Weekend in Review/Weekend Ahead

Editor’s Note: Needless to say, my bracket is pretty much a train wreck (see what I did with the picture?! see that?!). But, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some valuable things to learn from the first weekend, or that we can’t apply some of that knowledge to what should be a solid conclusion to regional play starting on Thursday. 

First Round

Results: 21-11. Ok, for a day as weird as Friday ended up being, you could say that record isn’t entirely terrible. But when you consider that I lost a total of 6 out of my Sweet 16 picks in the round of 64…..well that’s just not what you look for. Not to mention that I scared the crap out of myself so much with the West Region (evidence can be found here: http://jaywalking33.com/2012/03/13/ncaa-tournament-megapreview/) that I decided to make some really irrational upset picks that sounded like a lot of fun at the time. The end result: a self-fulfilling prophecy that saw zero of my Sweet 16 picks actually advance to that round (Missouri, Memphis, Long Beach State, Murray State….yikes). Not a great first round for me, but it was still great television for everyone else.

East Region: Easily the biggest memory from the first round out of here was the epic battle between Syracuse and the University of North Carolina………Asheville (jokes on jokes). I can safely say that I have never been in an environment where the people I was watching with were so attached to a game without any shred of vested interest. From the opening tip-off to the very end, we were clapping with each Asheville bucket, or groaning in dismay with each positive play from the ‘Cuse. Towards the end, we were actually screaming. Maybe we saw what we wanted to see with some of the 50/50 calls in the second half, but one thing that cannot be debated was that no one outside the state of New York got the result they wanted. It was a great game, and makes it apparent that it’s only a matter of time before a one seed falls in the first round.

South Region/West Region: Again, this was a pretty easy call with the huge upsets of Missouri (that feels good to say) and Duke. A 15 over a 2 had only happened four times in tournament history but to get it twice on the same day made it that much more unbelievable. Personally, I have never been so happy to see my bracket destroyed as when Missouri’s final chance at a tie went amiss. But I’ll try to keep the bias out of it. At the same time, you have to give Norfolk State and Lehigh some credit. Norfolk beat Missouri at its own game. They shot the ball very well, scored a lot of points, and got great guard play. And in the other game, CJ McCollum was an absolute star. He led his team in the truest possible sense and looked like one of the best players in the tournament in the process. Look for him to lead the nation in scoring next season.

Midwest Region: There were three really solid upsets in the first round out of the Midwest, making for some very fun basketball to watch for the casual fan such as myself. NC State and South Florida advancing were somewhat unexpected, and then we got the big one with Ohio advancing over Big 10 regular season co-champ Michigan. John Bielein has done an incredible job at building that program during his tenure, but this team just wasn’t ready yet. Better days are certainly ahead.

Second Round

Results: 6-10 (holy shit). Yeah, this is where that combination of bad upset picks, and unanticipated upset games really came to bite me in the ass. Losing Georgetown was a bit of a bummer, especially after watching a Kansas team (who they would’ve played had they beaten NC State) that looks a little bit vulnerable when defenses overload on Thomas Robinson and force the Jayhawk guards to win the game with jump shots.* Losing Vanderbilt in its hard fought game with Wisconsin also didn’t feel great. I thought this team, if it was firing on all cylinders, had a legit shot to challenge for a berth in the Final Four, leaving a pretty sour taste in my mouth.

*For as bad as Kansas played at times, you also have to give Matt Painter a ton of credit for putting together an incredible game plan for stagnating Kansas’ offense, and even more up’s to Robbie Hummel for playing out of his mind in the first half. What a college player. 

East Region: There weren’t any buzzer beaters, but three out of the four games were really solid ones. Gonzaga’s backcourt showed a TON of promise in a really tough loss.* Wisconsin showed why they will be a tough out for Syracuse, and Cincinnati beat Florida State in the type of grind it out, defensive battle the ‘Noles normally win. But the moment that I will be taking away from the second round of this region is Kansas State forward Jamar Samuels’ career being called to a premature end by the NCAA for a pretty minor rules violation. I guess they were right to enforce the rules here, and maybe Syracuse still wins this game even with Samuels in. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. The eligibility rule book is in a dire need for some change, and quick. Nobody is winning in this current situation right now.

*Bulldog freshmen Kevin Pangos (people are calling him the best Canadian point guard prospect since Steve Nash) and Gary Bell Jr. are going to be absolute stars for Mark Few for the next three years. And Deshaun Thomas for Ohio State has emerged as one of the top young scorers in the country. He has really come on for Thad Matta and should warrant some pre-season All-America consideration if he doesn’t leave early. 

South Region: Seeing Xavier recover from the early season brawl with Cincinnati that could have easily killed their season is my favorite storyline from the first weekend in the South region. How this school has been able to get it done year in and year out, as a mid major, with coaches always seeming to exit for higher profile jobs (from Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller) is pretty incredible. They needed a late season rally to sneak into the tournament, but now that they’ve had their chance, its been pretty fun to see them take advantage of it. Tu Holloway is one of the best players in the country that not many people know about.

West Region: While Florida’s dominating play is a worthy runner-up, the easy story line from out west for me has been the incredible play of Draymond Green. He’s been an absolute stud the entire season, but he’s seemed to have taken it up to an other-worldly notch in the past few games (20 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 8 apg). He has been the most valuable player of the tournament so far and Michigan State is the runaway favorite to advance to the Final Four out of the west because of the way Green has been playing. Plus, he is the model example of the merits of staying all four years at a program. Seeing a player develop on a consistent, yearly basis the way he has is so much fun to watch.

Midwest Region: Playing a team with nothing to lose, against a player who can’t miss, your own key players going silent on the offensive end, missing open threes, and missing important free throws. For the last several years or so, these types of things have been all too familiar to Kansas fans in losses that always seem to bring great seasons to terribly disappointing ends. And for awhile (pretty much for 37 minutes) in its second round game against Purdue, Kansas fans had to brace themselves for another loss to a double digit seed for the exact same reasons mentioned above. But then, something happened. They fought through the tension, battled for all of the long rebounds, made key stops on defense, and made some very clutch plays on the offensive end. This was something that people weren’t used to seeing from a Kansas team with its back up against the wall in a tournament game. It still probably isn’t good that the Jayhawks were only able to prevail against an inferior Purdue team by three points. But at the same time, it does give people some hope for the future round(s). For now, Kansas can bask in the glow of winning an incredibly hard-fought game, against a team that refused to quit. For now at least.

Final damage from week one…..Overall record: 27-21….6 of my Sweet 16 picks still alive….4 of my Elite 8 picks still alive….3 of my Final Four picks still alive….National Runner-Up pick eliminated in the Round of 64….National Championship pick’s most indispensable player (Kendall Marshall) pretty much ineffective for the rest of the tournament with a broken wrist. Somebody get me a beer.

Regional Play Preview

Kentucky vs. Indiana: For people expecting a repeat of one of the best games of this regular season, you will be sorely disappointed. Kentucky is playing like the tournament favorite it deserves to be and its single liability, Marquis Teague, has really been picking up his play (posted a great line against Iowa State). Indiana will not have the home court advantage it had against Kentucky earlier this season. And for the amazing job Tom Crean has done at Indiana (he is at least one year ahead of the rebuilding schedule), the fact of the matter is the Hoosiers don’t have the talent, athleticism, anything to hang with Kentucky. Wildcats roll.

Baylor vs. Xavier: Xavier’s Tu Holloway is the type of star who can carry a team to victory all by himself. As much as I’d like to say that will happen here, I’m going to stick with my guns and stay with the south regional final I predicted at the beginning of the tournament of Kentucky vs. Baylor. Baylor has been playing too well for the last couple of weeks to falter against a team that doesn’t have the athleticism or depth the Bears have (that’s the hope at least). It could be a tight game…Xavier has found ways to stay in pretty much every tournament game I can ever remember watching them in. But look for Baylor to edge them out in this one.

Michigan State vs. Louisville: I think I proved in my previous column that I have a great feel for the game when I said there just isn’t something I like about this Michigan State team (kidding). While they still might be one of the historically weaker number one seeds in awhile, they are still a better team than Louisville in almost every phase of the game. The Cards do have an edge if Peyton Siva can play well, but look for Draymond Green and the rest of the Spartans to be too much for Louisville to handle. Sparty advances.

Marquette vs. Florida: To be quite honest, this absolutely will be the only game I’ll be having second thoughts about as soon as this goes live. Florida has been absolutely smoking their competition. Bradley Beal is playing so efficiently on offense. But its not like their competition has been stellar. And what worries me m0re, I’m still not sure if I can trust this Gators squad. I don’t know if Kenny Boynton is going to go cold, like he sometimes is prone to do. I’m not sure if Erving Walker is going to try to do too much on offense, rather than playing within the flow of the game, if his team is in a tight one. There isn’t much doubt that Florida is the more talented of the two teams. But, after a weekend of getting nailed for trying to do too much for picking the right upsets (and rightfully so), I am going to go with the team that I trust more. And that is Marquette.

Syracuse vs. Wisconsin: This is probably a toss-up, but I actually feel pretty comfortable picking Wisconsin to advance to the East Regional Final. Wiscy’s ability to control the tempo of the game will be a great detriment to Syracuse, who would rather exploit its elite athletes and get up and down the court. And for a team like Syracuse that emphasizes their ability to make the other team turn the ball over a lot, the fact that they will be going up against Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor makes matters even more difficult. While he may have regressed a little on offense this year, he still turns the ball over at a very low rate (in fact Wisconsin as a team rarely turns the ball over), and that should hurt the Orange quite a bit. Every possession is going to count in this one, and all that does is ensure that Syracuse will have that much less margin for error against Wisconsin’s stifling defense. While my Vanderbilt pick may be out the window, I am still expecting the same fate for Syracuse, simply at the hands of a different team. Out of all the games in this round, this is the one I am going to make sure I have the time to watch from start to finish. ‘Sconsin in a close one.

