For National Football Authority, we make some outlandish predictions about NFL division winners and playoff teams, MVPs and rookies of the year, and ultimately the Super Bowl. (Good luck, Ravens and Packers fans.) You can read my predictions – as well as those of the rest of NFAuthority staff – here.
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Now that the lockout is almost over, it’s time to start previewing the upcoming season. And in our first post, we want to take a macro look at the league and identify the one player who will leap into the public consciousness this year. Our pick? Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman.
Just two years ago, Freeman was viewed as a project pick in the first round. The Buccaneers seemingly liked him more than any other NFL team, and so they picked him higher (17th overall) than most other teams would have. And as a rookie, Freeman looked a bit like a project, waiting till midseason to take over the starter role. He won his first game as a starter (an upset over the Dolphins), then lost five straight before two late-season wins over the Seahawks and Saints. In his 10 games, he completed just 54.5 percent of his passes and had 18 interceptions to 10 TD passes.
But last season, Freeman took over the Bucs as his own with a star-making season. He led the surprising Bucs to a 10-6 record and had 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions – a remarkable ratio for any player and especially for a starter in his first full season. He threw for 3,451 yards and ran for 368, showing remarkable speed given his massive 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame. Even more impressively, Freeman put up those massive numbers not with a veteran crew around him but with a baby-faced crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were all rookies.
Now the Baby Bucs are primed to mature together. And as they do, Freeman will begin to grow in stature as an NFL star. On-field production is one reason – Freeman will be a major fantasy football factor this year, after being an afterthought entering last season. That alone will raise his profile. But there are other reasons Freeman will break through in the public consciousness:
*Personality – What the Bucs figured out – or made a correct guess about – is that Freeman has the personality required to be a franchise quarterback. He is personable but also able to challenge his teammates to perform, which is essential for a top quarterback. That’s especially important in Tampa, because both Blount and Williams had troubled tenures in college. The Bucs can’t afford them to slip up (as CB Aqib Talib and S Tanard Jackson have). But if Freeman can help them stay in line, the Bucs will have a talented group around their quarterback.
*QB vaccuum – With Brett Favre (hopefully) done for good, Donovan McNabb probably done as an NFL starter, and Carson Palmer possibly sitting out the season, there’s space for quarterbacks to emerge as stars. And our money is on Freeman to do this – even more than guys like Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. If Freeman has another massive season, he’ll break through and become at least a Philip Rivers-level star. A strong playoff push would take him even further up the Q-rating totem pole.
*Style of play – Freeman’s ability to run as well as pass makes him a more exciting player than a fellow young QB like Ryan. Freeman will make big plays on his own as well as by finding teammates, and those highlight type of plays will add to his profile.
Now is Freeman’s time. We hope he likes the spotlight, because it’s going to be focused on him this season and for many to come.
Who do you think will be the NFL’s breakout superstar of 2011? Leave a comment below.
One of the things you’ll see from time to time here at Football Relativity is our outlandish prediction. We’ll analyze things that seem far outside of the realm of possibility and try to decide if they’ll happen.
In this post, we’re going to look at two teams leading the West divisions – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-1 Seattle Seahawks. The thing these teams have in common, besides first-place standings, is massive home-field advantages. But can these home-field advantages lead these teams to division titles? Let’s look at the facts and then try to predict the future for these teams this season – even if that prediction ends up being outlandish.
The Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start thanks to home wins over the Chargers and 49ers, along with a road win at Cleveland. Both home wins figured to be tough, at least when looking at the schedule before the season, so the Chiefs’ record is truly a surprise. While the Chargers and 49ers are slipping enough that we don’t want to read too much into these wins, the Chiefs have a lot more weapons than they did last year. Last season, the Chiefs claimed Chris Chambers off waivers from San Diego in a desperate attempt to add explosiveness to their offense. This year, that explosiveness is there in spades. Rookie slot receiver Dexter McCluster and TE Tony Moeaki have both proven to be dangerous targets (along with holdover Dwayne Bowe), and Thomas Jones adds some solid aspects to the running game while Jamaal Charles remains a threat to break a big run at any time. Those targets have helped Matt Cassel overcome a slow start. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense (under new coordinator Charlie Weis) is a legitimate NFL attack. And on defense, the addition of rookie DBs Eric Berry and Javier Arenas, along with bounceback efforts from former first-round disappointments DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LB Derrick Johnson, have made the Chiefs scarier to face. Tamba Hali, one of the few Chiefs’ first-rounders who had performed OK in previous years, had three sacks last week, and Brandon Flowers continues to be a pretty good cornerback. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has pulled the right strings and made the most of the talent available, which is a good sign.
