Expectations vary greatly across the league at the start of a new season. Optimism abounds, but what that means is wildly different for every team. For some, an 8-8 season would be a success. Other are just hoping to see solid development from their young core of players.
For the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, and New York Giants, expectations are much, much higher than that. For the Giants and Patriots, the expectations are clear: adding another Super Bowl title to their trophy case. And for Denver, the outlook is similar. Following up on a playoff run by adding one of the all time greats in Peyton Manning, anything but a deep run in the playoffs will be a dissapointment.
Each of these teams will start the road to a Super Bowl on July 26th. But just because they have high hopes, it doesn't mean they're without some question marks heading into to the season.
The Broncos’ selection of defensive tackle Derek Wolfe both filled a need and raised some eyebrows. He wasn’t necessarily the highest rated tackle on most people’s boards, his high motor and leadership made him the most appealing player on the board for John Elway and the rest of Denver’s team.
Their highest profile selection was quarterback Brock Osweiler, but he’s a developmental project who won’t be ready to contribute this year. Running back Ronnie Hillman on the other hand is a speedy running back who will be able to make plays as a change of pace back from day one.
The last half of the Broncos’ draft was full of potential value. Corner Omar Bolden could have been a first to second round pick had he not torn his ACL and missed the 2011 season. If he can return to form, he’ll be a steal. Center Philip Blake and defensive end Malik Jackson are both players that flew under the radar in the pre draft process but could develop into solid players.
Tom Coughlin needed to find a back up to the often injured Ahmad Bradshaw, and the Giants are hoping that David Wilson is that guy. His game is much more dynamic than Brandon Jacobs' is, but his game needs to be refined (especially in pass blocking) before he could be expected to be a reliable three down player.
Wide receivers often struggle early in their NFL careers, but LSU product Rueben Randle may actually benefit in the transition. He dealt with inconsistent quarterback play during his college career; but now he gets to play with one of the leagues’ best, Eli Manning. Randle will get the opportunity to see the field early, as should corner Jayron Hosley as the nickel back.
The most interesting rookie to watch in New York may just be tight end Adrien Robinson. The 6’4 267 beast didn’t put up big numbers while in college, but was a tremendous blocker. His athleticism has the Giants comparing him to Jason Pierre-Paul, and in a year or so he could be an excellent weapon.
New England traditionally puts together some of the best draft classes every year, so it’s kind of tough to question their decisions too much. That being said, they made some surprising decisions to say the least. Chandler Jones was a polarizing defensive prospect leading up to the draft, but the Patriots should be able to find a place for him to maximize his ability to get after the passer.
The real head-scratcher was second round pick Tavon Wilson. Nearly every “expert” had him ranked among the last safeties in the class, but Bill Belichick obviously felt otherwise. He’ll be a true unknown as he begins his NFL career, and eyes across the league will be on the safety as he takes the field in two weeks.
The Patriots didn’t only draft obscure players. Second round pick Dont’a Hightower, as well as seventh round bargain Alfonso Dennard were defensive standouts in 2011 and should both fit well in New England’s scheme. There may have been an odd pick or two, but the Patriots still put together a solid class.
Top Position Battles
New England - Devin McCourty vs. Ras-I Dowling vs. Kyle Arrington vs. Sterling Moore vs. Alfonso Dennard (Cornerback)
There was a time when Devin McCourty was one of the hottest young defensive players in the league. But the past two seasons haven’t been kind to him, and his job is no longer secure. He’s struggled so much recently that there’s even been talk of moving him to safety.
The oft injured Ras-I Dowling is one of many corners that will be in competition with McCourty for one of the two starting spots. Dowling is certainly talented, but his injury history will give the Patriots pause. Kyle Arrington has been starting on the outside, but he’s far more comfortable covering slot receivers. Alfonso Dennard and Sterling Moore will more likely be battling for a spot in New England’s nickel defense.
New York - Justin Tryon vs. Prince Amukumara vs. Jayron Hosley (3rd Cornerback)
Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas have the top two corner spots locked up for the most part, but that doesn’t mean the battle for the 3rd corner is insignificant. Thomas is coming off a knee injury, and whoever is behind him will have to be ready to step up at any given moment.
Fortunately for the Giants, they have plenty of players to choose from. Justin Tryon, Prince Amukumara, and Jayron Hosley have all been around the ball during minicamps, but it’s been Tryon that’s been consistently hanging on to the ball. The fact that all three are making plays has to be encouraging, and if they keep it up they could start pushing Thomas for a starting spot outside.
Denver – Philip Blake vs. J.D. Walton (Center)
To put it lightly, J.D. Walton has struggled a great deal during his short NFL career. Whether he’s truly the league’s worst starting center (as many Denver fans feel) is up for debate, but there’s no debating that the position can be improved.
Denver drafted Philip Blake to provide the potential for that improvement. While he’s just a rookie, he looks to be a great fit in the Broncos’ blocking scheme. However, he’ll have one of the toughest jobs in the league: starting as a rookie center with the perfectionist Peyton Manning behind you certainly isn’t an enviable task.
Can Peyton Return to Form?
There’s no doubt that Peyton Manning is one of the all time greats at the quarterback position. Although you wouldn’t know it from Bud Adams’ $25 million per year offer to Manning, there is some doubt that Manning will be able to return to his old form. Manning did, of course turn down that $25 million dollar offer, but will he show that he’s worth the $19 million per year he’ll be getting from the Broncos?
The free agent frenzy surrounding Manning was quite remarkable considering the fact that just a few weeks earlier there had been serious questions about Manning’s ability to ever play again. There have been more recent reports out of Denver’s minicamps that Manning appears to be regaining his arm strength, which is certainly encouraging. But his arm strength isn’t the only issue for the Broncos to be concerned with.
Manning’s career peaked in 2004 when he averaged over 10 yards per attempt. Since then, he’s never averaged over 8.5 ypa. Moreover, he averaged a paltry 6.8 ypa in 2010, the last season he played. It’s apparent that he may have been losing some arm strength before his most recent batch of neck surgeries. He also posted his lowest QB rating since 2002, although it was a still stellar 91.9.
Even looking past the statistical decline, anytime a player is returning after missing an entire year, it’s a concerning proposition. It’s been a long time since Manning has taken a hit, and the collective Broncos’ fan base will be holding their breath when he does. There’s no guarantee that their big investment is going to be able to make it through the season. If he isn’t, the depth at quarterback isn’t exactly solid.
Behind Manning are Caleb Hanie and Brock Osweiler. Hanie has a total of ten games, 3 touchdowns, and a career 41.6 quarterback rating under his belt. Osweiler is at least a year away from being ready to play at an NFL level. If Manning goes down, it’s safe to say the Broncos could be in a ton of trouble.
That’s what Denver will have to plan for during training camp, and it’s going to be a difficult line to talk. They’ll have to get Manning enough reps to get back into shape, while not fatiguing him too much. At the same time they’ll need to get Hanie enough reps to be ready if Manning goes down, while simultaneously working to develop Osweiler. It’s likely there just won’t be enough snaps to go around in Denver.
Is Eli Elite?
Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Bart Starr and John Elway. All of those quarterbacks have won at least two Super Bowls, and they’d all rank among some of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game. So why is it that Eli Manning, who also has two Super Bowl wins, still doesn’t get the respect he deserves? Will 2012 be the year he finally is regarded as one of the league’s top quarterbacks?
The numbers should speak for themselves. In 2011 Manning threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 29 touchdowns. He won his second Super Bowl in two appearances, and extended his streak of starts to 119. If that isn’t elite, what is?
In spite of that, bashing Eli seems to be a league-wide pastime. In the NFL Network’s top 100 players, a league wide poll ranked Manning at #31 – an overall respectable number but defiantly not where you’d rank an elite quarterback. Former teammate Amani Toomer recently said he’d prefer to play with Tony Romo.
At least from an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t seem as though all this bothers Manning too much, but if he wants to prove himself now is the time. There’s been turnover on the offensive side of the ball, with the departures of Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs as well as a makeover at the tight end position. Manning will now be working with less experienced guys like David Wilson and Reuben Randle. Opposing defenses are going to be focused more on Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz isn’t going to surprise anyone anymore.
If Manning can have a season similar statistically to his 2011 season, and again have post season success, it’s going to be nearly impossible to ignore his status as an elite quarterback.