May 312012
 

Upon first glance, once could make a reasonable argument that the San Francisco 49ers are on the cusp of greatness. In Head Coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, the 49ers went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Alex Smith had a solid if not unspectacular season under center, Frank Gore racked up more than 1,200 rushing yards, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis provided a solid 1-2 receiving combination, and the defense held opponents to just 229 points while finishing fourth in yards allowed. The 49ers created a positive and competitive environment in short order last year, making people quickly forget the circus-like atmosphere of the Mike Singletary era.

But in the past couple of weeks the veil of professionalism seems to have been lifted, exposing a less than disciplined approach to running a team. It began quietly enough in the off-season when the 49ers joined a slew of teams seeking to court free agent quarterback Peyton Manning. And who could blame them for their interest? In his prime, Peyton Manning is unquestionably one of the greatest signal-callers in NFL history, and even Peyton Manning at half of his prime could be considered an improvement over half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh’s pursuit of Manning certainly did not please Alex Smith, who then went seeking options of his own. In the end, Manning spurned the 49ers to take his talents to Mile High. Harbaugh and Smith made nice with each other and everything seemed back on track. No harm done.

And everything remained fine until last week, when Alex Smith felt the need to defend his lack of statistical greatness by taking an unnecessary potshot at Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton, seemingly blaming Newton’s individual exploits for the team’s poor record or simply minimizing Newton’s accomplishments as a rookie. The point that he was trying to make, that win/loss record is more important than individual achievements, was a solid one. But targeting Cam Newton, who had a tremendous rookie season, seemed bizarre. Things got worse for Smith when Panthers linebacker Jon Beason slammed Smith in return via Twitter, telling Smith, “Alex smith, don’t hate on Cam Bc your stats would’ve gotten u cut if Peyton decided to come 2 San Fran.Truth b told..That’s after a 13-3 yr.” That had to be an “ouch” moment for Smith, as Beason brought back the drama that followed the pursuit of Manning. Beason also rightfully had the back of his quarterback, even if he didn’t make what might have been the best argument in defense of Newton; that win/loss records are not the sole responsibility of the starting quarterback. There are 52 other guys on the roster, and they no doubt contributed to the Panthers success, and to their lack of it.

And that’s where this story should have ended; with Alex Smith learning the lesson that he needs to think before he speaks, and to put his big boy pants on. Life as a starting quarterback is hard, full of pressure, and reacting to criticism by petulantly throwing other players under the bus is probably not the best plan. But alas, it didn’t end there.

Enter Jim Harbaugh, who helped create the earlier drama by pursuing Peyton Manning to be the team’s starting quarterback. His response? To deny that the 49ers ever pursed Manning to be their starting quarterback.

Yes, read it again. He actually said that.

Speaking on Wednesday with the media, Harbaugh claimed that stories of the 49ers pursuit of Manning were “erroneous… silly and untrue.” Harbaugh stated that “Even the perception that we were pursuing. We were evaluating. I’ve said all along that Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There’s no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would consider him not as our quarterback (emphasis added).”

Let’s parse this last comment. Would it not be reasonable to conclude that if Harbaugh was pursuing Manning while trying to give Smith reason to explore other offers, then he would have cover for signing Manning? As if he would need it? But Harbaugh couldn’t even stop himself there. He then said that any “evaluation” of Manning was done with the intention of carrying both Manning and Smith on the roster for 2012. Riiiiiiight.

I’m calling bu**sh** on this, Coach Harbaugh. And from a really big bull at that. Harbaugh was pursuing… oops strike that… EVALUATING Manning in order to sign him and either have him back up Alex Smith or take Smith’s spot while he graciously accepted to role of a backup? All while grumbling that the 49ers were lacking cap space? And how does this compare with Peyton Manning’s own comment, who at the time of his signing with the Broncos said, “I wish I hadn’t gotten so close to [Titans coach] Mike Munchak. That was a tough call. Same with Jim Harbaugh.” How did that call go exactly? Did Peyton get on the line and say, “Jim, thanks for evaluating me and weighing your options, but I’m going to Denver”? Does Harbaugh really think that anyone will believe the nonsense coming out of his mouth?

