2011 NFL Projections: Free Agency Team Needs, Schedule Look-Ahead For Top Five Teams On The Rise
As the NFL Lockout draws to an end, speculation begins to spread like wildfire with everything from free agency to fantasy, trade rumors to depth chart projections and rookie expectations to quite possibly the hottest, most sought-after topic—early season predictions.
Lucky for me and much of the Gridiron Grit team, previews and predictions happen to be my specialty—what gets my blood going and the passionate and creative juices flowing the most.
This article breaks down the five NFL surprise teams on the rise, who didn’t get in the playoffs last year and look to make the cut in 2011.
1. St. Louis Rams
If you’re a fan of the St. Louis Rams, you should probably be holding your breath for the upcoming season. No, I’m not referring to the lockout—that’s drawing close to an end. Rather, the team’s 2011 schedule, which looks more frightening than waking up on a roller coaster with 25 tarantulas in your lap.
The next three weeks the Rams battle Baltimore, Washington and relish an early Week 5 bye. The rest of the first half of the schedule doesn’t get any easier with back-to-back road trips to Green Bay and Dallas, before hosting Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The final five games are at San Francisco, at Seattle, Cincinnati at Edward Jones Dome, the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh and lastly the Niners back for the home crowd.
Steve Spagnuolo and co. can only hope they catch the Giants on a bad day, Dallas when one of the star players are down or controversy is suddenly rampant and the Steelers after they’ve wrapped up postseason berth and the their only concern is staying healthy. That’s what it’s going to take, and then some to get into the playoffs, without having to win the division outright with like an 8-8 record or worse.
Best In The West?
However, at least right now, on paper, this is the top team in the NFC West.
Coming into the upcoming season, Sam Bradford is not only equipped with experience, but also a stronger supporting cast. The first newly added weapon was picked up from the 2011 NFL Draft in second-round tight end Lance Kendricks—who should aid Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells and help improve protection.
There’s also Boise State’s Austin Pettis (3rd round) and Hawaii’s Greg Salas (4th round) to add to veteran Mark Clayton, who says he’s pleased with his recovery from knee surgery and looks forward to getting a new deal with the organization this offseason, according to NFL.com.
Sure, third-year vets Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola did very well in 2010—combining for 138 receptions and 1,309 yards. And Laurent Robinson and Donnie Avery have skills and Mardy Gilyard and 6-5, 220-pound Danario Alexander are coming off their rookie campaign.
But the team plans to acquire more needed tools for aerial attack through free agency.
The secondary and linebacker corps could use an upgrade, but things are solid for the most part defensively. Nonetheless, how active St. Louis is in free agency won’t have a huge, earth-shattering impact on the overall outcome of the 2011 regular season, at least in my opinion.
The talent from within the division and the bloody difficult schedule will have a profound effect on whether or not the Rams can crack open or sneak through the door into the playoffs.
A big veteran receiver, complimentary back, high-caliber linebacker and top-notch defensive back will certainly help, along with some letdowns from the inner-division opponents.
In the end, I do see Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams winning the division crown despite a 0-3 start to the season.
St. Louis Rams Season Prediction: 9-7
2. Detroit Lions
The Jim-Schwartz-led Lions finished 6-10 in 2010, 3rd in the NFC North. Six of the team’s 10 losses were by five points or less and Detroit capped off the year with four consecutive wins.
Now approaching the upcoming season with momentous momentum and following a dynamic draft performance, many are leaping on the Lions bandwagon and claim a playoff appearance is ahead in 2011, even NFL Network’s Kurt Warner.
Quick Roster Rundown: Team Strengths
Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford has dealt with numerous injuries, but it’s not from a lack of toughness, more from less-than-impressive protection. If he can stay on the field, the sky is the limit for Detroit.
The Lions possess a lethal aerial attack with star receiver Calvin Johnson, veterans Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson, rookie Titus Young out of Boise and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. A great ground game is on the horizon as well with Jahvid Best and rookie Mikel Leshoure.
The defensive front went from being one of the worst to one of the best last season with the additions of veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch and second-overall-pick Ndamukong Suh. It’s gotten even better since as first-round-steal Nick Fairley was picked up 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. While he has some character concerns, if anyone can keep him in check, it’s King Suh and Vanden Bosch.
