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 Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
No. 24: Oakland Raiders
Training camp site: Napa Valley Marriott in Napa, Calif.
Training camp start: July 29
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 66-1
What I like about you: There’s a new regime in town with general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen. Everyone’s seemingly healthy and focused. And nobody — I mean nobody — expects anything out of the Raiders this year.
What I don’t like about you: The quarterback showed no signs that he had anything left in the tank a season ago. The running back can’t stay healthy. The defense took a step backward in 2011.
Burning question: What does quarterback Carson Palmer have left? Palmer didn’t have a particularly memorable 2012 season, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. Being thrust into the lineup days after being acquired is never an easy task; especially when you hadn’t stepped on a football field in 10 months. Of great concern, of course, is how he’ll work in coordinator Greg Knapp’s new offense. Palmer has the smarts and he has the arm, but Knapp’s offense features bootlegs, rollouts and perfectly timed routes. This isn’t the type of offense Palmer — more or less a statue in the pocket during his time in Cincinnati — has ever run.
Key training camp battle: Tight end — Brandon Myers vs. David Ausberry vs. Richard Gordon: Umm . . . who vs. who vs. who? With the somewhat unexpected release of Kevin Boss, the Raiders were left with three relative unknowns at tight end. Anyone who has seen a Knapp offense operate knows how much it relies on the tight end position. Are Larry, Moe and Curly — I mean Myers, Ausberry and Gordon — going to be able to play that role? Maybe I’m being too harsh. Myers caught only 16 balls a season ago and Ausberry and Gordon combined for three. One of them is going to grab this opportunity and run with it. Well, that’s assuming one of them can grab something and run with it, of course.
The new veteran in town: Dave Tollefson, defensive end: A locker-room favorite in New York, Tollefson brings Super Bowl champion credentials and a nonstop motor to Jason Tarver’s multi-scheme defense in Oakland. With a crowded group of Giants defensive ends including Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul, it was easy for Tollefson’s work to go unnoticed, but on film — he pops.
Young gun: Jared Veldheer, offensive tackle:Awfully quietly, Veldheer — a guy who many casual fans snickered over and asked “Who?” when he was selected two years ago — has emerged as one of the best offensive tackles in the game. Not the division, not the conference — but the game. In putting together my top-100 players list last month, Veldheer was one of the very last cuts. This guy is fast, smart, and has a nasty streak. Don’t be shocked if he joins Jake Long and Joe Thomas in the All-Pro conversation this season.
Schrager prediction: I like everything the Raiders are doing, from the top to bottom, but I’m just not sure they’re going to do much damage in Year 1 of the McKenzie era. The season will be won or lost on Palmer’s arm (or legs, in this case), and I’m not quite as confident as some Raiders fans that he’s the still the man for the job. For the first time in a long time, there’s significant youth, talent and positivity in Raiders World this summer. I just think they’re likely another year away from contending.
Final prediction: Fourth place, AFC West
No. 23: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla.
Training camp start: July 26
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 120-1
What I like about you: Young talent everywhere, a quarterback who has lost 20 pounds and a new coaching staff committed to erase the memories of a lost 2011 campaign. And guard Carl Nicks. As anyone who saw my top-100 players list can attest, I really like Carl Nicks.
What I don’t like about you: The “Baby Bucs” are still just so darn young.
Burning question: Can new coach Greg Schiano clean up this mess? This was a really bad football team in the second half of last season. Not only did Tampa Bay lose its final 10 games of the season, but the Buccaneers players gave up on former head coach Raheem Morris. The word out of Tampa was that Morris — a 30-something wunderkind — was too chummy with his players, just one of the guys. Where that worked in their 2010 campaign (10-6), it backfired in 2011. So they brought in Schiano, who, I promise you, will never be accused of being too “chummy” with his players. The only 180 I could recall quite like this was the Jets going from Herm Edwards to Eric Mangini. And that pales in comparison to this one.
Key training camp battle: Running back — Doug Martin vs. LeGarrette Blount:Sure, in today’s NFL, it’s easy to believe that there are enough carries to go around where there doesn’t always have to be a true No. 1 running back. But, who’s getting the rock down the stretch? Who’s the guy being handed the ball in crunch time on the goal line? Don’t kid yourself: There are still starting running backs and backup running backs, regardless of what the fantasy football magazines tell you. In Blount, the Bucs have a giant bruiser of a back who will do wonders behind Davin Joseph and Nicks up the middle. In Martin, the 31st overall selection of the 2012 draft and a guy they traded up to get into the first round to acquire, they have a more-than-capable receiver and blocker who is surprisingly tough up the gut. They’ll both get carries this season, sure, but the Alpha dog will be determined coming out of camp.
The new veteran in town: Vincent Jackson, wide receiver: Say all you want about Mike Williams or Kellen Winslow’s fantasy production, quarterback Josh Freeman never has had a target like Jackson. And based on the early reviews out of Tampa on how these two are connecting this offseason, we could be looking at an elite 1-2 combo this season. Jackson’s past few years have been sidetracked by contract disputes and underwhelming Chargers seasons. He finally got paid this March (to the eye-rolling worthy tune of $55,555,555 million over five years) and apparently looks better than ever. I’m a lot higher on this Bucs offense than most, and a lot of that has to do with the addition of Jackson on the outside.
Young gun: Lavonte David, linebacker: Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukamara got a lot more hype coming out of Nebraska, but I loved Lavonte David as an NFL Draft prospect this spring. I had him going No. 22 overall to the Browns, thinking he would join D’Qwell Jackson in the linebacker corps up in Cleveland. Alas, he slipped to the Bucs in the second round. What they’re getting is a do-everything, albeit undersized, linebacker who will be in on every tackle and won’t stop on a play. His attitude is contagious, and his game is ferocious. All eyes will be on 2010 first- and second-round picks Gerald McCoy and Brian Price up front, but David could be the star of this super-young defense in 2012.
Schrager prediction: The MGM Sportsbook has Tampa Bay’s win total over/under at six. I can see them getting close to eight or nine. Freeman looks good, Nicks adds so much to the offense and Jackson’s a real threat. They struck gold with their first three picks, and there’s a new sheriff in town. They’re going to be competitive. The playoffs probably aren’t likely, but they’ll be a much improved team from the eyesore they were a season ago.