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?
Training Camp Site: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 16-1
What I Like About You: A tremendous defense, an improved offensive line, a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback and a lights-out draft class.
What I Don’t Like About You: Troy Polamalu and James Harrison showed their age last year, the offensive line — though improved — still isn’t elite and the AFC North is loaded.
The Burning Question: Is the offense going to work under Todd Haley? Bruce Arians is gone. Todd Haley is in. You couldn’t imagine two more different personalities and you couldn’t draw up two more different offensive schemes. For the first time since 2007, when he was hired by the Rooney family, Mike Tomlin changed a coordinator position. On any other team, that might not seem like news. But in Pittsburgh, it’s a big deal. Ben Roethlisberger — no Miss Congeniality, himself — had a great relationship with Arians. Will that be the same with the often cantankerous Haley? We shall see.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch:Left tackle: Mike Adams vs. Marcus Gilbert vs. Max Starks: Starks has manned the left tackle spot before, but there’s a chance rookie second round pick Mike Adams starts right out of the gates. I loved Adams coming out of college this year, before the draft. I had him going tenth overall to the Cardinals in my final mock draft and was beyond shocked to see him slip all the way to Pittsburgh … in the second round. He failed a marijuana test and had some issues off the field at Ohio State, but the Rooneys won’t put up with that in the pros. The guy is the most NFL ready rookie tackle outside of Matt Kalil in Minnesota. Marcus Gilbert could play left tackle or right. It’ll depend on how everyone plays in camp.
The New Veteran in Town:Todd Haley, offensive coordinator: The hiring of Haley caused a few scratches of the head, but it could end up being the right fit in Pittsburgh. Though the team has admittedly taken a while to learn the offense, it could end up being an upgraded attack from the one we saw under Bruce Arians a season ago. Roethlisberger and Haley are two interesting personalities. This could work. Or this could backfire.
The Young Gun To Watch:David DeCastro, right guard: DeCastro was another guy I thought would go in the Top 15, only to slip to the Steelers in the 20’s of April’s draft. He’ll start right away. A mauler who can pave roads and handle the pass rush, he joins two-time Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey up front. With Geno Atkins, Haloti Ngata, and Phil Taylor in the AFC North, a one-two punch working the interior of the offensive line is essential.
Schrager Prediction: I’m a lot higher on the Steelers than most. I think they got burned by the home field advantage in the playoffs a season ago and could have made a Super Bowl run had they not been inexplicably Tebow’d out of the wildcard round. They return just about everyone on both offense and defense (Mendenhall’s starting the year injured), they cleaned up with talent in the draft and Roethlisberger’s healthy. I like the Steelers — by no means a sexy pick this year — to make it as far as the AFC Championship Game.
Final Prediction: 1st place, AFC North
No. 3: New York Giants
Training Camp site: University at Albany, Albany, N.Y.
Training Camp Start Date: July 26 Preseason
BetOnline.com Super Bowl Odds: 18-1
What I Like About You: The defending Super Bowl champions return the bulk of their offense and defense, there’s young rookie talent at running back and wide receiver and they’re coached by the best head coach in all of football.
What I Don’t Like About You: The offensive line could be a bit of a question mark with the loss of Kareem McKenzie, the third wideout position is up for grabs and the NFC East is — as always — filled with talent.
Burning Question: Will there be a Super Bowl hangover? The Giants have had quite the offseason. Eli Manning hosted "Saturday Night Live," Victor Cruz attended the Grammy Awards, and half the darn team made the trip out to Los Angeles for the ESPY awards. Toss in ticker tape parades, memoirs, marketing deals and new commercial opportunities, and it’s fair to assume that football has taken a backseat this summer. Any other team, maybe that’d be the case. But this team’s been there, done that. And this coach won’t put up with any nonsense. The Giants won’t come out of the gates flat; they have too many veterans — guys who’ve done the Super Bowl champions- thing before — to not be fresh, ready, and motivated come Week 1.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: No. 3 wide receiver: Dominik Hixon vs. Rueben Randle vs. Jerrel Jernigan vs. Ramses Barden: Mario Manningham took his talents to San Francisco this offseason, leaving the third wide receiver position wide open in the Giants offense. Veterans Dominik Hixon and Ramses Barden have had opportunities to shine before, but either injuries (Hixon) or underwhelming play (Barden) have stopped them from seizing significant leaps up the depth chart. Randle’s a talent, but he’s still relatively raw. A 6-foot-2 presence with great hands and good speed, the rookie out of LSU should eventually be a go-to guy, but it might not be this year. Due to the lockout, Jernigan started the season buried on the depth chart and lost in the playbook. He’s got speed and hands, though. He could find his way on to the field.
The New Veteran in Town: Martellus Bennett, tight end: Martellus Bennett’s a unique dude. Asked how he felt during minicamp, he said he felt “sexy”. He also was tipping the scales at over 290 pounds. The Giants are used to big blocking tight ends (see: Jake Ballard, Kevin Boss), but Bennett can catch the football and has some athleticism. He can be another playmaker in this offense.
The Young Gun to Watch: David Wilson, running back: Oh, just wait. From everyone I speak to within the Giants organization, Wilson didn’t just have a good spring. He had a lights-out one. Kevin Gilbride said he had the potential to be the most explosive player the Giants have had in his tenure as the offensive coordinator. He’s not the biggest guy, but he attracts the contact and rarely goes down after being hit just once. Last year, he led the NCAA in yards-after-contact. He’ll be a tremendous complement to Ahmad Bradshaw.
Schrager Prediction: The Giants went 9-7 last year, only to finish the season with a six-game winning streak and a Super Bowl ring. Vegas has both the Cowboys and Eagles with better Super Bowl odds at the moment, and that’s fine. The NFL Network has Eli Manning, coming off a Super Bowl MVP award, rated as the 31st best player in the league. And that’s fine. That locker room doesn’t care about outside distractions. It has a shared goal and that goal is to defend a Super Bowl crown. I think they’ll be right in it until the end this season. There will be no drop-off.