Saturday, March 12, 2011

2011 NFL Lockout: What It Means For Each Team

The NFL lockout has brought a stop to all off season happenings -- and we have no idea when they will begin again. The NFL and NFLPA failed a agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) on Friday, which means the 2011 NFL season is in jeopardy. While few people believe this labor strife will delay the start of the season, it has already disrupted off season plans and will continue to do so.

With a lockout, teams are not allowed to contact its players and vice versa. That means players and coaches cannot discuss playbooks, no Organized Team Activities (OTAs), no trades or free agent signings and team facilities are closed to players (including injured players rehabing with the team's medical staff). These are all significant restrictions, particularly for teams with new head coaches and coordinators.

The 2011 NFL Draft will go on as scheduled on April 28-30, but the rookies will not be able to practice with their new team, receive a playbook or sign a contract until a new CBA is reached.

With the regularity of the NFL off season now thrown for a loop with this lockout, here is how each team is equipped to weather a prolonged NFL lockout.

The Andrew Luck contenders:

Tennessee Titans: The Titans have a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators and no quarterback. New head coach Mike Munchak and his staff will try and change a culture with the Titans that has eroded over the past couple of years. Between a lockout and the departure of Jeff Fisher after 16 years, the Titans best approach in 2011 might be to give the ball to Chris Johnson 40 times a game. They will struggle to compete in 2011.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns will be one of the hardest hit teams by a lockout. Cleveland has a new head coach in Pat Shurmur, Colt McCoy is their quarterback and new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron runs a 3-4 defense. With McCoy and Shurmur, they won't be able to get together and learn a new offense. McCoy showed promise last year, but is nowhere near a lock to be Cleveland's starter. He needs reps in Shurmur's new offense if he's going make progress. As for the defense, Cleveland is going from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. That transition usually takes about two years because not every player on the current roster fits the 3-4 scheme. Cleveland needs running back Peyton Hillis to perform like he did last year, and that might only secure 2-3 wins for the Browns. They might be the front runner for worst NFL team in 2011.

Carolina Panthers: New head coach Ron Rivera inherits a roster that isn't very talented and he will have a big decision to make when the NFL Draft opens on April 28. The Panthers must decide if they like Cam Newton enough to be their quarterback of the future. Rivera is walking into a very difficult situation and I don't expect things to get better for the Panthers this season. Rivera's first order of business should be to revamp Carolina's defense and restore the toughness that was once there. The potentially good news for Panthers fans, they should get a chance to see Newton flash some of his athletic brilliance at some point this year.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals are one of the teams hurt the most by a lockout, despite having a returning head coach. Arizona needs a quarterback and I'm convinced they're the front runners to land Philadelphia Eagles back-up Kevin Kolb. A lockout will prevent any trades until a new CBA is reached, leaving the Cardinals with John Skelton and Max Hall at quarterback for now. The other big issue is the Cardinals defense. They really needed this off season to bring in free agents and rework their sagging defense.

Cincinnati Bengals: They are mess and might battle the Cleveland Browns for title of league's worst team. They have several star players who are on the decline or disgruntled. Head coach Marvin Lewis must decide what do with quarterback Carson Palmer. The 31-year-old quarterback is threatening to retire if the Bengals don't trade him. The big problem with that proposition is teams can't trade players without a new CBA. So the Bengals are stuck in QB-limbo. If they draft a quarterback this April, it might diminish Palmer's trade value. Cincy has so many needs, it's going to be hard for the Bengals to turn it around. In all likelihood, this year will be Lewis' last as a Bengals head coach.