But will it last? Road games at Indianapolis and Houston after this week’s bye will probably drop the Chiefs to 3-2. But K.C. then has home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, along with a winnable road games at Oakland and Denver, mean that winning six or seven of the first nine games is possible. If the Chiefs do that, steal another road game at St. Louis later in the season, and hold serve in five of their six remaining home games, they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6. That’ll be good enough to win the AFC West – to the point that we’ll now make the outlandish prediction that the Chiefs will in fact win their division.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 after a convincing home win against San Francisco and hard-fought win over San Diego this week. This week’s seven-point win is due to Leon Washington’s two kickoff-return touchdowns, which is something the ‘Hawks can’t expect to do every week. Seattle’s offense has been OK, as Matt Hasselbeck has been healthy (which will be easier going forward now that OLT Russell Okung is playing), and TE John Carlson has emerged as a dependable target. Seattle needs receivers to emerge, whether it be reclamation project Mike Williams, promising rookie Golden Tate, or someone else. They also need a run game that produces more. On defense, offseason additions Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons have provided some pass-rush punch, and rookie S Earl Thomas has two interceptions already. The Seahawks have added to their talent base this offseason, although they’re not as far along as the Chiefs are. Still, Pete Carroll has undoubtedly put of jolt of energy into this franchise and the players currently on the roster.
So where does that leave the Seahawks in terms of their division? Seattle is tied with Arizona with a 2-1 record, so the two games between the teams could mean a lot. Arizona is more talented than the Seahawks, but Seattle has more consistent QB play. For Seattle’s playoff hopes, this week’s trip to St. Louis is key, because it’s a winnable road game that can help the “Hawks get to nine wins. Trips to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and San Francisco could also prove fruitful, and if Seattle can win a couple of those and ride home-field advantage to wins against opponents they should beat, big things are possible in Seattle. They’ll likely be favored in every remaining game at home except for perhaps Atlanta’s visit.
But while the schedule looks good, our hunch is that the Seahawks’ lack of depth and premium players will cost them as the season goes along, and they’ll top out at eight wins. Maybe that’s enough to win a flagging NFC West, but our outlandish prediction still leaves Seattle out of the postseason picture.
Fans across the NFL are excited about the free-agent season that begins this weekend, although it will be far different than what we as fans have seen over the past 20 years of free agency. Because there will be no new agreement between NFL owners and players before Friday, March 5 begins a new league year that is uncapped instead of capped.
At first glimpse, this appears to be a boon to NFL fans. No longer will their favorite teams have to limit themselves in free agency. Everyone on the market seemingly becomes an option. And although fewer players will hit the market (players must have 6 years of service instead of 4 to become unrestricted free agents), the fact that a team can spend its way to anyone and everyone on their wish list makes fans salivate.
But what fans don’t realize is that a much bigger cap weighs on teams in this uncapped year, and that cap is cash. And we predict (outlandishly, perhaps) that most teams won’t be enthuisastic to spend their cash reserves with a potential labor stoppage looming larger and larger in 2011.
The uncapped year not only strips the maximum salary expenditure off the books for NFL teams; it pulls the minimums off as well. And many teams are looking to streamline their budgets on player salary this year so that they have the cash holdings to survive a labor stoppage that could cost games in 2011.
For example, the Carolina Panthers chose not to franchise DE Julius Peppers, in the process saving a $20 million expenditure both in terms of the salary cap and more importantly in terms of cash. And it’s hard to see the Panthers dropping that $20 million on a replacement for Peppers (like a Kyle Vanden Bosch) and maybe another player or two. Instead, banking half of that money for a rainy day – in a league with labor storm clouds on the horizon – is a much more appealing strategy to many teams.
Fans don’t like to hear that owners won’t be spending the money from their cash cow teams. Sorry, fans, but it’s time for all of us to unplug our ears and realize just how lethargic this free agent market could be. There is a cap in place for 2010 – it’s just located in the accountant’s office instead of the league office.