Ohio State vs. Cincinnati: Just like I said for Xavier a few paragraphs ago, Cincinnati making it this far into the tournament post-brawl is really pretty impressive. I don’t think Mick Cronin gets enough credit for the job he has done at that school, making it competitive once again after the Bob Huggins era. That being said, I think the Bearcats will really have their hands full with an Ohio State team that might be the new favorite to meet Kentucky in the national championship thanks to Kendall Marshall’s wrist. For me, this one is pretty simple. I think Ohio State is just a little tougher, a lot more talented, and very, very well coached. Buckeyes march on easily.

North Carolina vs. Ohio: Obviously, this is a less than ideal situation for the Heels. But if you could have a game to test out Kendall Marshall’s wrist or give Justin Watts a chance to get his feet wet and immerse himself in that offense in a tournament situation, Ohio is a pretty good team to do it against considering the circumstances. I think Roy Williams could play point guard for this team in the round of 16 and Carolina would still advance. Barring a huge upset, this game is about North Carolina finding a slightly new recipe for success because of their most important player’s injury. It’s about trying to prove they can still compete for a championship despite their current predicament. Tar Heels advance.

Kansas vs. North Carolina State: For good reason, Kansas will  be the heavy favorite in this game. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a good contest. The Wolfpack have been playing with some kind of conviction since the very end of the regular season, into the ACC tournament, and now all the way into the deeper rounds of the NCAA tournament. Mark Gottfried has really done a great job righting the ship, and its not like this team is devoid of talent either. Lorenzo Brown has emerged as a star, and CJ Leslie is a legitimate post threat. I think the Jayhawks will come out really fired up to prove that their speedbump against Purdue was a fluke, and that will likely be the difference. But NC State will not go down without a fight.

Final conclusion to draw from the first weekend would be the injection of the musical stylings of Frank Ocean into the daily proceedings of the quad. This guy has got a really bright future ahead of him in the music industry and brings a level of intelligence to his music that you don’t really see very often from other artists. Be sure to check out his only release thus far in his young music career: Nostalgia, Ultra.

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NCAA Tournament MegaPreview

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Editor’s Note: Obviously, waiting six months in between posts is not the ideal move when it comes to pleasing an already microscopic fan base. That said, the greatest spectacle in sports seemed like the perfect way to get back on the horse. And what’s not to be excited about? The field is bubbling over with very talented teams in the lower seeded tiers. Tournament favorites such as Kentucky, Syracuse, or Kansas could easily be undone by unpredictable point guard play. And others, could just as easily by outed thanks to tricky matchups. While this format may not be the fairest determinant of a true champion, the fact that it is an absolute crapshoot makes it by far the most enjoyable to watch. So get out your brackets, and lets watch some basketball, because this year has the makings to be a great tournament.

SOUTH REGION

Kentucky may be the runaway favorite to win it all this year, but the committee did the Wildcats zero favors in their selections. For my money, this is by far the most difficult region to get through. Kentucky will have a very interesting second round matchup, regardless of who wins (Iowa State vs. Connecticut). And what happens if they advance to the Sweet 16? Their options are currently Indiana (the only team to beat them in the regular season), Wichita State (maybe one of the top 10 teams in the country), or VCU (don’t even have to explain this one). And that’s just the TOP HALF of their draw. While they are still my pick to advance to the Final Four, they certainly won’t have an easy time getting there.

Five Players to Watch

Pierre Jackson, G, Baylor – This guy may be on the wrong side of 6 feet, but he is absolutely the heart and soul of this Baylor basketball team. He can shoot the three, penetrate into the lane, and jump out of the gym (seriously, watch some of his dunk highlights). Plus, he is an automatic pick to make the south regional’s all-swag team.

Royce White, F, Iowa State – One of the most versatile players in the entire tournament. He’s got range to the three point line, a bevy or post moves, and also the skills to bring the ball up the court and play the point forward. This team faces an uphill battle having to play UConn and possibly Kentucky, but if anyone can lead the charge to pull off this kind of upset, its White.

CJ McCollum, G, Lehigh – Let’s be real, this team opens up against Duke, meaning we’ll only get to watch him for a single game. That said, this dude can flat out put the ball in the hole (has an outside chance of finishing his college career with over 3000 points scored). I’m very eager to see how he performs on the biggest of stages against one of basketball’s purest of bluebloods.

Mike Moser, F, UNLV – I’m sure Ben Howland is really regretting the fact that this kid transferred out of Westwood after just a year. After transferring to UNLV and sitting out a year, this guy has blossomed into one of the top players in the Mountain West Conference. He can score and he can rebound. It’s that simple.

Anthony Davis, F, Kentucky – I try to pick slightly under the radar guys when it comes to lists like this, but come on. One of the top contenders for player of the year, the unibrow has to make the cut. A savant when it comes to shotblocking, he’s not such a bad rebounder either. And he’s only scratching the surface when it comes to his offensive game (can already hit the perimeter jump shot). A talented man on a talented team, it should be very interesting to see how he matches up against some of the other bigs the south region has to offer.

Didn’t make the cut – Jeremy Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Christian Watford, Cody Zeller, Garrett Stutz, Perry Jones III, Tu Holloway, Austin Rivers, Chase Stanback

First Round Picks

Kentucky over Mississippi Valley State, Iowa State over Connecticut, Wichita State over VCU, Indiana over New Mexico State, UNLV over Colorado, Baylor over South Dakota State, Notre Dame over Xavier, and Duke over Lehigh

Second Round

Kentucky over Iowa State, Wichita State over Indiana, Baylor over UNLV, Duke over Notre Dame

Sweet 16

Kentucky over Wichita State, Baylor over Duke

Regional Final

Kentucky over Baylor

Team that could make a run

UConn may be a bit of a sellout when it comes to this kind of pick, which is why I will be going with Wichita State. They might have a tough time even making it out of its opener against a very pesky VCU team, but I feel like this senior-laden team has the chops to give Kentucky a serious run for its money. They are efficient on both sides of the ball, get its scoring from several different sources, and have a coach in Gregg Marshall that has done a fantastic job following in the steps of Mark Turgeon. This may be the teams last chance for a couple of years to be a serious contender, and I’m really pulling for them to take advantage of it.

Team that worries me

Baylor was the obvious choice for this one. When they are playing well, they have the talent to go toe to toe with any team in the country, but will we be getting that team for the tournament? If you watched them in conference play, your answer would probably be no. If you watched them in the Big 12 tournament, your answer might be yes. A lot of it comes down to whether or not Perry Jones III can be aggressive at all times, playing like the lottery pick that he is. And again, trying to figure out what Perry Jones we will be seeing is a tough problem to figure out. Baylor is a totally legitimate darkhorse pick to advance to the Final Four. They’re also a great pick to be upset in the second round.

WEST REGION

While I have no idea what’s going to happen anywhere in this tournament, I actually have absolutely no shred of a clue what to do with this region. Michigan State obviously has the coach in Tom Izzo and the player in Draymond Green to make a run. Missouri absolutely has the best guards in the country. And then, what to make of talented by inconsistent teams like Memphis or Florida? What about the team with the best winning percentage in college hoops in Murray State? And I haven’t even mentioned a talented Marquette team or a Louisville squad that might be peaking at just the right time. Needless to say, I am fully expecting to get none of my picks right for this part of the bracket.

Five Players to Watch

Draymond Green, F, Michigan State – If it wasn’t for Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, this guy would be my runaway choice for national POY. He can score, he can rebound, and he also might be the best passer on his team. In a sentence, he has put the team on his back for the entire season. This team goes as Green goes, and that’s not such a bad thing.

Isaiah Canaan, G, Murray State – This guy is a legitimate candidate for a first team all-america selection and for good reason. He gets into the lane, he has great range, and he is the unquestioned leader of the only remaining team in the country with a single loss. He is going to have to play out of his mind in the tournament to get this team to the later rounds, but he just may have it in him.

Will Barton, G, Memphis – This guy is having the best season in basketball that absolutely no one is talking about. He is scoring a ton, rebounding unusually well for a guy of his size, not to mention averaging 3 dishes a game. If Memphis can advance to the second round, this team has a VERY legitimate chance of taking out the Spartans, and it will probably be because of this guy.

Casper Ware, G, Long Beach State – I can’t wait to see what this guy has in store for the nation. He is the undervalued leader of an undervalued team that has a shot at making some serious noise in the next week or so. He is a bit of a high volume shooter, which always comes with risks. But what it also means is that if he is on a hot streak, he can easily drop 35 on an unsuspecting victim. America, you’ve been warned.

Phil Pressey, G, Missouri – I could have picked a lot of other guys, but I have to give some love to the engine that makes the best team in Missouri’s history go.  This squad has the best four guard rotation of any team in the country, and it all starts with Pressey. He is lightning quick, averages over 2 steals a game, and has a sterling 2.6:1 assist to turnover ratio. He may not score as many points as Marcus Denmon or Kim English, but make no mistake, Phil Pressey is the most valuable player on this team.

Didn’t make the cut – Keith Appling, Drew Gordon, Peyton Siva, Jae Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom, Patric Young, Kenny Boynton, Mike Scott, Marcus Denmon, Mike Dixon

First Round Picks

Michigan State over LIU Brooklyn, Memphis over St. Louis, Long Beach State over New Mexico, Louisville over Davidson, Murray State over Colorado State, Marquette over Iona, Florida over Virginia, Missouri over Norfolk State

Second Round Picks

This is where things start getting a little tricky for me. Having a 6, 8, and 12 seed (and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Florida get hot and beat Missouri) is quite a shot in the dark, but that’s half the fun of making picks anyways.

