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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.