You won’t find Tim Tebow here. No, Peyton Mannings on this list either. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III? Nope, not them either. This is the list of alternate intriguing players for the 2012 NFL season.
Most preview lists focus on the star quarterbacks, running-backs or even receivers leading up to the opening weekend of the year. Instead I thought I’d dig a bit deeper and not insult your footballing intelligence with the obvious guys to watch out for. So here is your list of defensive ends, defensive tackles, offensive tackles, safeties, a cornerback and one appearance from a quarterback(but he’s not named Tebow!).
When Bruce Irvin was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the NFL draft this year, a number of jaws dropped from so-called experts. Irvin wasn’t originally billed as a potential first round pick but Pete Carroll has never been shy about taking who he wants when he wants.
Irvin comes to the NFL as a very promising pass rusher. With the Seahawks he will look to find a home across from Chris Clemons, or replace him, eventually but most likely act as a situational pass rusher as a rookie. Much like Aldon Smith did for the 49ers last year, Irvin could sweep the national media’s headlines in that role.
Irvin is very quick off the line and with the noise of the Seattle crowd, he could become the poster boy for forcing false starts this season. If not, he will just consistently be pressuring the quarterback or filling up the sacks section of the stats sheet. Most importantly however, Irvin is joining a very talented defense with arguably the best secondary in the NFL. Throw in Chris Clemons ability to rush across from him, Jason Jones pressure up the middle, and Bruce Irvin will have plenty of opportunities to succeed this season.
The St. Louis Rams revamped much of their defense this season with rookies and free agent additions alike. Two of those additions came on the interior of the defensive line where rookie Michael Brockers and free agent Kendall Langford will play next to each other.
Brockers is mostly a run stuffer, but Langford will be expected to be a factor in both facets of the game. Langford was a defensive end for the Dolphins who excelled as an interior pass rusher up until last season. Langford had 7.5 sacks in three seasons, a lot when you consider it came from a position that rarely gets any sack opportunities.
Leaving the Dolphins 3-4 for the Rams’ 4-3 defense will afford Langord plenty of opportunities to pressure the quarterback without having to entertain two blockers. With Brockers swallowing space, Chris Long drawing double teams and Robert Quinn emerging on the other side, Langford should in theory have it easy covering just one gap in the running game and getting one-on-one situations in the passing game. However, Langford must prove that he can handle the transition while he must also rebound from a down season last year in Miami.
Despite making some waves about a potential retirement or contract holdout during the off-season, Ed Reed arrived at Baltimore Ravens training camp this off-season on time without any noise. Reed appears to be ready for at the very least one more season, but will be hoping that this season brings more production than last.
With all of the Ravens’ issues in the front seven, the Ravens will be relying on their secondary more than ever this season. Reed and Bernard Pollard perfectly complement each other, but Reed didn’t excel last season in terms of turnovers as his expectations dictate he should.
Reed is an old 33 because of a flurry of recent injury issues. Without Terrell Suggs upfront however he becomes an even more important impact player for the Ravens. He had only three interceptions, eight pass deflections and a sack last year in 16 starts. Compared to his eight interceptions and 16 pass deflections in 10 games the previous year, that was a down season. With Lardarius Webb emerging as a superstar at cornerback, Reed should have less of the field to cover also this year. How he rebounds from last season will go a long way to determining the Ravens’ defensive success this season.
As an offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, I don’t blame you for not knowing Webb’s name. Webb is the left tackle who took over for Chris Williams in Mike Martz scheme two seasons ago. He is a very athletic player who has struggled to use his combination of size and speed to any real effect in the NFL.
However, Webb was being asked to do an awful lot in Mike Martz scheme that rarely gives offensive linemen any help. When you force players to play in space like that the advantage is always in the favour of the blitzer. This season Webb won’t have that problem because Mike Tice, his former offensive line coach, is taking over the offense.
With more run blocking opportunities, tighter formations and less seven step drops, Webb will likely play with less hesitation this season and have more help. Because of his sheer physical size, that makes him an intriguing prospect. At just 24 years of age with 28 career starts, Webb could eventually be one of the better tackles in the NFL still.
The Green Bay Packers’ defense didn’t do much to help the team’s Super Bowl campaign last year. In particular their pass defense let down Aaron Rodgers’ offense as they failed to create the big plays they had a season before. This season sees the unit undergo some significant surgery as multiple rookies are inserted and a position switch or two with key players takes place.
Clay Matthews will officially be listed as a right outside linebacker now opposed to a left outside linebacker. That won’t really make much difference as Matthews should continue to move all around the formation finding different ways to be disruptive. Instead, the most intriguing positional switch should be Charles Woodson’s slide into safety.
Woodson has moved all over the Packers’ defense in nickel packages over the past few seasons, but this year he figures to exclusively play safety. That won’t prevent him from covering receivers in the slot, but it will ask him to adjust to greater tests when teams try to run over Dom Capers’ defense. Woodson has all the talent to play safety, but he must also prove that he can continue to play into the twilight of his career. Woodson is a very good athlete, but at 35 years of age the body can quickly give up on you.
Everyone is excited by the prospect of Aldon Smith assuming a starting role in San Francisco this season. Smith had a phenomenal rookie season as a situational pass rusher notching 14 sacks and two forced fumbles. The accepted narrative during the off-season has been that Smith will have even more sacks with more opportunities. While that is possible, it’s not certain to be reality.
Generally, more exposure initially reveals more issues opposed to more strengths. As a situational pass rusher last year, Smith didn’t have to knock heads with offensive linemen on every single play. He came in on obvious passing downs as a fresh defender against offensive linemen who had already been on the field for every snap. With such an athletic body that Smith has, being fresh against a less energized blocker is an overwhelming advantage.
Furthermore, because Smith didn’t play on early downs from series to series, he didn’t have to prove his ability as a run defender or show any ability in coverage. Sacks get you on Sportscenter, but there is a huge amount more to the outside linebacker position than just pressuring the quarterback. If Smith doesn’t prove himself to be an all-around football player this year, he may not last the season as a full-time starter.
When things don’t go right for the New England Patriots on offense, you will likely see Tom Brady shouting at his younger teammates on the sidelines. Brady is willing to scathe younger teammates because he understands their value to his success. In the Patriots’ offense, trust is at a premium.
Much like when Brady was hesitant to throw to Chad Ochocinco last season because he wasn’t sure what spot he would be in, Brady has to be able to trust his pass protection to be willing to hang in the pocket. Considering that Matt Light has been Brady’s blindside protector for almost all of his career, the responsibility that second-year player Nate Solder is stepping into at tackle is a daunting one.
Solder showed a lot of promise as s rookie. He played significant time at both left and right tackle as the team’s primary backup offensive lineman. However being a bit part rookie and being the most highly scrutinized starting offensive lineman on every single snap are two completely different situations. How Solder reacts to the challenge will be huge because the Patriots have issues on the line elsewhere.
In the eyes of some evaluators, Janoris Jenkins was clearly the best cornerback in the most recent NFL draft. Jenkins dropped into the second round of the draft however because of off-the-field issues in college. Now that he is in the NFL, the failed drug tests will only be a problem if they resurface and a suspension is issued from the office.
Until that happens, Jenkins must just be treated as another very talented football player. The Rams’ greatest problem last season was their dearth of cornerbacks. They entered the season with injury issues at the position while the original talent wasn’t overwhelming anyway. The arrival of Jenkins and veteran free agent Cortland Finnegan has the potential to create a very formidable tandem of defenders at the cornerback position for the Rams.
Jenkins’ impact on the field will be magnified because of the Rams’ talented pass rushers. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are very good rushers with the potential to both have double-digit sacks this season. Long has proven himself in the past with much weaker coverage than what the team is expecting from Jenkins and Finnegan.
The 2011 version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quit on their coach to end their season on a whimper. Now former head coach Raheem Morris took most of the blame with him when he was fired, but the players carrying over from last season’s roster must have some sort of accountability.
Even though the roster was young, those players were still grown men. The most worrying aspect of last season’s collapse was the lack of leadership shown by quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman is still young, but he is supposedly the franchise quarterback. Franchise quarterbacks are not just good quarterbacks on the field, they are expected to be leaders who set the tone of the whole franchise.
While Greg Schiano is being asked to alter the attitude in Tampa Bay, he cannot be taxed with the whole responsibility of the results. Much like the 2012 Boston Red Sox in baseball, if the players aren’t willing to carry some of the load, a changeover in coach won’t make any difference.
On both a personal and team level, Freeman has to show greater resilience even at this stage of his career. Players like Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning only reach elite status as quarterbacks because they show that mentality. Players like Matthew Stafford and even Mark Sanchez have shown characters that carry more of those traits, in tougher situations, than Freeman did last year.
Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf