary is also an interesting mix of rookies and veterans, but without a definitive gamebreaker there. Their defensive line will be their strength, but it will have to mask the problems behind them. So the big question is, are the Dolphins really all that much better than last year? Well... not really, so far as I can tell.

E.J Manuel would have been the opening day starter for Buffalo had it not been for his unfortunate knee injury, since he was playing very well in the preseason. But now Kevin Kolb is taking over, and be honest, does it really matter since Manuel is going to be starting by some point in the season anyway? Doug Marrone and Doug Whaley have made their bed and now they have to lie in it. Their offense has explosive weapons everywhere, but the front 3 and the secondary are both big questions. And, will Manuel be able to translate his early success into wins?

And then there are the Jets... it got a bit sad to be watching the flaming trainwreck that was the Jets season last year, and this year figures to be no better. Mark Sanchez will probably start opening day, but Geno Smith will be starting by the end of it. The offense has holes everywhere, and the defense has problems from the D-Line back. Their cap situation is not conducive to improving as a team despite a good draft, and it will take time for the roster churn to fully work. Until then, it's going to be another long year for Jets fans.

In summary... the Pats are still the class of the division, Miami isn't all that much better than they were a year ago, the Bills aren't ready to make the jump yet, and the Jets are waiting for their cap situation to improve before massive changes come. So in short, the division is no different than it was a year ago.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

2013-14 Barclays Premier League Predictions

Another summer of mindless transfer madness and mildly tiding international tournaments has made way for a new Barclays Premier League campaign to begin, and it's certainly one filled with intrigue. Last year's Top 3 clubs all have new managers, and with new revenue streams some of the mid level clubs have strengthened massively. This certainly will make the Premier League one of the most open contests in years, but might leave some clubs out in the cold. Without any further fluff, here are my 2013-14 predictions (which are certainly doomed to fail):

1. Chelsea 87 pts.

--> Jose Mourinho is certainly a different manager than the one that left Chelsea in 2007. "The Happy One" might still have some special left in him, even though maybe some of the shine wore off after a turbulent time at Real Madrid. But there's no doubt he certainly has a scary team to put out on the pitch. Adding to an already potent attack are newcomers Andre Schurrle, Marco Van Ginkel, and Romelu Lukaku, fresh off a successful West Brom loan spell. There is quality everywhere from the midfield up, and with Mourinho's fresh emphasis on competition, everyone will feel the pinch, even Lampard and Terry. If there are any worries about this situation, they might be with a combustible dressing room and owner, but if the points pile up, that won't be a problem.

2. Manchester City 82 pts.

--> After the Citizens failed to meet their new lofty expectations under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini has taken the reigns mainly to implement a new holistic style of play. Some have questioned whether Mancini rightfully deserved the sack, and whether Manchester City will evolve as a club at all under new management. Well, they now have a true winger in Jesus Navas whom they didn't have at all under Mancini, which should open up their attack. Their forwards corps are still strong, and their midfield can still batter you, but the defense still seems a tad thin along its length, and Joe Hart has to rebound after a sub-par year. Maybe success will be defined by making the Champions League knockout stages, and not by league position this time around.

3. Manchester United 79 pts.

--> Welcome to Old Trafford Mr. Moyes. Over here you might be able to see the shadow of the man you are replacing, which is only dwarfed in size by the expectations in front of you. The defending champions are under the gun to improve, which is hard when they haven't bought any new senior team players (Wilfried Zaha aside), and have to adapt to a new manager. They are still stacked up front as usual, with or without one Mr. Rooney, and their back 4 is still strong, with David De Gea finally meeting his price tag. The midfield problems for United have been masked for years, but Sir Alex found a way around that. Will David Moyes be able to? That's the question.

4. Tottenham Hotspur 74 pts.

--> 3rd time's the charm? 2 late season slips cost Spurs a Champions League berth at the hands of their great rivals, and now, finally, the board has reacted to it. Their long standing issues at striker are now resolved with Roberto Soldado, and the midfield has added steel with Paulinho and Etienne Capoue joining up. As of right now, the backline is thin, but if it stays healthy it can become a major strength. With or without Gareth Bale, this team has spent to win, and the Champions League doesn't seem that far of a stretch. As a Spurs supporter, I know to expect disaster, and hope for the moon. But with the crickets rustling at a certain other North London team's HQ, it's hard not to get a little excited.