What we are quickly coming to learn is that the Harbaugh brothers are beginning (just beginning, mind you) to rival the Ryan clan as a family of coaches who should (but don’t) pay closer attention to the crap coming our of their mouths. They seem to mistake arrogance for confidence. Perhaps that plays well for Smith and a few other players in the locker room, but my suspicion is that most of the 49ers players know that Harbaugh’s statement isn’t credible, which might well lead to the conclusion that Smith is so fragile that Harbaugh has to create outrageous lies to protect Smith’s ego. Nothing in this chain of events serves the 49ers well, and only leaves Smith looking weak and Harbaugh looking like a liar.

UPDATE (6/11/12) : Great follow up piece on this from over the weekend by Mike Florio at PFT.

 

May 292012
 

So the Miami Dolphins are going to be the 2012 “stars” on HBO’s Hard Knocks series.

Even as a fan of an AFC East team, I have to admit that this is an uninspiring choice. Karlos Dansby’s assertions aside, the Dolphins are not a serious Super Bowl threat this season. While they may be able to compete with the Jets to stay out of the basement of the AFC East, they are not as good as the improving Buffalo Bills and certainly nowhere near as good as the Patriots.

Still there is some entertainment value, mostly deriving from a publicity-seeking yet seemingly incompetent owner who knows that his team can’t fill seats in the stadium, so he will seek his attention elsewhere. Meanwhile, the single best source of team news is a quarterback battle that could best be described as a  “who cares battle royale” featuring Matt Moore, Ryan Tannehill, and David Gerard. Yawn.

It seems that HBO drew the short straw this season as other, potentially more entertaining teams were not willing to take part. Even the Jets would have been a far better choice given the off-season drama that has unfolded, and the fact that the Jets have at least had a winning season (two in fact) since 2008. While I normally am willing to watch anything football related, I think I am going to be taking a pass on Hard Knocks this season.

May 272012
 

Greetings from the Rat’s Lair. This page will serve as a semi-regular space for me to provide updates on our website and to offering quick snippets on events surrounding the NFL.

We are excited to finally have gone to a live launch with the banner and design fully implemented. Kudos to Three Design Three for putting this site together, for responding so quickly and deftly to requests for changes or troubleshooting, and for handling the Twitter and Facebook feeds. Folks who need web design work should call on this company. Similarly, I was floored by the work done by Shannon at FlyDesign on our site banner. I offered a very general idea of what we were looking for in the artwork, and what you see on this site was her very first attempt to meet our needs. It was simply so good that there was nothing to change. So thanks to Shannon for her fantastic work.

We have gone and launched the site with just a few articles, and there are more under development from a number of authors. I enjoyed Fat Jesus’ piece on Roger Goodell and player safety, and hope it generates some discussion as we move forward. All of the authors are also busily putting together our predictions for the 2012 season, which we will be releasing in early August. We have several offers out to other people to serve as writers for the site, and we welcome new writers, whether as a one-time guest piece or as a regular contributor. If you are interested, we will need to get to know you a little and get an idea of what your writing skills are like, but do feel free to email me at girghostrat@gmail.com if you have some thoughts on how to contribute.

On the NFL front, I was a bit dismayed to read that Nick Fairley of the Detroit Lions was arrested for speeding past an Alabama State Trooper at 100 mph and then eluding arrest. This is his second brush with the law in two months, as he was arrested for marijuana possession just last month. Between this guy and Ndamukong Suh’s antics last season, it is getting really ad to continue cheering for the Detroit Lions, who are finally becoming relevant again after suffering through many years of disgrace. I was very disappointed last season that the Lion’s coaching staff didn’t seem to crack down on Suh early enough, and now Fairley’s lack of responsibility or discipline has me questioning whether or not this team really has what it wakes to make it to the next level, or if they are going to take a step back this coming season. Here’s hoping the Lions can rein in their players and give the city of Detroit the winning football team that their fan base desires.

Another developing storyline is the ongoing saga of a lack of a contract for Drew Brees in New Orleans. As if this hasn’t been a bad enough off-season for the club, their franchise quarterback (who led the team to their only Super Bowl appearance and win) is still without the contract that he has earned. While I really didn’t care for Brees’ attitude as the Bountygate sanctions were being issued, the fact remains that Brees has performed like a franchise quarterback is expected to, and he remains of the top five quarterbacks in the league. The rumor now circulating that Brees might be willing to sit out the 2012 season is a very ominous sign for this team moving forward into 2012. Losing Brees for the year would essentially turn this team into last year’s Colts in terms of an epic collapse.

