2011 NFL Division Preview
Better or Worse in 2011: Better, but not better enough to make the playoffs, not this year
The Lions are at the top of everyone’s sleeper list this preseason. Which, of course, means they’re probably about a year or two away from being ready to make that jump into the next tier of teams.
For the Lions that jump would mean making the playoffs, which would be a meteoric rise considering they were a historically bad 0-16 just three short years ago. They’ve rebuilt the right way, making the tough choices and building the roster with a foundation of young, cost effective players.
This strategy will pay dividends, probably not this year, it just feels a little too much too soon, but eventually because this is the way that good teams are built.
If nothing else this will be an interesting year in Detroit, a year in which the team will be competitive and fun to watch.
Important Acquisitions: Jerome Harrison, Maurice Stovall, Mike Bell
Toughest Player Losses: No big losses from last year
Key Player: Matt Stafford
The “If” Factor: I’m not sure I can count high enough
2010 Offensive Ranking: 12th Passing, 23rd Rushing
This Detroit offense reminds me of a roster my buddy Jay would come up with in Madden franchise mode. He loves to take a bad team, blow it up, “go young” and build a core group of players who can not only win a few games, but can win it all.
Sounds great, and it usually works, the problem in real life is that it takes time for the young group to get good enough to start winning all those games. Eventually you get to a point where you have all the pieces in place, they just haven’t had enough time in the league to be quite ready to meet lofty expectations.
And that’s exactly where Lions offense is in 2011. The quarterback is in place, but he hasn’t shown he can get it down for a full season yet. They have the prototypical number one wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, quickly starting to fulfill his potential as one of the league’s best pass catchers. They’ve been stockpiling running backs, although the loss of their third round pick, Mikel Leshoure, to an Achilles injury puts them in a tough position as far as depth goes.
All the pieces are there for this to be a productive group, they just need a little more time. In Madden that’s no problem, it only takes a few minutes to sim to the next season, in real life you can’t fast forward, you just have to be patient and wait, experience can’t be manufactured.
With all that being said, there is a scary upside to this offense in 2011. The “if” factor is through the roof, but if everything falls into place, there’s going to be a lot of points scored in Detroit.
Important Acquisitions: Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, Nick Fairley (R)
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Kyle Vanden Bosch
The “If” Factor: One If
2010 Defensive Ranking: 16th Passing, 24th Rushing
There may be no unit in the league getting more under the radar hype than the Detroit defense. That is, if there was still such a thing as anything being under the radar in the internet age.
The hype is pretty well deserved, if not a bit pre-mature. The defensive line is quickly becoming one of the best units in the NFL, but there are a lot of ifs involved in that. We know now that we’re going to get Ndamukong Suh, which is to say he already has to be considered one of the best D lineman around. Also, don’t sleep on the steadily quiet performance of defensive end Cliff Avril, who had 8.5 sacks in 2010 and 19 total in his three years so far in the pros. But what we don’t know is what we’re going to get from Kyle Vanden Bosch and first round draft choice Nick Fairley.
Both have plenty of upside, but both come with plenty of question marks as well. I have the usual trepidation with Fairley that I have with all rookies, I’m just not going to be a believer until I see them get the job done against NFL competition.
Vanden Bosch is a guy on the other end of his career. We know what he can do against the big boys, but we just don’t know if he can still do it at the age of 32. That’s right around the time that his production will start to slip, will it be this year or can he squeeze another good season out?
Time will tell, but there are a lot of ifs involved in whether or not the defensive line can be good enough to lead what are at best mediocre linebacker and defensive back units. I say too many ifs to believe they can elevate this defense to the level they will need to play at to win 10 or more games, which it will take to make the playoffs for any NFC team outside of the NFC West, considering how tough their division games are going to be.
Better or Worse in 2011: I want to go with the same, but if you must I have to go with worse
I spent a lot of time earlier in this column talking about how the NFL is changing and that games are won with wide open passing offenses based on quarterback play and multiple receivers.
If there’s a team that’s going to prove me wrong this year it’s going to be the Vikings.
This is a team that’s built the old fashioned way. The offense is run first, then looks to make defenses pay when they load up the line of scrimmage to stop Adrian Peterson. Things like field position and time of possession are their strengths. Can this old school style of play still win games in 2011? I guess we’ll see, but I just don’t think so.
Maybe in a weaker division I could buy this being an 8 or even a 10 win team, but the NFC North is just too competitive. When you have a division with four solid teams, at least one of them has to fall to the bottom of the bunch, and in this division that team is going to be the Vikings.
Important Acquisitions: Donovan McNabb, Michael Jenkins, Christian Ponder (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Bryant McKinnie
Key Player: Percy Harvin
The “If” Factor: One if, it’s a big if though, Donovan and the passing game will be the difference between something like 2 wins or making the playoffs
2010 Offensive Ranking: 26th Passing, 10th Rushing
This offense is about as old school as you’re going to get in the NFL right now. They rely on using the run to set up the pass, which only has a chance to work because they have the only true feature back left in the league, Adrian Peterson. He’s cut from a cloth that you just don’t see anymore. He’s big and fast at the same time, he can run through you or around depending on his mood, and most importantly he can get yards without relying on draws or misdirection type plays. No, Peterson is a throwback to the time when you just lined up your guys against my guys and we saw who won.
This was the way to win, say about 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately for the Vikings this is 2011 and you just can’t score enough points with that philosophy to beat the better teams in the league, a couple of which just happen to be in their own division.
Donovan McNabb is an upgrade from any quarterback they’ve had since Brett Favre stopped taking steroids (Yup, I went there, I just don’t buy a 40 year old quarterback who had such a bad year in New York miraculously coming back better than ever in Minnesota without a little chemical help, but that’s a story for another day). He’ll benefit from better pass protection than he had in Washington as well as throwing against defenses keying on the running game. But just like Farve, quarterbacks at McNabb’s age don’t get better, they can only stay as good as the year before, and most of the time they go downhill fast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota make the move to rookie Christian Ponder in the second half of the season.
This offense would have been coming into the season as one of the best units in the league, if this were 1974. But it’s not, it’s 2011, and the things they do well are just too easy for defensive coordinators to stop. That is, unless Peterson goes into Beast Mode for the entire season and McNabb has another gear we just don’t know about yet (or he got a better pharmacist in the offseason). AP is good enough to carry them to a few wins, but they just won’t be able to score enough points to beat the teams with better offenses like Green Bay.
Important Acquisitions: Remi Ayodele
Toughest Player Losses: Pat Williams
Key Player: Chad Greenway
The “If” Factor: I can’t think of one good if here, what you see is what you get
2010 Defensive Ranking: 10th Passing, 9th Rushing
If there’s a way that this Minnesota team is going to see themselves end up with more wins than you can count on one hand, it’s going to be because their defense takes a step up and does their best impression of the ’85 Bears.
We’ll never see another defense dominate the league the way that Chicago did that year. It’s now officially an offensive league, and defenses more and more are just being asked to be good enough to slow down the point scoring machines they’re facing week in and week out, to just give their offenses a chance to win the game.
Minnesota’s defense squad did that in 2010, in fact they were one of the best all around defensive teams in the NFL last season. They come back with much the same roster as they had last year, so we can excpect the same high level of play. They have solid players on all levels of the defense, very few liabilities, and even a couple of players capable of being true game changers in Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield. Their only major loss was breaking up the Williams boys in the middle of the D line, but they brought in a capable replacement in Remi Ayodele, an ex-Saint who lined up against this squad when they lost the NFC Championship game two years ago.