“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending”
Around 18 months ago the first three picks of the 2010 NFL Draft went to the St Louis Rams, the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The trio had, in their own unique ways, failed dismally the season before. The Rams propelled themselves to the top of the draft with a 2009 regular season which saw just a solitary triumph, over the pitiful Lions. Detroit followed up their winless season with only two victories and the fact this was seen as somewhat of a success shows just how bad their team was. As for Tampa, they left it until week nine to get their first win and notched up another two to be left with a paltry 3-13 record.
But the beauty of the NFL’s parity is that, pending the correct personnel decisions, nobody stays at the bottom for too long. The Rams were able to pick up Sam Bradford who has shown signs that he may go on to be one of the best quarterbacks of any draft whilst the Lions were able to grab Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and one of the league’s most dominant performers in Ndamukong Suh. The Bucs, meanwhile, made some astute moves and surrounded blossoming quarterback Josh Freeman with some very capable football players.
All three narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, Tampa Bay and St Louis on the final day, but they combined for a total record of 23-25, compared to in 6-42 in 2009 and 11-36 in 2008.
The Rams haven’t posted a winning season since 2003 (when they were last in the play-offs), Lions fans have had to wait even longer (since 2000) for a winning campaign and the Bucs haven’t reached the post-season in the competitive NFC South since 2007.
But all that could be about to change as the three franchises look as if they’re moving in the right direction. The Lions and Buccaneers will have to better the past two Super Bowl champions to take their divisions but will be in well in the hunt for wildcards should they fall just short. Meanwhile the Rams are more than capable of taking a wide-open NFC West.
It may have been unthinkable 18 months ago but the Rams, Lions and Buccaneers may just record winning seasons.
(Predicted finish in brackets)
Green Bay Packers (11-5)
The reigning Super Bowl champions went all the way last year despite numerous injuries. Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant will come back in to make the offense even more potent. Meanwhile the defense has playmakers everywhere and co-ordinator Dom Capers knows how to best utilise the talented Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson.
Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions will go as far as Matthew Stafford’s shoulder will take them. He has stacks of talent around him, including Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew, but needs to stay healthy. Fans of solid defenses will simply be salivating at the prospect of a front four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
The Bears were one step away from the Super Bowl last year and had Jay Cutler stayed fit/not wimped out (depending on your personal stance) they may very well have got there. But the team did it without being particularly spectacular. Question marks remain about Cutler’s ability to lead but they will remain competitive if Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers continue to destroy on D.
Minnesota Vikings (5-11)
The Brett Favre experiment is over. In comes another experienced veteran warhorse in the shape of Donovan McNabb. The former Redskins quarterback was treated shoddily in the capital and never really garnered adulation in Philly either but he’s still a very good QB especially with Adrian Peterson behind him. Sadly his biggest weapon, Sidney Rice, has gone and an aging defense looks like it could be vulnerable.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
The Eagles have made a concentrated effort to snare almost every free agent available this off-season. Nnamdi Asomugha has been the most impressive recruit but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin all improve Philadelphia greatly. Michael Vick will be given the reigns from the start, DeSean Jackson remains the league’s most exciting player whilst Trent Cole may just be the most underrated. They are the ones to watch.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Last season was a colossal failure for Dallas given the strength of their roster. Jason Garrett has assumed head coaching duties and he has a task given Philly’s aggressive moves in free agency. Tony Romo will be back under centre and in Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant he has an excellent receiving corp. The run game stalled last year and Felix Jones must prove he can handle the load. But the biggest concern is the defense which was blown apart on multiple occasions last year.
New York Giants (8-8)
2010 was a strange season for the Giants. They didn’t make the play-offs due to costly errors at crucial times. Eli Manning racked up the yards but he also had a penchant for interceptions. There are still plenty of playmakers on defense and they’ll need them to be at their best in this division. The o-line is aging and may be a cause for concern, particularly if they leave Eli with plenty to do again.
Washington Redskins (2-14)
Each of the elite leagues seems to have a team which lags behind and the side dragging down the NFC East is the Redskins. Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman is the answer at quarterback and they have a backfield committee without a stand-out star. They have some fine players on the defensive side of the ball but there is little to like offensively.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Raheem Morris’ young charges did remarkably well last year. There is plenty to admire about Josh Freeman and the rest of the team seems to have gelled perfectly. With another year of experience they could be ready for the post-season. They will have to factor in a trip to Wembley in mid-season but that didn’t prove a deterrent for the Giants in 2007.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
They were so impressive in the regular season but were despatched with ease by the Packers at the first post-season hurdle. Their defense was shown up to look very average and they haven’t really strengthened in that area, barring the astute acquirement of Ray Edwards. The Falcons gave up an awful lot for Julio Jones but he can slot in as a useful accompaniment to the marvellous Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan is on the elite’s periphery.
New Orleans Saints (10-6)
Competing as the reigning champs is never an easy thing to do but the Saints sneaked a play-off place last year. They were bizarrely beaten by the Seahawks as a weakness to defending the run was exposed. That could be an issue once again although their own rushing attacking has been improved considerably. Mark Ingram was a great draft pick and should be ready to carry the load to free up some space for Drew Brees to do his thing.
Carolina Panthers (3-13)
Selected first at the draft due to a poor campaign and with that pick they drafted quarterback Cam Newton. He won’t be expected to perform miracles straight away, even if he does start. The Panthers aren’t a terrible team but they are in a very strong division where wins will be hard to come by. Didn’t replace Julius Peppers’ influence and must find someone capable of pressuring the quarterback if they are to have any success.
St Louis Rams (10-6)
Sam Bradford’s rookie season was one to remember as he broke Peyton Manning’s record for most passes completed by a novice (354). They gave him a lot more to do than was initially expected proving their confidence in a top prospect and their much-improved offensive line. Bradford has been rewarded with wide receiver Mike Sims Walker who posted some impressive figures in Jacksonville. Still some way from being a great team but the NFC West is wide open.
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
The 49ers were expected to walk the NFC West in 2010 but they lurched from one disaster to another. There are plenty of talented players on this roster in Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore but too often they shot themselves in the foot. Who stays under centre and how they perform will ultimately decide whether their season is a success or not.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
The Cardinals took a punt on Kevin Kolb and that gamble will define the coming years. Larry Fitzgerald has been signed up to a big contract but they missed the likes of Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antre Rolle who were so pivotal in their Super Bowl run a few years back. Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie is another to depart and they must get more out of their running game to assist Kolb.
Seattle Seahawks (3-13)
The Seahawks made the play-offs by the skin of their teeth but even they were not happy with the season as a whole, reflected in the fact that Tarvaris Jackson will be the new quarterback. He was unimpressive in Minnesota but probably deserves another shot; fellow former Viking Sidney Rice’s arrival is a nice upshot for Jackson as is tight-end Zach Miller. Need more from former first-round pick Aaron Curry to show he doesn’t join Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin in the first-round outside-linebacker bust group.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.