That’s about all for now; keep checking back as we begin to post more content over the next couple of weeks. Eventually we will see better balance in terms of the teams covered, but for Patriots fans I am currently working on a preview of the 2012 season. Thanks for reading!

 UPDATE: Even better… Fairley’s arrest was a DUI. This kind of immaturity could well stop this team from achieving its potential, and Head Coach Jim Schwarz needs to do a better job of holding his players accountable.

Join our FFL!

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May 272012
 

Gridiron Rats.com invites readers to participate in a Yahoo! Fantasy Football League. Although it may seem early to be thinking about fantasy football, our 16 team league is already half-filled, and we have no desire to be scrambling for members as we head towards August.

This will be a keeper league, so we are seeking serious players who will be willing to make at least a three year commitment to the league. This will also be a cash league with a non-refundable $50 entry fee for all players, payable through LeagueSafe. We will utilize a live, online draft through the Yahoo! service.

If you are interested in playing fantasy football with our crew, here’s what you need to do:

1. Read all of the information below, paying particular attention to the League Rules.

2. Read the League Rules again.

3. If you are convinced that it would be fun to join us, you are willing to pay $50 and be an active manager, then please send Ghost Rat an email at girghostrat@gmail.com. First preference is given to website contributors. Thereafter, we will maintain a list of interested parties on a first-come, first-served basis. We look forward to an exciting 2012 season!

May 252012
 

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made a point over the last several years to increase player safety. From changing rules on hits to quarterbacks and wide receivers to kickoffs, he has changed the landscape of how the NFL is going to do business. As Goodell pointed out recently after sanctioning the Saints for their bounty program, “We’re going to do everything we can to provide the safest and healthiest environment for our players. That is something we’re going to continue to do. I don’t expect everyone is going to agree all the time, particularly when it involves discipline.”

I am not going to rehash the Saints discipline or the changes in the rules; rather, I am here to yell from the highest of mountain tops, THANK YOU NFL for finally getting it. The players were never going to take this matter into their own hands; rather, they were going to complain when they retired that there quality of life diminished greatly because they played football. Furthermore, they were going to blame the NFL. I applaud the NFL, especially Goodell for saying the hell with it; if the NFLPA and its players are not going to work with us, we will force the conversation and change the NFL for good. Welcome to the New World Order, the kinder, gentler, NFL.

As we have evolved as a human species, we have adapted to our surroundings and all the changes being hurled at us. However, there have been times when individuals have taken it upon themselves to force the change that is needed. Goodell has taken a stand against unnecessary roughness and has stood out on a ledge and said, “not under my watch will I continue you to allow this game to be played the same way.”

This notion that the game was somehow better in the era of Nitschke, Butkus, Mean Joe Greene, et al is just plain nonsense. The game is played by bigger, faster, more athletic players than ever and I would be happy to take any of today’s top teams and have them play in the good ole days. In the end, I believe Goodell’s stance will eventually improve the game on the field. Personally, I am tired of seeing all these great players go down with injuries that leave them unable to play during the season. The players make the league and I believe the league has a duty to make the game as safe as possible without changing its essence. I believe Goodell is doing this with great success.

For far too long, previous owners and commissioners took a laissez faire approach to mounting documentation on injuries. This approach has failed miserably and has forced Goodell to rule with an iron fist on the issues of injuries, including concussions. While I am not naïve to think all of Goodell’s ideas for safety have worked, I am utterly amazed at the amount of push back by the players and the NFLPA. I find it highly inappropriate for them to complain about these rules changes over the last several years and yet a number of players are involved in the class action lawsuit against the league. Guess what players, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You know the sport is dangerous and as a result you may be permanently injured, so you cannot complain when Goodell makes the smart business decision to increase player safety, even if it is unilaterally.

Do these changes have a negative effect on the play on the field? I argue, absolutely not! There will still be hard hits, phenomenal moves, and incredible catches, but players will be safer. The new motto for players when they tackle should be above the knee, below the neck. You can still play with reckless abandon, with a crazed look in your eyes, but with some responsibility for what you do. As a fan of the game, I hope he continues thinking safety first.