Quick Roster Rundown: Team Needs
The offseason to-do-list is short, but crucial. Adding protection is a must up front. Nobody wants to see Stafford out of the NFL before he turns 30. A great supporting cast is terrific, but it can only take you so far when the blocking can’t get the job done.
Defensive end will be addressed if Cliff Avril doesn’t return to the team. Linebackers Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch are both rumored to be persons of interest in the on-going investigation…err, lockout, I mean.
Secondary help is also needed. Erik Coleman and Louis Delmas can’t do everything at safety. Cornerbacks Chris Houston, Alphonso Smith, Amari Spievey and Nathan Vasher might all stick around, but a veteran corner will be brought in from the open market.
Detroit kicks off the season against Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road. Week 2 is another intriguing battle against Kansas City.
The Lions take on back-to-back road tests at the Vikings and Cowboys before hosting the first matchup on Monday Night Football—against the Bears—since man first stepped on the moon.
Detroit hosts San Francisco and Atlanta at Ford Field, before heading out to Denver and enjoying a much-needed Week 9 bye.
The second half of the season begins with a hard-boiled, pivotal division clash at Chicago, cat-fight back at home against Carolina and Green Bay on short week in a classic Thanksgiving matchup.
After a week and a half rest, the Lions face the Saints in New Orleans, return home for the Vikings, battle Oakland in the Bay Area, meet the high-powered Chargers in Detroit and cap off the year with the defending Super Bowl Champs in Green Bay.
While the season schedule is no day at the beach, the order of how it unfolds is much less death-defying than the likes of the Giants and Rams. I could easily see the team approaching the bye week with a 6-2 or even a 7-1 record. But a .500 or below certainly isn’t out of the picture, either.
I’m not a 100 percent solid if it’s going to be enough to get into the postseason, but if it’s not, it’s going to be incredibly close.
Detroit Lions Season Prediction: 9-7 to 10-6
3. Dallas Cowboys
A lack of the missing ingredients in leadership, confidence and discipline and a defense that still needs improvement aren’t the only things that could hold the Dallas Cowboys back in 2011.
There’s also the schedule. Last season’s was considered one of the league’s toughest before it kicked into swing.
But looking back on the non-division schedule afterwards—Chicago, at Houston, Tennessee, at Minnesota, Jacksonville, at Green Bay, Detroit, New Orleans, at Indianapolis and at Arizona—you sort of have to wonder what went wrong.
Only four of those teams had a winning record after all. This season’s schedule is a little more daunting, at least on paper.
Week 1 is a high-stakes marquee matchup with Rex Ryan and the high-powered Jets in New York on Sunday Night Football on September 11th. Week 2 is across the country at San Francisco. The Cowboys meet the first inner-division opponent the following week at home against Washington, before hosting Detroit and enjoying a Week 5 bye.
Dallas goes toe-to-toe with New England in Week 6, returns to Arlington in a date with St. Louis and battles Michael Vick and Philadelphia Eagles before entering the month of November.
A much-needed break from the elite competition is welcomed in the next two games with Seattle and Buffalo in Cowboys Stadium, but there’s still the potential for a trap game.
The ‘Boys face the ‘Skins on the road in Week 11, before having to chow down at home against Miami on Thanksgiving. After an extended week, Arizona is met in the desert to kick off December.
The final four games are home against the Giants on Sunday Night Football, Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night, Philadelphia at home and a Week 17 clash with the G-Men again.
Roster Rundown: Highs and Lows
Although Jason Garrett is a young head coach, his team began hitting on all cylinders when he took command and may have sparked the charisma necessary to surge forward and join the elite. Tony Romo is equipped with one of the best-looking rosters the team has seen in a while.
The backfield possesses a surplus of star-studded potential with Tashard Choice, Felix Jones and rookie DeMarco Murray. The high-flying aerial attack is one of the best in the game, featuring Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Roy Williams and tight end Jason Witten. The offensive line has taken a step forward this offseason as well with the addition of first-round-pick Tyron Smith.
The defense still has a lot to prove, though.
Inside linebacker Bradie James might have the most of anyone, as a sack-less 2010 campaign has Sean Lee chomping at the bit towards the starting role.
Terence Newman, 32, needs a future replacement as well. While he’s fresh off a five-interception season, he also dealt with some injuries last year.
The safety position is also a point of weakness.
