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- Ones to Watch

Ian Hetherington August 18, 2007
Ian Hetherington
NFL Columnist

Tell Ian your opinion.

After a summer of promising your esteemed PFCritics webmaster that I’d write for the site and then not doing anything of the sort, I’ve finally shifted my backside now that I’ve got a few ideas mulling around. The season isn’t far away after all, and I can’t deny that there’s now more than enough to talk about what with the Michael Vick situation, Brady Quinn’s odd refusal to sign a contract and various teams shuffling players around the league.

So I’m starting here, with an admittedly misleadingly-titled article. I basically called this article “Ones to Watch” because I couldn’t think of anything better, but rather than be solely about individual players this is going to be a look in to a key story for each team and my thoughts on their effects for the coming season. Some of the stories are big stories already, some could start or end a team’s campaign, some or just situations it’ll be interesting to see pan out.

Arizona Cardinals – Edgerrin James
“The Edge” had a respectable but often workmanlike 2006 season. Admittedly, he wasn’t helped by an initially shaky quarterback situation in Arizona, but his personal performance was still short of what he’d have expected for himself. A 3.4 average gain coupled with a season longest gain of 18 yards doesn’t make for pretty reading, especially when you’re a three-time Pro Bowl player with a selection of 1,500+ yard seasons under your belt. Okay, I’ll cut him a little slack, running for Arizona was never going to be as easy as running for the Colts who have a far superior offensive line and Peyton Manning in the minds of the defense. Still, if Ken Wisenhunt manages to improve the problematic (and he knows it) O-line, James’ll expect better of himself this year, And it’d do Matt Leinart a world of good if James was to start playing in such a way that opposing defenses were properly scared of him again.

Atlanta Falcons – Michael Vick
With the ups and downs that Atlanta have had in recent seasons it’s hard to say whether attention being drawn away from the playing staff is a good or a bad thing. Good or bad though, the attention around the Falcons will still be on Mike Vick even though he’s not going to be playing when the season gets under way, if at all. Up until the day he’s in court and on after that until sentencing, Mike Vick is going to be the headline. Whether it be his guilt or innocence, his attitude, his character, his future with the Falcons and even his future as a professional football player, Vick will be hogging the headlines. So long as he’s officially a Falcon, it’s still their story as well, no matter how much the team are distancing themselves from the situation.

Baltimore Ravens – Jarrett Johnson
I’ll be honest, before this season I’d heard of Jarret Johnson –possibly picked up from Ravens match reports last season- but little more. Apparently though, he’s likely to be the man who steps into the shoes of Adalius Thomas and last season was on the field for more snaps than you might think. Johnson isn’t quite as versatile as Thomas who played just about everywhere on defense for the Ravens last year, but he’s still capable of playing anywhere along the row of linebackers as well as defensive end. Rex Ryan knows what he’s doing with this defense and they’ll cope with the loss of a big name like they usually do, but Thomas’ top-draw ability in so many positions will mean that Johnson will have to be at his most flexible to give the defense the same kind of options.

Buffalo Bills – Offensive line
The Bills O-line has been re-jigged a little and the success of this could end up being the defining factor of their season. Losman was looking a little more assured behind center as last season progressed and if they can protect him better he could have a solid year. Add this to the fact that they’ve added Marshawn Lynch, one of the most talented running backs in the draft, and the line has got a lot of work to do to help the Bills’ offense do the best it can.

Carolina Panthers – Dwayne Jarrett
Let’s take a look at how his NFL time thus far:

March 2006: Keyshawn Johnson signs with the Carolina Panthers. He’s going to be the experience and strength that helps draw defenders away from star wideout Steve Smith.

April 2007: In the NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers draft Dwayne Jarrett. He’s a position receiver, so seemingly he’s going to be the natural successor to Keyshawn Johnson. Keyshawn says he’s looking forward to mentoring his new team-mate.

May 2007: Mere days after the draft, Johnson is released. Soon after he becomes a TV analyst for ESPN.

Johnson is a natural at speaking his mind but being charismatic with it, so if during pre-game shows the conversation should come around to the Panthers and Jarrett has been in the spotlight, for good reasons or bad, you know he’s going to have something to say and people are going to listen.

