New-look NFL teams

New-look NFL teams

Season of change: New-look NFL teams
By BRYAN LEONARD

NFL Preseason is here. Time for players, coaches and teams to turn over a new leaf. General managers have hired some new coaches, while coaches have added some offensive and defensive assistants to try and improve things. Here’s a look at some changes to look for with some teams in preseason.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore is off a train wreck season where everything went wrong. It was an unhappy team with injuries and they fired coach Brian Billick. However, don’t forget this team was 13-3 two years ago with a dominant defense, talented enough to be a Super Bowl contender. Even last season they finished 6th in total defense and dominated the Patriots’ record setting offense in a wild Monday night game.

The new coach is John Harbaugh, the former Eagles’ secondary coach. Harbaugh embodies the qualities the Ravens wanted, as he passionate about the game, having grown up in a football family where his father was a longtime coach and his brother Jim played quarterback at Michigan and the NFL. He’s a good communicator and says he will treat Pro Bowl players the same as rookies.

Who wouldn’t want a defensive unit with players like defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, MLB Ray Lewis, DE Terrell Suggs and LB Bart Scott? New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron comes in after getting fired after one season as Miami's coach. Cameron likes a balanced attack and ran the 2006 Chargers' offense. Don’t be surprised if QB Kyle Boller is bypassed at some point for former Heisman Trophy winner QB Troy Smith or 6-foot-6 rookie QB Joe Flacco (Delaware), taken with the No. 18 overall pick.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Handicappers I spoke with a year ago suggested the Jaguars would be worth a look at over the total in 2007 because Jack Del Rio brought in pass-happy offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Were they ever! The Jags went 13-4 over the total, ranking No. 7 on offense. For this season Jacksonville dished out $30 million for wide receiver Jerry Porter, the former Raider, who is being penciled in as the No. 1 receiver.

But the defense lost longtime nose tackle Marcus Stroud, who went to Buffalo. Jacksonville also has a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, who was with the Redskins last fall under Joe Gibbs. Pay close attention in preseason to Jacksonville’s new defensive schemes, plus how WR Porter fits in, as this team still needs a No. 1 wideout.

Detroit Lions

So is this the year GM Matt Millen finally gets fired? Millen has no idea what he’s doing. Since Millen became team president in 2001, the Lions are 31-81 (.277). In the 10 seasons before Millen was hired, the Lions were 82-78 (.513), and they made the playoffs six times. Rod Marinelli begins his third year as head coach, but he loses two decent assistants in defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson gone along with offense coordinator Mike Martz.

They have no running game, QB Jon Kitna (18 TDs, 20 INTs) will turn 36 in September and new defensive coordinator Joe Barry inherits an injury-prone defense and a terrible secondary. They lost DT Shaun Rogers (7 sacks), who was overweight and out of shape. They’ve been short on depth for years under Millen and that likely will be a problem again. If you can predict any team to have a train wreck season, this is it. By the way, the Lions are 4-19 SU, 8-15 ATS their last 23 road games.

NFL Preseason is here. Time for players, coaches and teams to turn over a new leaf. General managers have hired some new coaches, while coaches have added some offensive and defensive assistants to try and improve things. Here’s a look at some more changes to look for with some teams in preseason.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns spent the last few years developing an offense, culminating in two first round picks a year ago in Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas (the No. 2 pick in the draft) and Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn. But what about the defense? It’s true the defense has been awful, but there are some new looks for 2008. The Browns have made a change in defensive coordinators from Todd Grantham to Mel Tucker. Tucker spent four years at Ohio State as DB-coach/co-defensive coordinator.

The Browns ranked 30th in total defense and were 27th in stopping the run. It’s clear by their offseason moves they want to stop the run. Defensive lineman Shaun Rogers comes over from the Lions. Reports are that Rogers looks a lot better than he did in his last year in Detroit. The Browns added two expensive parts to their defensive line in Rogers and Corey Williams, joining Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith.

Carolina Panthers

Coach Jon Fox loves the ground game, but Carolina has made some interesting changes the last two years. A year ago Fox fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning and brought in Jeff Davidson to run the offense. Davidson brought in zone-blocking schemes to the Panther offense, a dramatic change for a system that's been built around a power-running style.

In zone-blocking, offensive linemen are responsible for blocking any defender who appears in their zone, instead of focusing on one defender. The results were mixed, finishing 14th in the NFL in rushing. The passing game was a mess because of a slew of QB injuries.

