This is the second in a four-part series highlighting the NFL's up-trending and down-trending teams heading into the 2013 season
By Kevin Gillikin @KevinGillikin And The Skipper
Continuing our look into 2013 NFL trends, I address a group for whom I am just not feeling much love.
Maybe it's the rich-getting-richer teams like the 49ers, Seahawks and Packers over in the NFC, maybe it's the two talent-gutted marquis AFC teams (Patriots and Ravens), or maybe I'm just looking down my nose at everyone else as the Broncos get better, but I'm just not seeing much to like in the AFC.
The NFC West plays the AFC South this year, for example, and I really believe that 13-3 is on the table. That's a bit of a stretch, but not out of the question. Yowzers.
So, with that in mind, here we go:
AFC Up-trending Teams for 2013
#1 - Denver Broncos
Broncos blog. What did you expect?
Homerism aside, though, it's difficult to overstate what John Elway has done with this franchise in less than three years.
My colleague, "The Skipper", a businessman and co-author of this series, believes that college business students will be reading about the Denver Broncos in years to come as a case study in how to build/rebuild an organization, regardless of the industry. Here's how it's done:
1) Build a roadmap, core leadership team and new culture based on integrity, character, trust and goodwill (John Fox, Jack Del Rio)
2) Leverage your existing assets until you have the opportunity to develop your own (Tim Tebow)
3) Get a "quick win" to energize the organization and build momentum (Playoff win over Pittsburgh)
4) Be kind and generous but brutal in transitioning from old players who don't fit your philosophy to new players who do (Tebow, Willis McGahee).
10) Give your most talented players an optimal opportunity for success even if it means potentially getting weaker somewhere else (Chris Harris, Nickel CB).
13) Bring in players who absolutely love what they do and have a passion for your organization (Derek Wolfe and more-or-less the entire team)
15) As you reach success, continue to be brutally objective in your own analysis (Chris Kuper) and use your resources to turn weaknesses into strengths (Louis Vasquez). Don't fall in love with your own creation (Dumervil) or you'll stagnate.
16) Respect your competition and elevate the perception and integrity of your entire industry (John Fox and his tendency to "throttle down" once a game is in hand).
17) Above all else, have fun.
Folks, this is textbook stuff.
And thanks to Elway's patience and commitment to doing things the right way, the Broncos are starting to reap big benefits: A nice blend of youth and experience, salary cap space to take care of future needs of superstars like DT and Von Miller, heirs apparent for Fox (JDR) and Manning (Osweiller), a full compliment of draft picks in future years, and even a glimmer of hope of obtaining additional late-round picks with this year's roster cuts (Jacob Tamme? Tony Carter? Quentin Jammer?).
Let's go ahead and break this team down a bit since this is, you know, a Broncos' blog. Where did the Broncos get worse this past off-season? Champ is a year older, the faxman is a year goner, Von Miller may be headed for a four-game suspension and the Broncos have suffered a rash of training-camp-ending injuries to seriously bummed campers like DRC and Joel Dreesen.
Most significantly, some serious injuries to the offensive line will affect their OLine depth and open up a battle of fairly mediocre centers. Results after one pre-season game (against a stellar 49ers' front seven)? Not so good.
Overall, though, not a bad list of steps backward.
And where did the Broncos get better? First, they had big upgrades at defensive tackle (Terrence Knighton and first-round pick Sylvester Williams) to add to the returning Kevin Vickerson. And by big, I mean "Pot Roast" type big -- large human beings who fit the John Fox mold as run-stoppers and pocket collapsers. It's not hard to stop one of these monsters with a double-team. Stopping two will be problematic. Very problematic. Look for last year's stellar edge pass rush to evolve into a pass rush of pure brute force this season. Plus Von Miller.
Second, they foisted one of the most underrated and unheralded free agent steals of the off-season in Louis Vasquez, a power right guard who has been flagged for -- count 'em -- two penalties in 54 career games over four seasons. And one was declined. Despite the hole at center and relative lack of depth, the Broncos should have a fantastic offensive line.
Third, the Broncos picked up the freakishly talented (but currently injured) DRC, which was a nice move in and of itself, but will also allow Chris Harris to move from #2 cornerback (where he was above average) to nickel CB (where he will be All-World).
Add to this some added depth at safety with the emergence of Duke Ihenacho (dude can play!), an offseason's development for young players like Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Rahim Moore and Derrick Wolfe and, oh yeah, this guy named Wes Welker, and this team could be mind-blowingly good.
Now that Manning has a new OLine stud (Vasquez), a new toy in the flat (Welker), a potential poor man's Terrell Davis (rookie Montee Ball, who hasn't looked particularly good in camp but still has elite potential), a new commitment to the no-huddle offense (which will exploit favorable matchups and block defensive substitutions) and an entire off-season of preparation and work with his receiving corps, the offense could be literally unstoppable.
The defense? Anywhere from "solid" on the down side to "elite" on the up side. Before pre-season game #1 against the 49ers, I was lamenting them not having a Steve Atwater or Dennis Smith-type head-hunter/backfield invader playing strong safety, but Sir Duke is making me reconsider that rather quickly.
The Broncos are stout up front, fast at LB and the secondary, ball hawking, opportunistic, extremely talented, deep and playing for a second season with Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, who just happens to be one of the best in the business.
And they may have a starting safety named Duke. Every great team should have a starting safety named Duke. And a DT named "Pot Roast".
Prediction: 16-0 with a +17.3 average point differential and a 55-10 win over San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Just kidding, but not all that kidding. I do believe that, before the season is over, somebody at ESPN will ask the question as to whether this is the best NFL team ever assembled. The answer will probably be "No", but the idea of that question being asked gets me excited.