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah could be ready to move up as a starter in his second season, but it’s clear as day Gerald Sensabaugh isn’t going to cut it opposite.
The back-end of the defense could easily be viewed as a more de rigueur position to address.
In any case, the Cowboys’ 26th-ranked pass defense and 23rd total defense from a year ago won’t be enough to push the team into the playoffs, especially when it finished next-to-last in points allowed in 2010. And second-rounder Bruce Carter won’t be able fix it right away, as his knee is said to be 85 percent recovered. But a couple free agent additions could change that.
Dallas Cowboys 2011 Prediction: 10-6 to 11-5
4. Houston Texans
Just like last year, the Houston Texans open the season with Manning and the Colts in Reliant Stadium. It won’t be a picnic, but I like the Texans’ odds.
Week 2 is down in Miami, and that’s a good thing, because the Dolphins usually struggle more at home and near the beginning of the season.
Week 3 is at New Orleans and could be the team’s first loss. If it’s not, you can be almost certain the next week will be when the Steelers drop by for a visit.
Houston gets a breather in Week 5 with the Raiders at home, but the organization can’t put its feet up for very long because the Ravens are next on the schedule in Baltimore.
After somewhat of an eye-sore in the first six contests, death-defying competition goes on vacation with back-to-back division clashes on the docket at Tennessee and home to Jacksonville, before hosting Cleveland, heading to Tampa Bay to battle the Bucs and enjoying a much-needed Week 11 bye.
The Texans return to the Florida coast for a Week 12 rivalry game with the Jaguars and host the high-powered Atlanta Falcons the following week. The final four tests are at Cincinnati, home to Carolina, at Indianapolis and a Week 17 date with the Titans for the home crowd.
I’m not placing a guarantee on postseason berth like I did last year, but I will say the I believe I have a better chance of being eaten by an alligator tomorrow than the Houston Texans have of missing the playoffs in 2011. Why? Because I live really close to a swamp. Just kidding.
With an elite offense, the Texans’ biggest problem is the defense—specifically the secondary. But things have changed since the 2010 regular season ended.
For one, Houston hired Wade Phillips to coach up the defense—an instantaneous upgrade over Frank Bush. It was followed with an outstanding performance in the 2011 NFL Draft.
The 3-4 transition will pay dividends, too.
DeMeco Ryans will be ready to go and will man the middle of the defense alongside Brian Cushing. Superstar Mario Williams will play outside opposite Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin. Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody will rotate at nose tackle next to Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt.
That all won’t be enough to shape the Texans into the leader of the AFC South.
Adding a combination of a conscientious corner and a really solid safety like Jonathan Joseph and Melvin Bullitt or Ike Taylor and Dawan Landry or picking up Nnamdi Asomugha will suffice, nonetheless—especially when you add the problems from the other teams into the equation.
Peyton Manning and the Colts won’t be hitting on all cylinders early on in the 2011 regular season. The team has an arduous schedule and the rookie offensive linemen haven’t been able to experience a learning process due to the lockout. The team also possesses a mediocre secondary, lacks a punishing interior lineman and the signal-caller is coming off neck surgery.
Tennessee is also in transition and far from being a serious contender—at least this season. Jacksonville is in reverse, if anything, with quarterback controversy to start to loom in 2012 and wide receiver in extremely high-demand after the departure of Mike Sims-Walker. The defensive line also has its perils, the linebacker corps needs work and the secondary remains near the bottom of the NFL.
The Texans are also expected to acquire a defensive end to rotate with Antonio Smith and first-round-pick J.J. Watt if Amobi Okoye gets cut or traded this offseason. The team will also be on the lookout for a receiver to make the passing game that much better, especially if Jacoby Jones doesn’t return. Lance Moore, Steve Breaston and Plaxico Burress have all been mentioned.
Houston Texans 2011 Season Prediction: 10-6 to 11-5
5. San Diego Chargers
This time last year I guaranteed the Chargers would miss the postseason. Everyone said I lost my mind. Well look what happened. Why did I say the team would fall short?
Well it sure wasn’t my outlook on the Kansas City Chiefs—honestly there’s no way I could I have seen that coming.
