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National Football League
Draft King Analysis

August 11, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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The NFL returns tonight with its first games since Super Bowl XLV this past February. It's the preseason, but football fans have gone through not only the usual starvation for gridiron action but also the at times harrowing negotiations between the league and the players as a lockout overshadowed much of the off-season. Luckily there is now peace with a new, 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, and the action begins tonight with a handful of games around the league.

Don't read too much into anything you see in the pre-season, but for those looking toward the regular season, be prepared for teams that have undergone change in management and at the quarterback position to struggle more than normal. This goes for veterans, as well; Donovan McNabb (in Minnesota) and Matt Hasselbeck (in Tennessee) are two established guys who will be asked to learn a new offense in a very limited amount of time, much less than typically happens in a given off-season. I'd include Kevin Kolb in that as well; it was a poorly-guarded secret that he was going to be traded to Arizona, but until he had the chance to actually get in there and learn the system, he was limited in what he could do to indoctrinate himself in their system.

Compare that with teams like Indianapolis and New England and San Diego and Green Bay and New Orleans and Tampa Bay and all the others with established systems in place -- much like in election season, incumbents will be at a strong advantage this fall, stronger than even usual. Likewise, the rookie learning curve will be even more severe. Rookie QBs already face an unrealistic learning curve expectation thanks to exceptions like Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, and Colt McCoy who have played well early in recent years. QB Jimmy Clausen struggled as a rookie last year for the moribund Carolina Panthers, but judging anyone by strictly their rookie campaign is unfair and unrealistic.

But, with mini-camps and off-season training and the usual routine missing, rookies face a much more daunting task that normal. I'm still very bullish on both Cincinnati WR A.J. Green and Atlanta WR Julio Jones, but expecting them to produce big right away is an unfair burden, particularly for Green who will likely be receiving passes from fellow rookie Andy Dalton, who appears set to be the starting QB in week one for the Bengals, barring a chance of heart by Carson Palmer (which I'm not counting on happening).

Here's a team-by-team look at the two most important positions relative to continuity from last year to this: head coach and starting quarterback. An argument can be made for offensive coordinator, but more important is the overall philosophy and approach, which tends to stem directly from the wishes of the head coach. The year next to a name indicates when the individual took over the job; with QB obviously injury can shuffle the deck some, but it's worth at least cursory consideration. More than anything, the QB year is "when did this guy become *the man* for his current team?" which is somewhat debatable -- but it's my site so it's my call.

AFC East
New England- HC: Bill Belichick (2000), QB: Tom Brady (2002)
NY Jets- HC: Rex Ryan (2009), QB: Mark Sanchez (2009)
Miami- HC: Tony Sparano (2008), QB: Chad Henne (2010 or and/or when team didn't acquire Kyle Orton a few weeks ago)
Buffalo- HC: Chan Galey (2010), QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick (2010)

AFC North
Pittsburgh- HC: Mike Tomlin (2007), QB: Ben Roethlisberger (2004)
Baltimore- HC: John Harbaugh (2008), QB: Joe Flacco (2008)
Cleveland- HC: Pat Shurmer (2011), QB: Colt McCoy (2010)
Cincinnati- HC: Marvin Lewis (2003), QB: Andy Dalton (2011)

AFC South
Indianapolis- HC: Jim Caldwell (2009), QB: Peyton Manning (1998)
Jacksonville- HC: Jack Del Rio (2003), QB: David Garrard (2007 - or earlier when he battled Byron Leftwich for the job)
Houston- HC: Gary Kubiak (2006), QB: Matt Schaub (2007)
Tennessee- HC: Mike Munchak (2011), QB: Matt Hasselbeck (2011)

AFC West
San Diego- HC: Norv Turner (2007), QB: Philip Rivers (2006)
Kansas City- HC: Todd Haley (2009), QB: Matt Cassel (2009)
Oakland- HC: Hue Jackson (2011 but was OC in 2010 which is relevant), QB: Jason Campbell (2010)
Denver- HC: John Fox (2011), QB: Kyle Orton (2009)

NFC East
Philadelphia- HC: Andy Reid (1999), QB: Michael Vick (2010)
NY Giants- HC: Tom Coughlin (2004), QB: Eli Manning (2004 possibly, for sure 2005)
Dallas- HC: Jason Garrett (2010), QB: Tony Romo (2006)
Washington- HC: Mike Shanahan (2010), QB: Rex Grossman (two days ago)

NFC North
Green Bay- HC: Mike McCarthy (2006), QB: Aaron Rodgers (2008)
Chicago- HC: Lovie Smith (2004), QB: Jay Cutler (2010)
Detroit- HC: Jim Schwartz (2009), QB: Matthew Stafford (2009)
Minnesota- HC: Leslie Frazier (2010), QB: Donovan McNabb (2011)

NFC South
New Orleans- HC: Sean Peyton (2006), QB: Drew Brees (2006)
Atlanta- HC: Mike Smith (2008), QB: Matt Ryan (2008)
Tampa Bay- HC: Raheem Morris (2009), QB: Josh Freeman (2009)
Carolina- HC: Ron Rivera (2011), QB: Vacant (Rivera said he still hasn't made up his mind on who will start the regular-season opener)

NFC West
St. Louis- HC: Steve Spagnuolo (2009), QB: Sam Bradford (2010)
Arizona- HC: Ken Whisenhunt (2007), QB: Kevin Kolb (2011)
Seattle- HC: Pete Carroll (2010), QB: Tarvaris Jackson (2011)
San Francisco- HC: Jim Harbaugh (2011), QB: Vacant

Thoughts: The longer a head coach/starting QB have been together, the better. I know that some teams have made modifications to their offenses while maintaining the same head coach, such as the Rams under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But, particularly this year with such a limited amount of time for new offenses to be installed and/or for quarterbacks to learn systems in new places, teams with established systems will be at an even stronger advantage over those that have experienced change.

Coming soon I plan to resume the position previews for potentially 2012 draft-eligible college players; I've been waiting to see what happens with Arizona WR Juron Criner, who mysteriously missed some off-season activities for Arizona in a confusing situation where those in the know were keeping information close to the vest. ESPN's Bruce Feldman likely would have already had the full story for us if he hadn't been sent to Altair-4 (Tommyknockers reference) by ESPN, which still claims it didn't suspend Feldman. Apparently he ended up on double-secret probation by Disney.

Most indications are than Criner's absence involved his ill mother and not any illness (mental or otherwise) that he may or may not have suffered from, which moves him back into play as a potential top wide receiver prospect. But you can bet the farm that NFL general managers will grill Criner about this during the interview process of next year's combine. If Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland asked Oklahoma State (and current Dallas Cowboy) WR Dez Bryant if Bryant's mother was a prostitute, you can rest assured that Criner will be given the third degree about what happened.


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