Sunday, September 2, 2012

40 Story Lines to Monitor Closely this Season

Every season there are pre-season headlines that catch my attention, and 2012 will be no different.

In fact, I have actually found about 40 or so story lines that should get any fan pumped for this Wednesday's season opener (in no particular order).


The rookie signal caller Robert Griffin III showed patches of excellence this preseason, but also proved to falter under pressure at other times. It will certainly be interesting to see how Griffin, the No. 2 overall pick this past April, fares in his first season at the helm. Especially considering he will be playing in a rough NFC East division.

San Francisco's attempt at repeating as NFC West champs

Falling just short of a Super Bowl appearance last season, San Francisco is poised to make a return to the playoffs in 2012. I actually think they may be stronger this season than they were during its 13-3 campaign last season. Virtually the same, hard-hitting defense and a few added weapons on offense means Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona will be in for a rough season.

New England's Revamped defense

For once, coach Belichick decided to stack up on defense in the draft, selecting defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower with the No. 21 and No. 25 overall picks and safety Tavon Wilson in the second round. With an aging defense, ranked 31st in the league last season, New England added some key youth and depth to the roster and I expect to see immediate results this season.

Weeden/Richardson rookie campaigns in Cleveland

Brandon Weeden, 27-year old rookie quarterback selected with the 22nd pick, has been named opening day starter over Colt McCoy and the recently-cut Seneca Wallace. Already pretty mature for a rookie, considering his age, Weeden is a step up from McCoy. Running back Trent Richardson's status for Week 1 is still uncertain (knee surgery) but I am still expecting an impact from Richardson as Cleveland's No. 1 back this season.

Reggie Bush's push to 1,000 rushing yards

Last year with Miami, Bush put up his first 1,000 yard season in his six seasons in the league, also tying a career-high with six TDs. Entering his second season with the 'Phins, it appears as though Bush is finally coming into his own and I think he's just getting started as the franchise's top offensive weapon.
Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson's return to full-health

Houston suffered numerous key injuries last season, including quarterback Matt Schaub, defensive end/LB Mario Williams and the All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson. If they can win the AFC South and reach the AFC Divisional playoff round without its top quarterback/wide receiver combo for the full season, just imagine what they could do this season with the duo back in the starting lineup. Scary, I know, right?

Peyton Manning era begins in Denver

This, perhaps, has been one of the biggest story lines all offseason and is without a doubt the most anticipated. Will he stay healthy? Will he return to All Pro form? Can he get Denver back to the playoffs and build on 2011's success? So many questions and, yet, none of them can be answered until the season gets underway.

Jeff Fisher's St. Louis coaching debut

After parting ways with Tennessee in 2010, following a 17-year tenure with HOU/TEN, Fisher took the 2011 season off. St. Louis fired head coach Steve Spagnuolo on January 2, hiring Fisher shortly after that. Currently in rebuilding mode with the under-performing Sam Bradford under center, I'm not so sure Fisher can be the savior St. Louis has been hoping for. But there's only one way to find that out..

DeMarco Murray/RunDMC bounce-back seasons

Murray was a huge surprise in his rookie season last year with Dallas, rushing for 897 yards and two TDs during his seven starts at RB. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury during Dallas' Week 14 matchup with the Giants, however, and the Cowboys went 1-2 the rest of the way without Murray. Darren "RunDMC" McFadden has been brilliant for the Raiders, when he's healthy of course. Also making just seven 2011 starts, McFadden ran for 614 yards and four TDs before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7. Both backs have high expectations for their respective teams this coming season.
Andrew Luck's Indianapolis debut

Luck has been deemed the best college prospect since, yes, another Colt: Peyton Manning in 1998. At the No. 1 overall slot in April, possibly already one of the league's smartest quarterbacks has great expectations for 2012, even at the helm of the rebuilding Colts. I'm not expecting Indianapolis to be a playoff team this season, however, considering it's a tough task to beat out Houston for the division and teams such as Baltimore/Pittsburgh and San Diego/Oakland/Denver for the wild card spots.

Gronk/Hernandez attempt to improve on 2011 campaigns

Tight end (and H-back in Hernandez's case) has been a key position over the last few seasons, and with Rob Gronkowski setting tight end history in 2011 (90 rec., 1,327 yards, 17 TDs), it's going to be tough to overlook these two guys. Tom Brady already has top targets at the wide receiver position in Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Adding Gronk and Hernandez has already proved to be fatal for opposing defenses. Scary to think what could happen this season.

