Beat The Man: Fearless Forecast, Part Deux

It's time to pull out Hanzo #2 and separate the wheat from the chaff, kiddos! In Part Deux of his Fearless Forecast, our own Scott Jones breaks down the NFL's elite and discovers that them purty shiny things are, in fact, Super Bowl rings. As the season approaches, Scott takes the goldmine and gives The Man the shaft!

Last Friday, I detailed some teams with, uh, lesser expectations. That’s a backseat to today, where we get in the FRONT seat for some ‘profitable’ navigation. “Are we there yet?” Pony up some cash for gas, kid. Otherwise just keep your face in the Nintendo – this trip is for the big kids.

The Mutt
There’s gotta be something between “you’re not very good” (Great Pretenders) and “Can I please kiss your sneakers?” (Top Contenders) right? Of course there is, only – I usually don’t like to acknowledge the average? This year however, there are 3 teams that deserve a positive mention for maybe being better than average. They’re an interesting mix that might grow to outfox their average looks.

LIONS
We’re all hearing lots about Detroit this year aren’t we? After all, that’s where the ultimate destination resides. Do the Lions have a chance at that? Astoundingly – it’s a true possibility. Offensively, you’ve heard about the trio of redwood trees Joey Harrington now has to throw to. There’s no questioning the abilities of the 3 (and Roy Williams might be considered a top 3 receiver in the NFL within a few years. He looks fantastic). At RB you’ve got Kevin Jones, my favorite player in the draft last year – who made me look bad my mid-season, and a genius by the end of it. And up front, you’ve got an average to better O-Line. The only question is the guy who hands the ball around. Can Joey Harrington deliver on the expectations of his draft status? I remain confused, because the guy has all the things you think you want in a QB. Yet somehow, he just doesn’t move it forward like you’re convinced he should be.

If he fails to do so? Jeff Garcia can. Depending on the status of this weekend’s injury, Garcia may step into an offense he’s very comfortable in and move the ball at will. And furthermore, the Defense is nothing to sneeze at. A disruptive Defensive Line is backed by some gifted (though young) linebackers and a Secondary that may or may not rise to the occasion. There are some questions there, but there are also a lot of answers as far as player potential is concerned. It would be a mistake not to consider the Lions a threat. However, we’d like to see how the odds-makers react to the growing public support (wk1 vs. GB is looking VERY attractive).

COWBOYS
Here’s another team you’ve likely heard a lot of talk about. And I’ll tell you what, switching to a 3-4 and acquiring DT Jason Ferguson from the Jets (a scrappy 300lbs+), followed by a very impressive draft plugging in 1st RD picks Demarcus Ware at the L.T. ‘Elephant’ spot (I think we witnessed what he can do, eh Seahawk fans?), along with the PERFECT DE in a 3-4 with Marcus Spears from LSU? Uh, that’s pretty good, mate! But don’t stop there, they also bagged a solid LB in Kevin Burnett in the 2nd Rd (and another future consideration DE prospect in the 4th with Chris Canty). Add that influx of talent to what’s already there in the front 7 and you’ve basically stuffed the cupboards full of fresh delicious treats! They can DEFINITELY run the 3-4 with that sudden roster. Expect a return to 2003 results on Defense for the Cowboys.

On Offense, lots of people are not so secure about Drew Bledsoe but the man is certainly a step up from what they’ve been dealing with the last several years there. And they do have capable vets at Wideout (breaking news: they just signed Peerless Price as well. That could be large). I don’t think I need to say anything to Hawk fans regarding RB Julius Jones either. And if you look at this Offensive Line, with the addition of Marco Rivera from Green Bay – the only thing questionable there is Freshman RT Rob Petitti. Put a Hall of Fame Head Coach on top of all that and you can’t be thinking anything less than 8-8. You better pay attention to the Cowboys, ‘cuz they’re paying attention to you!

