2010 NFL Preview: NFC North Predictions

GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 26: Aaron Rodgers  of the Green Bay Packers rolls out to look for a receiver against the Indianapolis Colts during a preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 26, 2010 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The NFC North will challenge the NFC East this year for being the toughest division in the conference. Three of the four teams are legit playoff contenders, while the Lions only continue to improve as a whole.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Packers

What to Like: Given how well he played last year, Aaron Rodgers should be considered a MVP candidate this season. The fact that he was able to throw for 4,434 yards and compile a 103.2 QB rating despite constantly being under pressure is rather amazing. Just think about what he could accomplish this year if the O-line gave him even a fraction of a second more time to throw. Rodgers will lead a passing attack that racked up 261.3 yards per game last season, which was good for seventh in the NFL. He also has an assortment of weapons to throw to, namely receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, as well as rising talent Jermichael Finley. In the backfield, Ryan Grant continues to be underrated and is coming off a 1,253-yard, 11-touchdown season. Defensively, Dom Capers was a miracle worker in his first year, as Green Bay led the NFC in total defense despite switching to the 3-4 (most first-year 3-4 teams struggle). Rookie Clay Matthews turned out to be a phenomenal pass-rusher and Nick Barnett was outstanding in the middle, both against the run and in coverage. Despite his age, Charles Woodson (33) continues to play at an elite level.
What Not to Like: The offensive line was a disaster at times last year, save for the play of right guard Josh Sitton. If Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher can make it through an entire season without suffering injuries, this will be a much-improved unit and then Rodgers won’t have to spend most Sunday afternoons running for his life. But both tackles are in their 30s and injuries always seem to be an issue. At left guard, Daryn Colledge struggled, although it’s only fair to point out that he was out of position subbing at tackle. While Tramon Williams is more than capable of handling the starting corner position opposite Woodson, losing Al Harris (knee surgery) was a huge blow to Green Bay’s depth at secondary. The concern is that given Harris’ age (35) and the nature of his injury, he may never play again. The other potential issue on defense is whether or not B.J. Raji can handle playing nose tackle after a lackluster 2009 season as a 3-4 end. All good 3-4 teams have a stout nose tackle to eat up space and if Raji isn’t up for the task, it will certainly have an effect on the linebackers.
Keep Your Eye On: Jermichael Finley
Finley put himself on the map last season by catching 55 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns in just 13 games. He finished the year by hauling in six passes for 159 yards in Green Bay’s loss to the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, leading to high expectations this year. If he can stay focused (which is the biggest concern with this youngster), he could put up fantastic numbers in the Packers’ explosive passing attack this season.
The Final Word: Expectations are high for the Packers this year, as well they should be. If the offensive line can stay healthy then this is the team to beat in the NFC North. The great thing is that Ted Thompson spent his first round draft pick on tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga, meaning Green Bay now has depth in case injuries do start to mount. Rodgers is the real deal and could lead the Pack deep into the playoffs if his O-line doesn’t get him killed first. Defensively, there are some concerns but Capers will make up for them by being aggressive. If the Packers can win the division and force opponents to come to Green Bay come January, then this will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season. The pieces are in place for this team to make a serious run.

Green Bay Packers 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

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2010 NFL Preview: AFC North Predictions

CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 16: Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates a defensive stop against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 16, 2009 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The AFC North is chockfull of good storylines this year, from Big Ben’s suspension to two rising offensive stars in Baltimore to the new receiving duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens in Cincinnati.