RBs DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster were productive at times, but that didn’t stop Carolina from drafting Oregon RB Jonathon Stewart with the 13th overall pick and Utah tackle Jeff Otah with the No. 19 pick to bolster the line. If Otah starts at right tackle, Jordan Gross will move from right to left tackle and Travelle Wharton from left tackle to left guard. Ryan Kalil is the new starter at center. Right guard will be up for grabs, probably among free-agent signees Toniu Fonoti, Keydrick Vincent and Milford Brown. This looks like an improved balanced offense, with WR Steve Smith and the healthy return of QB Jake Delhomme.

Chicago Bears

From NFC Champs to 7-9 last season, will the real Bear stand up? The guess here is that the Bears are going in the wrong direction. They led WRs Bernard Berrian and Mushan Muhammed leave, but kept erratic Rex Grossman. That leaves WRs Marty Booker, Rashied Davis, Brandon Lloyd and rookie Earl Bennett (Vanderbilt). What on earth are they doing?

A year ago they gave away one of their top offensive players, RB Thomas Jones, to the Jets for basically nothing. They gambled that RB Cedric Benson (3.4 yards per carry) was ready to handle the load, but were mistaken as Chicago was 30th in rushing the football. So, Chicago football fans, but I’m not sure what the Bears are doing.

NFL Preseason is approaching. Time for players, coaches and teams to turn over a new leaf. General managers have hired some new coaches, while coaches have added some offensive and defensive assistants to try and improve things. Here’s a look at some more changes to look for with some teams in preseason.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans was in the NFC Championship game two years ago, then the bottom fell out last season in a 7-9 campaign. The strengths of this team are obvious: Offense. And the offense is great, ranking No. 1 and No. 4 in total offense the last two years. QB Drew Brees is terrific and in his prime, and there are all kinds of weapons with RBs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, plus WRs Devery Henderson and Marques Colston. Brees broke the league record for completions in a season with 440 last year.

The key is McAllister, who suffered a season-ending injury and wrecked the offensive balance. He is the power running back, while Bush is a better weapon out of the backfield as a receiver, like Marshall Faulk used to be with the Rams. But with McAllister down, Bush had to run more, which he is not strong at it (he’s more speed and finesse than power).

The other key is a terrible defense. They moved up in the draft to take USC nose tackle Sedrick Ellis with the 7th overall pick, along with DT DeMario Pressley from NC State (5th round). They hope cornerback Mike McKenzie, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the second-to-last game, will be healthy for the first day of training camp. There are plenty of talented pieces and a return to a winning season is more likely than not, providing McAllister is 100%.

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas was already super-talented, but got even better this offseason. The offense was No. 3 in the NFL last season and is loaded again. The defense has a lot of young talent. Who wouldn’t want LB Demarcus Ware, DE Marcus Spears, LB Bobby Carpenter and Greg Ellis? They add LB Zack Thomas as a veteran role player, plus talented/troubled cornerback Pacman Jones. They added depth with two first round draft picks in rookie CB Mike Jenkins (25th pick) and RB Felix Jones (Arkansas).

Head Coach Wade Phillips was blitz-happy with the Chargers in 2006 and they didn’t really start blitzing a lot until the second half of 2007. They likely will open the season as an aggressive defensive team and have clearly upgraded the secondary. Another first-round playoff exit and the wolves will really be at Phillips’ door with all this talent.

Arizona Cardinals

You might say Arizona is an under the radar team. Despite a ton of injuries at quarterback last season, the Cardinals were 8-8 under first-year Coach Ken Whisenhunt. He was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2006 and loves a balanced offense. Whisenhunt is handing off most of the offensive play-calling duties for the upcoming season to coordinator Todd Haley, fulfilling a promise Whisenhunt made when he took the job a year ago. Haley assumed a bigger role in play-calling as last season progressed.

A year ago the new coach brought in Russ Grimm to coach the offensive line, who did a marvelous job building the Steelers line. They took Penn State OT Levi Jones in the first round and signed two offensive linemen, Mike Gandy and Al Johnson, to provide depth. Perhaps the Cardinals may look like the Steelers out West! They upgraded the defense this offseason with CB Dominick Rodgers-Cromartie (Tennessee State) with the 16th overall pick and tall DE Calais Campbell (Miami) in the second round, a potentially strong pass rusher. By the way, the Cardinals are 31-17 over the total the last three seasons. They appear to be heading in the right direction under Wisenhunt.

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