Chicago Bears – Rex Grossman
This is a bit of a no-brainer. Lance Briggs had a bit of a tantrum before the poor soul had to settle for a mere $7m for the next year, meaning that the spotlight will be back on Rex Grossman whether he likes it or not. Grossman has proven he has the talent to be a good quarterback; it’s consistency that’s the problem. In 2006 he’d have one game where he’d make three or four touchdown passes and he’d follow it up a couple of weeks later with three interceptions. Whatever Lovie Smith says, that has to cause a bit of a headache. Grossman shouldn’t regress, but the Bears fans will be desperate for him to stop having nightmare games and play at something like his best much more regularly. This will be his pivotal season as a Bear, it’s time for Grossman to look like the main man for this team or start thinking about where his future as a starter might lie.

Cincinnati Bengals – Defense
“The best defense is a good offense.” If there’s one team in the NFL who prove that rule isn’t always the case then surely it’s the Bengals? They’ve got one of the league’s highly regarded quarterbacks, talent in the running game and –even with Chris Henry suspended- a group of receivers any team would be pleased to have. They were only 8 points off the pace when they had a shootout with free-scoring San Diego last year. After averaging a hair under 21 points allowed per game in 2006 and looking incredibly vulnerable against the likes of New England, Indianapolis and San Diego it’s clear what they need to rectify to be a post-season force.

Cleveland Browns – Quarterback
When is a third overall pick in the draft not a third overall pick? When they slide down to twenty-second that’s when. That man is Brady Quinn. It was widely expected that the Browns would take Quinn at third, as it was they decided to solidify the offensive line with tackle Joe Thomas. Quinn was apparently forewarned by the Browns’ GM Phil Savage that they wouldn’t necessarily take him third but what really seemed to irk Quinn was the fact that he lasted long enough for the Browns –after some trading for picks- to take him at twenty-second in the first place. And then of course there are the millions of dollars it was going to cost him. He wanted to be paid like a top-five pick, his agent said that he was high on the Cleveland’s draft board and that they should pay him in kind, and they rightly disagreed. So he held out, the implication being that he wasn’t going to appear at training camp and he was absent for ten days. This seems already to have cost him his chance of being the starting quarterback in the early stages of the season but he has finally signed a contract so his NFL career proper can get under way. It’s already been an eventful time for Brady Quinn and the Browns in the NFL, and with Derek Anderson apparently looking good to win the starting job Brady Quinn isn’t even guaranteed to be first back-up this year. Cleveland are probably hoping things will settle down now, but the gossip-hungry media and fans will be waiting for the next instalment of the Quinn tale eagerly.

Dallas Cowboys –Terrell Owens
There’s always a chance T.O will be the big story just because he’s one of those characters. It was another interesting year for Owens in his first as a Cowboy. On the field he had mixed fortunes, he led the league in regular season touchdown receptions but also in the unofficial statistic of dropped passes. After a relatively quiet opening few weeks to the season where Owens only really featured in match reports, he unintentionally got back to his media-hogging form in the worst way as he was rumoured to have been found following a suicide attempt. It turned out to be an accidental overdose, but it was vintage T.O none the less. With a range of questions surrounding him as always (Does he think he’s getting the ball enough? Will his seemingly decent relationship with Romo last?) I see no reason it shouldn’t be another season of ups and downs on the Terrell Owens Rollercoaster.

Denver Broncos – Jay Cutler
Even Mike Shanahan had given up on him, and that was the beginning of the end for Jake the Snake. The Denver Broncos defence was on championship-winning form for the first third of the season and that had carried the Broncos ailing offense, but being dissected by Peyton Manning and Indianapolis showed that they weren’t even really a playoff team last year, let alone a championship team. And so the reigns were handed over to first round draft pick Jay Cutler. And the rookie didn’t do bad, but he wasn’t helped by an inconsistent running game and as the Broncos were shooting for a Wild Card spot, Plummer was brought in for the dying moments of the game against San Francisco. But in his big chance to do something special and try to make Shanahan reconsider, he tried two passes, completed none and turned the ball over. His time as a Denver Bronco was done. He was traded away to take part in a controversy of his own in Tampa Bay and now it’s Cutler’s time. With Travis Henry brought in he should have a consistent running back to help bear the load and with a few games and a full off/pre-season under his belt he needs to start showing that the Broncos faith in him wasn’t misplaced.