Oh, and Mike Holmgren is now in charge of a Browns team that is sure to be improved.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Ravens

What to Like: Ray Rice is knocking on the door of superstardom and as long as Cam Cameron doesn’t get cute and start limiting his running back’s chances, then I think Rice could produce MVP-type numbers this year. He can do it all: run between the tackles, run outside, be a big-time factor in the passing game – everything. Staying on the offensive side of the ball, Joe Flacco is in store for big things heading into his third season. He made great strides in his development last year and the front office finally went out and got him a No. 1 target in Anquan Boldin. While Boldin can’t stretch the field like he did earlier in this career, he’s a consistent playmaker and will be a great weapon on third downs. On the other side, veteran Derrick Mason continues to be a consistent, steady presence for Flacco. Defensively, Ray Lewis once again anchors a defense that allowed only 300.5 yards per game last season. That was good for third in the NFL and if Terrell Suggs can get back to being the dominant player he was not too long ago, then the Ravens’ D shouldn’t take a step back.
What Not to Like: Suggs has to step up or there will be serious concerns about the pass rush. Trevor Pryce was okay in that department last year, but not great. The team added Corey Redding in the offseason, but he has proven to be a pretty average player over the years. The bigger problem for this team is in the secondary, where Ed Reed isn’t healthy and the secondary was dealt a huge blow when Domonique Foxworth went down for the season with a knee injury in camp. Fabian Washington didn’t play particularly well last season and if the Ravens can’t drum up a pass rush, Chris Carr will likely struggle playing on an island. He’s more suited to play as a nickel, so there are serious concerns about the makeup of this defensive backfield heading into the season.
Keep Your Eye On: Tom Zbikowski
If you notice, the only name I didn’t mention from the list of problems the Ravens will potentially have in their secondary is Tom Zbikowski. That’s because he’s the most underrated player on the Ravens’ defense and arguably the toughest outside of Lewis. With Reed out, the youngster from Notre Dame will be counted on once again this year to make a major contribution.
The Final Word: The lack of a pass rush and the secondary outside of Zbikowski is worrisome, but this is practically the same team that went into Foxboro last year and gave the Patriots the beating of a lifetime on their home turf. Plus, the offense is improved with the acquisition of Boldin and I think Flacco is in store for a huge season. He’s starting to see the entire field and now has two full years of starting experience under his belt. He also has a running back in Rice that he can lean on in case he starts to struggle in the passing game. This is the team to beat in the North this year and I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the Ravens showed up in Dallas come February.

Baltimore Ravens 2010 Question Mark: Secondary

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2010 NFL Preview: NFC East Predictions

MINNEAPOLIS - JANUARY 17: Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys yells to call a play during the second quarter of the game against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on January 17, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

Much like its counterpart in the AFC, the NFC East is extremely difficult to predict this year. Three of the top four teams are legitimate playoff contenders and the Redskins have improved after going 4-12 last season.

It’s going to be a battle in this division this year, much like it is every season.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC East in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Cowboys

What to Like: The ‘Boys already had quite the offensive core in Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Marion Barber, Jason Witten and Felix Jones. But then they had Dez Bryant fall to them in the first round last April, which gives the offense yet another playmaker that defenses have to deal with every Sunday. After finishing sixth last year in total offense and 14th in scoring, I don’t see any reason why Dallas shouldn’t light up the scoreboard again this season. Defensively, DeMarcus Ware returns as a pass-rushing terror from his outside linebacker position and the unit is littered with underrated players like Jay Ratliff and Igor Olshansky.
What Not to Like: The biggest two question marks surround the free safety and left tackle positions. Alan Ball is an intriguing prospect, but he’s only a rookie and no matter how well he plays, he’s going to make some mistakes. At left tackle, the ‘Boys dumped long-time veteran Flozell Adams and replaced him with the inexperienced Doug Free, who played well on the right side last year but he has never been counted on to protect a quarterback’s blindside. The good thing is that if Free struggles, the team added Alex Barron this offseason as insurance. The other concern when it comes to the Cowboys is that they have a habit of fading down the stretch, with last year being the exception. I put that on coaching more than anything and with Wade Phillips (good coach, but he doesn’t come without his criticisms) still roaming the sidelines in Dallas, that means a late-season free fall isn’t out of the question.
Keep Your Eye On: Dez Bryant, WR
The Cowboys’ first round pick has already turned heads this offseason (both for his play on the field and his decision not to carry Roy Williams’ shoulder pads after practice) and if he can recover from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the preseason, he’s going to have opportunities to make plays out of the team’s three receiver set.
The Final Word: This is the most talented team in the division and they’re pretty deep at most positions. The problem is that the Cowboys usually get in their own way down the stretch and late season collapses are nothing new to this franchise. That said, they got the playoff monkey off their back last year by advancing to the second round and as long as Phillips can keep this squad motivated, the ‘Boys should win the East for the second straight year. Their offense will be tough to stop and their defense will put pressure on the quarterback. The talent is there, now let’s see if the execution follows.

