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 Tennessee Titans and the Arizona Cardinals.
No. 22: Tennessee Titans
Training Camp Site: Baptist Sports Park, Nashville, Tennessee
Training Camp Start Date: July 27
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 60-1
What I Like About You: A healthy and motivated Chris Johnson, a former All-Pro brought in to anchor the middle of the offensive line, and a revamped pass rush.
What I Don’t Like About You: A terrible pass rush in 2011 is just the first concern. Who’s filling in for Cortland Finnegan? Is Kenny Britt going to be the Kenny Britt of old? These are just a few questions that need to be addressed.
Burning Question: Will there be an at least somewhat respectable pass rush in Tennessee this season? The Titans’ pass rush was downright awful last season. The defense combined for just 28 sacks in 16 games and Jason Jones, one of the top performers, left for the Seahawks in free agency. So, what’d they do? First, Tennessee brought in Keith Millard as an assistant coach. He’ll focus solely on pass rushing. Then, the Titans brought in another pass rushing talent in Kamerion Wimbley for $35 million. In the end, they’ll sit and hope the combination of Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and rookie second round pick Zach Brown make impacts in 2012.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker: Tennessee has its quarterback of the future. The question is whether the future is 2012 or beyond. Locker and Hasselbeck hit it off last season, as a true mentor/protégé relationship developed. It doesn’t hurt that Hasselbeck played well beyond expectations. No one’s saying it’s either man’s team at the moment, but the best guy will get the job coming out of training camp. Both are quality options. Many teams would gladly take such a "dilemma" at QB.
The New Veteran in Town: Steve Hutchinson, guard: Hutchinson’s no spring chicken, but the Titans must have felt he has some good football left in his legs, inking the 34-year-old to a three-year contract in March. Once the highest-paid guard in league history, the 11-year-veteran protected Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle very well way back when, and will likely do so again in Tennessee. He joins a revamped offensive line that’ll hope to spring Chris Johnson, coming off a disappointing 2011, free.
Young Gun to Watch: Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver: Kendall Wright hasn’t signed with Tennessee yet, but once he gets on the field, watch out. I had Wright as my second-ranked receiver in the 2012 NFL Draft. He’s DeSean Jackson with better hands and no attitude problem. An absolute game-breaker, Wright will add instant offense to a passing attack that can use a player with his breakaway speed. Robert Griffin III got all the headlines last year in Waco, but Wright had a tremendous season for Baylor, as well. His game translates to the NFL, too.
Schrager Prediction: There are a lot of variables heading into 2012 for Tennessee. Who’ll be the quarterback? Will the pass rush improve as expected? Was Finnegan really that replaceable? In the end, I think we’re looking at an improved Tennessee squad that will win games at home and beat up on Indianapolis and Jacksonville, but one that will struggle on the road and falter against Houston.
Final Prediction: 2nd place, AFC South
No. 21: Arizona Cardinals
Training Camp Site: Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona
Training Camp Start Date: July 23
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 60-1
What I Like About You: Arguably the best young defense in the entire league, great momentum after winning four of their final five games a season ago, and two freakish physical specimens at wide receiver.
What I Don’t Like About You: Kevin Kolb (or John Skelton) is the starting quarterback.
Burning Question: Is Kevin Kolb any good? I’m not sure I can answer that and anyone who tries to with any conviction is lying through their teeth. From what we saw of Kolb in spot duty in Philadelphia, he was OK. From what we saw last season in Arizona — happy feet and injuries and all — he wasn’t. Consider this: The Cardinals only started really winning when John Skelton took over. In two seasons with the Cardinals, Skelton is 7-4 as a starter. Yes, you could also say that the defense finally started clicking in Ray Horton’s complex 3-4 scheme during the second half of the season, and that’s why those games were won — not because of Skelton. Either way, there’s a big price tag on Kolb, and if he doesn’t deliver early on, the boo birds will come out.
Key Training Camp Battle: No. 2 Cornerback: Greg Toler vs. A.J. Jefferson vs. Jamell Fleming vs. William Gay: Patrick Peterson overcame some early season issues to prove he’s going to be a solid cornerback in the NFL; however, Richard Marshall’s departure left a void at the other cornerback spot the offseason. Toler was supposed to be the starter a season ago but was lost in 2011 with a training camp injury; he’s healthy and hungry now. A.J. Jefferson and William Gay have both been around the league, but are likely better fits as third cornerbacks in nickel formations. The real wildcard is Fleming, a star at Oklahoma who’s wowed everyone in spring workouts. Don’t be shocked if Fleming ends up starting by midseason, or hell, on opening day.
The New Veteran in Town: Adam Snyder, guard: The Cardinals are pretty solid across their offensive line and they picked up a nasty mauler — and a former rival — in Snyder in March. Snyder was the only somewhat big name free agent acquisition by Arizona this offseason, and even at age 30, he also can play either tackle position if needed. Quality guy; good pickup.
The Young Gun to Watch: Ryan Williams, running back: Beanie Wells had a solid season in 2011, but was playing most of it on a severely banged-up knee. Williams is the real deal. A second round pick last year, he was the biggest story in training camp before tearing his patella tendon and missing the entire year. At 207 pounds and 100 percent healthy, he looks good again, heading into training camp. Wells is a pure power back; Williams is a bit of an outside, burn-you-with-speed, kind of guy. Together, they make a very enticing running back duo.
Schrager Prediction: Nobody was higher on the Cardinals defense towards the end of last season than me, and they should only be better with a full offseason to master Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense. My Top 100 players list was littered with Cardinals defenders, including Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson. I’m just not sold on the quarterbacks. If the Cardinals had signed Peyton Manning — I know, it was never really a possibility — they’d be Super Bowl contenders. As is, I don’t see them edging out the 49ers in the NFC West.