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 San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons.
No. 16 San Diego Chargers
Training Camp Site: Chargers Park, San Diego, California
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 25-1
What I Like About You: A notoriously banged-up team is finally healthy (for now), has a cast of new faces, and for the first time in seemingly forever — isn’t the AFC West preseason favorite.
What I Don’t Like About You: Lots of new faces, sure, but the loss of Vincent Jackson, Kris Dielman, Steve Gregory and Mike Tolbert could sting more than people are expecting.
The Burning Question: Who will replace Vincent Jackson’s production? When Jackson (finally) took his talents somewhere else (Tampa Bay, for $55,555,555 million over five yrs, $26M guaranteed), the Chargers had a gaping hole at their No. 1 wideout spot on the depth chart. Instead of finding just one guy to replace him, they found a few. Actually, several. New to camp this summer are wide receivers Robert Meachem (formerly of the Saints), Eddie Royal (Broncos), Michael Spurlock (Buccaneers) and Roscoe Parrish (Bills). Four wideouts with completely different skill sets, they’ll fight it out in training camp to see who’ll be the guy to run routes alongside Antonio Gates, Vincent Brown and Malcolm Floyd.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Strong Safety: Atari Bigby vs Brandon Taylor: Eric Weddle’s arguably the top free safety in the AFC. Just who’ll line up beside him at the strong safety spot will be decided in camp. Bigby’s a punishing hitter with a knack for making big highlight tackles, but hasn’t come close to replicating his success from his 2007 season in Green Bay. Having inked a two-year deal in March, it’s likely his position to lose. The young contender in the competition is Brandon Taylor, a third-round selection out of LSU. The Bolts made noise with two other defenders in the NFL Draft — first-rounder Melvin Ingram and second-rounder Kendall Reyes — but if Taylor comes out of this dogfight on top, he could be starting in Week 1.
The New Veteran in Town: Eddie Royal, Wide Receiver: Royal had a monster rookie season in 2008, catching 91 balls from Jay Cutler in what was one of the more impressive first-year campaigns we’ve ever seen from a wideout. He’s never come close to matching that production and in 2011, was relegated to the back of the depth chart due to injuries. Sure enough, he signed with San Diego in March, and was the star of the team’s minicamps. Word out of San Diego is that he looks fantastic, coming quick out of routes and explosive after the catch. I’m all for comeback stories. This has all the makings of one.
The Young Gun to Watch: Ryan Matthews, Running Back: After an underwhelming rookie season, Ryan Matthews lived up to his lofty 2010 draft status with 1,546 yards from scrimmage and a Pro Bowl nod in 2011. Look for more in 2012. With Mike Tolbert now in Carolina (meaning more carries) and Le’Ron McClain now blocking for him (meaning more open space), the do-it-all back could be carrying even more of the load this season. The Chargers will always be a pass-first team with Norv Turner calling the shots and Philip Rivers running them, but the ground game could be dangerous in 2012. Matthews should have a big season.
Schrager Prediction: I like the Chargers this year. They’re sneakily under the radar, they beefed up their front seven in the draft and they brought in a lot of new, veteran faces with something to prove on offense. I think they’ll be better than they were in 2010 or 2011, close in on double digit wins, and come just short of Peyton and the Broncos in the AFC West.
Final Prediction: 2nd place, AFC West
No. 15: Atlanta Falcons
Training Camp Site: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Georgia
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 25-1
What I Like About You: Continuity. The gang’s all back together. Might as well try this whole winning a playoff game thing … again.
What I Don’t Like About You: Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez have a combined zero playoff wins. This team’s been great in November and December, but can’t seem to put its shoes on right when it comes to games played in January.
Burning Question: Umm … So, is this the Year? The Falcons are 0-3 in the postseason under Mike Smith, and regardless of all the great regular-season wins they’ve had since 2008, that 0-3 record is all that matters heading into 2012. With the Saints crippled by BountyGate, their exiled head coach in the Bahamas, and Drew Brees’ lingering contract issues — Atlanta’s been given every opportunity outside of its hands to win this division. Mike Mularkey and Bob Bratkowski leaving for Jacksonville in the offseason could be worrisome, but Matt Ryan’s no rookie quarterback. He knows what’s at stake. He knows he has to get the job done. The addition of Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator might end up being the biggest offseason move of all.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Middle Linebacker: Lofa Tatupu vs. Akeem Dent vs. Rico Council: Curtis Lofton was the leader of the Falcons defense the past few seasons, but with him leaving for the rival Saints in the offseason, there’s a hole to fill in the middle of Atlanta’s 4-3 scheme. Tatupu’s best days are (long) behind him, but the Falcons are rolling the dice on the hope that he has something left in the tank. Dent had a promising rookie season last year, but by no means did he show that he had star potential. This could be a fun one to track over the coming weeks.
The New Veteran in Town: Asante Samuel, Cornerback: Mike Nolan’s going to rush six, seven, eight guys on passing downs. We know that. And he can. With a defensive backfield which stars Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes at cornerback already, Atlanta picked up a very talented (and very hungry) Samuel off basically the scrap heap from Philadelphia. He’s coming to camp looking to prove his best days are not behind him and get back to the Super Bowl. This was a nasty defense already. The additions of Mike Nolan and Asante Samuel makes it even more dangerous.
The Young Gun to Watch:Julio Jones, Wide Receiver: Jones played in 13 games last season, catching 54 balls for close to 1,000 yards. There are big expectations for 2012. He’s had an entire offseason to get healthy, work with Matt Ryan and Terry Robiskie and learn Dirk Koetter’s offensive scheme. This is a physical freak of nature, and though he didn’t have the same type of big, breakout campaign as his fellow 2011 first-round draft buddy A.J. Green, he may have the bigger sophomore year.
Schrager Prediction: Ryan’s going to put up his numbers, the Falcons are going to win at least eight games, and second-year guys Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers are going to flourish in Dirk Koetter’s offense. But I don’t see the Falcons — despite all the chaos in the Big Easy this off-season — edging the Saints out in the NFC South. I think three teams from the NFC East make the playoffs and the Falcons are home for the playoffs.