Memphis over Michigan State (taking the Will Barton love to another level), Long Beach State over Louisville, Murray State over Marquette, Missouri over Florida

Sweet 16

Memphis over Long Beach State, Missouri over Murray State

Regional Final

Missouri over Memphis

Team that could make a run

I may have Memphis making an unorthodox run to the Elite 8 as an 8 seed. But, given their coaching and basketball talent, I believe this kind of run should actually be expected of them. In all actually, their low seed is simply a product of having to win a bunch of games in the Conference USA. That means my pick here is Long Beach State. They have a coach in Dan Monson (the same guy who first brought Gonzaga to national prominence) who knows a little something about making a run with a mid major team. They have a guy in Casper the ghost, who I already gushed about a little earlier. While they could just as easily lose in the first round to a good New Mexico squad, I’m not betting against them. They played a murderous non-conference schedule and were extremely competitive with some of the best teams in the nation. This team is seasoned, talented, and isn’t just happy to be there. They expect to win games.

Team that worries me

This might blow up in my face, but there’s something about Michigan State that I don’t like a lot this year. And if we learned anything from last year, playing (and winning) in the toughest conference in the country guarantees you nothing come tournament time. Tom Izzo and Draymond Green may make me look stupid here, but I think these guys could be ripe for an upset. I’m going with my gut here and moving on before I get too freaked out and decide to change it.

EAST REGION

Well the news that Fab Melo will be out for the entirety of the tournament certainly shakes things up in the East. Syracuse suddenly becomes a lot more vulnerable, and some of the lower seeded teams start looking a lot better. The fact of the matter is that Ohio State, when firing on all cylinders, is probably one of the three best teams in the country, and I expect that to be the ultimate factor when sorting through this region. Florida State is absolutely on fire right now though, and could make things very difficult for the Buckeyes. In the top half, Wisconsin is always a tough out, and Vanderbilt is coming fresh off a victory over Kentucky. Not to mention Harvard is probably very hungry to prove they deserved a little more respect from the selection committee.

Five Players to Watch

William Buford, G, Ohio State – For the most part, I feel like you know what you are getting with Jared Sullinger. He may be the best player on the team, but the determinant of how far this team advances could be which William Buford shows up. He is a do everything wingman in a similar mold to David Lighty, and will need to be aggressive and on point if he wants to advance to a Final Four before he graduates.

J’Covan Brown, G, Texas – Brown is personally responsible for putting Texas into the field this year. It’s been him, an at times inconsistent Myck Kabongo, and a bunch of other guys in Texas uniforms. Simply put, the guy can score. Like Ware, he shoots in high volumes, but mostly because there is no one else on the team that can provide the kind of offense he can. It will be very difficult for Texas to advance, but don’t be surprised if he hangs 30 on a team before bowing out.

John Jenkins, G, Vanderbilt – This guy is an absolute dynamo from outside the three point line (averages 4 made 3 pointers a game) and is just the type of player that can carry a team to 2-3 wins in a tournament. Vanderbilt is starting to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, and Jenkins is a key reason why. Expect him to make life very difficult for opposing teams.

Bernard James, F, Florida State – The ‘Noles are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and it starts with James, an ultra-athletic post defender. He is a 26 year old senior thanks to serving in America’s military for a few years, and that kind of maturity might just give him, and his team, an advantage that not many others have. Florida State is riding a wave of big wins into the tournament, and if its going to continue, they’ll certainly need big things from James.

Kris Joseph, F, Syracuse – The loss of Fab Melo for the tournament is a huge blow for the Orange, who will need other guys to step up in big ways to help compensate. Perhaps more than anybody, Joseph will have to play like the star that many have expected him to be over the last few years. His lack of big numbers are somewhat a product of the depth Syracuse has on the wing spots, but also from a lack of aggression on his part. If this guy can average around 20 ppg in the tournament, this squad still has a legitimate shot at cutting the nets down in April.

Didn’t make the cut – Dion Waiters, Jared Sullinger, Jamar Samuels, Jordan Taylor, Yancy Gates, Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos, Kevin Jones

First Round Picks

Syracuse over UNC Asheville, Kansas State over Southern Mississippi, Vanderbilt over Harvard, Wisconsin over Montana, Cincinnati over Texas, Florida State over St. Bonaventure, West Virginia over Gonzaga, Ohio State over Loyola (MD)

Second Round Picks

Syracuse over Kansas State, Vanderbilt over Wisconsin, Florida State over Cincinnati, Ohio State over West Virginia

Sweet 16

Vanderbilt over Syracuse, Ohio State over Florida State

Regional Final

Ohio State over Vanderbilt

Team that could make a run

I’m expecting some big things from Vanderbilt this tournament, and like I said before, they are finally starting to play like the team we all expected them to be at the beginning of the season. They have a great trio of stars in Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins, and Jeffery Taylor, and a coach in Kevin Stallings who knows who to get a team geared up for big games. Things will be difficult from the outset, but I am expecting them to rise to the challenge and perform at a very high level. If they can make it to the Sweet 16, I believe they have the chops to make life very difficult for the Orange and exploit the absence of Fab Melo. I hate going on a limb like putting a 5 seed in the Elite 8, but the fact that the team is Vanderbilt makes that decision a little easier to sweat out. I never thought I would say this, but go ‘dores.

Team that worries me

I don’t really like putting Syracuse here but I just have to do it. Yeah, yeah we all know about Fab Melo and how the team was that much worse when we saw how they played without him during the season. But another problem, and perhaps just as serious, is Scoop Jardine. I think the guy is a great player at times, but he is just a little too inconsistent for my taste. Not all teams have absolute studs at point guard (look at Kentucky), but I don’t see this team being a serious championship contender when you aren’t positive what you’ll be getting out of your point guard. Maybe he plays out of his mind and has a huge tournament. If he does, Syracuse fans can rest a little easier. But I’m not betting on it.

MIDWEST REGION

If everything plays out like it should in this region, always a dangerous assumption, we could have matchup of two of the nation’s premier programs and coaches in Kansas (Bill Self) and North Carolina (Roy Williams). While the masses might be expecting chalk to play out apart from an upset or two, there are some teams in this part of the bracket that should certainly make things very interesting. St. Mary’s has one of the most underrated coaches in the country in Randy Bennett, and a lead guard in Matt Dellavedova who can make things very difficult for opposing defense. California could be hungry to prove that they belong. And Georgetown is the teams that scares me the most as a Kansas fan. Henry Sims is one of the best passing big men in the country, Otto Porter has emerged as a young star, Hollis Thompson is an athletic slasher, and Jason Clark is an absolute rock in the backcourt.

Five Players to Watch

Reggie Bullock, G, North Carolina – It’s no stretch to say that North Carolina might have the best frontcourt in the country. But Kendall Marshall is a pass-first point guard, and as a result, the Tar Heels have had trouble finding ways to score on the perimeter and space the floor at times. If they are going to have any shot of winning a championship, their guards and smaller forwards will have to make jump shots, and it all starts with Bullock, who is their most talented scoring guard. He is going to have be dangerous from 20 feet and beyond, easing the pressure on the Tar Heel big men, and adding another weapon to Carolina’s offensive arsenal. If Bullock can step up, this team is my favorite to win the title. 

Thomas Robinson, F, Kansas – This is a pretty obvious choice. This guy is one of the top candidates for player of the year and is the most important player in the country when it comes to being a direct determinant to his team’s success. He is a ferocious rebounder with a fast improving offensive game. If he can stay under control, out of foul trouble, and convert easy basketbs, Kansas will be a tough out. Robinson certainly has the ability to be “the guy” on a championship level team, but will he get enough support from his role players?

Allen Crabbe, G, California – Crabbe is a dynamic scorer who has the athletic ability to drive to the hoop, as well as the touch to be a lethal threat from beyond the arc. Cal has the potential (thanks to a very underrated group of guards) to advance to the round of 16, and if they are going to do it, Crabbe will be the one leading the way.

Doug McDermott, F, Creighton – There is a reason this dude is getting so much attention as a possible first team all-america member. He shoots an absolutely blistering 61% on field goals, and 49% from three point range, and also rebounds very well for his position. He is right up there with Thomas Robinson when it comes to being incredibly valuable to the outcomes in his team’s games. If the opposition finds a way to shut him down (a very tall order), Creighton will be out very early. On the other hand, if he can go off, Creighton will give North Carolina all it can handle in the second round.

Ray McCallum, G, Detroit – Calling McCallum a diamond in the rough would probably be a disservice to his talent. He was very heavily recruited out of high school, but merely decided to play for his dad at Detroit. As a result, he has teamed up with Eli Holman and Chase Simon to form one of the most talented and dangerous 15 seeds in recent memory (trying not to freak out). Now that Detroit has advanced to the tournament, McCallum has a national platform to display his NBA calibur skills to all who are watching. When Detroit matches up with Kansas in the first round, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the best guard on the floor.

Didn’t make the cut – Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Harrison Barnes, Jorge Guttierez, Trevor Releford, Tim Hardaway Jr., Henry Sims, Robbie Hummel, Matthew Dellavedova

First Round Picks

North Carolina over Lamar, Creighton over Alabama, California over Temple, Michigan over Ohio, NC State over San Diego State, Georgetown over Belmont, St. Mary’s over Purdue, Kansas over Detroit

Second Round Picks

North Carolina over Creighton, California over Michigan, Georgetown over NC State, Kansas over St. Mary’s

Sweet 16

North Carolina over California, Georgetown over Kansas

Regional Final

North Carolina over Georgetown

Team that could make a run

I don’t think California is a complete enough team to be a serious contender. But I do think they have enough fire power at the guard position to steal a few games. Furthermore, it appears the draw breaks for them just the right way with favorable matchups against South Florida, Temple, and Michigan to make some noise. Yeah, they come from the historically bad conference in the Pac-12, but if we look at this team independent of conference affiliation, I think we will see a team with a level of talent that isn’t correctly represented by their seeding. Furthermore, they have a very seasoned coach in Mike Montgomery who is very capable of leading a team in a tournament setting.

