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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...2012 NFL "FUTURES" TO WATCH
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor


AFC BEST BETS...We were already a bit iffy on the Miami Dolphins (7 ½ wins) even before the preseason and the Hard Knocks episodes on HBO. We’re also not sure Miami was in need of a housecleaning; for the last nine weeks of the 2012 campaign, the Dolphins were performing at a playoff-caliber level, with QB Matt Moore emerging as a more-than-serviceable on-field leader. But the regime of new HC Joe Philbin (ex-Packers o.c.) was bound to have its own personnel ideas, quickly discarding problem child WR Brandon Marshall (who had developed a good rapport with Moore) and hardly showing much confidence in Moore, signing journeyman QB David Garrard and then selecting Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick in the first round of the draft. The thought process seemed to be that Garrard would be a better option than Moore to keep the QB seat warm for Tannehill, who was also thought to be a good fit with his college coach Mike Sherman now Philbin’s o.c. and running a similar spread offense to the one Tannehill piloted at College Station. Someone might have forgotten to tell the Dolphins that all the Sherman-Tannehill duo accomplished at A&M last year was a 6-6 regular-season record that got Sherman fired. But Garrard’s preseason injury prompted Philbin to commit early to Tannehill as the regular-season starter, and early indicators are that the A&M rookie is a long way from making a positive impact, especially with a suspect receiving corps now lacking a go-to threat minus Marshall. As for the introverted Philbin, he would hardly be the first coordinator to fail as a head coach. Too soon to draw that conclusion, perhaps, but with nothing accomplished in an 0-4 preseason, and what appear to be plenty of holes on the roster, we have a hard time believing Miami improves upon last year’s six wins. It’s an “under” for us at Sun Life Stadium.

Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow are getting most of the criticism for the New York Jets’ (8 ½ wins) 0-4 preseason that didn’t feature a TD until the final exhibition game (and even then, only of them). But AFC insiders suggest that problems run a lot deep at Floral Park than simply the QB issues. Rex Ryan’s defense has slipped a lot over the past few seasons; last year’s platoon allowed more than 100 yards pg more than did Ryan’s first Jets stop unit in 2009. Meanwhile, the Jet ground game, also first in the league in Ryan’s initial season, dropped to 23rd a year ago. Moreover, the offensive line looks a mess, the receivers can’t seem to gain separation, and then there’s still the QB situation; Tebow threatens to be an unwanted distraction, with a simmering QB controversy the last thing Ryan or confidence-shaky holdover QB Mark Sanchez need at this point. Plenty of trip-wires all over this roster; we look “under” at Met Life Stadium.

Considering all that the Houston Texans (10 wins) endured last season while still winning ten games (and losing their last three after the AFC South was clinched), we’re awfully tempted to look “over” the same ten wins in 2012. Consider that impact performers such as WR Andre Johnson and DE Mario Williams missed significant time due injury last fall, and QB Matt Schaub’s broken foot in late November forced rookie third-string QB T.J. Yates into the lineup for the final six reg.-season games and the playoffs. A healthy Schaub and Johnson, plus the AFC’s best traditional run offense featuring backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, should keep the “O” humming, while the robust “D” figures to not miss Williams (who departed to Buffalo in free agency) with Illinois rookie DE/LB Whitney Mercilus now in the mix and the platoon now more comfy in its second year of d.c. Wade Phillips’ schemes. And, with a pair of rebuild situations at Indy and Jacksonville, the AFC South hardly resembles the AFC North. Look “over” at Reliant Stadium.

All “over” bets are off with the Denver Broncos (9 wins) if Peyton Manning should go down at some point this fall; we saw what happened when new backup QB Caleb Hanie had to relieve Jay Cutler last December in Chicago. But we saw glimpses of the old Manning in preseason, and there is plenty of upside for the Bronco “O” with young wideouts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas quickly gaining rapport with Manning. And it was a big-play “D” (fueled by last year’s rookie sensation LB Von Miller) as much as the Tim Tebow magic that boosted the Broncos to an unlikely playoff berth last season. Besides, if John Fox could squeeze a division title out of a jerry-rigged offense featuring Tebow last fall, imagine what he can do with a healthy (knock on wood) Manning? Barring unforseen complications, it looks like an “over” to us in Denver.

Others: Indianapolis Colts “Over” 5 wins...Andrew Luck is already better than half of the QBs in the league; Colts adapting quickly to new HC Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 “D” imported from Baltimore. Cleveland Browns “Under” 5 ½ wins...The AFC North is a pretty rough neighborhood, featuring three 2011 playoff teams which the Browns couldn’t beat last season. If they can’t beat them again this fall, can they really go 6-4 against the rest of the schedule with a rookie QB (Ok State’s Brandon Weeden) at the helm?

NFC BEST BETS...Much like Cleveland in the rugged AFC North, we wonder if the Minnesota Vikings (6 wins) can do enough against non-division foes to get “over” if they get beaten up again by the likes of the Packers, Lions, and Bears. Questions abound in the Twin Cities; Adrian Peterson’s healthy return from last December’s devastating knee injury is hardly assured, and 2nd-year QB Christian Ponder remains in the learning stage. Meanwhile, the stop unit, aside from sack-machine DE Jared Allen, hardly resembles the rock-ribbed units that Leslie Frazier used to coordinate before he became the head coach midway in the 2010 campaign. Speaking of Frazier, can he survive anything resembling last year’s 3-13 mess? We see little to suggest the Vikes can improve four wins from a year ago; look “under” at the Metrodome.

We’re usually reluctant to drink the sort of rah-rah Kool-Aid that Seattle Seahawks’ (7 wins) HC Pete Carroll likes to serve each season. And we’ve seen enough through the years that we’re reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of a team going with a rookie QB (in Seattle’s case, Russell Wilson) who won the starting job after just a couple of good-looking preseason efforts. But something tells us Wilson might be another Drew Brees in the making, and even if we’re wrong about him making an immediate impact, Matt Flynn is a nice default West Coast option at QB for Carroll. Another rookie, Utah State RB Robert Turbin, should take some of the load off of Marshawn Lynch, and Carroll’s defense is underrated. Not much of a stretch to see the Seahawks at least getting to .500; if so, it’s an “over” for us at Century Link Field.

The Green Bay Packers (12 wins) threatened perfection last fall despite a flawed defense that ranked as the NFL’s worst. The Pack addressed those stop unit issues when GM Ted Thompson was a bit more active than usual in free agency (stocking up on linemen) and going defense with his first six picks in the draft. But evidence of an improved pass rush (a major liability last fall) was elusive in the preseason, and d.c. Dom Capers is already doing a juggling act with key LB Desmond Bishop out for the season, and vet Charles Woodson moving from CB to Nick Collins’ former spot at strong safety. Maybe Aaron Rodgers and the “O” simply outgun everyone in the NFC North again...but maybe not. We’re looking “under” at Lambeau Field.

Others: Arizona Cardinals “Under” 7 wins...The Cards got to 8-8 last fall by winning five of their last six and also claiming a remarkable four OT wins. Not to sound too snarky about the latter, but let’s see the Big Red do it again. The “D” is underrated, but Ken Whisenhunt’s ongoing QB issues (is John Skelton really a much better option than Kevin Kolb?) and a rapidly-deteriorating OL situation are recurring themes the past few years in the desert. New Orleans Saints “Over” 9 ½ wins...Sean Payton’s absence should not be minimized, as he rates among the NFL’s best game-planners and play-callers. But if any QB can overcome the distractions, it’s Drew Brees, who can also rely a bit more on his underrated group of RBs this fall. And sources say the “D should benefit from new d.c. Steve Spagnuolo and his expertise at generating a pass rush, an upgrade the Saints could use.



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