CHIEFS
Most people choose to ignore the Chiefs because though their Offense has lit up the scoreboard the last 2 years – their Defense has proven dismal enough to diffuse any interest. This off-season they figured they might want to do more than add a coach named “Gunther”. So they went out and brandished red upon LB Kendrell Bell (Steelers), CB Patrick Surtain, S Sammy Knight (Dolphins), and the most loved/hated LB in the draft – Derrick Johnson. This upgraded them to an 8 of 15 on my Defensive Scorecard. To be honest, it didn’t get me too excited. I think Bell has injury concerns, Surtain is on the downside, Knight is a mistake prone ballhawk, and Johnson has bust concerns. Furthermore, their Offensive Line got a little older, Priest Holmes has to be a true injury worry at this point (say it ain’t so, ‘cuz I really love the guy), and people don’t seem to be addressing the fact that their WR corpse stinks.

Yet, I’m listing them here. Why? Each year one or 2 teams manage to raise my eyebrow during the Pre-season. This year – that was Kansas City. I’ve been quite impressed with the way they’re flying around on Defense. The addition in players may have done more than add talent, it may have infused the roster already in place with a stronger belief that they can now get it done. Larry Johnson has proven he is now a capable replacement for Holmes. The O-Line can still control their opponent. And there just seems to be an overall sense of belonging among the team. The Chiefs come out of the gate facing the Jets and Eagles at home, and division opponents Oakland and Denver on the road. They then have a BYE week for the smoke to clear. If they make it out of that first month alive? You’re looking at a contender…

Top Contenders
Here it is, The Must List. Pull out a wad of cash and throw it down on these guys… ‘cuz I said so and I didn’t have to sweat to make your money. You did. (What that means is, you should only gamble on teams you truly believe in, not just a “hot tip” from some internet dude you’ve never met. Be responsible).

VIKINGS
Far and away my pick to win it all. That’s right, this is the “Fearless” Forecast and we don’t worry about the perception of others around here. The perfection of their off-season has my jaw on the floor. Two years ago I was scratching my head why anyone liked the Vikings – they had no defense. Last year they did much to improve that and I was ultimately disappointed they couldn’t quite get over the hump. They were damned close though. Certainly weren’t missing a lot. Well guess what, they just added a TON to an already talented bunch.

Randy Moss is just one man. He gets an opportunity to make a difference maybe 6 times a game (in fact, after a 5 wk injury lay-off last year he returned to never catch more than 4 balls but ONE time, 5-66-1TD in wk17). In return for one man, when it was all said and done, they got: Pat Williams and Erasmus James (pk 18) to pair with Kevin Williams and last yrs #1 Kenechi Udeze for a Defensive line that makes me want to change my diapers (there’s depth there as well); LB’s Sam Cowart and Napolean Harris to compliment young potential in EJ Henderson and Dontarrious Thomas; and some stud Secondary players in CB Fred Smoot and S Darren Sharper to join proven vets Antwoine Winfield and Corey Chavous. That’s a starting 11 that looks like respect to me, folks. Will that take some time to gel? Yes. Is it good enough to excel? No question.

Furthermore, they replaced their self-important WR with a capable talent in WR Troy Williamson (pk 7) who’s already burned several vets this pre-season and made highlight reel circus catches. WR Travis Taylor came over from Baltimore and suddenly appears to have woken up. And guys like Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell and Marcus Robinson have already made us concerned because the guy that’s distributing the ball is the biological equivalent of Frankenstein the Football player. Culpepper scares the hell out of me. If THAT’S not enough, they’re entire roster of Running Backs can start for pretty much half the teams in the league. And their O-Line is good enough to keep things in order (though the loss of all-world C Matt Birk might be a problem).

There are some concerns on offense from the standpoint of coaching philosophy (as in: Mike Tice?), but on paper – this team is playing with a 20-sided die and +10 attributes. Their dice are loaded. I’m terrified…

FALCONS
Not only carrying momentum from last year’s upgrade in success (which I bulls-eyed admirably here at BTM throughout the year), they’ve significantly upgraded the talent as well. The Falcons continue their recent success by adding everyone’s favorite under-the-radar player, LB Ed Hartwell. This immediately turns a concern area into a strength (alongside Keith Brooking and athletically gifted sophomore Demorrio Williams). And it’s going to allow a fine Head Coach and former Defensive Coordinator, Jim Mora – to further confuse the Offenses of the NFL. You’re looking at a D-Line second only to the Vikings. Patrick Kearney and Brady Smith are excellent, and Schlep’s 5th Rd steal of the draft last year, Chad Lavalais, has in fact earned the starting spot next to destructo-man Rod Coleman. That front seven is hardly going to allow a QB to threaten an admittedly questionable secondary.

