Is Terrell Owens the missing piece for Cincinnati's Super Bowl dreams?
Last night while tuning in to the Cowboys-Bengals pre-season game in Canton, it hit me, and it hit me hard. Football season is actually upon us (FINALLY!). Suffice to say, it got me extremely excited and I knew it was time for me to unveil my top 10 S.B. contenders for the 2010-11 season. This was an extremely tough list to come up with because the beginning of the season is always, more or less, a crap-shoot. I mean sure, you have your constants (Indianapolis, first and foremost), but then there is always a team or two that gets fans wondering should they really be there? With that in mind, I bring you Smurfed’s list of top 10 Super Bowl contenders:
10.) New England Patriots
Strength of Schedule: 6th toughest
Where they improved the most: Tight end
Still needs improvement: pass-rush
Rookie looking to make an impact: Brandon Spikes (2nd round)
Season Outlook: I feel like New England still has another good run in them this year. The AFC East isn’t going to be dominated by any one team this year and the Patriots still have Tom Brady running the show. Through the draft, New England did very well in drafting the likes of Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, and the tight end combo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Much of the Patriots’ hopes rest on the shoulders of All-World slot receiver Wes Welker. Will he be able to come back and perform at 100%? Only time will tell, but up to now, all signs point to him being able to contribute starting Week 1. I feel like the Pats running game is a bit under-rated. I like Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney toting the rock. Throw in Benjarvis Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, and you’ve got 5 guys that can hold it down in the backfield…Defensively, the Pats HAVE to do a better job of rushing the passer. If they can’t get consistency in this area, they are in trouble. The secondary looks to be just fine with Bodden, Butler, Meriweather and Chung locked in as starters. If New England can play better defensively by generating more pressure on the quarterback, and can continue to have success through the air as they have in the past, than they have a shot to reach the Super Bowl.
9.) Atlanta Falcons
Strength of Schedule: 20th toughest
Where they improved the most: The front 7 (Witherspoon, Peters additions)
Still needs improvement: secondary play/depth
Rookie looking to make an impact: Sean Witherspoon (1st round)
Season Outlook: I really loved the additions of Sean Witherspoon and Corey Peters to this football team through the draft. Both should come in and see immediate playing time. That should help to re-juvinate a pass-rush that was horrific last year (only 28 sacks). The secondary is still a huge question mark for me. Yes, they did go out and get Dunta Robinson, but it seems to get thin in a hurry after that. No offense to a guy like Brian Williams, but should he really be starting? Cornerback depth could be a real concern for the Falcons this year. I do think Thomas DeCoud is a good player at free safety…I expect to see Matt Ryan become an even better quarterback this year. His sophomore year was a bit of a downer to some, but his third year in the league should be a successful one, especially with a completely healthy Michael Turner in the backfield and the already established 1-2 receiving combo of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. This team is dangerous and should not be taken lightly. Contender? You betcha.
8.) Cincinnati Bengals
Strength of Schedule: 4th toughest
Where they improved the most: receiving corps
Still needs improvement: consistent quarterback play
Rookie looking to make an impact: Jermaine Gresham (1st round)
Season Outlook: Must I remind everyone that they need to get their popcorn ready? The addition of Terrell Owens should be, at the very least, a colorful one. It’s no secret that the guy can still play, but with already one ultra-ego (see: Ochocinco, Chad), can the Bengals afford to have another one by his side? The Cincinnati front office sure thinks so. I must admit, on paper, this team looks absolutely loaded on the offensive side of the ball. Carson Palmer should not be short on weapons to choose from with the aforementioned Owens and Ochocinco, first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham, stud third-round pick Jordan Shipley, and Cedric Benson in the backfield. If Palmer doesn’t toss at least 20 TD’s this year, than something is wrong (he threw 21 last year, but only had 3,094 passing yards). Carson Palmer’s consistency needs to be better for this team to take that ‘next step’. Too many times last year, he looked almost lost. That can’t happen for this team to have a legitimate shot at reaching the Super Bowl…On the defensive side of the ball, I love the cornerback combo of Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, as it might be the best combo in the league. I think both are perennial playmakers and have a knack for going and getting the football. Both their pass-defense and rush-defense were top-10 statistically in the league last year. They can be counted on to be a team that has a strong chance to be playing in Dallas come Super Bowl time.
7.) Baltimore Ravens
Strength of Schedule: 12th toughest
Where they improved the most: receiving corps
Still needs improvement: cornerback depth
Rookie looking to make an impact: Dennis Pitta (4th round)
Season Outlook: Baltimore finally went out and got the number 1 receiver it has so desperately needed in Anquan Boldin. A huge get for the Ravens, he should step in and contribute in a gigantic way (I’m thinking 75-80 catches for 1100-1200 yards and 10+ TD’s). Not only that, but they will be getting another year out of ultra-consistent Derrick Mason and have Donte Stallworth and Mark Clayton vying for the number 3 spot. If they can get anything out of Todd Heap, then the passing game looks to have grown for the Ravens by leaps-and-bounds. Also, remember the name Dennis Pitta. I think he could emerge as a pass-catcher for this team some point during the season. Of course the running game is going to be brilliant with Ray Rice as the main guy. Baltimore truly seems to possibly have an offense that can match their defense…The front 7 of Baltimore’s is stout as usual. Ray Lewis continues to hold down the middle and the likes of Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Cory Redding should wreak havoc on the D-line. The big problem here is cornerback depth. They have none. Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris have already been placed on IR, and Fabian Washington and LaDarius Webb are both coming off of torn ACL’s. Chris Carr seemed to be the only guy who wasn’t hurt, but that all changed when he suffered a hamstring injury on Saturday (not yet known if it is serious, although early indications are that it is not). The bottom-line is that much of the Ravens success hinges on what they get out of their cornerbacks. If they can get some, hell any, consistency from them, than this team could be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
6.) New York Jets
Strength of Schedule: T-16th toughest
Where they improved the most: cornerback
Still needs improvement: safety
Rookie looking to make an impact: Vladimir Ducasse (2nd round)
Season Outlook: It’s almost ironic that the Jets most improved position and least improved position both reside in the secondary. At cornerback, the Jets are filthy, and I do mean filthy. I’m obviously speculating that Darrelle Revis will end his holdout and be with the team come Week 1, but the addition of Antonio Cromartie and first-round draft pick Kyle Wilson should form a trio that is unrivaled in this league right now. The safety position for the Jets, however, isn’t as established. A Brodney Pool-Jim Leonhard safety tandem doesn’t exactly strike fear in my heart, although it could be worse. I feel like depth could be a major issue here as well, with the likes of James Ihedigbo and Eric Smith being the two back-ups. Perhaps I’m blowing this a bit out of proportion, but I believe they should have addressed the depth issue via the draft. Now, they go into the season with the safety position as a question mark. Maybe Darrelle Revis can just play every position in the secondary by himself…The offense looks to be a highly-powered machine. Mark Sanchez, in his 2nd year, should be much better and Shonn Greene is now handed the starting tailback position. Throw in LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight, and that should ease some of the blow that Thomas Jones departure created (Leon Washington will be missed as well). The receiving corps is deadly. A Santonio Holmes-Braylon Edwards-Jerricho Cotchery-Laveranues Coles starting 4 is a fearsome foursome and should be one of the better corps in the league. Throw in a pass-catching tight end in Dustin Keller, who should have an even bigger role this year, and Mark Sanchez should have no problems eclipsing the 20 touchdown plateau. This team looks to be for real and could be well on it’s way to being the “top dog” in the AFC.
5.) Green Bay Packers
Strength of Schedule: T-22nd toughest
Where they improved the most: offensive line
Still needs improvement: pass-rush
Rookie looking to make an impact: Morgan Burnett (3rd round)
Season Outlook: The offensive-line improved the most, if anything, because it could not have been any worse after last year. Re-signing Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton were major priorities this off-season, but the Pack surely were not expecting Bryan Bulaga to fall in their laps at pick #23. He should be brought in slowly with a much larger role ahead of him next year. Still yet, a coup landing Bulaga so late in the first round. Aaron Rodgers has firmly established himself as a top-5 quarterback in this league and should only get better this year. The receiving corps might be the deepest in football (every football fan needs to get ready for the emergence of Jermichael Finley. Believe me, boys and girls, it’s coming) and the running game looks to stay consistent with Ryan Grant as the starter…Defensively, the team was ranked #2 in total defense last year. This, however, seemed to be a bit of an aberration as the defense completely broke down in it’s 51-45 playoff loss to the Cardinals (no team should lose if it scores 45 points). I don’t think Kurt Warner was pressured once throughout the entire game. That leads me to their biggest concern, and that is generating a pass-rush. This has to be established if the Packers have any hope of reaching the Super Bowl in Dallas. What did they do about this concern in free agency? Nothing. OK, how about through the draft? Well, Mike Neal looks to get about a dozen snaps a game right off the bat. I believe he is going to be a good player. Other than that, not much (my apologies to C.J. Wilson). I know they’ve been mixing guys in and out at linebacker, but I don’t know how much that is going to help. What I take from this is that the pass-rush was their biggest concern going into the off-season and it still appears to be their biggest concern going into the regular season. Still yet, this team is stacked and looks to be a formidable contender in the tough NFC.
4.) Minnesota Vikings
Strength of Schedule: T-14th toughest
Where they improved the most: front-7 depth
Still needs improvement: pass defense
Rookie looking to make an impact: Chris Cook (2nd round)
Season Outlook: Obviously, this ranking is contingent on the fact that Brett Favre will be suited up and ready to go for the Vikes come Week 1. If, and when, that is the case, the Vikings look to be a well-oiled machine, ready to make more noise in the NFC. Adrian Peterson should have a monster year, and I’m predicting, will cut down on the fumbles. A concern right now has to be the health of Sidney Rice. He had an unbelievable year last year as Favre’s go-to guy and needs to have another big year for the Vikings to be successful. Couple this with the fact that Percy Harvin has missed well over a dozen straight practices for Minnesota, and it will be interesting to see just how ready the Vikes receiving corps is come Week 1. The offensive line was disappointing last year, surrendering 34 sacks, but should be better this year, thanks in large part to a healthy Steve Hutchinson…On defense, the Vikings look to be extremely strong in the front 7. The Williams Wall looks to have another monster year, as does the likes of Jared Allen and Chad Greenway. I love the depth they acquired through the draft in the form of Everson Griffen, Nathan Triplett, and Ryan D’Imperio, who should be a solid special teams contributor. They also signed defensive end Mike Montgomery away from arch-rival Green Bay. The pass defense is what worries me the most. They’ve got Antoine Winfield, who is one of the better coverage corners in the league, but are pretty thin after that (I’m not sure how healthy Cedric Griffin is going into the season and Lito Sheppard is horrid in coverage). I do believe Chris Cook, a rookie second-rounder out of Virginia, will start opposite Winfield, beginning Week 1, and make an impact. However, I’m not sure how big of an impact that will be. Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson round out the rest of the starters, holding down the free safety and strong safety positions, respectively. Neither of them are particularly strong at stopping the pass. This seems to be the only real concern for Minnesota. If they can do something about this and, perhaps, generate a few more turnovers through the air, than Minny might be making Super Bowl reservations.
3.) Dallas Cowboys
Strength of Schedule: 3rd toughest
Where they improved the most: receiving corps
Still needs improvement: offensive line
Rookie looking to make an impact: Dez Bryant (1st round)
Season Outlook: I can assure you that most people did not see Dez Bryant falling all the way to the bottom-tier of the first round. I can also assure you that not a whole lot of people expected the selection of Bryant to be by the Dallas Cowboys. This, however, turned out to be the case and should be an immediate benefit for Dallas. Bryant, I believe, by season’s end, should have well supplanted Roy Williams as the number 2 receiver on this team. By the end of next year, look for him to be the best receiver donning a Cowboys uniform. That’s how good I believe this kid is going to be. The only concern is keeping his attitude in check. He has had some incidents in the past, so it’s a major point of interest of the Cowboys to make sure that there are no off-the-field distractions. Tony Romo, with the addition of Bryant, has a plethora of weapons to choose from including Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Roy Williams/Patrick Crayton (although one of these 2 guys seems to be the odd man out). With a stacked backfield of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice, there should be no shortage of playmakers on this team. The biggest concern should be the offensive line. Losing Flozell Adams hurts. Whats more, is that they did not really address this through the draft, unless you think Sam Young in the 4th round counts (was a disappointment at Notre Dame, but does have some upside), or the acquisition of Alex Barron will pay dividends (I, for one, do not)…Defensively, Dallas looks to be solid. The pass-rush is one of the best in football, thanks in part to All-Pro end DeMarcus Ware and NT Jay Ratliff. The linebacking core is solid and the secondary looks to be fine (I like the combo of Jenkins-Newman at cornerback). If the Cowboys can keep Romo upright, they have a good shot at playing a home game for the Super Bowl.
2.) New Orleans Saints
Strength of Schedule: 27th toughest
Where they improved the most: defensive line
Still needs improvement: linebackers
Rookie looking to make an impact: Jimmy Graham (3rd round)
Season Outlook: The rich get richer. They lost a couple of notable players in Charles Grant & Scott Fujita, but replaced them with Alex Brown, Jimmy Wilkerson and Clint Ingram. Also, the D-Line gained some more poundage with the addition of fourth-rounder Al Woods out of LSU. It’s weird saying that the Saints defense is solid, but like last year, it looks to be even better this year. The secondary has tons of depth, led by stud safety Darren Sharper and cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer. The linebacking core seems to be the biggest concern. Losing Scott Fujita will hurt this team, as it means that Scott Shanle and JoLonn Dunbar are penciled in as starters. Both are nothing more than average linebackers. Still yet, the defense remains good and should be even better this year…The offense of the New Orleans Saints is amazing. Led by quarterback Drew Brees, this team can throw with anybody. Marques Colston should have a big year, Devery Henderson should remain their main deep-threat, and look for Lance Moore to bounce back after a dismal 2009 season. Also, Jeremy Shockey should be solid as usual. Look for Jimmy Graham, the third-round tight end taken out of Miami, to catch some balls this year, as I think he has some serious upside. The 1-2 running back combo of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush remains strong. And, the offensive line might be the class of the NFC. With a soft schedule, this team has all the makings of a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl.
1.) Indianapolis Colts
Strength of Schedule: T-10th toughest
Where they improved the most: pass-rush
Still needs improvement: offensive line
Rookie looking to make an impact: Jerry Hughes (1st round)
Season Outlook: Not much was done in the off-season for the Colts. They lost Ryan Lilja to free-agency, thus making their already shaky offensive line even worse. Reggie Wayne talked about holding out, but that didn’t come to fruition. And, Bob Sanders is back, this time, supposedly as healthy as he’s been in a long time. This team, regardless of how shaky the offensive line is, should still be a machine on offense. The reason? They have the best player in football, Peyton Manning. The guy, even at 34, should still put up elite numbers and guide his team into the playoffs, almost effortlessly. The receiving corp looks to be strong with Wayne and Pierre Garcon starting, and Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez splitting time in the slot. The running back position should be somewhat of a running back-by-committee, with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown looking to split carries. The biggest reason, other than Peyton Manning, for this team being the top Super Bowl contender? Dallas Clark. The guy is about as efficient of a tight end is there is in football right now. He recorded over 100 catches last year and I expect him to have even more this year, especially if Reggie Wayne’s production slows down a bit as he gets older. As mentioned earlier, the offensive-line is the biggest concern. They did nothing to address the situation and actually lost a starter in Ryan Lilja. How will this effect the Colts? Well, we shall see, but it has to be better than it was last year for this team to get back to the Super Bowl…The defense knows how to get to the quarterback. Dwight Freeney is perhaps the best at doing this in football; Robert Mathis is no slouch himself and first-round draft pick Jerry Hughes looks to add another playmaker to the mix. The polar opposite of this is stopping the run, which is never in the cards for this team. They just aren’t good at doing it. This, however, never really seem to deter this team as they seem to play very well as a unit up-front. The linebackers should be solid with Brackett, Session and Philip Wheeler starting. Also, the secondary should be good, and could be even better if they can get anything out of injury-prone Bob Sanders. I see this team as the number 1 Super Bowl contender for the upcoming season.
5 teams that just missed: San Diego, Houston, San Francisco, Miami, New York Giants