Detroit Lions – Everywhere but the passing game
Odd as it undoubtedly sounds, Jon Kitna threw 22 interceptions in 2006 and still had a decent season. Considering throwing the ball was about all the Lions were good at, passing plays were order of the day. A lot. As well as his 22 picks thrown, he passed for 21 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards. So the Lions decided to use their high draft pick on….. Calvin Johnson. Okay, we’ll let it go… everybody’s pretty much admitted that while the Lions keep drafting receivers Johnson truly is something special. But adding another receiver to an already talented group puts more pressure on the re-tooled running game, because to get the very most out of the pass and give the ball away less, the Lions need to be able to look at the pass as an option, not the necessity for each play. If T.J Duckett, Tatum Bell and the currently injured Kevin Jones can make the run more dangerous then it might allow passing plays to be used more selectively. This would mean Kitna doesn’t have to make a huge play as often as was required of him last year, so turnovers could be a little less frequent.

Green Bay Packers – Running back
Brett Favre presumably keeps deciding to put off his retirement for two reasons. Firstly, he simply enjoys playing football. Secondly, he surely must believe there is hope for the Packers to mount one last glorious campaign before he quits as I don’t see a player of his stature playing without thinking he can win. The chances of that kind of season aren’t looking great right now though, as Favre’s support in the running game no longer includes Ahman Green. Instead he’ll be relying on the young tandem of Vernand Morency and the explosive rookie Brandon Jackson, which has potential but an air of unpredictability about it. They’ll be relying on Favre to be at his most solid to give them the breaks to make a mark on the ground and the extent of their success will have a strong bearing on how well Green Bay performs this year.

Houston Texans – Matt Schaub
Oh the irony. Schaub gets traded to Houston just in time for well-documented events in Atlanta to transpire in such a way that would mean he would now be stepping in as starter in Michael Vick’s absence. Still, all he can do is try to keep that out of his mind and that’s exactly what he says he’s doing. Now he’s bigger got problems. Namely, proving that the marshalling the passing game for the Texans isn’t a lost cause. With Ahman Green in the backfield the pressure should be on him a little less than it was on David Carr, but there have been no inspirational additions to the receivers to back up Andre Johnson, so the potential scope for improvement to be made by Matt Schaub could be limited. Still, he’s a talented player and Andre Johnson did an admirable job last year considering the circumstances, so couple those things with the fact that Schaub will surely be hoping to show the Falcons what they lost out on means he be enough of a difference to lift the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts – The growing number of holes in defense
I was originally planning to write about the fact that the Colts secondary has had to be rejigged following the departures of defensive backs Jason David and Nick Harper, but after the injury to Anthony McFarland knocked another dent in their D-line, the defense could look like a bit of a patchwork affair when the first game of the season comes around. The Colts will be gladder than ever that they got Dwight Freeney signed up. The two corners who’re going to be starting have had a summer to get used to the idea and prepare for it, but they’re still new to the starting jobs and a defense that wasn’t always hot stuff to begin with has taken a few big knocks.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Quarterback
It looks like Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio could end up beginning this season with two quarterbacks he’s not particularly happy with. There seems to be tension between Byron Leftwich and him, so when Leftwich got injured last season it was probably as good a chance as David Garrard was going to get to cement the starting slot. But after a lacklustre performance in the games he got (in spite of having a great running game to back him up) it doesn’t look like Del Rio will see him as the solution either. There were rumours that the Jaguars were flirting with the idea of trying to sign Daunte Culpepper but he ended up in Oakland and the Jaguars have their same two quarterbacks. It’ll be interesting to see if the Jaguars try to pick up anybody else at this late stage and if not how patient the coach will be with his quarterbacks as the season progresses.