Offensively you can expect a slight improvement in the passing game as Michael Jenkins improves on a fine rookie year, rookie speedster Roddy White (pk 27) gets into the mix, and electric QB Mike Vick can stop worrying about scales and just play the damn guitar. The running game should remain as effective as last year’s. And the Falcons from last season’s Championship game will continue to threaten that level or higher…

PANTHERS
Now this will be fun to watch in 2005. What fan in their right mind did not enjoy the resurgence the Panthers had after that catastrophic MASH unit of injuries laid down upon them all through October? The Seahawks have been using the injury excuse for years. This team has no such interest in excuses. They just want to come together, compete, and leave the field knowing they gave it every inch they had. Well this just in, you’d be hard pressed to find a more talented bunch.

The Defense is going to have to find a way to make-up for a thin Linebacker corps but they certainly have the talent in front and behind to do that. I’ve just 1,2,3’ed the best D-Lines in the league in this list of Top Contenders (which is no accident). And the only reason the Panthers rank third is anyone coming off injury needs to be seen before they can be properly measured, though I’m thinking their front 4 does in fact return to the performance of 2003. In the Secondary our pal Ken Lucas matches up quite nicely next to Chris Gamble (who outplayed my opinion of him last year) and Ricky Manning. The Safeties are also quite competent. On Offense they are loaded beyond average fan comprehension. Last year this ‘Defensive minded’ team stocked up on Offense and after losing a game-breaker in Steve Smith, picked it up the second half of the season scoring 30pts or more 5x and 20+ 3 times from November forward (the lowest they scored was 18 in the final week). Jake Delhomme has cemented himself as a quality QB and they’ve now added OG Mike Wahle to settle those OL concerns.

I actually ranked the Panthers higher than the Falcons mathematically. It’s going to be quite entertaining to watch them slug it out all year for the NFC South crown… and perhaps more.

CHARGERS
Last year my general note on the Pre-season Chargers was “Definitely in a rebuilding stage, but not as bad as advertised”. They then went on to make fools of the Manning family and all the rest of us, capturing 12 wins and the hearts of a city desperate for something to believe in. BTM resisted them until November, when momentum and confidence had grown into a true reality on the field. They had become better than most.

The concern going into last season was the O-Line (problem solved, although the new Dolphins line coach might have something to say about that), questions at QB, a thin WR corps, a declining D-Line, and youth in the secondary. Quarterback is no longer a question mark – if Brees is a 1yr wonder, I’m a firm believer in Philip Rivers (who’s now carrying a year of education). The WR corpse added McArdell, and experienced the explosion of TE Antonio Gates, however – I still think that position is a concern. This off-season they drafted DL stud Luis Castillo (who can play inside or out in a 3-4), and a freak ‘tweener’ to man an OLB spot, Shawne Merriman, who plays like he’s got too much aggravation to EVER stand still. That 1-2 punch will join emerging star Jamal Williams, 2nd yr .NET favorite Igor Olshansky and Schlep ‘sleeper’ Dave Ball on the D-Line for an impressive rotation – and a slew of stellar veteran Linebackers to form a front 7 that just might keep the pressure off a still questionable Secondary. I haven’t seen a perfect 3-4 line-up like this since Bill Belichick was wearing Giant blue.

The Chargers sold out their first pre-season game of 2005 (formerly unheard of around these parts). Can you say home field advantage? Synergy is happening in San Diego. I expect the Chargers to validate last season with an AFC WEST crown this year.

RAVENS
For the last couple years people have been seriously annoying me with their respect for the Ravens. I found it annoying because there are certain things you need to do in order to win a Football game. Namely – score points. Their Defense could not be considered anything like that Super Bowl D that made the point moot years ago. This offense has been an insult to the NFL. That’s about to change… maybe.