Believe it or not, it was due to a less-than-impressive defense, an on-going trend of slow starts and a mediocre (at best) aerial attack. I knew Phillip Rivers and company would encounter some serious struggles without Vincent Jackson and stuck with the likes of Legedu Nanne, Malcolm Floyd, Antonio Gates (who later dealt with an injury during the regular season) and Ryan Matthews, who had little, if any experience in the passing game.
Well as it turns out, that wasn’t the main reason for the disappointing season.
Rather, it was a gosh-awful special teams unit. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I hit the nail on the head despite everyone telling me I would be way off, and it also doesn’t change the fact that while I’ll probably be wrong for the specific raison d’être for the outcome again, I can guarantee you San Diego will crack the playoffs in 2011.
That’s right—the door to famine has been shut tight and the door to feast has been pulled wide open. The team returns healthy, better equipped on offense and defense, and most importantly, the special teams will be better, too after a down year.
Let’s take a semi-brief, semi-in-depth look at the 2010 and upcoming 2011 schedule.
Week 1: Loss at Kansas City (21-14)
Week 2: Thrashing over Jacksonville (38-13)
Week 3: Miss-step in Seattle (27-20)
Week 4: Blowout against Arizona (41-10)
Week 5: Loss in Oakland (35-27)
Week 6: Slip-up in St. Louis (20-17)
Week 7: Defeat at the hands of New England (23-20)
Week 8: Rally against Tennessee (33-25)
Week 9: Thrilling triumph in Houston (29-23)
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: Beat up Denver (35-14)
Week 12: Spanked Manning and the Colts (36-14)
Week 13: Fall short against Oakland (28-13)
Week 14: Shut out Kansas City (31-0)
Week 15: Struck gold against the Niners (34-7)
Week 16: Meltdown at Cincy (34-20)
Week 17: Victory in Denver (33-28)
Only four of last season’s opponents made the playoffs—division rival Kansas City, Indy, New England and Seattle, who still ended up with a losing record.
The upcoming schedule for the 2011 regular season presents some challenges, more than last year’s, but it’s not too back-breaking overall.
San Diego opens the season with a ray of euphoria, against Minnesota, a team in transition. Week 2 is at New England. The Chargers host the Chiefs and Dolphins, before traveling to Denver and enjoying a Week 6 bye. Up next is Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets in New Meadowlands Stadium and Kansas City on Monday Night Football on Halloween.
Rivers & Co. open the month of November with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at home, Oakland in a Thursday night special at home, the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field and Denver at Qualcomm Stadium, before kicking off December with another Monday night game in a long-distance travel to Jacksonville.
The last four games are against Buffalo, Baltimore on Sunday night, Detroit in a Saturday afternoon contest at Ford Field and close out the season with the Raiders in the Black Hole.
Keys To Staying On Track
If the Chargers can make it out the first five games with a winning record, and hold through the rough terrain that follows with the Jets, Chiefs, Packers, Raiders and Bears in five straight weeks, this team will be tough to top in the AFC.
But I don’t know if I can see that happening without stocking up some more high-caliber players in free agency.
Phillip Rivers has loads of talent around him. However, an added flexible offensive tackle and a big-threat receiver are on the offseason to-do-list.
The Panthers’ Steve Smith has been linked to the team as a possible solution and NFL.com Senior Analyst Pat Kirwan sees the other Steve Smith from the Giants as an option as well.
Braylon Edwards might be on speed dial, too. Vincent Jackson probably won’t be around much longer, Malcolm Floyd will test the waters, and Legedue Naanne, Patrick Crayton and third-round-pick Vincent Brown shouldn’t be able to hold down the No. 2 position on a consistent basis. Linebacker Kevin Burnett needs a new deal and Eric Weddle will be snatched up early in the free agency frenzy period.
While Oakland and Kansas City could present a challenge in 2011, and probably will, the tow teams don’t have the same power as the Chargers.
Note that just because I’m guaranteeing postseason play doesn’t necessarily mean that ensures Norv Turner will be back as head coach in 2012. He could easily get the boot with failed execution to reach the Super Bowl and even from a one-and-done in the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers Record Prediction: 10-6 to 11-5
Verse Of This Piece
“The mind of a person with understanding gets knowledge; the wise person listens to learn more.” —Proverbs 18:15| 2011 NFL Free Agency Team Needs, 2011 NFL Schedule Preview, 2011 NFL Season Projections, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, NFL Season Projections 2011: Five Teams On The Rise, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams