Most NFL fans have September 5th circled on their calendar, marking the start of the NFL season when the Cowboys will battle the Giants. But for the players, the season starts over a month before that. Late in July across the country teams will begining the grueling month long process that is traning camp.
The Atlanta Falcons will get things started on July 26th, while the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers will get begin a day later. All three teams are looking to take the next step. For Buffalo, the season will be a success if they can make the playoffs, powered by a fericous pass rush led by new addition Mario Williams. Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are looking to notch a playoff win, and in Green Bay the Packers are hoping Nick Perry can help them get back to the promised land.
Atlanta bet the farm on Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, so their selections were limited in 2012. In spite of the picks they gave up, they were still able to acquire one of the top centers in the draft when the snagged Peter Konz in the second round. Konz will likely begin his career at guard before eventually replaces Todd McClure.
The Falcons’ needed to improve their pass rush, but weren’t able to address that area until the made their fifth round selection of Jonathon Massaquoi. He’s raw, but Atlanta will desperately need him to be able to contribute at least in passing situations. The key rookie just may be Lamar Holmes. The Falcons feel he is the guy to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, but he’s likely to be at least a year long project.
The Bills have spent far too long facing Tom Brady twice a year to overlook the importance of having a strong defensive secondary. The addition of the draft’s top cornerback in Stephon Gilmore will go a long way in improving their pass defense, and he should be able to contribute immediately.
They found another potential first round player in offensive tackle Cordy Glenn in the second round. Buffalo added quality depth in the later rounds with players like defensive back Ron Brooks, offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders, and linebacker Tank Carder; wide receiver T.J. Graham was a bit of a head scratcher in the third round however. He’ll have much to prove during camp.
Nick Perry said before the draft that he’d prefer to play defensive end in a 4-3, but it’s doubtful he’s complaining after being drafted to play outside linebacker in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense. It was a unit that struggled in 2011, and Perry should be able to help the Packers’ defense bring their collective game to the next level.
The Packers’ biggest weakness may have been on the defensive line in 2011. While second round pick Jerel Worthy isn’t a prototypical 3-4 defensive lineman, he has natural ability that you can make work in just about any defensive scheme. Seventh round pick B.J. Coleman will being his work this summer to become the latest in a line of late round Green Bay quarterbacks that develop into starters a couple of years into their NFL careers.
Top Position Battles
Atlanta - Sam Baker vs. Will Svitek vs. Lamar Holmes (Left Tackle)
The Falcons have the receivers and the quarterback to have an elite passing attack, but to sustain that over a 16 game season they need to improve their pass protection. The top priority will be to solidify the left tackle position. Sam Baker is the current starter, but he’s proven himself to be anything but a franchise left tackle. This will be his last chance to show he can be that type of player. Will Svitek is a career backup that has performed quite well in limited action, but it isn’t likely he’s a long term solution. Rookie Lamar Holmes has the size to be a NFL left tackle, but he’s got to refine his play before he’s ready for that role. Furthermore, he’s battling a foot injury that will keep him out until at least the beginning of training camp.
Buffalo - Donald Jones vs. Marcus Easley vs. T.J. Graham (Z WR)
Steve Johnson is an immensely talented wide receiver, but his talent alone isn’t enough to help Ryan Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Bills offense to the next level. David Nelson has been a good contributor in the slot, but Buffalo needs to add another outside threat to pair with Johnson.
Buffalo envisioned T.J. Graham stretching the field with his deep speed in the Z position, but he’s reportedly struggled with the playbook and appears to have fallen behind in this race. If he wants to see much of the field in September, he’ll need an impressive showing in August.
Donald Jones spent a good deal outside in 2011, but he’s been getting more work out of the slot in OTAs. Marcus Easley has battled injuries during his short career, but he has an elite size and speed combination and could be one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this summer.
Green Bay - Charlie Peprah vs. MD Jennings vs. Jerron McMillian (Strong Safety)
Green Bay’s defense had plenty of issues in 2011, but they could be confident that Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins wasn’t going to be one of those issues. But a severe neck injury has left a big doubt that he’ll ever be able to play again, and the Packers have been forced to look elsewhere for his replacement.
Charlie Peprah was involved in a ton of big plays in 2011. Some were good – he had five interceptions – but far too often he was on the other end of that equation. His inconsistency will give the Packers’ coaching staff plenty to worry about if he wins the starting job. MD Jennings has received a good deal of positive press during the offseason, but training camp will show if those stories have been off season hype or the real deal. Rookie Jerron McMillian is a sleeper candidate. He was a surprise combine invite that turned out to be impressive, and although he’s undersize he’s quickly picking up the playbook and starting to make an impact. He won’t start right away, but he’ll be pushing for playing time by the year’s end.
The Time is Now for Matty Ice
On paper, it’s tough to find much to complain about Matt Ryan’s first four NFL seasons. His passer rating has improved every season, and he’s already thrown for over 14,000 yards and almost 100 touchdowns. He’s thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, and has been an overall solid player early in his career.
Ryan is lacking in one key area, of course. He has yet to win a post season game, and he’s put up some pretty discouraging performances in the chances he’s had. It’s difficult to pin their 48-21 loss to the Packers in 2011 entirely on Ryan – he isn’t responsible for giving up 48 points – but his two interceptions did nothing to help the Falcons’ cause. The loss in 2012, a 21-2 loss to New York, is a different story. He didn’t turn the ball over, but he was unable to stretch the field and averaged under 5 yards per attempt, hardly a number that’s going to win a playoff game.
There are no more excuses for Ryan. The Falcons should be the favorites to win the NFC South, meaning they’re likely to have at least one playoff game at home. He’s got two of the best receivers in the league at his disposal in Jones and Roddy White. The Falcons have added new pieces to the offensive line, and they kept their key free agents on both sides of the ball. There are no more excuses, and it’s time for Ryan to lead Atlanta to a playoff victory.
Will Super Mario & Friends bring Super Results to Buffalo?
There’s no question that Buffalo made one of the biggest offseason splashes this spring. Following a 2011 season that started with a bang but fizzled as it progressed, the Bills were determined to add the pieces to become a real contender in 2012.
Mario Williams figures to flourish in Buffalo. A player of his caliber can play in any defense, but he’ll be much more comfortable in the Bills 4-3 as opposed to Houston’s 3-4. As one of the league’s best pass rushers, his addition instantly makes Buffalo’s defensive lines one of the best in the league. Putting Mark Anderson in the mix is just icing on the cake. The bolstered pass rush paired with the new faces in the secondary has the potential to be one of the top defenses in the league.
But while most eyes will be on the defense during camp, where all the big name additions are, the important work will be occurring on the other side of the ball. The offensive, namely Fitzpatrick, is really where the improvement needs to occur. Williams and the rest of the Bills’ defensive could be outstanding; but if Fitzpatrick can’t put up more than one touchdown per game like he did in the last half of 2011, Buffalo still won’t win many games.