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 Indianapolis Colts and the Minnesota Vikings.
No. 32: Indianapolis Colts
Training camp site: Anderson University in Anderson, Ind.
Training camp start: July 28
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 150-1
What I like about you: New GM, new coaches, new quarterback, and a fresh, clean slate after a really ugly 2011.
What I don’t like about you: The new GM is in his first year, the new head coach is in his first year, and the new quarterback’s never taken a snap in the NFL. And Peyton Manning’s no longer in the building to cover up everybody else’s shortcomings.
Burning question: Can Andrew Luck step right in and deliver? I think he can, but this isn’t Cam Newton coming to Carolina with two Pro Bowl running backs in the backfield, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil on the offensive line, and Steve Smith at wide receiver. Sure, Reggie Wayne’s back, but that’s about it on offense. Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Pierre Garcon, and Jeff Saturday are elsewhere, and there’s no guarantee Wayne’s magically going to return to his pre-2011 self. This is a young, unproven team with very little polished talent at the skill positions. It’ll be a learning experience for everyone. I still think Luck’s the most NFL-ready rookie quarterback since Peyton Manning, but that’s just one position. There are holes everywhere. This isn’t going to be a one-year turnaround; Indy’s in this for the long haul.
Key training camp battle: Nose tackle — Antonio Johnson vs. Josh Chapman vs. Brandon McKinney: The Colts are going to run a 3-4 defense under Chuck Pagano, but don’t have a Haloti Ngata or Terrence Cody to play the anchor up front. All the pundits ranted and raved about the Colts’ second-round selection of Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, but Indy passed on a lot of quality defensive linemen to take Luck’s old buddy from Palo Alto. They’re now left with three question marks in Johnson, Chapman, and McKinney to play the most important position in any 3-4. Johnson’s a six-year veteran who’s never showed he’s an NFL starter, McKinney barely played in Pagano’s Ravens defense, and Chapman’s a giant rookie coming off a torn ACL. Pick your poison. It could be a long year.
The new veteran in town: Cory Redding, defensive end: Pagano brought with him three different ex-Ravens in Redding, McKinney, and safety Tom Zbikowski. Redding’s the big prize out of the three. A solid contributor in Baltimore, he inked a three-year, $10.5 million deal to start at defensive end in the rebuilt 3-4 defense.
Young gun: All eyes will be fixated on Luck in 2012, but I’d keep tabs on rookie wide receiver/kick returner T.Y. Hilton. The 92nd overall pick, Hilton ran a 4.3 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day and exhibited stellar hands. He’s a bit small, but he could be the sparkplug this offense so sorely needs. At the very least, he’ll make several plays in the return game. Trust me, you’ll be hearing his name on “SportsCenter” this season.
Schrager prediction: You’ve got to start somewhere, right? Luck will get pounded behind a young offensive line and the D will struggle in the 3-4. It’s going to be a long season. But, Colts fans know that. After all, Indianapolis went 3-13 in Peyton Manning’s rookie year. And that ended up turning out fine.
Final prediction: Fourth place, AFC South
No. 31: Minnesota Vikings
Training camp site: Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn.
Training camp start: July 27
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 125-1
What I like about you: So much youth! The Bengals rode a rookie quarterback and wide receiver to the playoffs last year. Could the Vikes do it with a bunch of 20-year-olds and Jared Allen this year?
What I don’t like about you: Umm, so much youth!
Burning question: When’s Adrian Peterson going to be back? Peterson’s seven months removed from serious ACL and MCL surgery and is still rehabbing, with Week 1 serving as the ultimate goal. Setting goals and working hard is all good and well, but what happens if Peterson doesn’t make it back for opening weekend? Without Peterson, this is an offense with a second-year quarterback who seemed to regress as his rookie season went on in 2011, an offensive line anchored by a rookie tackle and a motley crew of under-achieving veteran running backs and receivers. And that’s the offense — which may very well be the better of the two units.
Key training camp battle: Middle linebacker — Jasper Brinkley vs. a veteran free agent to be named later: When the Vikings front office opted not to re-sign 32-year-old veteran middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, they left a major question mark at the position. Jasper Brinkley was a fifth round pick in 2009 and showed flashes in 2010, but missed the entire season in 2011 with a hip injury. The Vikings were banking on him being healthy in 2012, but there are still surprisingly lingering health issues. Brinkley’s the guy if he’s healthy, but that’s not a sure bet. Erin Henderson, E.J.’s little brother, will man the weak side and Chad Greenway will man the strong side in the 4-3 scheme. Don’t be shocked if E.J. Henderson or 31-year-old veteran free agent Gary Brackett — cleared to play after missing last season with a shoulder injury — are brought in to camp to give Brinkley a run for his money.
The new veteran in town: Jerome Simpson, wide receiver: Simpson, the uber-athletic 26-year-old former Bengals wide receiver, has already excited Vikings fans with a flurry of big plays in OTAs. He’ll miss the first three games of the 2012 NFL season, but could end up being a nice complement to Percy Harvin on the outside in Minnesota’s offense. He’s never had more than 50 grabs in a season, but has big-play ability and is just hitting his prime.
Young gun: Kyle Rudolph: The second-year tight end showed big flashes in 2011 and should be only better with a full off-season to work with second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez all had big sophomore seasons in 2011. I’d expect a big one out of Rudolph, the former Notre Dame star.
Schrager prediction: I liked the Matt Kalil pick and understand the youth movement and lack of big free agent signings in the off-season, but the Vikings are just so darn young. If Peterson’s the Peterson of old and all the young weapons can blossom, we could be looking at a fun and exciting young team. Even still, they’ve got six games against the Lions, Bears, and Packers in a loaded NFC North.