5. Arsenal 68 pts.

--> You know, at some point I'd be really sick of having smoke blown up my ass, and having Piers Morgan continue to be right about something on my behalf. Arsenal's shocking lack of transfer activity, coupled with a squad that wasn't very deep to begin with has caused panic on the red side of North London, and maybe finally it's founded. Even if their end of season run last year was incredibly impressive, the same pieces would have to do the same thing, and maybe double their form to pull it off again. And when the team's heartbeat is still one player oft-injured (Hi Jack Wilshire), confidence is rightly lacking at the Emirates. Transfer activity might change this, but even then Arsenal aren't targeting the areas they need to. Luis Suarez can't play holding midfielder, or fullback.

6. Liverpool 61 pts.

--> Brendan Rogers has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it's not hard to see why. Some of their form last season was scintillating, and with the players up front like Phillipe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, and (gasp), Luis Suarez, they can score goals in bunches. And Steven Gerrard is still around too, isn't he? But Liverpool's problem is going to be their heavy reliance on those players to score, since the depth of scoring isn't amazing, and their back 4 still remains weak. Kolo Toure isn't Jamie Carragher. And is Simon Mignolet really better than Pepe Reina? I don't think so. Liverpool are susceptible to being jumped by the teams below them, and does the board and fans have patience to wait out another year? Who knows.

7. Swansea City 56 pts.

--> Swansea City have a new trophy in their cabinet, and European football to look forward to. And they've strengthened greatly with quality signings like Wilfried Bony and Jonjo Shelvey. But, is there a glass ceiling to their success? How much further up can they reasonably expect to go? Maybe Liverpool is prime for being jumped, but can they have a run like Newcastle did 2 seasons ago? It's certainly possible, but not probable. Michael Laudrup will have some interesting motivating to do with this team in order to keep their ambitions high when there reasonably isn't much higher to go.

8. Everton 51 pts.

Roberto Martinez takes over a club in transition, but one that has remained mainly static from the one that David Moyes left. A new system, especially one as dramatically different as they are now using,  often causes a drop in form, but how steep will Everton's fall be, if they have one at all? And will the players left over be able to adapt? Everton certainly have the quality to roll with the changes, but there has to be a learning curve for the squad. It's happened with every team Martinez has taken over, and Everton will be no different. They won't plummet down the table, but they'll certainly drop.

9. Norwich City 48 pts.

--> This club might have had the best transfer window of any in England, bar none. Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, Leroy Fer, Gary Hooper, and Nathan Redmond are some of the notable newcomers to Carrow Road, and they will all make a club that stagnated plenty last season take leaps forward this time around. Could they be a similar team to what West Brom and Swansea were last season? Certainly, if they gel in time. Their defense is still a problem zone, but if it can hold up, this club could certainly challenge up beyond their likes.

10. Sunderland 47 pts.

--> Last year Sunderland flirted with relegation all season. Paolo Di Canio clearly didn't like that, so there has been incredible player churn this offseason. In are the likes of Jozy Altidore, Emanuele Giacherrini, and Modibo Diakite, to go along with the likes of Seb Larsson, Steven Fletcher, and Adam Johnson. The optimism on Tyneside is as high as it has been in years, and compared to the other half of the Northeast football scene, there is reason to be excited. How high up the table they can go depends on how healthy the team is, and also how able Paolo Di Canio is to control his temper.

11. Aston Villa 45 pts.

--> Paul Lambert's side flirted with relegation all year last year due to their dramatic youth movement, and since they were able to stay up, what use is there to change the policy? Their additions are all young and raw, to go along with the squad that mainly stays the same from a season ago. They're going to score a lot of goals, but also give up plenty, unless the back 4 grows up. It figures that they probably will. Last year's close call will make Villa better, and more able to challenge up this time around.