Another top 15 draft pick coming:

San Francisco 49ers: The Niners have a ton of talent, but no quarterback and a new head coach. The labor mess could mean Alex Smith stays in town and becomes Jim Harbaugh's quarterback. However, even though Smith is familiar with the Niners franchise, he's not familiar with Harbaugh's offense. Even with Smith at quarterback, the Niners will be better off than some teams simply because they play in a weak division (NFC West), the have a talent-rich roster and Harbaugh is a better coach than Mike Singletary.
Denver Broncos: With new head coach John Fox and John Elway now running the show, look for changes in the offense. However, with a veteran at the quarterback and a solid group of wide receivers, Denver's offense will come together sooner rather than later. Denver's best decision this offseason was to keep Kyle Orton and name him their starting quarterback. Tim Tebow is simply not ready to take over the starting job full-time. The key to Denver having early success after a lockout will hinge on its running game and defense. Look for the Broncos to upgrade its defense through the draft.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills are closer to be good than most people give them credit for. They lost several close games last season, their entire coaching staff is returning and Ryan Fitzpatrick has emerged as a serviceable quarterback. The Bills probably weren't going to be big movers and shakers in free agency, so look for them to add talent in the draft. Getting the rookies acclimated to the NFL life will be put on hold for a while, but the Bills are in better shape than handful of teams.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have a lot of holes to fill both offensively and defensively. Most notably they need to find a starting quarterback. That quarterback -- along with the rest of the team -- will also need to learn a new offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Joe Webb is the team's starting quarterback right now, but I suspect the Vikings will draft a quarterback and pick-up a veteran. Minnesota's decision to keep Leslie Frazier as head coach was a smart move and should provide the defense with some stability. However, the Vikings defense will look a lot different next year with defensive lineman Pat Williams gone, defensive end Ray Edwards likely gone (free agent) and linebacker Ben Leber (free agent) maybe gone. The Vikings are similar to the San Francisco 49ers in that they have some very talented players, but they need a consistent quarterback and more play makers on defense.

Washington Redskins: The Redskins really needed this off season to figure out several things including its quarterback situation, it's wide receiver problems and what to do with Albert Haynesworth. The most pressing of those issues is the quarterback situation. Head coach Mike Shanahan has to decide what to do with Donovan McNabb. Most people (including myself) believe McNabb is done in Washington once a new CBA is reached. I expect the Redskins to draft a quarterback in April and that player will back-up Rex Grossman to start the season. As for the defense, expect the Redskins to part ways with Haynesworth and look to the draft and free agent market to shore its defensive line. Washington lacks talented players and I expect another mediocre year ahead.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are another team with a new coach and questions at quarterback. Hue Jackson, who was the team's offensive coordinator, replaced Tom Cable as head coach this off season. Jackson's familiarity with the roster will help the Raiders while they're in transition. The Raiders also re-signed a core group of players including Richard Seymour, Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt. With a lockout, Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell misses out on an off season if development (which he needs). The Raiders will have a solid running game to lean once the season begins.

Teams muddled in the middle:

Miami Dolphins: Head coach Tony Sparano did a fairly good job last year without much talent on offense. The Dolphins really needed this off season to evaluate quarterback Chad Henne. They have to decide whether or not he's their long-term solution at quarterback. By most indications, Henne is a lame duck quarterback, barring a huge improvement this season. The Dolphins will need to address it's running back situation with both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown becoming free agents once a CBA is reached. Considering how poorly the Dolphins quarterback play has been, developing a running back will be important this off season. I expect more struggles from the already sagging Miami offense. Miami's defense should weather the lockout fairly well.

Jacksonville Jaguars: This may have been the season Jacksonville began looking for David Garrard's replacement, but a lockout likely changed those plans. Without off season practices, The Jaguars will be forced to stay with Garrard another season. The Jags do have a solid running game, which could lead to early season success, but their defense needs a lot of improvements. Jacksonville should focus on adding defensive players (who can play right away) in the draft. One solid draft pick and a couple other rookie contributors could give Jacksonville fans some hope.

Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll did a great job of growing his team throughout last season, which eventually led to a win in the playoffs against the New Orleans Saints. However, the Seahawks remain an unsettled team and could really use more time together on the practice field. The defense is young and should improve this season. Meanwhile, the offense could take a big step backwards if Matt Hasselbeck doesn't re-sign. The Seahawks do have a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell, but that shouldn't throw Seattle off too much. Bevell runs a West Coast style offense similar to what Seattle ran last year.