Kansas City Chiefs – Running back
Of all the things Larry Johnson might have expected when he decided to hold out for a contract he thought was suitable, there was one thing that suddenly came up he surely didn’t expect. The appearance (seemingly out of thin air) of Priest Holmes. Holmes, out for a long time after the ungentle attention of Shawne Merriman in 2005, suddenly reappeared and declared himself ready to take part in training camp for the Chiefs. Kansas City know that it would have been foolhardy to suggest Holmes could step right back into the breach and pick up where he’d left off, but it certainly provided them with an interesting bargaining chip to toy with. They’d probably relish the idea of hooking Holmes up with Johnson so as to lighten LJ’s workload a little, and the progress of Holmes with more time on the field and his relationship with Johnson will undoubtedly be interesting to watch.

Miami Dolphins – Offense
It’s interesting that the second, third, and fourth best defenses in the league year failed to get winning records, with Oakland third best and being otherwise awful and Miami had the fourth best defense going, ending up 6-10. The problem was that with trouble getting their quarterback position settled they never really found their rhythm until week 9, by which time it was always likely to be too late. They’ve kept that defense pretty much together as well as adding high-octane linebacker Joey Porter. It’s on the other side of the ball they could struggle though. They’ve shipped out their quarterbacks from last season and in the draft passed on Brady Quinn to take receiver Ted Ginn Jr, then going on to select BYU QB John Beck and getting Trent Green in as their starter after protracted negotiations. Nothing that looks particularly inspired at this stage and they haven’t added much else other than Ginn by way of targets for Green to take aim at. Unless of course, Cam Cameron has huge plans for Az-Zahir Hakim.

Minnesota Vikings – Competing in their division
In what wasn’t an especially strong NFC North they only managed two wins last year of their six games and three of their four losses were by a score or less. Their defense is strong, so they need to make the most of having a fresh young quarterback taking over from Brad Johnson, a solid back in Chester Taylor as well as rookie Adrian Peterson coming in, and the addition of the potentially very useful wideout Bobby Wade. To be fair, the Vikings need to score more anyway, but divisional success is a great launch-pad for a team so turning those close divisional defeats into wins could lead to bigger and better things.

New England Patriots – Randy Moss
Yes I know. He hasn’t caused any trouble yet so maybe picking Randy Moss when there are current stories involving the likes of Asante Samuel is a bit cheap. Still, I’m not the only one wondering a couple of things about Moss. Is it a matter of if rather than when he opens his mouth and upsets somebody? Is he actually going to make the effort in his bid to get himself a Super Bowl ring? Were the rumours of his body starting to fail him in Oakland hogwash? Who knows, but it’s scarcely a smooth ride with Randy Moss and, let’s face it, if he does shut up and he and Brady hook up like a dream then that’d make for great watching on the field anyway.

New Orleans Saints – Sean Payton
Sean Payton’s biggest struggle this year will be against Second Season Syndrome. Defensive and offensive coordinators have more of an idea of what they can anticipate from the Saints now after Payton’s first season in charge. Expectations of the organisation and fans of the team are much higher and all of a sudden they’re a team to beat. It could be down to Sean Payton keeping the team on track after last year if the Saints are to fulfil their potential, with many pundits and fans alike tipping them for an appearance in the Super Bowl at the end of this season. Lofty aspirations indeed, though when you look at the exciting team he put together last year, throw in a few additions like receiver prospect Robert Meachem and factor in that players like Reggie Bush and Marques Colston are coming in to the season with a full year under their belt as starters and you can see why people are getting excited.

New York Giants – Eli Manning
It’s do or die time for Eli Manning. With Tiki Barber no longer around to churn out huge yardage for the Giants offense the pressure is on Peyton’s kid brother more than ever. The competition in the NFC East seems only to be getting stronger while the prospect of a so-called “Manning Bowl” gets slimmer. Looking at his stats for each game last season you could be forgiven for thinking some of the numbers were just scribbled in at random. On the tenth of December against Carolina, for example, he threw for 172 yards, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers with his completion percentage at 51.5. The next week against Philly, 282 yards for no scores, two interceptions and 70% completion. Obviously there are other factors to consider and there is a degree of culpability for receivers for some mistakes, but those statistics serve to sum up Eli’s problem. A struggle to have consistently good games. There’s not a lot of competition for his place yet, so he should be fine this season but for my money he’s playing to remain a Giant next year.

New York Jets – Momentum
Few people expected the Jets to do as well as they did last year, getting a solid 10-6 record which included a win over the Patriots and getting to the Wild Card round where they would play the Patriots for the third time in the season and ultimately get handily beaten by Brady and Co. But few would have used that loss to deny that the Jets had a fine year. With so much change in all teams every year it’s often the case that a team will do well one season only to struggle the next for a variety of reasons. Eric Mangini will be hoping to avoid this though as the team will be more and more comfortable with each other, young players start to grow into their roles and making what could be a tremendous acquisition in Thomas Jones. The Jets do have what looks on paper to be a tough schedule though, so it could be a long hard season if they expect to reproduce the 10-6 record of last year.

Oakland Raiders – Offense
The Raiders had one of the best defenses in the league, so the fact that they had first pick in the draft earlier this year tells you just how atrocious their offense was. And so the recruitment drive began. The Raiders got JaMarcus Russell and Michael Bush (injured now but could turn out to be an astute long-term selection) in the draft, as well as acquiring Dominic Rhodes and Justin Griffith to add a bit of muscle to the running game, brought former Raider Doug Gabriel back to replace Randy Moss who went the other way to New England and their biggest signing of the summer, Daunte Culpepper. Coach Lane Kiffin could evidently see as clearly as anybody else that if the Raiders had the ability to rack up points then with that defense they could be a serious threat to most teams they play. Whether the signings he’s made are the right ones only time will tell, but he’s at least making the right kind of moves. Now all he needs to do is tie up that pesky contract with JaMarcus Russell.

Philadelphia Eagles – Pass/run balance
Andy Reid really likes the passing game, and who could hold that against him? If you’ve got Donovan McNabb as your star quarterback you’d have to be made of stone to not get a little excited at the thought of unleashing him and letting him do his thing. But the injury to McNabb actually did Brian Westbrook a favour, as did Reid handing over most of the play-calling responsibility on offense to Marty Mornhinweg. Both of those things allowed Brian Westbrook to get his hands on the ball more last season and Westbrook thrived on it. In fact, in just two more starts than he had in 2005 Westbrook ran the ball 84 more times in 2006, and he more than repaid the coaching staff for their faith as he racked up a 1,200 yard season. How the balance will bear out with McNabb back should be interesting. Do they use one to set up the other or will they have a fairly even balance between passing and rushing offense? It should be entertaining viewing as we find out, with the Eagles all set for an all-out assault on NFC East.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Roethlisberger
There were a lot of contributing factors to Big Ben’s problematic 2006 season. What with motorcycle accident, injuries and reportedly not having the best relationship with Bill Cowher. Well, the slate has been cleared now. Being healthy, having a new coach and a renewed optimism for the coming year should all give him a more settled environment to play in. When he got a possibly unfair level of criticism levelled at him even when the Steelers won the Super Bowl he was undoubtedly determined to have a huge 2006. Well, it’s 2007 and he still has a lot of critics to answer, and in a strong-looking Pittsburgh team Roethlisberger will feel ready to shine.

San Diego Chargers – Wide receiver
The San Diego Chargers have a wealth of talent at a majority of positions on both offense and defense, but they still seem to be lacking top-end wideouts. They have solid players who are a more than safe pair of hands, and of course the unquestionable talent of tight end Antonio Gates. With Philip Rivers doing such a good job at quarterback last year though, you might have expected the Chargers to try and bring in a top receiver to give them that extra something that might help take them to the AFC championship game or further to the Super Bowl. This hasn’t been the case and a quarterback can throw as well as he wants, without a playmaker at receiver you’re still lacking a crucial weapon. It remains to be seen whether this is a deficiency that the Chargers can overcome.

