To get you fully prepared for the unofficial start of the 2012 NFL season, we’re ranking every team from worst to first in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps.
Every day, we’ll be previewing two teams, one from each conference, analyzing them from top to bottom and giving you all you need to know to be an informed fan. What’s the major storyline heading into camp?
What’s the key training camp battle to watch? Who’s the young guy to watch? Is there any hope?
Today’s two teams: the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions. No. 12 Cincinnati Bengals
Training Camp Site: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Training Camp Start Date: July 26
BetOnline.com Preaseason Super Bowl Odds: 40-1
What I Like About You: The Bengals went to the playoffs last season with a rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver and ultra-young defensive line … without an offseason or a real training camp. The sky’s the limit in 2012.
What I Don’t Like About You: Even with the first-round selection of a star cornerback, the defensive backfield has holes, and there’s not a proven second wide receiver on the roster. The AFC is also — as it was a season ago and has been just about every season this century — loaded, with the Ravens and Steelers up top.
Burning Question: What’s up with the defensive backfield? Johnathan Joseph left for Houston as a free agent and had a Pro Bowl season last year. Leon Hall tore his Achilles. Replacing both longtime starters was a patchwork group of veterans who did just well enough to keep the Bengals competitive. It appears as though Hall’s fully recovered and should be starting opening day. He’s a sure thing. Nate Clements will probably start the opener at the other cornerback spot. The wild card is Dre Kirkpatrick, the first-round pick out of Alabama. If he plays at an elite level in training camp, there’s no reason he can’t beat out Clements for the starting job. Terence Newman is now on the team, too. Safety’s not as promising a situation. It looks as though it’ll be Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays to start the season. Meh.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Second wide receiver, Armon Binns vs. Mohamed Sanu vs. Brandon Tate vs. Marvin Jones vs. Andrew Hawkins: This one’s wide open. Green will be the No. 1 and a healthy Jordan Shipley will work the slot. The second wideout spot is literally and figuratively up for grabs. In Binns, you have a former University of Cincinnati talent who’s impressed in minicamps and stood out on the practice squad a season ago. In Sanu, you have a guy who was considered a first-round prospect but slipped to the third round. He’s not a speed demon, but he is an excellent route runner with great hands. Marvin Jones, a second rookie, is a 6-foot-2 presence out of Cal. Then there are the veterans, Tate and Hawkins. The former is a burner on the outside who played very well in spot duty last year. The latter came from out of nowhere to make some big plays in 2011. Both will have a fair shot in this one.
New Veteran in Town: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, running back: Cedric Benson rushed for 1,000 yards or more in each of the past three seasons yet was shown the door. He was made expendable because of the addition of Green-Ellis, aka “The Human Law Firm.” One of many New England ballcarriers over the past few years, he’ll be the workhorse in what could end up being a very run-heavy Bengals offense in 2012. Great in short yardage and an able and willing blocker, I view this as an upgrade from Benson.
The Young Gun to Watch: Geno Atkins, defensive tackle: Though it went unnoticed by much of the NFL media outside of Ohio, Geno Atkins had an All-Pro-caliber season in 2011. With eight sacks, he led all interior linemen in the category, and at 24 years old old, he appears to be one of the best young DTs in the league. He’s only going to get better.
Schrager Prediction: It’s hard not to love what the Bengals — a team I predicted would be a bottom-three team in the league — did a year ago. They won’t be surprising anyone this season. That’s OK. They’re legit. This is a wild-card team with the potential to win 10 to 12 games. The scary part of their schedule is their December slate: at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore. If they get through that gauntlet with three or four wins, they’ll be headed to the playoffs.
Final Prediction: 3rd place, AFC North No. 11 Detroit Lions
Training Camp Site: Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, Mich.
Training Camp Start Date: July 26
BetOnline.Com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 22-1
What I Like About You: Young talent all over the field, a breakthrough 2011 season and a ferocious defensive line.
What I Don’t Like About You: An offseason with more news in the police blotter than the sports section, a bad defensive backfield and a tough schedule.
Burning Question: Is this team the new “Bungles?” The Bengals always had the talent at the start of the century but would find themselves in too much trouble off the field to remain consistently competitive. The Lions have endured six player arrests so far this offseason. Cornerback Aaron Berry, the most recent player arrested, got a DUI charge and allegedly hit two parked cars before fleeing the scene of the incident. The Lions have all the talent on paper to give the Packers a fight in the NFC North, but is the maturity there? Are the right kind of “character guys” present in this locker room? The Buccaneers were a team with a lot of hype last summer, but after eight arrests in eight months, something seeped from off the field to on to the field, and the team finished 5-11. Will the Lions avoid that fate?
The Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Strong safety, Sean Jones vs. Amari Spievey vs. Erik Coleman: Spievey’s a three-year veteran who played well at times last year but should be pushed hard in camp by both Jones and Coleman. Jones was brought in less than a month ago and brings with him 32 starts over the past two years in Tampa Bay’s defense. He’s a 30-year-old playmaker who could end up being more reliable than the inconsistent Spievey. Coleman’s a bit of a darkhorse in this race, but with playoff experience from his time in Atlanta, he could be the veteran presence this young defensive backfield needs.
New Veteran in Town: Sean Jones, safety: Jones could be the difference maker in a spotty Lions secondary. He’s got eight years of experience, having started for the Eagles, Browns and Buccaneers. The front seven appears to be set. The back four is still worrisome.
Young Gun to Watch: Jahvid Best, running back: When in the lineup, Best is one of the few game-changing running backs in the sport. Alas, that hasn’t been all too often. Due to a series of concussions — a problem that has followed him from his days at Cal — Best hasn’t been able to stay on the field regularly during his first two seasons. He still hasn’t been cleared for contact for training camp, something that greatly concerns both the Lions coaching and medical staffs.
Schrager Prediction: The offensive firepower on this team is too strong for the Lions to end up muzzled and out of the playoff picture. If the defensive backfield can at least do a better job than a season ago, they should be in the hunt from opening weekend through January. I like them as a wild card again in 2012.