Stafford, Megatro aerial attack

Sharing a division with Green Bay and Chicago can be tough, and will be proven once again this season. Last season, due in part to the passing combo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin "Megatron" Johnson plus a defensive attack led by Ndamukong Suh, the Lions made a playoff trip for the first time since 1999. At 10-6, Detroit fell to New Orleans in the Wild Card round, but not before putting up a great fight. A couple of sites, including ESPN, have projected Stafford to throw for 5,000 yards again this season, and if Detroit can establish a running game we could be in for a nice treat in the NFC North once again in 2012.

Mario Williams joins Kyle Williams in Buffalo

Mario is out of Houston, signing a monster 6-year, $96 million contract with $50M in guaranteed bucks. He will even be sporting a different number with the Bills, switching from No. 90 to No. 94. It will be an odd sight this season, but I believe that the duo of Mario (back at defensive end) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (54 solo tackles, 5.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2010) will make an underrated pass rush. Both, also, will be attempting to return from injury as they missed significant time during the 2011 season.

Houston's defense (even without Super Mario)

With Williams gone, you'd think the Texans may lose a beat on defense. But that's not the case. Houston ranked 2nd in total defense last season while Williams played in just five games all season. Plus Houston added a replacement for Mario, drafting the 6-foot-4/261 pound Whitney Mercilus in the first round of the draft, as he will join Houston's young defense that's made up of the likes of J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Brian Cushing and Brooks Reed.
Cam Newton set to improve on record-breaking rookie season

Superman Cam Newton took an under-performing Carolina offense and won six games in his rookie campaign last season. Not only did he improve the overall win/loss result by four games (2-14 in 2010), but he also set records in the process. Known for his powerful running style, Newton set the QB record for rushing TDs in a single-season (14). But, he was also effective as a passer, setting the QB rookie record for yards (4,051 with 21 TDs, 17 INTs). If he can improve as a leader and cut down on the interceptions this season, he could lead this team to a division title.

Eli Manning's pursuit to repeat as Super Bowl champ

The Jets, unfortunately, have gotten all the media attention in New York this offseason. But that isn't anything new to Eli and his Giants squad. The defending champs are, once again, receiving little attention. But that seems to be when Manning and Co. thrive best: when they are under the radar. This alone may be the key to New York's road to a repeat in 2012. Whether or not they'll be successful is a whole other story, however.

Sanchez/Tebow drama in NYJ

I promise this will be the only time I mention the Jets in this post. Because, just like you, I try to avoid all of this drama talk. But clearly this will be an important story line throughout the season, nonetheless. Rex Ryan continues to talk up his team, but the 0-4 preseason record and the fact they only managed to score one touchdown in those four games is very alarming. It won't be long until New York fans start crying for Tebow to start over Sanchez. And that's when I believe the real trouble will start.

Pittsburgh, Todd Haley's restructured offense

Injuries have eat Pittsburgh alive this offseason. From Rashard Mendenhall to Isaac Redman to rookie David DeCastro to James Harrison to rookie Sean Spence. They just can't seem to catch a break. But I believe it will be Ben Roethlisberger's relationship with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley that will need to be at its best in order for this team to thrive in 2012. Jonathan Dwyer may rise up as Pittsburgh's go-to guy in the backfield with Redman and Mendenhall ailing. Either way, I'm sure Haley's glad to see Mike Wallace back in team facilities and as long as the line holds up, the receiving combo of Wallace and Antonio Brown will be nearly untouchable.

Andy Dalton, A.J. Green's sophomore seasons in Cincy

Fellow rookies, QB Dalton and WR Green, both experienced great campaigns last season and will be looking to add on to that success this season. Dalton (3,398 yards, 20 TDs) and Green (65 catches, 1,057 yards, 7 TDs) were key to Cincy's 9-7 playoff campaign and will need to repeat that performance in order to get back to the playoffs this season. Nine wins will not cut it.

Skelton to start over Kolb for Arizona

On Friday the Cardinals announced that John Skelton would begin the season as the team's starting quarterback, while Kevin Kolb backs him up. Last offseason Arizona traded for the Philadelphia backup and signed him to an extension, expecting him to be the franchise quarterback. Instead, he battled a concussion and made just nine starts in 2011 (3-6 record; 9 TD, 8 INT, 81.1 QBR). This preseason Kolb struggled (59.5 comp %, 203 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) and lost the job to Skelton, who went 5-2 as Arizona's starting quarterback in place of Kolb last season.
Foster/Tate running back duo in Houston

Arian Foster, in my opinion, proved as a top running back last season after following up his league-leading 1,616 rushing yards and 16 TD performance in 2010 with a 1,200/10 TD performance on the way to Houston's first playoff appearance ever. The beauty of his situation is that he received 49 less carries than the season before because of the emergence of Ben Tate. Tate missed his entire rookie season in 2010 because of a broken ankle in the offseason, but bounced back 942 yards and four TDs in his first full season. As a team, Houston ran for a second-best 2,448 yards, 18 TD and posted a 4.5 yards/carry average. I only see Tate improving from here, too.

NFC East Carousel: New York, Dallas, Philly or Washington?

It seems as though many believe Robert Griffin III will take Washington to the playoffs in his rookie season, but clearly these people don't understand that they are in the NFC East. Not even the second overall pick can make such an impact on a team that went 5-11 and finished fourth in the division last season. Tony Romo is poised to return Dallas to the playoffs, as I will explain later if you read on. Michael Vick, though I'm not quite a believer in the Eagles this season, will be a tough challenge, especially with LeSean McCoy coming off his best season yet. And clearly the defending champs will be a force to be reckoned with once again. I will not give you the answer to who will win the East, unfortunately–you will have to wait until the season preview. But RGIII will not make the immediate impact that everyone's expecting. Give him some time to adjust and develop.

Palmer's first full season with the Raiders

Carson struggled under center after joining Oakland during the season–and that showed on the field. But with a fleet of underrated targets in Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford, and the return of Darren McFadden, I believe Palmer has the tools necessary to make his second season with the team a relatively successful one.

KC: Can Jamaal Charles bounce-back and carry the full load?

Charles was only able to put 12 carries under his belt last season before suffering a season-ending injury. With what looks to be a full return, Charles will likely receive 220-250 carries while new Chief Peyton Hillis and third-year back Dexter McCluster receive third-down carries. But the big question here is whether or not Charles can stay healthy for the entire season.

Big season for TB's Clayborn?

Last year's 20th overall pick by Tampa Bay, defensive end Adrian Clayborn out of Iowa, quietly had a solid season as a pass rusher the the Bucs. Recording 40 total tackles and 7.5 sacks off the end, Clayborn showed potential and durability as the team's leading sacker. I would expect to see a double-digit sack total from Clayborn in 2012. Maybe even between 12 and 14. Look out for Adrian, NFC South.
Tony Romo looks to prove critics wrong, carry Dallas back to playoffs

Like I stated earlier, this, if there ever were, is the year for Romo. He's getting DeMarco Murray back in the lineup and may even get a breakout season from Dez Bryant as long as he can stay out of trouble. The most important move this offseason for Dallas, however, was improving the secondary by drafting Morris Claiborne and adding Brandon Carr at corner. Romo, contrary to popular belief, is a great quarterback and, if healthy, has a shot at making a playoff return coming out of the East.

Matt Ryan looks to get over playoff slump

Ryan in Atlanta, much like Romo and Baltimore's Flacco, is a quarterback that has a lot to prove. He's a Pro Bowler and has posted a 43-19 record as the Falcons' starter over his four pro seasons. But in his three postseason appearances his Falcons have been one-and-done each time, going 0-3 and being outscore 102-47. It's not now or never for Matt, but he's certainly itching to win a playoff game that's for sure.

Cutler and Marshall reunite in Chicago

Quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall both came into the league at the same time, being drafted in the first and third rounds, respectively, by the Denver Broncos back in 2006. They each spent four seasons with the team (Marshall caught 327 balls for 4,019 yards and 25 TDs over that span) before parting ways. Cutler was shipped to Chicago where he's been ever since while Marshall spent the last two seasons in Miami. On March 13, Marshall was traded to Chicago for two third round picks, making for a nice little reunion between the two.

How does Brees and Co. react to Bounty Scandal?

I wont spend long on the subject because, well, everyone is tired of hearing about it–especially the Saints. The bounty scandal, in a nut shell, has cost New Orleans its head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season and interim/assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, in addition to linebacker and captain Jonathan Vilma for the entire season. How will New Orleans respond to that? Well it doesn't effect Drew Brees and his weapons of mass destruction, so they will be just as effective without Payton roaming the sidelines. The three-headed monster in Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram will make for a top 10 run game and the Saints will be in contention for the NFC South. That's how it will go down.

DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen sack race

In Minnesota Jared Allen quietly came within a sack of breaking the single-season sack record last season, while Dallas' pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware came within a half sack of tying his career-high of 20. These two monsters eat quarterbacks for breakfast, lunch and dinner and, quite frankly, I would not doubt that they could both end up breaking Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 in one season. It's highly possible, and not entirely out of the question for it to happen this season.
Can Green Bay go 16-0?

Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers led the Pack to a 15-1 regular season record last year and was then quickly a one-and-done in the playoffs after being beheaded by the eventual champion G-Men. I do not expect a repeat performance in the postseason by Green Bay. A potent running game seemed to be all the Packers lacked last season, and now that former Bengal Cedric Benson is donning the green and gold, going 16-0 isn't all that far of a reach for this Packer team, especially if the defense steps it up this season.

Can Flacco lead Baltimore back to the AFC Championship game?

Joe Flacco, in his four NFL seasons, has posted a record of 44-20 as the starter and has taken Baltimore to the playoffs in each of those four seasons. At 27, Joe has proved to mature more and more each season, and after coming within one great defensive play (NE's Sterling Moore on Lee Evans to prevent the TD) and a missed 32-yard field goal of a Super Bowl appearance, Flacco has shown his worth. Still inconsistent at times, Flacco has shown that he does need a little help from his offense, but who doesn't? When he's on, he's as close to a top-tier quarterback as you can get. With Ray Rice in his backfield and a top five defense once again, I certainly think an AFC Championship appearance is possible this season, as well.

Adrian Peterson's recovery from ACL injury

Most fantasy football sites had "All Day" out of its top 10 for running backs because of his recovery from his torn ACL suffered last December. But, to my surprise, Peterson is in line to start Week 1 and may not even miss a beat this season. Remember when Wes Welker was expected to miss the entire 2010 season because of a knee injury, and he started Week 1 and caught 86 passes that season? Yeah, well, Peterson could have that type of turnout. He is Adrian Peterson, you know. But, just to be safe, I didn't keep him in my keeper league this season anyways.

Philip Rivers' new weapons in San Diego

With the departure of Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay), San Diego went out this offseason and reeled in a couple of new targets for Rivers to spread the ball to. Going defense-heavy in the draft, it took a couple of free agent signings to bring in these targets, landing New Orleans' Robert Meachem, who will be a great deep-threat for Rivers. The shifty, quick Eddie Royal was brought in from division rival Denver to play slot and replace Jackson and Patrick Crayton. These guys are welcome additions to tight end Antonio Gates and the tall, 6'5" Malcom Floyd.

Ryan Fitzpatrick will be trying to prove to Buffalo he was worth the money

Being a Harvard guy, Fitzpatrick is clearly one of the smartest guys on the field. But is he really worth what the Bills have him under contract for? He's the second-highest paid player (7 years, $62.2M) on Buffalo's roster behind Mario Williams after signing an extension last October. Not long after the extension, however, Fitzpatrick began to struggle under center and finished 2011 with a league-leading 23 interceptions. This is a big year for Fitz. He will need to prove he belongs as Buffalo's starter, and quick. I know he doesn't want to end up like Kevin Kolb and have Vince Young take over the starting role.
Russell Wilson takes over starting job in Seattle

Oh, yes. Another interesting quarterback situation, this one's out west. Seattle brought in Green Bay's backup Matt Flynn this offseason, signing him to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million ($10 mil guaranteed). I was expecting Flynn, 27, to be the starter of the future for the 'Hawks. That was until, of course, Seattle made the decision to select Wisconsin's little man (5'11"/206 pounds) Russell Wilson in the third round of the draft in April. This caused an all-out QB battle during camp and preseason, with Wilson coming out the winner. Wilson impressed in the preseason, throwing for 536 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT and posting a rating of 110.3. It was an impressive month of work, and a deserved starting role. I'm just curious to see how it ends up this season.

Additional noteworthy story lines:
Stewart, Williams duo back in action for Carolina
With age and injury, can Baltimore and Pittsburgh still have top 3 defenses?
Can Josh Freeman prove he has what it takes to take TB to playoffs?
How will Justin Blackmon fare in his rookie season?

Any others that you will be keeping detailed record of this season? Let me know which ones I missed! Also, more Season Preview articles on the way!

Note: I do not own the above images. No copyright infringement intended.

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