San Francisco 49ers¬ – Passing game
Although his statistics might have suggested otherwise, there seemed to be a genuine improvement in Alex Smith’s play last year and it looks like that could continue. New offensive coordinator Jim Hostler has set up a system that should help several players in the passing game, including Smith, do better. With Frank Gore having proven himself to be a huge threat, defenses will undoubtedly be giving Smith a little more room to manoeuvre which is a boon to the quarterback before you even take anything else into consideration. On top of that, a passing game is being developed that is likely to include much more possession passing to make the very most of a mixed bag of receivers, an improving young quarterback and the emerging talent of Vernon Davis. Davis could play a huge role for the 49ers this year if the hype is anything to go by as team mates, coaches and pundits all seem to think he could be set for a massive season. He could even end up being Smith’s primary go-to guy, allowing the passing game to support the running game and meaning teams have to give Frank Gore a little more freedom than they’re going to want to.

Seattle Seahawks – Fitness
It’s not unfair to say that a major contributor to the seven games the Seahawks lost last year was injury to key players, most notably Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck. They were just two players who got injured at various points throughout the season which still ended up with the Seahawks in the playoffs. They lost that game to the Super Bowl-bound Bears which wouldn’t have been aided by players playing through injury or recovering from them. If they can keep their top players fully fit this year, then they should be on course for the division once again and there’s no reason they couldn’t have another run at the Super Bowl, even though the quality in the NFC has really improved over the last year or two.

St. Louis Rams – Slow down
Last year the Rams were a curious team with a frankly bizarre set of results, but I think their two games against Seattle sum up what they need to do this year if they’re to climb above a .500 win percentage. In both of those games they lost to late, late field goals when they were a point ahead. Being against the team who won their division, if they’d held on to those games they might well have been the ones to represent the division in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The new boys
After winning just four games in 2006 and never really looking like improving upon that, it was as clear as day that off-season additions to the squad were a must for the Bucs. And so, that’s exactly what Jon Gruden has done. Jeff Garcia came in and will be starting quarterback in place of Chris Simms, the Bucs interested in him after his stellar performances in Philadelphia last season. Cato June has been added at linebacker and could form a fearsome partnership opposite Derrick Brooks, along with a smattering of other solid players and drafting Gaines Adams with their #4 overall pick in this year’s draft. Adams is looking likely to take the starting defensive end spot of Dewayne White which is quite a pair of shoes to fill. With two teams in their division with Super Bowl aspirations and the Atlanta Falcons looking very stable (all things considered), the new players will have to be at their very best to ensure the Buccaneers have a better season in 2007.

Tennessee Titans – Vince Young
This is purely because he set himself such a standard to live up to last season. Not his overall play necessarily, but he produced a spate of big plays in clutch situations last year and the fans will be expecting more of the same. That’s not to say his general quarterbacking was bad, but it didn’t quite live up to the billing and his explosive plays in close games often glossed over that. He could have a struggle on his hands this year, however. The coaching staff are likely to start expanding the playbook, which combined with the losses of Travis Henry and a couple of other players on offense so things have got harder before you even take into account opponents now making him a big part of their defensive game plan.

Washington Redskins – Running back
Clinton Portis, providing he doesn’t get any more knocks, will still be the main man in Washington, but what makes things interesting is Ladell Betts. It’s similar to Michael Turner’s situation in San Diego, with Turner clearly being capable of starting and being a franchise back but not going to oust a healthy Tomlinson. Betts, despite doing a great job in the games where he got the amount of hand-offs befitting a starter he’s not going to really get a chance to win the spot because Portis is the ‘Skins man. And in fairness, he deserves to be because he’s very, very good. What makes this a story though is that teams will be watching and waiting for Betts to play out of his skin when he gets a few carries, waiting for him to show a sign of not being content and then make a move. So the Redskins need to ask themselves a question. Portis is still young in spite of his status as an established top-level running back, but Betts is a player you’d rather have with you if possible. So do they give him a bigger share of the carries and run one of the increasingly-popular two-back tandems? Or do they just keep Portis in the role he’s had previously and accept that they’re going to have to hawk Betts around the league for a trade (they wouldn’t have to wait long for potential suitors to come knocking) and find another back-up further down the line? I suspect it might be the first one, but whatever happens Washington won’t struggle to give Jason Campbell the running support he’s going to need.

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