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 Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys.
No. 14 Buffalo Bills
Training Camp Site: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, New York
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 66-1
What I Like About You: Arguably the best defensive line in all of football, a healthy Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson, and genuine enthusiasm around this team for the first summer in what feels like a decade.
What I Don’t Like About You: The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999 and for all the summer hype right now, they still were just a 6-10 team a season ago.
Burning Question: Can this be the year the Bills turn it around? Owners of the longest playoff drought in the league, the Bills last postseason trip ended with the Music City Miracle in January of 2000. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s never played in a game that’s really mattered. Nor has Fred Jackson. And for all the money they’ve spent on Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson over the past two offseasons, there’s no guarantee that everything will click. There’s optimism and I’m buying in, but we’ve seen this July story written in Buffalo before. Several times before.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Second wide receiver — Donald Jones vs. Marcus Easley vs. David Nelson vs. T.J. Graham: We know Stevie Johnson is a No. 1 wide receiver. He proved that last year with 76 catched, 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns (and a dismantling of Darrelle Revis in New York). What we don’t know is if Buffalo has a reliable No. 2 wide receiver. As it is seemingly every year lately, it’ll be an open competition for the second wideout spot this summer. Jones got a lot of talk in camp last year as a potential breakout star and actually won the gig, but only had a 23-catch season before an ankle injury ended his campaign. Easley can’t seem to stay healthy, while Nelson seems entrenched as the slot receiver and more of a third wideout than second. The wildcard is T.J. Graham, a third-round pick out of North Carolina State. If he shows he can play right away and clicks with Fitzpatrick over the summer, he could be the guy.
New Veteran in Town: Mario Williams, defensive end: I spoke to Williams last week and he told me that he was in the Texans locker room one Sunday in September and looked up and saw the Bills had beaten the Patriots. He remembers doing a double take and wondering what was going on up in Buffalo. “It was like I was looking into the future or something,” he says now. Well, the future is now, and for $96 million, anything short of double-digit sacks will be a great disappointment. Williams will be moving back into a 4-3 and playing defensive end. With Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mark Anderson lining up alongside him, he’ll have more than his fair share of pass rushing opportunities.
Young Gun to Watch: Stephon Gilmore, cornerback: Any first-round pick is worth keeping an eye on, but there was pre-draft talk that Gilmore’s going to be even better than Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys’ sixth overall pick. In college, Gilmore did it all, returning punts, taking back interceptions, and even rushing the quarterback. He’ll be expected to come in right away and contribute. I have no doubt he will.
Schrager Prediction: The Bills are going to shock the world this year, upset some good teams, and be in it until the last few weeks of the season. If they can stay healthy — a big if, considering they lost seven starters to season-ending injuries a year ago — they can even give the Patriots a battle for kings of the AFC East. I think they win somewhere between eight and 11 games and battle it out as one of the two wildcard teams. In the end, though, they likely fall just short of the playoffs.
Final Prediction: Second place, AFC East
No. 13 Dallas Cowboys
Training Camp Site: City of Oxnard Fields, Oxnard, Calif.
Training Camp Date: July 29
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 24-1
What I Like About You: A grounded Tony Romo, coming off a career year and the birth of his first child, paired with a loaded defense that added two potential Pro Bowlers at cornerback in the offseason.
What I Don’t Like About You: Yet another December, yet another Cowboys fade to end the season. Will they ever buck the trend with Romo at the helm? It’s put up or shut up time (if it wasn’t already).
The Burning Question: Were the upgrades in the defensive backfield enough to ensure a playoff berth? Ask any die-hard Cowboys fan why their team missed the playoffs last season and they’ll point to an inconsistent defensive backfield. Yet, in truth, there was a whole lot more. Aside from rookie Tyron Smith’s breakout year, Tony Romo was playing behind a shaky offensive line. His top two wideouts — Dez Bryant and Miles Austin — were in and out of the lineup and both Felix Jones and DeMarcus Murray went down mid-season, too. Then there was Week 14. Giants-Cowboys, late in the fourth quarter. If Romo hits Austin on a routine 3rd-and-5, the game’s over, the Cowboys own sole possession of first place in the NFC East and the playoffs are a hop and a skip away. Romo threw an incomplete. One play, but it symbolized so much about the 2011 Dallas Cowboys. So, yeah — you can blame the shaky defensive backfield. And sure, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are probably upgrades at corner. But the Cowboys didn’t miss the playoffs in 2011 because of four positions. They missed it for several reasons — both controllable and not.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: free safety — Brodney Pool vs. Barry Church vs. Matt Johnson: Cowboys fans are tired of the carousel that’s been the free safety spot over the past five years. This season, it was assumed that Pool, a free agent signing from the Jets, would be the anointed starter. But Church, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire last year, still has potential, and they like rookie fourth-round selection Matt Johnson. This could be an awfully interesting battle during camp.
New Veteran In Town: Kyle Orton, Quarterback: The Cowboys’ season went down the tubes once Romo went down with an injury in 2010 and likely would have gone the same way in 2011 had he been injured. In comes Kyle Orton, a $5 million backup, who has not only proven that he can get the job done, but has proven that he can get the job done in tenuous circumstances. He won’t threaten Romo for the starting gig, but he’ll push him. With a 35-34 record, Orton could still be a respected starter in this league. Instead, he becomes the game’s most trusted backup.
Young Gun to Watch: Bruce Carter, inside linebacker: A second-round pick in 2011, Carter started the season on the PUP list and was clearly behind once he got into the lineup. No training camp, no practice, and then six games of idleness — he was never expected to make a huge splash last season. This year? Watch out. Carter is a tremendous tackler and many say he was the best defender on that loaded 2010 UNC (pre-scandal) team. He and Sean Lee make up one of the most intriguing young inside linebacker duos in the league.
Schrager Prediction: I really like the Cowboys this year, I just think they’re in the unfortunate position of playing in a division with two better teams. Both the Giants and Eagles are going to have big years, making Dallas the Andy Murray in the era of Federer-Djokovic-Nadal. The Cowboys could win as many as 10 games this year, but I don’t see them finishing ahead of New York or Philadelphia, and can’t see them edging out Detroit for the final wildcard spot.