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7 strong hunches for 2012 season


The NFL is both beloved and exalted in the pantheon of spectator sports because absolutely no one knows what will unfold from week to week. But that doesn't stop us from predicting up a storm when it comes to the season just ahead. More than two months away from the full-scale opening of training camps, here are seven strong hunches we're willing to share in a bold foretelling of 2012's storylines to come:

• News flash: The Bills are closer to dethroning the mighty Patriots in the AFC East than the big, brash Jets. Rex Ryan might love his team, or at least profess to, but it says right here they're not even the second-best team in the state of New York. That would be the long-downtrodden Bills, who can rightfully lay claim to having the best offseason in the league. After 12 playoff-less seasons, the longest active drought in the NFL, there's hope again in Buffalo. And this time, it's there for good reason.

While the second-place Jets (8-8 in 2011) were busy creating a potential team-splitting quarterback controversy for themselves with the Tim Tebow trade, not to mention the dubious decision to draft a 4-3 defensive end to play in their 3-4 front (Quinton Coples), the fourth-place Bills (6-10) were adding and retaining quality pieces to the puzzle at every turn. Be it their re-signing of key veterans Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson or Scott Chandler, their drafting of talents such as Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn and T.J. Graham, or their headline acquisitions of Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Vince Young in free agency, the Bills have made moves to get better. Maybe a lot better.

The Jets? They've made a messy locker room situation that much messier. Life under Ryan in New York will never be friction-free, but pouring gas on the fire and expecting things to settle down is a curious approach to say the least.

• Blaine Gabbert will lose his starting quarterback job to Chad Henne by Week 3 (of the preseason). Remember when the Jaguars were trying to decide how much they wanted to go after Tim Tebow in trade earlier this offseason, a competition they ultimately lost to the New York Jets? There were those inside the Jacksonville organization who were ambivalent about the move, believing that even with Tebow on board, Henne, the ex-Dolphins starter, would beat out both players by late August. Let's just say that sentiment hasn't changed with Henne now competing only against Gabbert, the team's first-round pick in 2011.

New head coach Mike Mularkey says there's no quarterback competition between Gabbert and Henne, but that's what he has to say right now. Gabbert is in fragile condition after a brutal rookie season, and there's no reason to further shake his confidence. But all you really need to know is that Jaguars coaches have been working with Gabbert to re-teach him some fundamentals and hone his drops and balance in the pocket. That's not really what you want to hear about your starting quarterback as he enters year two of his career, after going 10th overall in the draft.

It may be Gabbert's team and Gabbert's job in mid-May. But by the time summer is drawing to a close, it'll be clear that Henne is the best man to run Mularkey's offense.

• The Bucs will start fast and be one of the surprise stories in the season's first half, feeding off Greg Schiano's energy and a last-place schedule. Even though they were 4-2 at one point last season, the Bucs of 2011 played an undisciplined style of ball and couldn't finish what they started. That won't be the issue under the business-like and highly driven Schiano, who demands a lot from his teams, and then holds folks accountable if they underachieve. The Schiano effect has already been felt in the locker room, with fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman shedding 20 pounds to get into better shape, and team captain Ronde Barber lauding his new head coach's no-nonsense approach.

Tampa Bay may not be able to pull off the whole worst-to-first turnaround this season, but I think they're going to be in playoff contention into December in the rugged NFC South. The Bucs open with four of their first six games at home, and if they can create some momentum, who knows where that might lead? Just two of Tampa Bay's first 10 opponents made the playoffs last season, and four of their six tough NFC South games fall from mid-November on. It's a decent recipe for a bounce-back year, and with a big-name free-agent haul and a well-received draft class, the Schiano-led Bucs are headed back up.

• Chad Ochocinco (or whatever he's calling himself these days) won't be around to see another burst of fall foliage in New England. Unless the Patriots make NFL history and decide to keep eight receivers, or a couple pass-catchers go down in camp with season-ending injuries, the math doesn't add up for Chad. In English or Spanish. New England is beyond loaded with bodies at receiver, and Ochocinco was essentially dead weight all of last season.

That realization is only going to get driven home all the more dramatically once training camp opens and No. 85 is out there trying to compete with the likes of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Anthony Gonzalez, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Matthew Slater. Pay cut to $1 million or not, Ochocinco is still over-priced by New England's typical produce-or-be-gone standards. He and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have always been chummy and all, but shockingly, there's a limit to B.B.'s warm and fuzzy side. And in this case, it's a 53-man limit.

• Randy Moss' impact in San Francisco will be a lot closer to his 2010 tenure in Minnesota and Tennessee than his 2007-2009 production in New England. Moss is notorious for playing up (or down) to the level of the team around him, and he's with a legit Super Bowl contender in Jim Harbaugh's 49ers. That's the good news. But he's also 35, coming off a year's retirement, and finds himself playing in an offensive system that greatly values running the ball and the short to intermediate passing game. Honestly now, do you see Alex Smith and Moss reprising the 1998 Vikings, with Randall Cunningham and Moss connecting on playground go patterns all day? I don't. Not even a little bit.

Moss might have his moments, and his game days where he reminds us of his brilliant play-making past, but I'm not feeling a full-blown renaissance or Comeback-Player-of-the-Year type season in the offing. With San Francisco now having him, Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree, A.J. Jenkins and Kyle Williams to throw to, not to mention tight end Vernon Davis, there might not be enough action to keep Moss interested and motivated throughout the course of 16 games. And we know where that can lead, one-year break from the game or not.

Moss in the guise of a content and productive role player is one assignment we've never seen him successfully pull off. Until we do, I'm dubious.

• Juan Castillo will be hailed as a much improved defensive coordinator in year two, thanks to better players. Every coach's intelligence level is tied to his team's win-loss record to some degree, but the wisdom of moving Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator last year in Philadelphia was thought one of the all-time dumb moves -- at least during the Eagles' dismal 4-8 start to its "dream'' season. Funny, but the risky manuever got a little smarter looking when Philly finished the year with four consecutive victories to even things out at 8-8.

Castillo will be accorded even smarter status this year, and if the revamped Eagles defense starts quickly, don't be surprised if the words "stroke of genius'' are employed at some point to describe his 2011 promotion. At least Philadelphia went out and got their DC some IQ helpers this offseason, trading for veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, and then splurging on defense in the draft, with the first four rounds bringing to town defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, defensive end Vinny Curry and cornerback Brandon Boykin.

If the Eagles can get better play at safety, and make all those blown fourth-quarter leads a distant memory, Castillo's unit might vie for the league's most improved defense in 2012.

• Mohamed Sanu will be the second consecutive Bengals rookie receiver to show up and show up early. Karma owes Sanu a little something-something after he endured that cruel prank phone call on the first night of last month's draft, and I believe he's going to wind up having the last laugh when it comes to his career in Cincinnati starting roughly 24 hours later than he was first led to believe. The ex-Rutgers receiver is already off to an impressive start, easily standing out at last weekend's Bengals rookie minicamp, drawing both praise and a prediction of early contributions from head coach Marvin Lewis.

Cincinnati has a decent history of rookie impact from receivers, getting that monster debut season from first-rounder A.J. Green last year (65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns), and a seven-touchdown showing from third-rounder Chris Henry in 2005. Sanu is an ideal complement to Green's outside speed and vertical game, and he'll work the inside and underneath routes with both precision and determination, pulling down plenty of catches in a crowd or despite solid coverage. NFL scouts worried about his ability to separate this spring, but come September, Sanu will be putting plenty of distance between himself and most of the league's other rookie receivers.