By Peter Schrager/@PSchrags
Courtesy of FOXSports.com
To get you fully prepared for the unofficial start of the 2012 NFL season, we’re ranking every team from worst to first in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps.
Every day, we’ll be previewing two teams, one from each conference, analyzing them from top to bottom and giving you all you need to know to be an informed fan. What’s the major storyline heading into camp?
What’s the key training camp battle to watch? Who’s the young guy to watch? Is there any hope?
Today’s two teams: The Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles.
No. 10: Denver Broncos
Training Camp Site: Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre, Englewood, Colorado
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 12-1
What I Like About You: There’s an elite NFL starting quarterback in town now. And a darn good defense. Top to bottom, the Broncos have the most talented roster in the AFC West.
What I Don’t Like About You: Peyton Manning hasn’t been hit in a football game in eighteen months and there are questions on the offensive line, in the backfield and the safety spots.
The Burning Question: Will Peyton be Peyton? The doctors have cleared him, he’s looked wonderful in minicamp, and all the Broncos receivers are floating on air this summer (Note: I was with Demaryius Thomas last week and couldn’t wipe the smile off his face). But Manning hasn’t been in a real game since the 2010 season. He hasn’t played with this offensive line or these receivers. He hasn’t been sacked yet. Is Manning going to be the $90 million man the Broncos franchise expects him to be? Or will he be a shell of his former self? We’ll find out awfully fast—Denver opens with Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston, three punishing defenses.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: free, strong safety: Rahim Moore vs. Quinton Carter vs. Mike Adams: There are two spots to fill here, which could cause some concern in Denver this summer. Adams was a quiet free agent pickup who may end up starting at one of the spots on opening day. Both Carter and Moore were 2011 draft picks that had their moments, but also showed glimpses of inconsistency. With no more Brian Dawkins setting the tone, it means that everyone in the defensive backfield will be expected to step things up another notch.
The New Veteran in Town: Jacob Tamme, tight end: Everyone expected a mass exodus of former Colts to join Manning in Denver, but that wasn’t the case. Dallas Clark went to Tampa, Jeff Saturday went to Green Bay, Pierre Garcon went to Washington, Joseph Addai went to New England and Reggie Wayne stayed put in Indy. The one guy who did get aboard the Manning Express was Tamme, the young tight end who had great success with Manning in the team’s 2010 campaign.
The Young Gun To Watch: Eric Decker, wide receiver: There are no two happier men in the state of Colorado this month than Decker and teammate Demaryius Thomas. Though both players have been respectful in comments about their time with Tebow, they’re both set for giant statistical bumps in receiving categories, across the board. Since his rookie season, Manning has never failed to have at least one Pro Bowl receiver on his team. Decker had 50 receptions a year ago — his first healthy season as a pro — and could near the century mark this season. He’s got good hands, solid speed and incredible toughness across the middle.
Schrager Prediction: This team will go as far as Manning takes it, and anything short of the AFC Championship Game has to be viewed as a failure. Tebow got these guys to the divisional round a year ago. By signing Manning for $90 million, the Broncos essentially pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and said they were all in. The pressure’s on. I think they edge out the Chargers in the AFC West, but fall to either the Steelers, Ravens, Texans or Patriots in the playoffs.
Final Prediction: First place, AFC West
NO. 9. Philadelphia Eagles
Training Camp site: Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.
Training Camp Start Date: July 25 Preseason
BetOnline.com Super Bowl Odds: 10-1
What I Like About You: The Eagles finished the 2011 season incredibly strong, bring just about everyone back and are lying fairly low, under the radar this off-season.
What I Don’t Like About You: An inconsistent offensive line without its best player (Jason Peters) for the season, depth at wide receiver and the inevitable Michael Vick injury to-be-named-later.
Burning Question: Is this the year we actually see “The Dream Team?” The much-publicized 2011 “Dream Team” Eagles got off to an even more highly publicized rocky start and found themselves staring at an all but definite losing season at the start of December. And then they went on a tear, winning their final four games, including backbreaking losses for the Jets and Cowboys. Now, all the talk about the NFC East seems to be centered around the Super Bowl champion Giants, the revamped Dallas Cowboys and the RG3-led Redskins. All the while, the Eagles bring just about everyone from last year’s squad back, have had a full off-season to prepare and aren’t saying a word.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: strong safety: Kurt Coleman vs. Jaiquawn Jarrett vs. O.J. Atogwe: The Eagles have one of the league’s best young free safeties in Nate Allen. His counterpart at the strong safety position is currently anybody’s guess. Coleman’s a fine player and got a lot of action last year, but is by no means a shoe-in for the starting gig. Jarrett was a second round pick in 2011, but he hasn’t played like one — either in actual game action or practice. The wildcard is the veteran, Atogwe, a guy they picked up off the scrap heap last month. He’s been around the block, but still might have some good football left in him. Watching tape, he was actually pretty darn good on Washington last season.
New Veteran in Town: Demetress Bell, offensive tackle: The Eagles offensive line was terrible through the first few weeks of the season, only to pick it up and finish strong in 2011’s second half. Jason Peters played at an All-Pro level throughout. Alas, Peters injured his Achilles, meaning he’s out for the 2012 campaign. Insert Bell, a guy who had a nice, albeit quiet, career in Buffalo. He’ll start at left tackle and will be expected to pick up Howard Mudd’s blocking scheme right away.
The Young Gun to Watch: Mychal Kendricks, outside linebacker: The Eagles linebackers were awful last year. This offseason, the team focused on upgrading the position, trading for DeMeco Ryans to man the middle and drafting the versatile Kendricks early in the second round of April’s draft. Kendricks could be a star. A 6-foot, 240-pound tackling machine, he played all over the field for Cal in 2011, ending up as the Pac 12 conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Don’t be shocked if he’s starting opening weekend.
Schrager Prediction: This is a young, motivated and incredibly talented NFL team. Across the board — whether it’s Trent Cole and Jason Babin, or Nnamdi Asomugha and DeSean Jackson — there are Pro Bowl-level players at key positions. It took a while for Philly to get going last year, but once that happened, the Eagles were one of the top teams in all of football down the stretch. I think they pick up where they left off last December and will be real Super Bowl contenders in 2012.
Final Prediction: Second place, NFC East