May 232012
 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

Projected Starting Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger

2011 Record:  12 wins, 4 losses (2nd in AFC North)

0-1 in postseason (lost in Wildcard round)

12th in Total Offense, 1st in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 105 wins, 54 losses, 1 tie (3rd in NFL)

11 wins, 5 losses in postseason

2-1 in Super Bowl appearances

6-2 All-time in Super Bowl

May 222012
 

by Ghost Rat

Prediction: The 2012 season will be the end of the Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez era in New York.

One of the more entertaining stories on tap for the upcoming 2012 season is the ongoing drama that is the New York Jets. When Rex Ryan was hired as the head coach is early 2009, optimism abounded in New York/New Jersey that the Jets were finally going to return to the Promised Land after decades of irrelevance.

Early returns seemed to bear out this optimism. In Ryan’s first season, the Jets repeated their 9-7 record from the season before, but this time advanced as a wildcard team all the way to the AFC Championship, where they were bounced 30-17 by the Colts. The Jets seemed poised to challenge the Patriots for ownership of the AFC East, and poised to win a championship. In 2010 the Jets went 11-5 but made the playoffs as a wildcard team, once again advancing to the AFC Championship and losing 24-19 to the Steelers. Despite the disappointing loss, the Jets and their fans attached confidence for their future to the Jets 28-21 victory over New England in the divisional round, suggesting an end to the Patriot reign.

Instead, the team took a huge step backwards in 2011, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs, not to mention losing twice to the arch-rival Patriots. The 8-8 record was reflective of the final scores of each game, but does not reflect two gift-wrapped victories from the Cowboys and the Chargers. As a result, the gap between 8 wins last season and 11 wins the season before is wider than it might otherwise seem.

As we near the 2012 season, Jets’ fans now seem nervous. They are not sure if they should have optimism in off-season coaching and personnel changes that were made, or to fear a greater collapse. This author is betting on the latter.

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am a Patriots fan who despises the Jets. Simple. While it’s been a nice thing to see the return of a competitive rivalry between the two franchises, the undeserved swagger and arrogance from a team whose talk far exceeds their accomplishments does not sit well. The Jets are the antithesis of the Patriot Way, of just do your job and don’t talk about it. From Rex Ryan to Antonio Cromartie to Bart Scott to Darrelle Revis to LaDanian Tomlinson, the players and coaches on this team simply don’t know when to shut the hell up. Adding Tony Sparano to the coaching staff offers more discipline for the players on the offense, but Sparano’s own demeanor does not suggest an improvement in team chemistry. Instead of Brian Schottenheimer roaming the sidelines, we will now have Sparano high-fiving every field goal. And with Sanchez and Tim Tebow as the team’s quarterbacks, I suspect Tony will get to celebrate a lot of field goals.

Looking at the roster, Jets’ fans have cause to be concerned.

Offense

This offense is a mess. Despite what Jets’ coaches and fans would have you believe, having two bad quarterbacks is not as good as having one good one, and neither Sanchez nor Tebow is good enough to lead an otherwise weak offensive team to success. Shonn Greene is an underwhelming running back, and Joe McKnight seems more focused on fast food than football. Terrance Ganaway is a potential feature back, if he can maneuver his way through the depth chart. The receivers consist of Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and a cast of second tier players. And the offensive line, which should be the offense’s greatest strength, has struggled, particularly on the right side. This group should offer better protection to Sanchez (or Tebow) than they did last season, but that doesn’t mean that Sanchez’s judgment as a quarterback will improve. As a team, the Jets scored 22.9 points per game in 2010 and 23.5 points per game in 2011, but they will be hard pressed to match those numbers in 2012.

Defense/Special Teams

Rex Ryan has been lauded as a defensive genius, but the numbers don’t quite bear out his genius. In Ryan’s three years as head coach, the team has given up 236 points (2009), 304 points (2010), and 363 points (2011). While the Jets talk a good game, what they deliver leaves something to be desired. Revis is hailed as a brilliant corner, and likely will remain so as long as he continues to get away with some of the most blatant defensive holds that this fan ever recalls seeing. Antonio Cromartie continues to be allergic to physical contact, finding it as challenging as remembering all of his kid’s names. Landry was a good pickup, if he can stay on the field. On the line, Sione Pouha is a solid defensive tackle, rivaling Vince Wilfork for AFC supremacy, even as the rest of the defensive line struggles to apply consistent pressure to the opposing quarterback. Bringing in Quinton Coples to supply a pass rush is a head scratcher to me; there were better players available at that spot in the draft but the Jets went with Coples because they believe they can bring out his potential talent. Herein lies the underlying problem with the Jets; they have more confidence in their ability to coach than they actually deserve. Bringing in a player like Coples, whose motivation and work ethic has been questioned, to an already dysfunctional locker room, smells to me of stupidity and/or arrogance. While I believe Coples has the potential to have a solid career in the NFL, I sincerely doubt that the Jets are capable of getting that type of effort out of him. Say what you will about the Patriots and other teams being boring and vanilla, but all they do is win. Bringing someone with a questionable work ethic to a three-ring circus seems to be asking for problems. In the linebacking corps, Harris, Pace, and Thomas create a solid starting base, but Scott’s talent is clearly being outpaced by his ability to run his mouth.