Houston Texans: The Texans need to address a couple of pressing needs this off season, most notably their defense and second wide receiver position. Head coach Gary Kubiak was brought back mostly because of the pending labor issue. Now that he's back, he's brought in Wade Phillips to run the defense. With Phillips, the Texans will make that tough transition from the 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. There will be continued growing pains for the Texans defense as they transition to their new defense (without the benefit of off season workouts).

Detroit Lions: With all the injuries to Matthew Stafford, the Lions could really use the off season to get him reps with the offense. The Lions are slowly putting together a solid team, but they need to practice together. They have young stars in wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, and they're no longer a push-over on the schedule. They need to add more play makers on defense and offense lineman to help protect Stafford. I expect the Lions to keep improving, but missing off season workouts together will hurt.

Playoff contenders:

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles offense is set with several young elite players already in place: quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles will need to add some offensive line help, but that's not pressing. The real test for the Eagles will be the transformation of their defense. Philadelphia hired their offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to be their defensive coordinator. Castillo hasn't coached defense in 22 years and he could really benefit from off season workouts to put his fingerprints on the defense. I expect the Eagles to go heavy on defensive players in the draft and target a few free agents when the new CBA is agreed upon (maybe even free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha).

New York Giants: The Giants roster and coaching staff looks like it will remain intact once the new CBA is reached. They have a couple questions on the offensive line, which they can address in the draft, but other than that they're loaded with veterans. The Giants may look to get younger on defense, but that's not a pressing need for 2011. Tom Coughlin's discipline might be exactly what the Giants need to get ready for the season on short notice.

Chicago Bears: For a team that was within one game of the Super Bowl, I think the Bears have plenty to fix before next season. It's clear that quarterback Jay Cutler has gotten better the more he works with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. But the two could use another off season together to sharpen things up. The Bears could also use the off season to strengthen its offensive line. Chicago needs to upgrade at the position, but now must wait for a new CBA. As for the defense, they should be solid again with Julius Peppers anchoring the defensive line. If Culter improves and stays upright, all will be well with the Bears in 2011.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams have the look of an up and coming team. That could be tempered a bit by the arrival of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The former Denver Broncos head coach will bring his vast playbook to St. Louis, which will be hard to teach without off season practices. The Rams do have one of the brightest young stars at quarterback in Sam Bradford, so learning a new offense shouldn't be too hard for him. However, I expect growing pains early in the season and look for Steven Jackson to carry the load early on. As for the Rams defense, head coach Steve Spagnuolo already has a system in place and his defense is young.

Dallas Cowboys: Like Minnesota did with Frazier, Dallas made the right choice by making interim head coach Jason Garrett their full-time head coach. As bad as the Cowboys were last year, I expect them to be much better this year. Quarterback Tony Romo will be back from a broken collarbone and they added Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator. Ryan plans to keep the same 3-4 defensive scheme, which means the defense won't be impacted. The biggest issue for the Cowboys appears to be the offensive line and defensive backfield. They will be able to target both areas in the draft. The Cowboys should be poised for a good run this season.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs are taking a lot of positive steps towards becoming a very good team. They have some good, young talented players on offense and defense that came together nicely last season. They could use the off season practices to get sharper as a unit, but overall, they're in very good shape to repeat their 2010 feats and make the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They are another extremely young team that turned out to be one of the pleasant surprises of 2010. The Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is an emerging superstar who played great in his second-year as a starter. The Bucs need to add a couple of pieces to their defense (most notably their defensive line) and another play maker on offense, but they're built for a good run in 2011. Freeman said earlier this off season that he was planning private practices with his teammates in the event of a lockout. Freeman realizes the Bucs are on the verge of breaking out and he wants to keep that momentum going (smart guy).