Kyle Boller, please come to the white courtesy telephone. The world would like to know, “Can you play Quarterback in this league?” ‘cuz that’s the sticking point here. I really don’t know if he can. And I’m strongly considering that he can’t. However – he now has the nucleus around him to give him a chance (which he did not have at ALL the last couple years). The additions of WR Derrick Mason and my absolute favorite pick in this year’s draft – WR Mark Clayton (Oklahoma) – give the young pup someone to throw to besides TE Todd Heap (and I’m betting Todd Heap is real happy about that!). RB Chester Taylor has some remembering Priest Holmes in purple, as he continues to expand on last year’s success. I think that’s important to the success of the Running game (Jamal Lewis needs to find his footing).

On every Raven’s favorite side of the ball I like this idea of the “46”, or sometimes the 4-3, or sometimes the 3-4. With the additions of CB Samari Rolle, LB Tommy Polley in for Hartwell, and the risk/reward return of Peter Boulware, they’ve got the personnel to pull off all those formations. I think it’s going to be a LOT more confusing to the Offense they’re facing than it will be for them implementing the scheme. I could be wrong about that, but at this point I’m gonna side with the Ravens. And I’ll be looking to advantage them as often as I can.

NFC WEST

The SEAHAWKS caught me by surprise here. This off-season I had prepped myself for an exodus of talent on a level never see before. There was absolutely no way we could retain as talented a team as we had in 2004. Well, we didn’t – but we DID do an exemplary job maintaining what we could, filling gaps that became holes, and most impressively, acquiring several players of character that may perhaps move this team aHEAD of last years.

I’ll not go into the additions and departures (as I expect anyone here is already familiar) but we actually graded out higher than any other team in the NFC. I try to be as objective as possible when grading out the Hawks (knocking them this year in the area of WR, LB and DE). The fact is we dropped a perennial tease at WR and added some capable hands. The rest of the Offense remains one that can hurt you in every way, except perhaps the deep ball (something the rest of the NFL will be watching for). RT Pork Chop Womack finally gets a full season at his proper spot, and while he’s mending you may see Sean Locklear impress enough to remain the starter (put an eye on the guy. He’s really pushing people around folks. He’s impressive). Defensively, our Secondary now has depth and youth on a level of perhaps no other team in the league (Kelly Herndon might be more than an afterthought). If anything, we’ve got the toughest run support in the league from the back four. Up front you have to be concerned about our depth at DE but the DT position is absolutely stacked. That leaves the Linebackers. And anyone who isn’t concerned about that position is blinded by a green eye. (Furthermore, it will likely make the cautionary Rhodes even MORE hesitant to blitz from that position.) All in all, we grade out quite well with what appears to STILL be a talented football team that could do some damage in the Playoffs.

However, I’m not going to allow the numerical grade I gave them overwhelm my sensibilities (the numbers aren’t always correct). ‘Jelling’ in the NFL is an important criteria. And we’ve had changes at EVERY level of the team up through the Front Office. You can’t be comfortable with that. Think of it like an Offensive Line. You’ve got to get used to the guys around you and build some continuity. I think that’s going to take a little time.

In a nutshell: I have no idea what to expect from this year’s Seahawk Team. We could win anywhere from 6-12. I’m prepared for the worst. And watching for a surprise with open eyes…

Final note: Shaun Alexander is running with a purpose right now. On several occasions this pre-season I’ve seen him thrust into a tackler, or knife forward for extra yardage. He’s fighting for the extra yard… the yard he didn’t get last year. Perhaps he learned a lesson about the importance in 1 yard, eh – no matter where it is on the field. Think we all might enjoy that some? (Can you feel the grin from here?)

CARDINALS
This off-season saw quite a few raised eyebrows in Arizona. However, they did not grade out nearly as well as I expected them to.