The special teams crew is unremarkable, and Nick Folk (while likely to retain his job) is facing a camp battle with Josh Brown. Jeremy Kerley is a potentially explosive punt returner who had a hard time holding onto the ball last season.

Schedule

Perhaps the best thing that the Jets have going for them this year is their schedule. Finishing second in the AFC East last season, the Jets avoid two division winners in Baltimore and Denver, while pulling the NFC West and AFC South as rotating opponents. Such a schedule can help mask some of the Jets’ problems, but I don’t think it is going to be enough to save their season. Anything short of a return to the playoffs invites mass media frenzy in New York, and while it is far from certain that a losing record will seal Ryan’s or Sanchez’s fate, I sincerely doubt that one or both will still be in New York in 2013.

Here’s how I see their season playing out:

Game 1 v. Buffalo                            Loss (0-1)

Despite being at home, the Bills are an improved club from last season, and I expect them to win a close battle here.

Game 2 @ Pittsburgh                     Loss (0-2)

The Steelers are not as deadly as they have been in the past few seasons. Their offense is improving while the defense is re-tooling, but I doubt that the Jets can outscore them on the road.

Game 3 @ Miami                             Win (1-2)

Perhaps the Dolphins are not as bad as many people think, but they are also not as close to being a playoff team as they want to believe. Look for the Jets to pull out a close win here.

Game #4 v. San Francisco             Loss (1-3)

The road back to the NFC Championship is going to be a hard one for the 49ers, but this is a quality team. Their defense should be more than a match for the Jets’ anemic offensive attack.

Game #5 v. Houston                       Loss (1-4)

The first of four night games for the Jets might be a winnable game for the team, save for the fact that the Texans’ offense promises to be much healthier than last season. A Jets loss here will create a firestorm around Mark Sanchez, with calls for Tim Tebow to take the helm.

Game #6 v. Indianapolis                                Win (2-4)

The brutal early season schedule takes a pause as the Colts visit New Jersey. The Colts are capable of being competitive for the first half, but I would expect the Jets to win comfortably here. I would also expect that Darrelle Revis will use this opportunity to declare that the Jets are “back” in advance of their next game in Foxboro.

Game #7 @ New England             Loss (2-5)

The Jets are going to lose this game. I mean REALLY lose this game. And if Tim Tebow isn’t the starting quarterback prior to this game, his chances of being the starter by Week 8 will soar.

Game #8 v. Miami                           Win (3-5)

The Jets will rebound from an embarrassing loss with a good performance against the Dolphins.

Game #9 @ Seattle                         Loss (3-6)

The Seahawks are improved from last season, are at home, and may well be in contention in the NFC West. The Jets will keep it close, but I look for Seattle to pull it out at the end.

Game #10 @ St. Louis                    Win (4-6)

This is a case of low-hanging fruit for the Jets, as the Rams represent a team that they should and will beat.

Game #11 v. New England           Loss (4-7)

The second game against the Patriots will prove that New England is on a mission and that the Jets are now officially in disarray.

Game #12 v. Arizona                      Win (5-7)

As Kevin Kolb goes, so too do the Cardinals. Of course by Week 12 we have no idea who will be starting for either team. The Jets are at home, and are a slightly better overall team.

Game #13 @ Jacksonville             Win (6-7)

As shaky as the Jets are on offense, the Jags aren’t much better, though they had made some upgrades in the offseason. The Jags defense struggled against the Jets in 2011, and I expect the Jets to be able to pull out a close win.

Game #14 @ Tennessee                               Win (7-7)

With two straight wins, the talk among fans and the media (not to mention Jets players) will begin that the Jets are going to run the table and find their way into the playoffs. The Titans have some uncertainty on offense, but have been decent on defense. This is a game that the Titans can win, but I actually expect the Jets to pull off the upset and get their record back to .500.

Game #15 v. San Diego                  Loss (7-8)

Reports of the Chargers’ demise seem premature. While they are not an elite team within the AFC, the Chargers should be making a playoff push at this point in the season, and I expect it to propel them to a win.

Game #16 @ Buffalo                      Loss (7-9)

By the final game of the season, the contrast between these teams should be very evident. The Bills, while still a flawed team, have made major improvements, while the Jets have built their house on sand. The foundation will be crumbling by this point, and I expect the Bills to rout the Jets in the finale.

Conclusion

In short, the Jets of 2012 do not appear to be any better on paper than the Jets of 2011. Add the drama between Sanchez and Holmes, the addition of Tim Tebow, a questionable draft strategy, and a locker room that gives the impression that the inmates are running the asylum, and it is simply difficult to imagine the Jets exceeding last season’s 8-8 record, even with an “easier” schedule. In all likelihood, the Jets will do just enough to tease their fans into December with the idea that they have a chance at the post-season, only to fold at the end. While 7-9 is not a disastrous season, a third place finish behind the powerhouse Patriots and the improving Bills should be enough to spark significant change. The in-fighting and media calls for accountability will begin early in the offseason, and by the end of playoffs we might well find Rex Ryan, Mike Tannenbaum, and Mark Sanchez all looking for new football homes. As tempted as I am as a Patriots fan to take pleasure in this outcome, I simply can’t. The Patriots-Jets rivalry is a heated and exciting one, but it’s not really a rivalry when one of the teams is bad, and the Jets are on the verge of becoming a bad team.

May 222012
 

The New England Patriots finished 2011 one incomplete pass away from winning their fourth Super Bowl in eleven years and, judging by their aggressive off-season movements, seem intent to make sure that the next Super Bowl result isn’t nearly as close. Learning from the mistakes of 2011, Head Coach Bill Belichick is fulfilling fan wishes everywhere of improving a defense that simply could not get off the field in too many key situations last season. By getting off the field earlier and more often, the Patriots can provide more opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to roll through opposing defenses, and build leads that an aggressive defense can then help turn into a rout.

This is not to say that the Patriots are going to roll through the 2012 season like they did in 2007, blasting through a 16-0 season before falling in the final minute of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. But it is to say that conditions are favorable for a highly successful 2012 campaign. The offense brings back its major parts and has improved its receiving corps. The defense has improved at all three levels, and the special teams will to continue to excel, while the Patriots will benefit from a softer schedule this season, facing off against the AFC East, NFC West and AFC South in addition to their first place opponents Baltimore and Denver. Throw in the fact that this team is well aware that they were one play away from winning it all last year, and I expect a team bent on attending to unfinished business from last year.

Trying to predict anything that Bill Belichick will do is at best a shot in the dark. But when it comes to things like who Belichick will select in the draft, or who will make the Patriots’ roster, well that’s nearly impossible. Even the best Boston beat reporter gets things right only half the time, so this article is less about predicting who will make the final roster and more to give a semi-educated guess about who I think is the most likely to survive to the regular season.

Unlike the Jets, who look no better on paper than they did at the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant strides to improve the roster. Let’s take a look at the most likely prospects to make the opening day 53-man roster. I am in no way trying to keep up with all signed players, now that rosters have been expanded to ninety players. Almost all of that is roster fodder, though one or two unlikely candidate may emerge as we get towards the regular season. I will keep modifying this article until the first week of the season. Each update will be labeled so that it can be contrasted with my original projections.

Players in bold are projected as starters.

Quarterback (Grade: A)

Tom Brady is the incumbent and remains one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a capable backup who will likely be a future NFL starter for another team, as he is in the last year of his contract. Mallett appears to be the heir apparent in Foxboro.

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

Ryan Mallett

Running Back (Grade: B-)

The loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis meant that the Patriots would add a veteran back, and thus entered Joseph Addai. I have never been an Addai fan and didn’t think much of the signing, but accepted that it was a very practical and low-risk move. None the less, I don’t think Addai has much left in the tank, and will likely be beat out by younger players. Ridley is more explosive than Green-Ellis, but struggled to hold on to the ball last season. The Patriots seem very high on Shane Vereen, who was not able to get on the field much last season.