Dallas Cowboys 2010 Question Mark: Free Safety

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2010 NFL Preview: AFC East Predictions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady calls a play against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of their NFL pre-season football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts August 12, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The AFC East is arguably the most difficult division to predict because the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all have enough talent to claim the top spot but all three also have huge question marks that could hold them back.

The Bills, on the other hand…not so hard to predict. (Sorry Buffalo fans.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC East this season. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes in 2010.

1. Patriots

What to Like: Wes Welker is apparently healthy, which is a great sign for Tom Brady and the rest of the Pats’ offense. Although they failed to recapture the magic they had in 2007, the offense ranked third in the NFL in yards per game, sixth in total points and eighth in third down percentage. Along with Welker and Randy Moss, Brady will also have talented rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez to throw to in the passing game and Julian Edelman proved when filling in for Welker last season that he can be productive as well.
What Not to Like: It appears that the pass rush, or lack thereof, will be a massive concern all season. It was a concern heading into the offseason, it’s been a concern thus far in preseason and it’s going to remain a concern unless guys step up. Granted, Tully Banta-Cain is coming off a career year and rookie Jermaine Cunningham has potential, but Derrick Burgess needs to stay motivated and be productive. If he doesn’t and Banta-Cain can’t put up the numbers he did last year then Bill Belichick’s defense could suffer at every level. There’s also the very real concern that starting left guard Logan Mankins will skip the entire season because of a contract despite, meaning promising but inexperienced tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be inserted into the starting lineup.
Keep an Eye On: Darius Butler
In five starts last season, Butler had three inceptions and although he was inconsistent in coverage and needs to cut down on penalties, he could blossom into a star this season. He has already become a leader in the locker room.
The Final Word: Even though the offense stalled in the second half of some games last season, it will still be tough to stop this team a weekly basis. Plus, after struggling to a 2-6 record on the road last season, the Pats will face only two 2009 playoff teams away from Foxboro this year. In fact, six of the 2009 playoff teams they face this year will have to come to New England, which is obviously a major advantage. I think given the problems that the rest of the teams have in the division, the Pats will once again come out on top, although this is far from a Super Bowl team in my eyes.

New England Patriots 2010 Question Mark: Pass Rush

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Offensive line has emerged as the Dolphins biggest issue

MIAMI - JANUARY 4:  Jake Long #77 of the Miami Dolphins looks on while sitting on the bench during an AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on January 4, 2009 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Merry preseason, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the issues the Dolphins have had on their O-line thus far in preseason.

Had I wrote this piece before the preseason started, I would have written it about the Dolphins’ free safety position. But considering how good Chris Clemons has looked this offseason, it would be a reach to say that safety will be a big issue for Miami in 2010. (Especially when the ultra-productive Yeremiah Bell remains the starter at strong safety.)

After watching their first three preseason games, the biggest question the Dolphins’ faithful should have is what happened to the offensive line? Once considered a strength because of how well the team could run the ball, Miami’s O-line has be incredibly suspect thus far.

Jake Long and Vernon Carey remain entrenched at the tackle positions, while Richie Incognito and John Jerry are the projected starters at left and right guard, respectively. Joe Berger is slated to start at center after beating out Jake Grove this offseason.

The biggest problem is at the two guard positions, where Incognito and Jerry haven’t been good in pass protection or run blocking. Both are getting shoved backwards at the snap, which is troubling considering the Dolphins signed Incognito this offseason because of his power and drive in the running game.

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