The Depth Chart is out, as you must be aware, and Scipio has opined here and here. I don't have a ton to add, it was very encouraging in its deployment of youth and had a typical surprise with Okafor in the 2-deep at DT behind Tyrell Higgins with Cowell sitting third in line. The need for defensive tackle depth is more apparent every year. These guys are already hard to find and they have a lousy hit rate.
Which of those would have been most shocking a year ago? How about yesterday? Many of us can envision Oak as a 3-tech tackle but not to the extent that any of us actually predicted it.
The plan, as always with Muschamp, is for Texas to flood the field with aggressive, fast, and physical playmakers and rely on the big plays to thwart drives. I hope to see some highly effective gang-tackling and ball-stripping this season which are possibilities made more feasible by the abundance of team speed. I'm setting the over/under for quarterbacks knocked out of the game this season at 3 and taking the over.
Over at boomerandsooner Nate Heupel offered his response to my Texas-OU roster comparison. There isn't much disagreement and the overall consensus seems to be that it's going to be another bloodbath. At least Scipio's theory on an interior running identity is a comforting thought amidst the Adrian Taylor injury and Tom Wort emergence. Of course OU fans are probably equally eager to test their running game against our scholarship-stripped tackle and his former end back-up.
I'd like to compare some other rosters now, specifically the rosters I think are most likely to be found in your next SuperBowl Media guide. I'm going to guide you through my NFL contenders using 6 basic criterion: Quarterback play, offensive lines, difference-making skill talent, pass rush, defensive line, and difference-making backers. Let's start in the AFC East.
New England Patriots:
Well the quarterback is Tom Brady. He wasn't the class of the league in year 1 post-knee operation and he probably won't be in year 2 given his age and the accumulation of injuries. He will be amongst the elite though and not far behind Manning, Brees or anyone else for that matter.
The offensive line is still strong, particularly with 3rd tackle Vullmer stepping up last year after Matt Light's injury. It's a line best suited to run-blocking but the main skill talents are Wes Welker and Randy Moss. A big time spread-friendly running back would make all the difference in their great screen and draw game but that's only a small quibble though as this still might be the best offenses in the league.
The defense has been better, namely in the superbowl seasons. They lost Ty Warren for the year and now it's defensive anchor Vince Wilfork and 2 stiffs on the DL that was once responsible for making the Pat D what it was. They're fairly rejuvenated at linebacker with Jerod Mayo and some new blood and Meriweather and the secondary is starting to recover but it's hard to project this as a group that will gang up on the pass without guys on the DL that can collapse the pocket like Warren or Seymour.
New York Jets:
There isn't much else you could really want from the defense. I'm not a huge fan of the blitz-heavy schemes in general, even if they truly do possess versatile enough defenders to make zone-blitzing work without sticking ill-equipped guys in zone, but the Jets pull it off against everyone not name Manning. Their corners, especially Revis, make it work. Does any of this sound familiar? Because it's not a bad example for how Texas will handle teams this year, if Muschamp isn't installing a few new fire-zone blitzes for this season I'll be shocked.
Given that this defense was first in the league a year ago and their coordinator has constantly presided over top defenses I think we can assume that the pressure is on the offense. With Ferguson and Mangold this is one of the better Olines in the league even without departed vet Faneca. Having that kind of OL made it possible to reach the playoffs with rookie Sanchez and find consistent running success with whomever they plugged in at tailback. You think it's Shone Green and Thomas Jones or the scheme? If you answer the former Scipio has a pamphlet for you to read.
I like Sanchez to be an upper-tier QB at some point and you would expect some strong development in year 2 as the man but the skill talent doesn't bowl you over. Braylon Edwards, Jerrico Cotchery, S. Green, LT, I'm not gameplanning to lock down one of these guys at all costs. Much like Gilbert here in Austin, that puts a lot on the signal-caller to make the plays with whatever is there. We don't have our champ in the East, let's go North.
"I'll take the rapist for 5oo."
"That's therapist...nevermind, I'll choose the category..."
Dennis Dixon has a fairly different skill set than Ben Roethlisberger and I'm not sure what they do until Jack Daniels blend no.7 is back. I've believed for years that an NFL team should feature the spread, load up on a couple solid QB options (to insure against injury and avoid paying franchise money) and use the savings to load up in the trenches and with some franchise weapons at DE/OLB, RB, LT, etc.
The Steelers only innovate on defense though, where they have zone-blitz mastermind LeBeau and Cover-2 specialist Mike Tomlin running the show. There's a lot to like on D so long as Polamalu is around. He confuses everything and last year demonstrated that their success is largely built on him dancing around like a madman and doing almost whatever pops into his head.
They crank out premier OLBs like Trey Parker and Matt Stone effortlessly spitting out satiric excellence . Lamarr Woodley, James Harrison, they put these guys in excellent spots and rely on an outstanding DL featuring Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and our own Casey Hampton to do the dirty work. They also have several back-ups there from years of solid system drafting. So long as Polamalu is making plays this will be a strength.
In lieu of Roethlisberger making things happen in 5 seconds of ridiculous pocket shenanigans there isn't a ton to like on offense. They have built the tackle position into a strength but they haven't come close to replacing what Faneca used to do inside in their trap and power game. Holmes, Mendenhall, Miller and Ward are a good ensemble but this team is built around Big Ben's strengths. If they can't find a rhythm with that nincompoop after what is likely to be a bad start in what will certainly be an unforgiving city I don't much like their chances.
Many are projecting the Ravens into the Superbowl and I actually I like them as well. I've been impressed with Flacco since his rookie campaign in the playoffs and last year's slugfest with Favre and the Vikings. He has a big arm and a lot of poise in the pocket. The offensive system is strong and they execute the draw like champs which is a wonderful asset in a pass-heavy league.
The Blindside hasn't become a franchise left tackle just yet but he has the skillset and mindset to be a foundational piece for a line and is an enraged elephant in the running game. Overall there are some nasty guys here that enjoy piling on, which is a fantastic measure for blocking success. The 2001 champions were like that, behind Jonathan Ogden, to the extent that Trent Dilfer was a MVP in the SuperBowl. That's like Alabama winning a MNC with McElroy. What's that? You're kidding...
Ray Rice is everything we dream of Cody Johnson or Malcolm Brown becoming. Speedy enough for the big play and dangerous in the flat as a receiver but best described as a power back with massive thighs and punishing style. They added Anquan Boldin to Derrick Mason's mummified and bewitched body and Todd Heap with Clayton and Stallworth as the 3rd and 4rth WR options respectively.
Their defense looks a little past the due date with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis amongst the league's best but no longer the destroyers they were in years past. The line is still greatness. Gregg is a delightfully disgusting starting point at Nose Tackle and a guy you may remember named Cory Redding lines up alongside him. Then there's Haloti Ngata.
If Ngata were filling out the Texas 2-deep at tackle the crystall ball trophy would simply materialize into Bellmont. There would be no point. He can play Nose, 5-tech, 3-tech, whatever. He's a hurricane of hurt, a colossus of clout, babies cry when they see him on Daddy's television set sunday afternoons.
After that they still have Suggs at weakside OLB and a cast of other new faces in the back 7. Notre Dame's speedy boxer Tom Zbikowski is playing Free Safety until Ed Reed is back but as long as mini-hurricane is back for the stretch there's enough here find some typical Raven success. You'd like a more dominant Offense or D but everything is very stout.
There's a decent chance that a healthy Dwight Freeney means a 2nd championship for Manning last year, but that's the catch with this squad. They always have some key injuries in the playoffs to a crucial linebacker, left tackle, Bob Sanders, receiver or whatever.
Peyton Manning is the best in the business and he does more at quarterback and at a higher level than perhaps any other man in the league's history. All his weapons are back; the big guns Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, the resurgent Joseph Addai, and the up-and-comers Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez. The running game is key for them, as their execution based offense is heavily reliant on the outside-stretch setting up play-action, their bubble-screen (haha, just kidding. Sort of) and other offensive features. Everything looks in place for another run here.
The defense had it's healthiest post-season during their championship run when Bob Sanders came back in time to fix the running game woes that yielded something like 500 yards to the Jaguars a few weeks before the playoffs. You probably know how things work here, speedy safeties and linebackers who can drop into Cover-2 and enough pass-rushing from the line to sit back in zone all day. Brees picked it apart and so will most other quality teams if Mathis and Freeney aren't making it happen, they don't have an interior dominator to take the shortcut although they found some guys that can plug gaps.
Peyton Manning virtually guarantees that the offense will have enough but you just can't count on the D. A dominant 3-tech would make their method so much simpler but of course that's virtually the toughest position to fill in football save maybe for Left Tackle.
Have you heard of Michael Roos? How about David Stewart? They comprise the best tackle tandem in the NFL and make the Titan offense/Chris Johnson an unstoppable force. Should Kenny Britt or Nate Washington step up as a play-action deep bomber the Titans will be set as Vince can throw the deep ball at an NFL level. Scaife is another great play-action target and rounds out a unit that you can't totally shut down.
Should you load up to stop Chris Johnson you face a VY that is better every week at making you pay, and should you force 3rd and long the Titans have the 2 most dangerous 3rd down weapons in the game; Chris Johnson on a draw/screen/flare and Vince Young scrambling. Again, that's if you can overcome Roos and Stewart. I would go for it on 4rth nearly every time and watch bewildered ends lose contain over and over.
The defensive backfield is more or less as strong as it was in the 13-3 run. Finnegan is a top 10 corner, Griffin and Hope are a better safety pairing than most teams feature, the linebackers are a team strength but the line is missing some pieces.
Jason Jones shows some potential as an interior rusher but the loss of Haynesworth hit them hard. His destructive habits opened things up for Vanden Bosch, also departed, and allowed the 4-man pressure that set up the weakness-free backfield to make things impossible. They need first round pick Derrick Morgan to erupt as a force on the edge or they are still a year away. Re-sign Vince, guys, and prepare for war in 2011.
San Diego Chargers:
As is always the case, the quality on OL has been an unheralded reason why Phillip Rivers and the offense have been so good. Don't get me wrong, I think Rivers has become a fantastic quarterback. He can make huge throws into tight windows with the game on the line while he also practices risk management throwing the ball away frequently to avoid drive-killing sacks and turnovers. When you can throw the ball behind McNeil, Hardwick and Dielman to Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates there is no sense in trying to do it all every down, you can get it all on the next play.
Darren Sproles, Sooner Boomer and 3rd down specialist, looks like the answer at running back unless Ryan Matthews takes over. I like Jacob Hester at fullback in Norv Turner's schemes which make fantastic use of that position in a lethal screen game.
On defense they still rely on Phillips and the choker, Merriman, for their pass-rush while they have re-united Nathan Vasher with Quentin Jammer at corner back. Good thinking guys. I've frequently heard Jammer described as overrated in the NFL but he has anchored their D as a lock-down corner for roughly the entire decade without their management seeing the need for any changes.
I like the back 7 but they lost Nose Tackle Jammal Williams and I don't like that one bit. Running the 3-4 without linemen that have to be accounted for is a dangerous business. Bad business, in fact. Rivers should give a lecture to the front office on risk management, or talk about Ovaltine and see if the message gets across.
That wraps up your AFC contenders in my book. There are some potent offenses and then the Jets and Steelers. I like the Ravens for their versatility against everyone else. The Jets you can outscore with a solid D and 24 points, the Steelers are a mess, Indianapolis will be crippled by injury or QB pressure, San Diego can't stop a lot of these teams and the Titans can't pressure. The Ravens can run the ball on all of these teams, feature great weapons in the passing game, and still have plenty on defense.
We'll hit the NFC next, thoughts?