12. West Ham United 44 pts.

--> Mid table malaise might just be the way to describe West Ham this season. Their additions have mainly been Liverpool's leftovers, and whether that will add any diversity to their attack remains to be seen. They'll be physical to a fault, and an annoyance to play against, but will they strike fear into the hearts of the opposition? Probably not, unless Sam Allardyce just tells the midfield to batter everyone down. They're not any worse than they were a season ago, but they certainly aren't better. Mid-table malaise should probably be engraved outside their new Olympic Stadium home soon enough.

13. West Bromwich Albion 43 pts.

--> Steve Clarke did an admirable job helping his team overachieve last season and finish eighth. This season that task figures to be harder. They're not a young team, and their improvements have been minimal. Matej Vydra is an interesting player after he lit the Championship on fire, but is he an adequate replacement for Romelu Lukaku? Probably not. They're going to need Ben Foster to be great, and Diego Lugano to forget that he played for PSG pretty quick.

14. Newcastle United 41 pts.

--> If it wasn't for United and Arsenal not doing much in the transfer market, Newcastle would be under the gun. Loic Remy is their only addition, and he's on loan. Their French legion is pretty good, but will last year's division that engulfed the two halves of the squad crop up again? And will Alan Pardew realize that he was tactically hopeless for most of last season? I would expect so, but some of the same problems that existed last season still exist, and who knows if Pardew will be able to fix them.

15. Southampton 40 pts.

--> Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren are their 2 flashy new signings, and whether they will be able to help Saints climb the table is debatable, especially since their abilities have been questioned by some. They had great seasons from some players last year, but will they be able to continue that trend? Maybe, if they actually acknowledge that Gaston Ramirez is on their books, and can really help them out in generating goals. Saints might once again unnecessarily flirt with relegation.

16. Fulham 38 pts.

--> I believe in Shad Khan. I'm a Jaguars fan, therefore I sort of have to. But Fulham are too close to danger to really believe in right now. They're good enough to stay up, but that's about it. Their additions baffle me, and their problems with age and wear in the squad remain just as big of a problem as it did a year ago, and that hasn't been dealt with well considering their transfer business. Darren Bent as your marquee signing? That might work if this was 2007, but it isn't. I doubt Martin Jol survives the year at this rate.

17. Cardiff City 36 pts.

--> The Blue(red)birds are the only promoted team with a sniff of survival hopes this season, and their cash outlay proves it. Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker, and Gary Medel are all quality additions, and with some Premier League experience on their books with Craig Bellamy, they will have the ability to stay up. Whether that can hold up for the entire season is the question, and I think it can. Just.

18. Stoke City 33 pts.

--> Stoke flirted with relegation last season (deservedly), and adding Mark Hughes to the mix certainly doesn't make them any more likable. He wants them to play a more beautiful style of football, but when you're still dealing with the same Tony Pulis players that are better suited to playing basketball, it's going to be hard. It would be unfortunate for the American contingent to get relegated, but it's hard to see Stoke staying up unless they are saved by a Kenwye Jones revival.

19. Hull City 26 pts.

--> Hull City Tigers surely sounds American, and if this were MLS they'd probably be picking right at the top of the Superdraft. Steve Bruce's past Premier League endeavors haven't been all that successful, and he had his fair share of struggles trying to get Hull up. Their additions certainly gave them some Premier League quality that they didn't have before, but this squad seems way too much like just castoffs from Bruce's stints at Wigan and Sunderland, plus a few Spurs rejects thrown in. It's hard to see the Tigers having enough quality to last them the season.

20. Crystal Palace 20 pts.

--> Ian Holloway's last Premier League foray was admirable when he managed Blackpool, but the lack of quality that squad had was also pretty easy to see. It's also easy to draw comparisons between that team and this Palace side that probably got promoted too soon. There are a few players worth noting, and Jonathan Williams could quickly follow Wilfired Zaha to a big club soon, but Palace are way behind the 8-ball when it comes to survival.

Other Predictions:
FA Cup Winner: Manchester United
League Cup Winner: Norwich City
Golden Boot: Robin Van Persie
Sack Race Winning Manager: Martin Jol

So there are the predictions, which are probably doomed to fail, knowing me. Sorry but not sorry Chelsea fans.