Before I go on, would someone move this Kool-Aid pitcher before I drink it ALL?!?!
#2 - Kansas City Chiefs
Don't let the 2-14 record, demoralized fan base, losing culture and general aroma of suckitude fool you: This team has talent. Six Pro-Bowlers to be precise.
Defensively, the Chiefs didn't put up particularly impressive numbers in 2012 (#13 in yards allowed, #25 in points allowed), but they had some moments, putting a scare into the Broncos (trailing 7-6 at halftime in KC before losing 17-9) and Ravens (losing 9-6).
The offense was hide-the-women-and-children ugly, which actually brings me to my point:
How many teams in the NFL would not struggle with 1) two quarterbacks, Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, who would not even be second stringers for most teams, and 2) arguably the worst Head Coach in NFL history?
Not to unload on Romeo Crennel -- he strikes me as a guy I'd love to have over for Thanksgiving dinner -- but he always had this look on his face like he'd accidentally wandered into a CPA exam and just opened the test booklet.
This year gets better, though, for Arrowhead Nation. New QB Alex Smith may not be elite, but he won't lose a lot of games for you, and should help with the Chiefs' atrocious minus-24 turnover ratio from 2012. And with monster talents in RB Jamal Charles and WR Dwayne Bowe, as well as super-talented 2013 overall #1 pick OT Eric Fisher, this offense will be much better in 2013.
Of course, the 2012 University of Alabama offense was probably better than the Chiefs, so "better" is relative.
Of KC's six Pro Bowlers last year, four were from its underrated defense. Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston were all voted to the NFL's joke of an all-star game. Three of the Chiefs' starting four linebackers are studs, which is always a good way to start a defense. Their only major signing on defense was CB Dunta Robinson, who will help Berry and Flowers keep control in the defensive backfield. Though they were ranked 20th overall in defense last year, with the talent on this team I can see them being one of the better defenses in football.
New Head Coach Andy Reid is not, oh I don't know, John Fox, but the guy is a winner. And what the Chiefs need more than anything else is a change in culture. In the Not-For-Long league, cultures change quickly, especially for quality organizations like Kansas City.
I'd love to call the Chiefs the #1 candidate for a divisional "worst to first" this season, but sorry, uh uh, ain't gonna happen. Not with the Broncos in front of them.
Prediction: 9-7, Wild Card #2.
#3 - Miami Dolphins
I'm having to bite my tongue a little bit on this one. I'd like to drop the Dolphins from this list simply for being stupid enough to sign Mike Wallace to a contract that will pay him $30 million over the first two years.
Stupid move for a generally stupid organization.
But the reality is that this team was 7-9 last year, has a solid-but-underrated second-year quarterback, added some significant free-agent talent and plays in a division that is falling apart around them.
Add it all up, and I'm projecting the Dolphins to win the AFC East.
Offensively, yes, Wallace was massively overpaid, but he and TE Dustin Keller add two solid weapons for underrated QB Ryan Tannehill to an offense that finished 26th in the league last year in total yardage.
On defense, the additions of free-agent stud LB Dannell Ellerbe (a top-three LB in the NFL - boy did I want to see him in orange and blue!), above average CB Brent Grimes and solid S Chris Clemons should leave the Dolphins much improved and even more tough and aggressive than last year.
This was probably an ideal year for Miami to go all-in with its free agent class seeing as how the AFC East is a mess. Two teams (Patriots and Jets) made my top four down-trending AFC teams for 2013 and the Bills only missed because, well, they stunk to begin with.
The downside for the Dolphins is that they have no significant running back (Lamar Miller is ranked #1 on the depth chart) and no real winning culture. It won't surprise me if the ever-looming shadow of the Patriots is too much for this young team, but as I said in my previous article, Hoodie is yesterday's news and I think this is the year the Patriots get dethroned in the East.
Prediction: 10-6, AFC East Champions
#4 - Cleveland Browns
At some point in the NFL's future, a division will finish the season in tiebreaker hell with all four teams at 8-8. This could be that season in the AFC North. Unlikely, but not out of the question.
I can't say that I'm overwhelmed with the Cleveland Browns, but Norv Turner at OC could add some firepower to the offense led by QB Brandon Whedon. Whedon should be improved in his third year in the NFL and with WRs Greg Little, Davone Bess and Joss Gordan plus RB Trent Richardson, this could be at least an average offense. Richardson has the potential to be something special and if he is, this offense could be better than average.
This team was nothing special statistically in 2012 (25th overall on offense, 23rd on defense), but the AFC North is another division in decline and with a couple of breaks, the Browns could realistically back their way into a division championship.
Cincinnati probably wins the AFC North, IMHO, at 10-6, but with Baltimore and Pittsburgh on their way down, Cleveland MAY just have a shot.
Prediction: 8-8, 2nd place in the AFC North, no playoffs.
My "Most underrated quarterbacks in the NFL" list starts with Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Cincy's Andy Dalton, so I like the Bengals in general and I may be selling them short here by only making them honorable mention. But I'm just not sold that they're ready to make the move up from playoff pretender to genuine contender. Division champs and first-round playoff winners? Possibly. I'm thinking they will benefit from the fall of the Steelers and Ravens more than their own improvement.
I really wrestled with this one. Andrew Luck is the real deal and has a fantastic, young offense around him, but these guys outplayed their talent last year and are due for some regression this year. I had a tough time putting them on the list, honestly, especially facing four games against NFC West opponents this year, where they could easily go 1-3. With the Texans not having really shown that they can stop the pass since last Thanksgiving Day, though, I could see them squeaking out an AFC South crown.
Next -- Down-trending NFC teams. Yes, there are some.