Team that worries me

I might be over analyzing, but I can’t help but put Kansas in here. Assuming they advance to the second round, they meet a very tough mid-major in St. Mary’s who is more than capable of competing with the big boys. And this is a team featuring a player in Matt Dellavedova who is very capable of putting a team on his back and winning a game by himself. Not to mention the other possible speed bumps along the road to possible a regional final matchup with North Carolina (the most formidable being a Georgetown team that has already given Kansas trouble this year). Bill Self has done an incredible coaching job this year, and has done a good job of maximizing Kansas’ talent, but I also think that might be something of a problem. When they run into a team that is deeper and more talented, I just don’t know if they have the firepower to pull out a win. Here’s to hoping the Jayhawks prove me wrong.

FINAL FOUR

Missouri over Kentucky

North Carolina over Ohio State

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

North Carolina over Missouri

This would be a great matchup of different styles, but equally high octane offense. Missouri emphasizes its guard play and is deadly from three point range. North Carolina, on the other hand, runs its offense through its bigs, hitting high percentage shots in the paint. In the end though, Missouri’s lack of depth on the frontline after Ricardo Ratliffe will end up being too big of a deficiency to ignore, and Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock will hit the big shots from the perimeter when it matters. Apologies to all Carolina fans for the kiss of death.

Reevaluating

I try not to overreact to things that go on in football, especially since we’re only a few days removed from the first slate of games. But what we saw from Kansas City against Buffalo (and Indianapolis against Houston) warrants some reconsideration of what I said in my Season Preview.

Houston now has to be the odds on favorite to win the AFC South after realizing just how valuable Peyton Manning is to the Colts. And while the devastating injury to Eric Berry doesn’t change San Diego’s position as AFC West frontrunner, it could possibly change the landscape of spots 2-4 in the division.

Last Sunday’s debacle against Buffalo was pretty disheartening for Chiefs fans all around. If there is one positive to take away from it, the team did have 18 carries for 108 yards. Sure, some of it came in garbage time, but at least they proved that in a closer game, when passing isn’t a complete necessity all of the time, this is still a team that can control the ball and move the chains.

That said, I don’t think it could have gone any worse. Matt Cassel completed a solid percentage of his passes, but 119 yards on 22 completions is unacceptable (and he had 3.3 yards per attempt! An absurdly low number).* Dexter McCluster fumbling on the opening play of the game was even worse. The team was -2 on turnovers, and the front seven looked like a junior varsity squad against Fred Jackson and the Bills’ ground attack. And to add insult to injury (or the other way around I guess), Eric Berry is now out for the year with a torn ACL. Again, I try not to overreact, but seeing all of these deficiencies after one week does not paint a very optimistic picture.

*He’s certainly come a long way, without a doubt. But just seeing Tom Brady operate against the Dolphins Monday night served as a stark reminder of just how long Cassel has to go as well.

Frankly though, I refuse to let one crappy week of football dictate my optimism for this team down the road, which remains extremely high. While, my expectations for this year have been lowered a good amount, I think this injury will really do nothing but good for the team in the long term. The absence of Berry (and Tony Moeaki) will force other players to improve their games at an even higher rate. Kendrick Lewis is no all-pro in the defensive backfield, but now that he is one the best playmakers the Kansas City secondary possesses, it is mostly on him to become a better safety on the fly. What’s more, the front seven will need an improved pass rush from guys like Justin Houston, Tyson Jackson, and Glenn Dorsey, to make it easier on that secondary. If a season’s small hopes are pinned on some of our more talented young players getting better, this is something I can definitely live with…the Chiefs aren’t New England or Pittsburgh yet. 

As far as records go, its not like Berry’s injury will make the Chiefs go from a seven to nine win team to a two to four win team. But there could be just enough extra losses to get a very high draft pick, and a great chance to improve this team even more along with it.* After this season, Cassel will have 3 years left on his contract. Wouldn’t that be the perfect amount of time to let a good young quarterback sit and develop and learn (like Matt Barkley, Kellen Moore, Landry Jones…..or, gasp, Andrew Luck) and be able to take the reins after his contract is up? That sounds like a great situation to me.

*Just to get an idea: Dallas had the 9th pick in the 2011 draft with 6 wins, and Arizona had the 5th pick with as many as 5 wins. Kansas City does not need to lose 14 games to get a special player.

A buddy of mine also presented the idea that if this year turns out as bad as many now think it will, the first reaction of the media and less educated fans will be to call last year’s 10-6 record a fluke. While that will make many of the diehards angry, I doubt too many of the players even care. And if they do, won’t that just motivate them even more for next season? The “nobody believed in us”/”us against the world” mantra has taken teams very far in the past. I wouldn’t mind it at all if the players want to use that next season, or even this season.

Furthermore, Eric Berry may be losing a year of playing time. But he also left college a year early for the NFL. And he doesn’t turn 23 until December, making him even younger than most people would guess. While he won’t be able to physically play the game, this is a chance for him to get the technical/schematic aspects of Romeo Crennel’s system locked down. Yeah, there is definitely no substitution for learning by trial (in this case, with pads and a helmet, and against an offense), but I think there is also something to be said about learning from the sidelines.* And if anything, this will only get him all the more juiced for next season.

*Just ask Aaron Rodgers

I’m sure the biggest concern, though, is how this will affect Berry in the big picture. Well, upon listening to an interview from one of ESPN’s doctors (although, I can’t be sure how good the doctors are that ESPN has for guest spots), I learned that Berry should be a go for the start of training camp next year. Even better, he also noted that 95% of people who suffer ACL injuries like Berry’s go on to make full recoveries; gaining full range and all of the athletic capabilities possessed pre-injury. More than anything, the hardest thing for Berry to get back will be his confidence in planting that leg and making cuts on it, something I doubt he’ll have much of a problem with.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Progress this season won’t mean more wins or a division championship. Because of injuries and a tougher schedule, comparing this season with last season would be like trying to compare Kate Upton with this poor girl. The situations and surrounding circumstances are just different.

In an ideal world, Eric Berry stays healthy and plays the whole season. He continues to improve and he asserts himself as the heir apparent to the likes of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. But if you are looking for an ideal world, the NFL would probably be last on your list of places to visit. It sucks that he won’t be able to play anymore. It puts even more pressure on the entire team, and especially the secondary, to perform even better than originally expected. But sometimes, the NFL sucks.

It will be difficult for this team to win more than 6 or 7 games (that would have been difficult even if Berry and Moeaki were still healthy). But from the guys that are already on the roster to the guys that will be after April of 2012, to many other factors (WARNING: talking long-term here, something that requires patience, understanding etc)…I just don’t see how this injury doesn’t benefit the Kansas City Chiefs.

WEEK 2 PICKS (Home team in CAPS)

WASHINGTON over Arizona

Philadelphia over ATLANTA

Baltimore over TENNESSEE

BUFFALO over Oakland

GREEN BAY over Carolina

NEW ORLEANS over Chicago

DENVER over Cincinnati

INDIANAPOLIS over Cleveland

Dallas over SAN FRANCISCO

DETROIT over Kansas City

Houston over MIAMI

NEW YORK JETS over Jacksonville

MINNESOTA over Tampa Bay

NEW ENGLAND over San Diego

NEW YORK GIANTS over St. Louis

PITTSBURGH over Seattle

Last Week: 11-5

Overall: 11-5

NFL Season Preview

Editor’s Note: As I said in yesterday’s column, predicting just a single season for a single team presents a seriously thin margin for error. So now just multiply that by 32 and add in all of my award and playoff predictions and that’s what you’re getting today. If even half of these turn out to be “sort of” correct, I will consider today’s deal a success.

Well the football year officially begins in just one day, and I think all of the the lockout business during the summer only hyped it up even more. And as is always the case with the NFL, there is no shortage of storylines. When will Peyton Manning return to the field and return to form? Will Philadelphia be able to live up to the high expectations this year? Can Green Bay defend their championship? How will all of the coaches on the hot seat respond this year? And I would be remiss to not include Cam Newton’s name as well.

Concerning gameplay, I think the most important thing for teams looking to win is continuity from the previous season. That is always important no matter the situation, but this year more than others for the simple fact that there were basically no football activities, practices, etc. for the entire summer. Teams that had low personnel turnover, like Green Bay and Pittsburgh, or the ones that got together for an unusually high amount of player organized workouts, like New Orleans, will benefit the most. Thats not to say it is the end-all-be-all for teams who think they can win now, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

As far as the win-loss predictions go, I went through every team’s schedule, and went with a pretty quick call on every single game that was played. And to ensure accuracy with records, I didn’t forget to carry games over. To explain, when going through Chicago’s slate of games for example, I put them as Week 9 losers at Philadelphia. When I was finished there, I made sure to go to Philadelphia’s schedule and put them as Week 9 winners against Chicago and so on and so forth for every team. So, without further ado, here are my regular season/playoff/awards thoughts on the 2011-2012 football season.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 3 Seed)

Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 (2-4) (Wildcard, No. 6 Seed)

New York Football Giants 8-8 (3-3)

Washington Redskins 5-11 (3-3)

Analysis: I am going all in on the Cowboys this year (as you will see below in the awards section and my playoff predictions) and I don’t think they will disappoint. Jason Garrett is going to prove himself as one of the top play callers in the game, Felix Jones will establish himself as a feature back, and Tony Romo will re-ascend into the top tier level of quarterbacks in the game. The only questions are how fast will the defense be able to adjust to Rob Ryan’s new scheme and how capable this very young and inexperienced offensive line will prove itself to be. The Cowboys could start off a little sluggish given these issues, but I think they will peak at the right time…The Eagles made headlines almost every day after the lockout was lifted, it seemed, with the players they acquired. This team certainly has a lot of talent, but the offensive line is a huge question mark (not to mention, what the hell is/was wrong with Jeremy Maclin?). Pair a possibly shaky line with Michael Vick’s probability of injury, and that is not a recipe for championship level success. The Eagles have a lot of the tools and the talent, and they are getting closer, but this is not their year…The New York Giants could easily win 10 games this year. But with a lot of new faces on the offensive line and an unlucky hoard of season ending injuries to a talented secondary, the Giants just won’t quite have the chops to compete with the big boys this season. The front office should be commended though, on how they have replenished their corps of receivers in the post-Plaxico era. Manningham and Nicks are studs…And Washington is just bad, plain and simple. Rex Grossman is their quarterback. Need I say more?

NFC North

Green Bay Packers 13-3 (6-0) (Division Champion, No.2 Seed)

Detroit Lions 8-8 (2-4)*

Chicago Bears 8-8 (2-4)*

Minnesota Vikings 7-9 (2-4)

*For the tiebreak, the first four steps (head to head, divisional record, win percentage in common games, win percentage in conference games) were unable to determine a winner. The next step was strength of victory, where the Lions edged out the Bears to win 2nd place in the division.

Analysis: Green Bay will run away with what should be a pretty competitive division in spots 2-4. Not to mention they will be even better thanks to getting Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back after early, season ending injuries from the season before. Not much more needs to be said about the cheeseheads…Detroit is making improvements every season, but their future depends on how healthy Matt Stafford can stay. If he can, I think he’s capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl at some point in his career. I really believe it. This kid has all of the tools and the intangibles…With Julius Peppers, Chicago’s defense became one of the elite units in the game last season. On the other hand, I really don’t like their offensive line or receivers or Mike Martz in general. They just haven’t put the right guys around Jay Cutler, and it will show this year…Minnesota has some really good players, but Donovan McNabb is surely on the downside of his career. Maybe he proves that last season’s fiasco in Washington was only an apparition, but I’m not betting on it. Where he goes this season, so goes Minny.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints 13-3 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 1 Seed by virtue of Week 1 victory over Green Bay)

Atlanta Falcons 11-5 (5-1) (Wildcard, No. 5 Seed)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7 (3-3)

Carolina Panthers 2-14 (0-6)

Analysis: After last season’s embarrassment to Seattle in the divisional round, I think the Saints, and especially Drew Brees, will come out this season firing on all cylinders (or as Bill Simmons termed it, “Efff you” mode). They will remind all of the people who seemed to forget them that this is one of the truly elite teams in the league. Brees will take this “Efff you” mentality to a whole new level as he plays his way into an MVP award (I think in the same way Tom Brady Efff you’d his way to the honor last year). After that loss to Seattle, and all of the uncharacteristic picks he threw during the season, Brees will want to win badly this year. And we already got a glimpse of that with the passion he exhibited in organzing all of his team’s workouts during the lockout…Atlanta’s record may look worse compared to last year’s, but I think it’ll be more a result from New Orleans’ elevation of play rather than a dropoff in their own. The Falcons are still a no-doubter as one of the best teams in the NFC, you just can’t win 13 games every year. That’s not the way the NFL works…The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the most promising up-and-comers the league has to offer. Josh Freeman made unexpectedly huge strides in his development and added himself to an incredibly promising crop of young quarterbacks to take the mantle after the Manning’s/Brady’s/Brees’s of the world are gone. Unfortunately Raheem Morris and the Buc’s are caught in a division with two powerhouses. They will be competitive this year, but will not be able to find a way into the playoffs until the Saints drop off…Cam Newton will be starting this season at quarterback for Carolina. Thats all you really need to know. I’m putting the over/under for his completion percentage on the season at 45.

NFC West

St. Louis Rams 9-7 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 4 Seed)

Arizona Cardinals 7-9 (4-2)

Seattle Seahawks 6-10 (3-3)

San Francisco 49ers 4-12 (1-5)

Analysis: A true abomination of a division. St. Louis will be the team to take advantage of its situation and secure a playoff spot by finishing with a winning record. Sam Bradford is a future superstar and the defense is making strides. The front office needs to prioritize the continued building of the offensive line and receiving corps though…Arizona’s season hinges completely on Kevin Kolb. I think he will be decent enough this year (better down the road) but it won’t be enough to top St. Louis for the division crown. At the same time though, this is a team that could sneak up on some people, especially if Kolb can exceed expectations and Chris (I refuse to call him Beanie) Wells can stay healthy…Seattle’s is coached by Pete Carroll and is quarterbacked by Tarvaris Jackson. That combination has no chance at making the playoffs, which is a shame because their is some intriguing talent at other spots on that roster…College coaches being successful in the NFL is, by general rule of thumb, something that just doesn’t happen. I’ve never believed in it before, but Jim Harbaugh made me think twice. He’s got a shot to become one of the best coaches in the NFL. Unfortunately, it just won’t be this year. Michael Crabtree has been disappointing as a teammate, and Alex Smith is not capable of leading a team to the playoffs. Down the road, this could be a team to watch though. Pat Willis is an absolute monster at linebacker.

NFC Playoffs

Wildcard Round

(5) Falcons def. (4) Rams

(3) Cowboys def. Eagles (6)

Divisional Round

(1) Saints def. (5) Falcons

(3) Cowboys def. (2) Packers

Conference Championship

(3) Cowboys def. (1) Saints

As I said before, I am all in on this Cowboys team. Many people have believed they could break through in the playoffs before and they’ve faltered, but I really like the talent and personnel this team has, and I believe in Tony Romo and Jason Garrett. This could easily blow up in my face, but for now, I’ll see you in Indy Cowboys.

AFC East

New England Patriots 14-2 (5-1) (Division Champion, No. 1 Seed by virture of Week 8 victory over Pittsburgh)

New York Jets 11-5 (5-1) (Wildcard, No. 5 Seed by virture of Week 4 victory over Baltimore)

Buffalo Bills 5-11 (1-5)*

Miami Dolphins 5-11 (1-5)*

*Tiebreak also settled on strength of victory this time around. The fact that the two tiebreaks had to go through so many steps was probably one of the resulting flaws of the way I organized these standings.

Analysis: I think the Patriots are not nearly ready yet to be dethroned from their seat atop the AFC East. This team is just too good and too prepared every week to not win this thing…New York is coming on fast, but until Mark Sanchez can establish himself as a top ten quarterback or Tom Brady gets seriously hurt, this division is all about New England. Despite the circus atmostphere Rex Ryan brought to New York, what he has done to that team with very average quarterback play has been a lot of fun to watch…Chan Gailey does not deserve to be a head coach in the NFL, but one nice thing I can say about him is that he is unusually good at getting points out of mediocre offenses (just look at what he did with Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City). This team has some solid pieces in place, and I think they’ve actually made strides the past year or so, but they still have a long way to go and play in a division with New England and New York. Marcell Dareus is an all-pro waiting to happen though…Miami has a chance to be a train wreck this season. I don’t like any of their running backs, or that offense in general. I haven’t completely lost faith in Chad Henne, but I’m pretty close. I just feel bad for Tony Sparano and the lack of class he was treated with concerning his job status this previous offseason. I think this guy can coach, just not in Miami. He’ll be gone after the season. Probably a good thing though, because this is not a very well run team.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 13-3 (6-0) (Division Champion, No. 2 Seed)

Baltimore Ravens 11-5 (4-2) (Wildcard, No. 6 Seed)

Cleveland Browns 5-11 (1-5)

Cincinnati Bengals 3-13 (1-5)

Analysis: Similar division make up as the AFC East. Two REALLY good teams, one mediocre team, and a really bad one. The only difference between the Ravens and Steelers this year in the standings will come from their head to head matchups where I have the Pittsburgh sweeping the season series.* Baltimore might have Ray Lewis, but Pittsburgh has the best/most balanced collection of linebackers I have seen in my lifetime (not an exaggeration). You can put Timmons, Farrior, Harrison, and Woodley all as starters on the all-pro team this year and I don’t think you would hear complaints from anyone. Pittsburgh will be one of the favorites to win the AFC championship this year and with that coaching staff and defense (not to mention a VERY underrated offense), its not difficult to see why…Baltimore is a team I’ve always pulled for, but you have to wonder if Joe Flacco can become the man at quarterback the team so desperately needs to win one last Super Bowl for Ray Lewis. You do have to give him credit for all of the road playoff victories he’s pulled off, but Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl always seems to be going through Pittsburgh. And until they can find a way to beat that team when it really matters, they will never play for the big prize…I like what Cleveland has been doing the last few years as far as completely rebuilding this team can go. These things just take some time, but it appears they may have found a guy in Colt McCoy… Marvin Lewis says that the Bengals will be even better than they were last year. But I’m not sure how that is possible when they are having to replace Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco (even if they are both over the hill) with two rookies. Not to mention they lost their shutdown corner in Jonathan Joseph to Houston. This team will be tough to watch.

*In my opinion, these games have become easily the most fun to watch every year. I love an Indianapolis v. New England game as much as anyone, but now that the Colts are trending downward, Baltimore v. Pittsburgh has become easily the most competitive, brutal game you can possibly find. There is something about seeing guys like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger beat on each other for 3.5 hours that you can’t find anywhere else. The teams have a pretty mutual dislike for one another, and there are hard hits, big plays, and close outcomes every time. Unfortunately, people who like to see 60 points a game should probably stay away. This is old school football at its absolute finest.

Mike Tomlin is just all sorts of awesome

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts 10-6 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 4 Seed)*

*Gonna hedge again here, but this pick is obviously completely contingent on Peyton Manning playing at the very least 13 or 14 games. Anything less than that and my pick would be Houston to take the division at 9-7 or 10-6.