Last offseason, we pondered the question of whither Julius Peppers (not once but twice), and then we reflected once Peppers decided to play the season in Carolina for the $18-million plus franchise tag. Now, Peppers is on the precipe of the open market again, and we once again think we know how this whole situation should play out.
If the Panthers want to keep Peppers for another year, it’ll cost 20 percent more than it did in ’09. That $20-million-plus outlay is strong, even in an uncapped year. And since Peppers continues to seem disinclined to sign a long-time deal in Carolina, it seems as though the Panthers’ only choices are the franchise tag or letting Peppers go. And letting him go is what the Panthers should and will do.
Peppers had 10.5 sacks last year, which is solid but not spectacular enough to justify the league-topping salary. And that’s pretty much his average season, since he has 81 career sacks in eight years. He’s an immense talent who is a very good but not great player. Even more, Peppers doesn’t want to be a franchise standard. He’s felt the pressure of being a North Carolina kid who went to North Carolina and then played his career at home, and he’s ready to leave the Carolinas for greener pastures somewhere else.
All those reasons are fine, but if the Panthers didn’t have other options on the free agent market, letting Peppers go would be unadvisable. But this year, even with the market limited by the potential uncapped year, there are pass rushers available. Someone like Aaron Kampman of Green Bay or Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee or Richard Seymour of Oakland or even Adewale Ogunleye of Chicago could approach 10 sacks at a far lesser cost than what Peppers would cost in Carolina. And while Seymour and perhaps Vanden Bosch will get tagged, a couple of those guys will break free. And the Panthers have always shown the willingness to make quick, aggressive strikes in free agency – the kind of approach that could guarantee the arrival of someone like Kampman.
This move would save the Panthers $10 million or more this year, and it could help them hold onto Tyler Brayton, a solid if unspectacular run-stuffer who has started across from Peppers the last couple of years.
So that’s what the Panthers should do, and that’s what we expect they will do. Panthers fans, say goodbye to Peppers – and hope that a Vanden Bosch or a Kampman is on his way to Charlotte ASAP.
The Carolina Panthers have a quarterback crisis on their hands. After a six-turnover meltdown against the Cardinals in the playoffs last year, Jake Delhomme had a deja vu performance with four interceptions and a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in Week One against the Eagles. Delhomme apparently can’t handle pressure anymore, and teams that have seen that are sure to pin their ears back and hit Delhomme as often as possible. Delhomme simply doesn’t have enough confidence, enough arm, or both to make teams pay now, and his disturbing tendency to frequently turn the ball over in the face of the rush. Even though he signed a big new deal in the offseason, his time in Carolina should be done.
But the Panthers are sticking with Delhomme, at least for this week. They did add A.J. Feeley, the former Eagle, as a veteran backup with starting experience to replace backup Josh McCown, who was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season. But can Feeley supplant Delhomme? Which will happen first – will Delhomme win a game or be benched for good?
When I was watching the Panthers/Eagles game on Sunday, I kept having flashbacks to 2003. That year, Rodney Peete, who had a solid season the year before the Panthers, entered the season as the starting quarterback in Carolina, beating out Delhomme, a free agent who had a terrible camp. But in the home opener against Jacksonville, Peete struggled, and head coach John Fox went to Delhomme, who led an improbable comeback and threw the game-winning touchdown to Ricky Proehl in the game’s waning seconds.
Throughout the game Sunday, I kept waiting for Fox to make a similar move. Like Peete, Delhomme has a good history in Carolina. But like Peete, Delhomme is done. Still, Fox didn’t pull Delhomme Sunday until the game was out of reach. And that was a mistake.
The outlandish prediction? Delhomme will have to be benched before he wins a game. The next two games for Carolina – at Atlanta and then at Dallas – provide hostile environments and enough pass-rush pressure to keep Delhomme’s meltdown at Code Red levels. And eventually, John Fox will have to turn to Feeley, who might have seen what was coming enough to turn down the Eagles’ offer to be a backup in the short term for the chance to become a starter in Carolina in the longer term.
Jake Delhomme will be benched before he leads the Panthers to another win. Panther fans just have to hope that the benching comes sooner rather than later.