Following a draft that was unmatched by any other in its perfection of talent at needed positions, and including the addition of a QB that can run the kind of system HC Dennis Green wants to run, plus a few new heads on defense from Free Agency (we’ll miss ya Chike) – the consensus around the league is they are ready to take command. I’m not disagreeing with that opportunity. But I am disagreeing with its validity. And here’s why, specifically:

Arizona’s Offensive Line is a mess. The center of that line is horrendous. And what’s the way to halt what Kurt Warner can do? That’s right - in his face up the middle. (Also, watching Warner this pre-season, he doesn’t seem to be recognizing pre-snap blitz reads. Maybe something broke in his brain.) I am not one of those who cast off Kurt Warner early, but you have to be concerned about what’s in front of him. Furthermore, new addition JJ Arrington can hardly have success when the blocks aren’t there. The skill positions are set. But the car don’t roll without a chassis.

Defensively they also have lots of potential. This is the area that teams need to concern themselves with. The front 7 has impressive athleticism and an aggressive/disruptive approach. You’re looking at a VERY talented Defensive Line and a young Linebacker set that might be the envy of the NFL before long (Dansby, Hayes, Blackstock and Mitchell are all going to be fine players in my mind). Yet – that front 7 BETTER be stellar, because the back 4 is a real concern. Opposite star rook Antrel Rolle, David Macklin has had serious pre-season problems. I expect he’ll be pushed out by another Schlep sleeper in Eric Green (pk 75) by mid-season.

Initially buying the hype, the Cardinals may actual under-perform expectations at this point. But they can’t be taken lightly anymore. That’s a certainty.

RAMS
You’ll be pleased to know that the Rams have continued a decline in their talent level. Defensively our theft of Bryce Fisher is really going to put the hurt on DE Leonard Little. Although some are touting the abilities of Anthony Hargrove, I don’t think their edge rush will be nearly as effective as in the past. At Linebacker they’ve swapped out for basically the same talent. And in the Secondary they’ve got SERIOUS concerns with the injury loss of CB Butler. That group is as thin as cheap toilet paper and it’s going to be just about as effective… what a mess.

Offensively I’m going to be very concerned about RB Steven Jackson, as he just looks like angry dynamite. And you still have to respect Torry Holt and aging Isaac Bruce, along with some youth they have there that proved a few things last year (apologies to our friends at RamsInsider… you were right, mates). But the O-Line has regressed to the point of true concern. For me, Marc Bulger is an average QB who can sometimes excel. His protection is going to make that difficult. Or… I certainly hope so.

49ERS
The Niners belong in the ‘suck’ pile. They are horrendous. Just awful.

They really did nothing this off-season to the team talent but add a Rookie QB (who I don’t value as the number 1 worthy pick in the draft at all. He has a marginal chance to be “great”. Good maybe, but not great) and a solid LT (Jonas Jennings) to an Offensive Line that thought they were playing flag football last year. That unit has a chance to improve with the youth they have there, but they’re not going to leap forward just yet. They still have no one to throw the ball to. And no one who scares you running it. When they score more than 20 I’ll be shocked.

It’s a good thing the Offense is bad, or the Defense would look even worse. They’ve got problems there all over the place. They’re playing the 3-4 because they don’t have any D-Lineman. Their LBs are generally a bunch of journeymen. And they’re Secondary is too busy running in circles to even remember what positions they play.

The price of gold is worth very little… if this team is any indication.

And that’ll do it. That’s my 5-star, baby needs a new pair of shoes, get in on the ground floor, steam-train, Vegas-thumping criteria for how it’s gonna play this year. Half of what I said will mean nothing by the end of the season because as we all know, things change from week to week. There are a few teams you may have noticed ignored – that’s because I couldn’t get a firm grasp on what to expect from them. But I am quite secure in this initial outlook. And when it’s all said and done…

I expect The Man to be bruised and battered from our condescending manipulation of his game. ‘cuz The Man has to put a line on every team, every week. But we only have to bet on what we like. Looking at Week 1? I like plenty!

I’ll see ya then…

Beat The Man… because the Seahawks need your guidance.

G. Scott Jones is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to Seahawks.NET. Reaction of any sort is always encouraged at schleprockhawk@sbcglobal.net .



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