Houston Texans 9-7 (3-3)

Tennessee Titans 7-9 (2-4)

Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11 (3-3)

Analysis: I am rooting hard for the Texans to finally pull the rug out from under the Colts this season but I just don’t see it happening. I loved the Wade Phillips hire as defensive coordinator, and getting Jonathan Joseph (along with the improvement of 2010 first round pick Kareem Jackson) can really shore up that secondary. But switching from a 4-3 to a base 3-4 defense doesn’t work overnight. Its a process, especially if the guys you’re working with have played in a 4-3 their whole lives (Mario Williams could have a tough time shifting to outside linebacker). Houston is lucky they get Indy week one with Peyton on the sidelines. But the game I am really watching for is Week 16 when the Texans have to play at the Colts. The division, and a playoff spot, could be riding on it. Houston is agonizingly close to putting it together, but until I see a Peyton Manning led team not win a division championship, I am putting my money on him every year. Bank on Gary Kubiak (as well as Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio) losing his job after the season…I like what Tennessee did in getting Matt Hasselbeck, and they may have found a stud in tight end Jared Cook, but I think this team just lacks the overall talent to compete on a weekly basis. Look for them to give a few contenders a run for their money though…Jacksonville’s starter this season is Luke McCown which means game over. Its as easy as that. Although, I think their defense could be sneaky good this year and keep them in a few games. 

AFC West

San Diego Chargers 11-5 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 3 Seed)

Kansas City Chiefs 8-8 (5-1)

Denver Broncos 5-11 (2-4)

Oakland Raiders 3-13 (1-5)

Analysis: Having the Chargers winning the AFC West was not a difficult call. Despite the Raiders and Broncos are quietly and slowly getting better (despite the five game regression in Oakland I have this year), and the Chiefs developing into a down-the-road contender, this will still be San Diego’s division for the season, and probably the one after it as well. Philip Rivers is one of the best in the business at quarterback, and I think Norv Turner is a little underrated. Chargers take the the division easily…You’ve already heard me talk about Kansas City enough so I’ll stay away from that one…Losing Asomugha obviously hurts Oakland a lot. And the exit of Zach Miller along with Robert Gallery to Seattle doesn’t help things either. Even with all of that, there is some talent that the Raiders can build on. I’m just not sure if I can see this team being competitive until Al Davis cedes control over major personnel decisions (he really does struggle)…After the Josh McDaniels debacle of the last two seasons, I don’t think Denver could have made a better hire than John Fox, one of my favorite coaches in the league. I actually trust John Elway (never thought I would say that in my lifetime) to make some good decisions and he already got off to a good start with their newest draftee, Von Miller (who has been garnering comparisons to Derrick Thomas). Denver doesn’t have a franchise quarterback (sorry Tebow fans but that’s the reality), and they are still 4-5 years away, but things are actually looking up. 4-5 years is kind of a long time though.

AFC Playoffs

Wildcard Round

(6) Ravens def. (3) Chargers

(4) Colts def. (5) Jets

Same matchup as last year (again contingent on a healthy Manning). I know you’re saying, “Well, didn’t New York come in there and win last year? And haven’t the Colts gotten worse and the Jets better since then?” You are right on all accounts. I just don’t see Manning losing again in the manner he did last year. He’s too good and too smart for that. I’m pretty sure at least.

Divisional Round

(2) Steelers def. (6) Ravens

(1) Patriots smoke (4) Colts

For the 3rd time this season, the Ravens cannot overcome Mike Tomlin’s Steel Curtain 2.0. And the Patriots, after last season’s home playoff embarrassment, go into a postseason “Efff you” mode. They are PISSED.

Conference Championship

(1) Patriots smoke (2) Steelers

For some reason, Tom Brady is the only guy in the league who has been able to legitimately figure out that “Stiller” defense over the last few years. It’ll show again here as the Patriots march to another Super Bowl appearance.

Awards

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Ingram (RB) New Orleans Saints

Defensive Rookie of the Year: 1a. Von Miller (LB) Denver Broncos

1b. Marcell Dareus (DL) Buffalo Bills

Comeback Player of the Year: Tony Romo (QB) Dallas Cowboys*

*He may not even be eligible, but what the hell.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ray Rice (RB) Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware (LB) Dallas Cowboys

Coach of the Year: Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

MVP: Drew Brees (QB) New Orleans Saints

SUPER BOWL

(1) New England Patriots def. (3) Dallas Cowboys

Its hard to believe that when the big game rolls around next February, it will have been 8 years since the Patriots have last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. That is a shockingly long time for me and I think it stops this season. It’s just been too long for this team and they have suffered too many playoff losses in past years (seriously, how have they not won a Super bowl since 2004?!). Belichick and Brady light a collective fire under the team’s ass, they roll through the regular season, the playoffs, and outclass a feel good story in Dallas for an NFL championship. Brady wins his fourth ring and ends the Manning/Brady discussion for good. (Sorry for the jinx Pats fans…and the word count).

Now who’s ready for some football?

LOWEST WORD COUNT EVER!!!!/Kansas City Chiefs Season Preview

Editor’s Note: Predicting anything/everything is a pretty inexact science, especially when it comes to the NFL. Which is why this column is really just an opinion of how I THINK the season will end up for this proud franchise. This doesn’t take into account the injuries which will certainly befall the squad (as they do with every team), games in which the team inexplicably just doesn’t show up, or other situations in which they play over their talent level etc etc.

Back in Kansas City, expectations are pretty high among many fans about this coming season. And why shouldn’t they be? Many of the young players the team was forged around in a rough rebuilding project showed flashes of future stardom*, veterans came together and put up some career years, Todd Haley showed he can be a good coach (not great yet though), and Scott Pioli proved that there is indeed a plan in place to assemble a perennial contender, and that it is going extremely well.

*The absurd amount of alliteration in that sentence was unintended. As was the alliteration in the first sentence of this comment. I’m a wordsmith, deal with it.

And even though the Chiefs simply got outclassed in the playoffs by a very good Baltimore team, a division championship is a division championship (even though it was one of the worst divisions in football last season). I am extremely excited for the future as a Kansas City Chiefs fan. But despite all of the good things that happened last year, I am also tempering my expectations for this coming year.

For me, two teams come to mind when analyzing what is to come in Kansas City: the 2008 Cleveland Browns, and the 2009 Atlanta Falcons. In the season before for these respective teams, each came seemingly from nowhere to win a very good amount of games.* The bar was set very high for the next season, and each team could not withstand the pressure. Cleveland went back to their usual…a losing season, and we saw that the previous year was more of an outlier than anything. Atlanta, on the other hand, went 9-7, a regression for sure, but people still understood this was going to be a very good team down the road (13-3 the next season).

*Atlanta, with a rookie quarterback, went 11-5. Cleveland, with the fact that they are Cleveland and were led by the great Derrick Anderson, went 10-6.

Unfortunately, I believe the Chiefs will suffer from a similar sort of regression this season, and everyone will want to assume that it will be a Cleveland Browns type of deal. A team that was a huge fluke, not very talented, but very lucky. Rather, I think this will be more comparable to the backtracking we saw from Atlanta a few years ago. This is a team on a mission, with a lot to look forward to and a lot of the pieces in place. But its just not quite there yet.

OFFENSE

This is an intriguing situation, because there are players here who will be very good for a very long time. There are young/talented offensive lineman. Dwayne Bowe and Matt Cassel made huge strides. Jamaal Charles established himself as one of the best running backs in the league. And the team made solid, understated signings in fullback Le’Ron McLain, tackle Jared Gaither, and receiver Steve Breaston. 

But for each of those players, there is another player that is a big question mark. Will Jon Asamoah be able to replace Brian Waters at guard? Will the offensive tackles (particularly Barry Richardson) be able to play better than when they were thoroughly outmatched the last two weeks of last season? Can Matt Cassel continue to develop into an above average quarterback/is he even capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl? Will Jon Baldwin grow up? Can Dexter McCluster stay healthy? How will the team respond to the season ending injury to Tony Moeaki?

Obviously, that’s a lot of nitpicking. This offense has a lot more going for it than the majority of teams, but there are still some problems that need to be solved.

DEFENSE

This is the side of the ball that is most exciting for me. Drafting Eric Berry a season ago could pay the same franchise-changing dividends that came about when Carl Peterson drafted Derrick Thomas in 1989. Tamba Hali developed into one the leagues premier sackmasters. Derrick Johnson began to harness the serious amount of talent that made him a first round pick not long ago. And Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr showed why this secondary will be the stingiest in all of football very soon.

Again though, questions arise. Kelly Gregg was a very solid signing at nose tackle, but the rest of the defensive line is a bit iffy at this point. Can Glenn Dorsey continue to get better? Can Tyson Jackson do anything to indicate why he was drafted in the first round 2 years ago?* Will anyone step up at the other two linebacker spots? Can Andy Studebaker be an adequate replacement for Mike Vrabel? Will Kendrick Lewis be the safety valve at free safety that Eric Berry needs in order to make plays?

*If it means anything, I think he will. The development for highly drafted defensive ends takes a lot more time than fans would like.

Clearly, these are some pretty legitimate issues. But I think they will be more easily solved than some of the problems we have on offense. This could be a stretch here, but this defense has a chance to be one of the best in the NFL for the next ten years, bringing back shades of the team seen at Arrowhead Stadium in the mid-1990’s. But the questions always remain, no matter what side of the ball we’re talking about. Here are some more concrete predictions on how this year will end up.