San Diego Chargers: Despite missing the playoffs in 2010, the Chargers had one of the best offenses and defenses last season. They will miss defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, but the Chargers have a solid enough defensive foundation that his departure won't be devastating. As for the Chargers offense, they have Philip Rivers at quarterback and that's enough to make them competitive. If second-year running back Ryan Mathews can stay health and provide some balance for the offense, San Diego will be much better. Also, wide receiver Vincent Jackson will be ready to play in week one, which will be a welcomed sign for Rivers. The Chargers will be very competitive in the AFC.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts are slowing slipping out of the "best NFL team" conversation. Indy struggled often last year and did a poor job of protecting Peyton Manning. They also had a hard time running the ball and keeping their running backs healthy. I do expect the Colts to make improvements on their offensive line, but learning that complex offense doesn't happen overnight. The Colts will go through some growing pains early in the season as their new faces learn the system (without the benefit of off season workouts). As for the Colts defense, they are a mess and need a lot of new and younger blood. The Colts should have two targets in the upcoming draft, offensive linemen and defenders who can contribute right away. The Colts may struggle next season and if it weren't for Manning, they might be contenders in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.

New Orleans Saints: As long as Drew Brees is under center, the Saints will be fine. They have a dynamic offense that won't miss much from an off season without team workouts. The area they will get hurt is with their defense. They need defensive players who can have an immediate impact next season. They lack the play makers on defense that made them so dangerous in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. The Saints will look to the draft for guys who can step in and play right away. Much like the Colts, their window is starting to close. But a couple solid draft picks this year will help them stay atop the NFC in 2011.

New York Jets: There could be several free agents leaving the Jets and it could affect their upcoming season. The Jets aren't sure if wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards will be back or if Antonio Cromartie will be opposite Darrelle Revis in 2011. Those three players played significant roles in the success of the Jets. One thing we do know about the Jets, quarterback Mark Sanchez will be back and so will head coach Rex Ryan. There is a solid foundation in place and the Jets should be just fine once the 2011 season begins.

Super Bowl contenders:

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are built for a lockout. They have solid veteran leaders in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, they have a franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco and they have an extremely good running game. The Ravens will be one of those teams that needs little preparation to get ready for the season. They will add a couple pieces in the draft and maybe free agency, but for the most part, their foundation is solid (and so is their 2011 outlook).

New England Patriots: Despite being one of the NFL's elite teams, the Patriots is the team that could have benefitted the most from off season workouts. Bill Belichick has built his defense with young, fast players, but they're not a solid unit yet. Another off season together would have helped them grow and mature as a defensive unit. I still think the Pats will make great strides on defense in 2011, but it will come with more growing pains. As for the offense, all they need is one dynamic wide receiver for quarterback Tom Brady to throw to and they will be fine. The Patriots adjust to adversity as well as any team and I expect them to be AFC front runners in 2011.

Pittsburgh Steelers: An off season without football may not be the best thing for the Steelers. Last off season quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was alleged of rape and sat out for four games because of it. If Roethlisberger can stay out of trouble and stay committed to football (without organized team events), the Steelers will be just fine. Pittsburgh has a solid running game with Rashard Mendenhall and a defense that's at the top of the league. The Steelers could use some help on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, but those are positions that they can add through the draft. The Steelers will have little to worry about with a lockout.

Green Bay Packers: With most of its Super Bowl winning team back, including key injured players Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley, look for the Packers to be in great shape. They have the most stability of any team and will pick up where they left off at the Super Bowl. If anything, the Packers might be better than last year, especially if the rumors are true and they will target free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha this off season.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are built very much like the Packers. They have a solid foundation in place, including a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. If they can add a solid wide receiver opposite Roddy White, they'll be set on offense. As for their defense, a couple additions here and there (most notably at defensive end and cornerback) and the Falcons have the makings of a 2011 contender. Plus, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was just named Executive of the Year, so he'll have things under control.

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