Danny Woodhead is a great change of back a la Kevin Faulk, and much younger than Faulk. While Faulk is a fan favorite in New England, his declining abilities make it unlikely that he will get signed and/or win a roster spot. Brandon Bolden is a candidate for the practice squad.

The Patriots have also signed several fullbacks coming into the 2012 campaign, including fan favorite Eric Kettani, who was able to get clearance from the U.S. Navy to re-join the Patriots. Still, Spencer Larsen and Tony Flammetta might have inside tracks to make the cut. Larsen’s versatility gives him the edge in this battle.

Stevan Ridley

Danny Woodhead

Shane Vereen

Spencer Larsen

Out: Joseph Addai, Eric Kettani, Tony Flammetta

Practice Squad: Brandon Bolden

UPDATE: Joseph Addai was released, as predicted.

Wide Receiver (Grade: A-)

Remember when Reche Caldwell was considered the #1 receiver? Me neither. The 2012 Patriots suffer from no such lack of depth at receiver. If anything, the camp battle is going to be fierce this summer.

Wes Welker returns as the best slot receiver in the NFL and is playing under a franchise tender. Personally, I think he has handled his contract negotiations all wrong. He was offered a two year, $16 million deal and turned it down last year, and is now surprised that the Patriots are offering him less this season. Yet he is a year older, and the play of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has taken away some of his leverage. Playing out his contract dispute in the media and through Twitter is also not his best move, and in truth I would not be surprised to see the Patriots take a trade offer for him before the 2012 season commences, perhaps nabbing a high round pick in the 2013 draft. Barring a trade however, the Patriots could once again slap Welker with a franchise tag next offseason if they are in the mood to add a few million to his current salary, and they just might.

Brandon Lloyd adds explosiveness to this group and is very comfortable working with Josh McDaniels. Deion Branch is a Brady-favorite, but the return of Jabar Gaffney could bring Branch’s tenure to an end. For the moment, I am projecting that they will both make the roster. Julian Edelman is not a sure bet to make the roster, despite his versatility. While I expect him to make it, Matthew Slater is a solid special teamer that will make the cut, and Jeremy Ebert may have a high upside.

Donte Stallworth seemed to have a chance to make it until the Pats signed Gaffney; I am convinced Gaffney will edge him out. Chad Ochocinco is unlikely to make it through camp. Despite his good work ethic and his ability to keep his mouth closed for the most part, he simply lacks production, and the Pats have brought back players who are proven producers. Gaffney’s signing convinced me that the Ocho experiment will be coming to an end.

Wes Welker

Brandon Lloyd

Jabar Gaffney

Deion Branch

Julian Edelman

Matthew Slater

Out: Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Britt Davis, Anthony Gonzalez

Practice Squad: Jeremy Ebert

UPDATE: Anthony Gonzalez was released on 5/29.

UPDATE: The Pats finally cut Ocho on 6/7.

Tight End (Grade: A+)

Providing they stay healthy, this is the best tight end group in the NFL, bar none. No training camp battles anticipated here.

Rob Gronkowski

Aaron Hernandez

Visanthe Shiancoe

Practice Squad: Brad Herman

Out: Nick Melilli, Bo Scaife, Daniel Fells

UPDATE: The Patriots signed Bo Scaife on 6/7. Not sure if he is insurance for Gronkowski, but unless there is an injury to the top three I doubt he makes the roster. Scaife had a solid 2008 campaign with Tennessee but declined after that before spending last season on injured reserve.

UPDATE: The Patriots released Scaife on 6/18. That was a short stay.

Tackle (Grade: B)

Solder and Vollmer look poised to anchor the ends of the offensive line for years to come as long as both stay healthy. The Patriots have yet to decide if Canon’s future will be as a tackle or as a guard. But we know the team values versatility, so he may well do both in the year ahead.

Nate Solder

Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Canon

Practice Squad: Markus Zusevics

Center/Guard (Grade: A-)

The key here is Brian Waters, whose return means the Patriots have great depth at the interior line positions. Waters had a fantastic 2011 season, and will start at right guard with the report that he plans to play again in 2012. Dan Connolly, projected to start at center prior to Koppen’s re-signing, now works into a rotation. Another major factor is the health of Logan Mankins, who is not expected to be ready for the start of the season and may start out on the PUP list. This necessitated the signing of Robert Gallery to fill in through Mankins’ absence.

Dan Koppen

Logan Mankins

Brian Waters

Dan Connolly

Robert Gallery

Ryan Wendell

Out: Donald Thomas

Defensive Line (Grade: B)

Chandler Jones was a great draft pick by the Patriots, and he will likely be given every opportunity to work his way into starting at the “elephant” position made famous by Willie McGinest. Wilfork is a beast in the middle who eats up blockers, and Deaderick is quickly coming along as a solid interior player. Fanene, Baquette, and Scott, provide a quality of depth that the Patriots have lacked in recent years. Andre Carter may still be signed if he is healthy enough, but my money is on his not returning to Foxboro in 2012.

Vince Wilfork

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Jonathan Fanene

Jake Bequette

Trevor Scott      

Chandler Jones

Out: Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Aaron Lavarias, Marcus Harrison, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Justin Francis

Linebacker (Grade: B-)

Much is still to be decided about who will play inside and outside, but Dont’a Hightower should see significant action as the year progresses, and offers the Pats a great deal of flexibility in the linebacking corps. However the positional battles shake out, look for a steady rotation to include Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich, and Carpenter. Jermaine Cunningham may wash out as a failed second round pick.

Dont’a Hightower

Rob Ninkovich

Bobby Carpenter

Jerod Mayo

Dane Fletcher (injured)

Brandon Spikes

Tracy White

Mike Rivera

Out: Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides

Practice Squad: Markell Carter

UPDATE: Markell Carter cut on 6/7. As much as the Patriots liked him in 2011, the offseason personnel improvements seem to have made Carter expendable.

UPDATE: Fletcher tore ACL is first pre-season game; out for season

Cornerback (Grade: B-)

Arrington and Moore both proved to be good corners in a much maligned secondary, and McCourty’s improvement over last year’s performance would do a great deal to bolster this unit. Will Allen offers great depth, and Alfonso Dennard will prove to be a steal if he can stay out of legal trouble.

Kyle Arrington

Devin McCourty

Ras-I Dowling

Sterling Moore

Will Allen

Alfonso Dennard

Safety (Grade: C+)

Well, at least the unit can’t get any worse after a nearly abysmal performance in 2011. Steve Gregory has been brought in to start, but he may only be keeping a seat warm for Tavon Wilson, who Bill Belichick seems very excited about. Chung is solid, and Ebner to looks have a good upside and will offer better depth than the Pats had last season. It’s still a possibility that the Pats could add veteran depth, such as former Jet Jim Leonhard.

Patrick Chung

Steve Gregory

Tavon Wilson

Nate Ebner

Out: Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Malcolm Williams

Special Teams (Grade: A-)

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and Mesko is not far behind as a punter. Finding return men for kicks and punts seems to be the only question as the Patriots look to 2012.

Stephen Gostkowski (K)

Zoltan Mesko (P)

Danny Aiken (LS)

Out: Chris Koepplin

Overall Offensive Grade: A

Overall defensive Grade: B-

Ultimately, the Patriots only need a “middle of the pack” defense to increase opportunities for a potent offense. If the 31st ranked defense from 2011 can even improve into the high twenties or low teens, the Patriots will rack up plenty of one-sided victories in 2012.

UPDATE: Just for giggles, let’s check back prior to the opening game against Tennessee to see how I did in projecting the roster versus Imala Weligamage over at the Bleacher Report. We have just a few differences, but it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

 

May 222012
 

 

New England Patriots

Head Coach: Bill Belichick

Projected Starting Quarterback: Tom Brady

2011 Record:  13 wins, 3 losses (1st in AFC East)

2 wins, 1 loss in postseason (lost Super Bowl)

2nd in Total Offense, 31st in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 123 wins, 37 losses (1st in NFL)

13 wins, 6 losses in postseason

2-2 in Super Bowl appearances

3-4 All-time in Super Bowl

May 222012
 

 

New York Jets

Head Coach: Rex Ryan

Projected Starting Quarterback: Mark Sanchez

2011 Record:  8 wins, 8 losses (2nd in AFC East)

No postseason appearance

25th in Total Offense, 5th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 80 wins, 80 losses (16th in NFL)

6 wins, 5 losses in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

1-0 All-time in Super Bowl