Week 1: home against Buffalo. W (1-0)

Week 2: at Detroit. L (1-1)

Week 3: at San Diego. L (1-2)

Week 4: home against Minnesota. W (2-2)

Week 5: at Indianapolis. L (2-3)

Week 6: BYE

Week 7: at Oakland. W (3-3)

Week 8: home against San Diego. W (4-3)

Week 9: home against Miami. W (5-3)

Week 10: home against Denver. W (6-3)

Week 11: at New England. L (6-4)

Week 12: home against Pittsburgh. L (6-5)

Week 13: at Chicago. L (6-6)

Week 14: at New York (Jets). L (6-7) 

Week 15: home against Green Bay. L (6-8)

Week 16: home against Oakland. W (7-8)

Week 17: at Denver. W (8-8)

After picking each of these games, and looking through the final results, I figured that this outcome is not very likely. I think a final record of 8-8 is certainly feasable (the team will win somewhere between six and nine, MAYBE ten games this year), but the way this has worked out just won’t happen. I don’t think I have ever seen a four game winning streak followed by a five game losing streak capped off with a two game winning streak. Schedules are just too unpredictable. And a 5-1 division record could be a little ambitious.

Some key games that could really go either way are @Detroit, Minnesota, @Indianapolis, @Oakland, San Diego, Miami (this is a classic trap game), @Chicago, and @Denver. Putting half the schedule down for a “key games” section may be a little cowardly of me, but I truly believe that all of these games can go in either direction, and how the team does in these eight will determine whether or not they are playing postseason football.*

*Just to get a sense here, I have them going 5-3 in these games and it will still not be enough for a playoff berth.

 The obvious thing here though, is that the schedule this year is a great deal harder than last year’s, meaning that the team could make significant strides in the personnel department, and still finish with a worse result, which I believe is exactly what will happen. Yeah, there are some gimme’s on the slate that the team should absolutely win. But I fear that there are far too many more games that the Chiefs should definitely lose (weeks 11-15 are absolutely brutal) or games that are complete toss-ups (meaning we’d have to win a very high percentage of games decided by seven points or less).

I am looking forward very much to seeing what kind of improvements the players can make this season, and also how the team stacks up against the toughest competition and best model franchises the league has to offer (we will get many chances to see this). But the one thing people need to remember is that progress doesn’t mean a better record than the previous season or another division championship. That would be too superficial (plus I would be absolutely shocked if anyone other than the San Diego Chargers won the AFC West). For the 2011-2012 Kansas City Chiefs, progress means taking that one last step backward, before taking a leap forward.

Sleepers and Poopers Part Two

Now for the final segment of our 3 part fantasy series. Rather than saying this is a team full of outright busts, it is really more a team consisting of players I am looking to avoid. A lot of these players will still submit some very productive seasons. But based on where they are being drafted, I believe the costs to acquire them will far outweigh the numbers I believe they are going to produce.

2011-12 ALL-POOPER TEAM (same format as the last two days)

QB: Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles. This was a pretty close call between Vick and Manning, but something tells me that Manning will find a way to get on the field for the season opener. I really don’t have very much against Vick, hell, he helped carry one of my teams to a fantasy championship (and a hefty prize) last season. I just don’t think people realize the type of punishment his body takes because of the style of football he plays. If you could tell me that Michael Vick would play even 15 games at the level he played at last year, I would have to think about taking him with the top pick in the draft. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think he will be able to register a full season or play at the all-pro standard he submitted last year. Even if you subtracted every single one of his rushing attempts, his style of passing attracts an unusual amount of hits in the pocket. Now, when you add in his greatest strength (his ability to scramble), his body takes a true pounding every game. Moreover, it seemed apparent that defenses began to figure him out towards the end of last year. His TD/INT Ratio in his first seven games was an astounding 11:0. In his last six games (including his wild card loss to Green Bay), it was a more human 11:7. He also started getting sacked at a higher rate and fumbling the ball more to boot. I am completely OK with Vick being in that elite class for quarterbacks this season. His talent and the weapons around him are too tantalizing to ignore. But with the way he was trending towards the end of last season, coupled with the logical health risks that come with his style of play, the price tag he is commanding this season is too high for me.

Team Reserve: Peyton Manning

RB: Arian Foster, Houston Texans. Like Vick, this is another case of a very talented player who will likely produce at a pretty high level this season. I just don’t think it will be terribly close to the incredible marks he set last year.* The aggravated hamstring (althought I’m sure he will be fine) isn’t doing much to calm my fears. And I don’t want to put too much stock into Vonta Leach when determining the first round of a fantasy draft, but the numbers simply do not lie (refer to my paragraph on Ray Rice in Monday’s column). Maybe he won’t lose a yard per carry like other running backs who lost an all-pro fullback, but some regression on his averages is a very reasonable thing to expect. Moreover, while there is no contesting that Foster will be receiving the overwhelming majority of the work out of the backfield, the return of Ben Tate has been interesting to say the least. If you will recall, Tate was a 2nd round pick out of Auburn in 2010 and went on to suffer a season ending injury before the season began a year ago. He is now fully rehabilitated and has been earning the praise from his coach not only for his running ability, but his pass protection too. Again, Foster is the man in this situation. But if he needs a breather, or needs to have some limited carries because of that hamstring, Tate sounds like the right guy to come in and steal some production.** Make no mistake, Foster will produce some good numbers this season, and will be an asset to any team who owns him. But at what cost? For me, his ADP (the highest of any player in all of Yahoo!) is too high for me to be taking that kind of risk. You can have Vick and Foster. I’ll stick with the likes of Rivers and Peterson.

*Guys I would rather have than Foster this season: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Ray Rice. Maybe even Chris Johnson and Rashard Mendenhall (not even joking on the last one).

 **Recall, if you will, Rashad Jennings’ expanded role for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year. For anyone who owned Maurice Jones-Drew like I did, Jennings’ name is not one you relish hearing. I think Tate could have a very similar impact on Foster’s numbers this season.

RB: Ryan Matthews, San Diego Chargers. I really could have put any of the reserves below in this spot, but because Matthews is in such a concrete time share (one in which he will not be having the goal line carries), he takes the cake. This is a shame, because he has made some good strides this preseason and might be the best running back in this group. That said, Mike Tolbert is going to be getting somewhere around 40% of the workload plus a pretty good amount of touchdowns, which does not bode well for the Fresno Kid. Matthews could stay healthy all season and be no more than MAYBE a flex option. This kind of value is not what I’m looking for from a running back that is being drafted in most leagues as a RB2 option. If Tolbert were to get hurt at all, than Matthews immediately becomes a pretty valuable commodity, but I’m not taking those chances. I like the talent of Ryan Matthews quite a bit, but he just isn’t in a situation conducive to being a fantasy star. Not yet at least.

Team Reserves: Cedric Benson, BenJarvus “The Law Firm” Green-Ellis, Jahvid Best, Daniel Thomas

WR: Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs. As much as it hurts me to say, this was a pretty easy call. For all of the strides Bowe made on the field and in the locker room last season, there is NO WAY he can sustain the kind of production that made him one of the highest scoring receivers in the game. He did some great things but the numbers are a little flukey. 15 touchdowns on only 72 receptions is an absurd number, and one that he will not come close to replicating this season. Yahoo! currently has him ranked 15th at his position going into the season, but his ADP of 37 is just too high. Maybe I’m wrong (he is going into his age 27 year, so he has that going for him), but I think all of this increased attention on him and the team, coupled with a schedule chalk full of difficult opposing defenses will make it too difficult for him to even be a legit, every week WR2 option. I think he will serve as a microcosm of his team this season. More on that in my Chiefs season preview though.

WR: Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers. I don’t know about you guys, but doesn’t it seem like there is always something wrong with Vincent Jackson? Granted, he has had a couple very good seasons, but nothing yet that warrants his current ADP of 31. I actually wouldn’t mind him being a WR2 on my team, but a lot of people are drafting him as their top receiving threat, and that is not leaving their teams in a good spot. You certainly cannot deny the deep ball connection he has with Phillip Rivers. But in a PPR league like mine, that is almost a detriment.* For me, the consistency isn’t there to explain how high he is going in drafts. Again, this isn’t a case of me avoiding a player alltogether. If I can get him at the right time and at the right price, I’d welcome him on my squad. But at the price he would cost my team the way he’s currently being drafted, he’s too big a risk.

*I’ll take the points where I can get them, but the high volume reception guys will always be more valuable in PPR leagues than the deep ball threats like DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, and the like.

Team Reserves: Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne

TE: Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons. This was easily the most painful addition to the squad of any player. Tony Gonzalez is not only the greatest fantasy football tight end of all time, but the greatest tight end in football history. Period. A first ballot HOF without any question. As far as football purposes go (I mean, like, real football…on a field), he’s one of the better tight ends in the game. But for our intents and purposes, his contributions have been growing less and less for consecutive seasons. Age, it seems, is finally beginning to catch up to Tony the Tiger, and the addition of Julio Jones into the Falcons’ offensive mix will certainly hurt the amount of times Matt Ryan looks his way. The facts are facts. Last year was his first since 2002 to average below 50 yards receiving per game. That almost never happens to T-Gon. Now, if my regular TE1 is on a bye week, Tony is the first guy I’m looking to add via the waiver wire. The only problem is, he won’t be there because he’ll have been previously chosen in the draft, and the fact of the matter is that this tight end class is too deep for that. There are way too many options that present much more upside.* Again, in the right setting, Gonzalez could find a way to contribute on fantasy teams. As of now though, his cost is too high. I am really hoping that he proves me wrong this year and takes a big step toward being the first tight end ever with 100 touchdown catches. But I’m not betting on it.

*If this is any indication, in my reasonably crude power rankings, Gonzalez ranks somewhere in the teens.

