Capsules for the 32 NFL teams as they begin the 2010 season, in predicted order of finish:
New England Patriots
Few teams seem on the surface to have as many givens as the Patriots. We know Tom Brady is an all-world quarterback and winner; that Randy Moss is as dangerous as any receiver and Wes Welker as reliable as any; that the offensive line is a stone wall; that the defense will be stingy and make big plays; and that Bill Belichick is a coaching genius.
Well, Brady didn’t set the NFL afire last year in his comeback season _ he missed all but the first half of the opener in 2008 with a knee injury. Moss has not gotten a contract extension. Welker comes off a severe knee injury himself, although his quick comeback has been impressive. Outstanding guard Logan Mankins wants out. The defense is being rebuilt before our eyes, with questionable leadership and depth. And Belichick hasn’t won a championship in five years.
But guess what: New England still should have enough to win a tight three-way division race, particularly if the running game is better. Brady easily could return to his previous stratospheric playing level, helped by Welker’s stunning recovery. Jerod Mayo is an outstanding linebacker and Vince Wilfork is among the top nose tackles in the game. And PK Stephen Gostkowski has made Adam Vinatieri a long-ago memory.
New York Jets
The Jets might fall shy of winning the division, but they won’t be shy about anything else. Including telling you how good they are, particularly with the additions of RB LaDainian Tomlinson, LB Jason Taylor, WR Santonio Holmes (suspended for the first four games) and CB Antonio Cromartie.
They will be good, probably enough so to make the playoffs as a wild card. Coach Rex Ryan’s bragging about his defense is valid after it finished 2009 ranked atop the NFL, then added a couple of playmakers in Taylor and Cromartie _ and finally got All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis to sign a new deal and report before the opening kickoff. Maybe the tone Ryan sets will offset the loss of leadership that went with the departures of RB Thomas Jones and guard Alan Faneca.
Still, the Jets are relying on Mark Sanchez to take a huge step forward, and second-year quarterbacks often go in the opposite direction, so that is a dicey proposition. Special teams also took some hits, so New York perhaps should look out below, not up toward the Patriots.
Two years back, in the first season of the Bill Parcells regime, the Dolphins surged to the division crown. Last year, they flopped down the stretch and didn’t make the postseason.
One culprit was a lack of downfield passing, which Parcells seems to have solved by acquiring Brandon Marshall, a pass-catching machine who will be Chad Henne’s favorite target. Henne, unlike predecessor Chad Pennington, has a strong arm to make the connections with Marshall that could define the offense. Of course, Henne is unproven compared to Pennington, and he’ll lean on RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, something coach Tony Sparano, a former offensive line mentor, will make certain happens. LT Jake Long already is an All-Pro heading into his third season.
The Dolphins swallowed hard and allowed rookies Sean Smith and Vontae Davis to start at cornerback in 2009. That trial by fire could pay off for Davis this year, but Smith lost his job to Jason Allen. New Miami coordinator Mike Nolan must find a pass rush after losing LBs Joey Porter and Jason Taylor, who combined for 16 sacks. Karlos Dansby is a fiery presence, but can he be in the QB’s face as often as Miami needs?