Team Reserves: Dallas Clark, Zach Miller

DEF: Baltimore Ravens. As I said yesterday, when selecting someone for your team, at any position, you need to be careful that you’re not selecting based on reputation rather what that commodity has done the last few years. That warning can apply to Tony Gonzalez for people who are picking him to be a TE1, and I also think it applies to people drafting Baltimore to be an every week starting defense. For real football purposes, this is still a pretty good defense. But as some of their best players continue to age, this unit has started to show cracks in the real and fantasy world. This is a team that actually dropped to 10th among defenses in fantasy points last season, yet Yahoo! has them projected as their second best defense and people are drafting them as the fifth best defense in all of fantasy. Under the right context (against average to bad offenses), this is a good defense to employ. And for the criteria I just used in the previous sentence, maybe that means they’re a decent start ten weeks out of the season. But that is not what the people drafting them so highly are expecting. There are a lot of solid options out there this season that I think will have better, more consistent seasons than this Baltimore unit. I am a huge fan of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (a fan of the whole team for that matter). But this is just another case where the cost to acquire a player or team outweighs the future benefits.

Team Reserve: Not really a reserve necessary for this spot.

And that concludes my fantasy preview for the season. To hedge one more time, there is a good chance that a lot of these picks in the last few days will totally blow up in my face. But if I can even get a few right, than this just might have been worth it. Sometime later this week/early next week, look for a season preview of my Kansas City Chiefs (may split it to two parts). And the day before regular season football begins next week, look for an NFL-wide season preview of what I believe is to come this football year. Go football, go America.

Sleepers and Poopers Part One

Editors Note: Apologies to anyone offended/annoyed by the word poop. For me, it has never stopped being funny, so I continue to use it at least once a day. Moreover, after finishing my ALL-SLEEPERS team and looking at the word count, I figured I didn’t want to give you guys more than you could digest in one day (because I have NEVER done that before. Ever.). Which is why you will be finding just sleepers in today’s column, while the excrementary players will have their very own column tomorrow. That is all.

Now down to business.

2011-12 ALL SLEEPER TEAM (Same format as yesterday)

QB: Colt McCoy, Cleveland Browns. This pick could be a bit of a stretch, but as far as rookie campaigns go, what Doc McCoy did last year was as impressive as I ever could have expected. A half decent QB Rating and a 60% completion is no small feat for an NFL first timer. Obviously, the expectations are tempered. If he continues to improve, and some skill guys on that offense step up this season, there’s a chance he could be a solid QB2 in most leagues (at the very least a spot starter when he has a juicy matchup…again I’m hedging here). It also helps that he’ll heap on 2-3 points per game from his rushing alone. I wanted to choose Mark Sanchez very badly. Third year guy, improved rating, improved TD-INT Ratio, but the completion percentage was still well below average and his December (read: fantasy playoff time) splits are just plain awful. And Matt Stafford isn’t really much of a sleeper, as the amount of hype he’s received this off-season has left him just a tad over-priced. Plus even a tight bearhug has a minor chance of reinjuring that shoulder. Sanchez and Stafford are high profile guys, and McCoy fits the definition of a true sleeper.

Team Reserves: Kyle Orton (who is being drafted WAYYYYYY too low)

RB: Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins. No matter what kind of list you’re putting a Mike Shanahan coached running back on, its a huge risk. But for the purposes of this blog, thats a risk I’m willing to take. With Roy Helu slowly slipping out of fantasy relevance (never say never though), Tim Hightower has secured the drivers seat to take the lions share of carries in this backfield. He is averaging over 6.5 yards per carry this preseason and is playing for a coach who’s zone-blocking scheme breeds successful running backs like clockwork (for how long they are successful is a different story entirely). Hightower proved during his time in Arizona that he can be useful catching balls out of the backfield (always a handy skill) and is quite the bargain (Low 100’s ADP) for the kind of return you could be getting. Again this is classic case of huge risk/huge reward, but thats what sleepers are usually all about anyways. CAUTION: This is still Mike Shanahan we are talking about here. If I were you, I would keep an eye on the entire Redskins’ stable of backs throughout the year, just to be safe.

RB: Delone Carter, Indianapolis Colts. On one hand this guy is third on the running back depth chart. On the other hand, the two backs in front of him are the underwhelming/injury prone Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. There is the chance that those two guys stay healthy and are productive albeit in a time share. There is also a pretty decent chance that they both get hurt (I’m not kidding), and Carter takes the reins as the lead back. Addai and Brown will both be drafted relatively low because they are splitting carries, but what I can also tell you is that if either one of them would be getting 70-80% of the workload, that player would be a top 40 draft pick (the kind of value Carter may very well have at some point this season). Moreover, Carter is tough, durable, and an excellent between the tackles runner (read: goal line carries). So if you can get that kind of potential value from a guy who will likely go undrafted in most leagues, why not nab him and stash him? If things work out, you are a genius and will ride him into the fantasy playoffs. If not, its only a late round pick. For me it boils down to a crapload of things going in the pro column, and Joseph Addai and Donald Brown in the con column. Thats about it.

Team Reserves: Beanie Wells, James Starks

WR: Danny Amendola, St. Louis Rams. Not too many people know this guy’s name, but he had 85 receptions last year. 85! Thats a lot. Unfortunately, 689 yards and 3 touchdowns is not. But in a PPR league (and especially one that includes return yards like mine, despite the new crappy rule) there is still some value to be had from those numbers. He has exceptional hands, and has a year under his belt building a great rapport with Sam Bradford. On the other hand, a lot of people said that the addition of Josh McDaniels to the Broncos a few years ago (McDaniels is now in St. Louis, which is why I’m throwing this tidbit out there) would make Eddie Royal a beast out of the slot (like what he did with Wes Welker in New England), and that didn’t exactly work out. But for a guy that is going behind Randy Moss in most drafts (he is retired people), I think he is certainly worth taking a later round flier on. Again, the yardage and touchdowns marks are ugly considering all of those receptions. But if you can get a guy who had 85 catches (85!!) this late in a draft, I think its absolutely worth the risk. Hey maybe, some of those receptions start turning into touchdowns or he makes a few guys miss in the open field throughout the course of the season. Furthermore, the improvements Sam Bradford will have made in his game this offseason should only have a postive impact on the numbers for Danny Boy. I think this is a low risk, high upside pick. And those are a rare thing in this game.

WR: James Jones, Green Bay Packers. I’ve been keeping an eye on this guy for awhile now (he’s the most exciting big play guy in the game that nobody knows about), and with the diminshing skills/production of an aging Donald Driver, I think Jones will be the one to benefit from the increased role in this vaunted offense.* Jones has seen an improvement in his numbers between the last 3 seasons, can take the top off of a defense (big play waiting to happen), and is now entering the magical age 27 year for wide receivers. Great value too (currently ranked 59th on Yahoo! among WR’s). A lot of things seem to be adding up here. The hands have been an issue, and have been the biggest road block for playing time, so hopefully he can correct that problem. Assuming he can supplant Driver on the depth chart, Jones could be a very interesting late round pick/waiver wire addition for any team in need of receiving help.

*To be honest, it could just as easily be Jordy Nelson, but I just think James Jones brings a little more to the table. Regardless, keep an eye on both.

Team Reserves: Earl Bennett, Andre Roberts, Mike Thomas (not an overwhelming offense in Jacksonville, but a No. 1 receiver is a No. 1 receiver)

TE: Dustin Keller, New York Jets. Just another one of the tight end combine freaks coming out of college. this dude has been putting up some sneaky solid numbers in his first 3 seasons as a pro. I am expecting a bit of a progression this season. Being a young quarterback’s safety blanket over the middle is always a bonus, and if Mark Sanchez can improve on his numbers at all (year 3 for a quarterback, I’m banking on him doing just that), Keller should see a spike in his own. The exit of Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery (and the addition of the less superior Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason), should also have a positive impact on the number of targets Keller receives throughout the season. He is currently being drafted 19th among tight ends, and I am expecting  him to be a borderline weekly starter at the very least. If things go according to plan? He will be entrenched as a legit TE1 option in all 10-12 team leagues. Two last tidbits. Of all the WR/TE options on the New York Jets entire team, he has easily the most seasons of experience with his quarterback. Second, he is entering the magical age 27 year for a receiver folks! If that doesn’t send you over the edge, I’m not sure what will.

Team Reserves: Greg Olsen, Brandon Pettigrew (who I also love this year if Stafford can stay healthy).

DEF: Atlanta Falcons. This category was a little harder to figure out, as I’m judging an entire side of the ball, rather than just a player. Despite these massive difficulties, I came out on the other side with the Atlanta Falcons. For a team that finished 9th overall in fantasy scoring (this could differ a little from league to league, considering the subtle nuances each commissioner may like to employ) and actually got better this offseason,* it is a little puzzling to understand why Yahoo! has them projected to finish 14th overall among defenses and why they have the fifth worst ADP in fantasy leagues (that makes literally no sense at all). This just doesn’t add up for me. At the very worst case, this is a defense that can be employed when they are going against a poor offense. If they live up to its billing of talent (and there is plenty), they could easily become a weekly starter in all leagues. Name brand defenses (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and the like) are always nice stalwarts to have on a fantasy squad. But that can be a dangerous game to play when a teams reputation exceeds its prowess on the field. In my league last year, Atlanta actually scored 5 more points throughout the season than the fantasy legend Raven defense. And yet the Ravens are being drafted MUCH higher than the Falcons. All I’m saying is that judging a defense on name alone doesn’t work (Pittsburgh is probably the only exception), and is probably why this defense has slid so undeservingly far down the rankings.

Team Reserve: Dallas Cowboys

*With the addition of Ray Edwards on the defensive line and the development of key young players like Brent Grimes, Curtis Lofton, Sean Weatherspoon, and William Moore.

2 days in a row with a column. I’m coming for you DiMaggio. Anyways, thanks again for stopping by, and I’ll see you guys tomorrow with my fecal All-Americans.