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 Washington Redskins and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
No. 27 Washington Redskins
Training camp site: Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va.
Training camp start: July 26
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 60-1
What I like about you: There’s a franchise quarterback whom everyone’s really excited about. Finally.
What I don’t like about you: Said franchise quarterback is a rookie with a whole lot riding on him. Oh, and the NFC East is downright loaded this year. Like, really, really, really loaded. Scary loaded.
Burning question: Can this rookie withstand all the pressure (and recent bad history) that goes with being the quarterback of the Washington Redskins?
In addition to being the most highly anticipated Redskins rookie quarterback since Heath Shuler (apologies, Jason Campbell), Washington mortgaged not only this year’s draft, but first-round picks in the next two drafts, as well. Robert Griffin III was a Heisman winner, who resurrected a moribund Baylor football program and turned the Bears into contenders. But the spotlight will be a lot brighter in D.C. than it was in Waco, especially considering the team’s lack of success in its first two years under Mike Shanahan. The rest of the NFC East — the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants — will all be playoff contenders this season. Can a rookie quarterback keep Washington in the mix? I don’t see it.
Key training camp battles: Free safety and strong safety — Reed Doughty vs. DeJon Gomes vs. Kevin Barnes vs. Brandon Meriweather vs. Tanard Jackson vs. Madieu Williams: Both safety spots are up for grabs in Washington. Last year’s unlikely combo of Doughty and 2011 fifth-rounder Gomes finished the 2011 campaign playing well, but there are four more names in the mix this summer. Barnes played well in spot duty a season ago and is a potential contender at free safety. Meriweather’s a former Pro Bowl player but is on his third team in three seasons and got arrested on a DUI charge six weeks after signing with Washington. Jackson played for new defensive backs coach Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay but has missed much of the past three seasons because of suspensions from positive drug tests. Williams, formerly of Cincinnati and San Francisco, has seen the level of his play drop dramatically in recent years. Six men, two spots, and a defensive backs coach (Morris) and a defensive coordinator (Jim Haslett) running the competition. This should be fun.
The new veteran in town: Pierre Garcon, wide receiver: Despite anemic play from the quarterback position in what was an utterly forgettable 2011 season for the Indianapolis Colts, Garcon had career highs in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns last year. He inked a big free-agent deal with the Redskins in March, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly insisted this offseason that Garcon was the “best” wide receiver on the free-agent market. He’ll step right in as Griffin’s go-to No. 1 target.
Young gun: Ryan Kerrigan, outside linebacker: Von Miller, Aldon Smith and Patrick Peterson got most of the headlines when it came to standout rookie defenders last season, but Kerrigan exceeded expectations too. As a rookie, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year played in all 16 games, racked up 66 tackles and had 7.5 sacks. In two wins over the Giants, he had eight tackles, a sack, an interception and a touchdown. There were typical rookie growing pains, but everyone’s very high on this kid. Expect big production in his second year.
Schrager prediction: It seems like every two or three years, the Redskins clean house at quarterback and wide receiver, bring in fresh blood and still finish in the basement of the NFC East. I actually really like the receivers this time around — Josh Morgan can be a star, and look out for Leonard Hankerson in his second year, too — and I can’t think of a single negative about Griffin III’s game. The NFC East is just too darn tough this year. I can’t see Washington contending for the playoffs.
Final prediction: Fourth place, NFC East
No. 28 Jacksonville Jaguars
Training camp site: Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields in Jacksonville, Fla.
Training camp start: July 26
BetOnline Super Bowl odds: 165-1
What I like about you: Despite a spotty offensive line, an all but embarrassing wide receiver corps and an often dazed and confused looking, long-haired rookie quarterback, Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing and the Jags’ defense ranked sixth in the NFL. If new head coach Mike Mularkey can do for QB Blaine Gabbert even half of what he did for Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Jacksonville is pointing upward in 2012.
What I don’t like about you: The quarterback’s not very good. Well, at least from what we’ve seen of him.
Burning question: Is Gabbert the guy? I know, I know — it has been only one season, and draft expert Mike Mayock really, really liked him coming out of Missouri. But, man, that was some underwhelming rookie season, wasn’t it? General manager Gene Smith got Gabbert a quarterbacks guru head coach, traded up in the draft for wide receiver Justin Blackmon and signed free-agent wide receiver Laurent Robinson to a big, long-term deal. Gabbert has no excuses now. Last season, he completed only 50.4 percent of his passes for a paltry 5.36 yards per completion. That won’t get the job done in Year 2. If he’s putting up those numbers early on, we could see Chad Henne under center by the end of September.
Key training camp battle: Cornerback — Aaron Ross vs. Rashean Mathis: Derek Cox stepped up and proved he was an elite (or near elite) cornerback when his opportunity arose last season. He will man one of the starting corner jobs. The other? It’s not as clearly defined. Mathis is the longtime fixture at corner in Jacksonville, a nine-year veteran whom the fans love and adore. He was also the player selected to represent the team at Nike’s recent jersey unveiling. But Mathis is coming off an ACL tear and was inked to only a one-year contract in what will be his 10th season. The challenger? Ross, the former New York Giants first-round pick who, despite some bad days in the Giants backfield over the years, brings with him two Super Bowl rings and a $15.3 million price tag. This will be a good, spirited battle between two respected veterans.
The new veteran in town: Laurent Robinson, wide receiver: After a breakout 54-catch, 11-touchdown season with Dallas in 2011, Robinson struck gold with a mighty $32.5 million deal with Jacksonville in March. The Jags like Mike Thomas as a slot guy, drafted Justin Blackmon sixth overall and were pleased with Robinson’s production in organized team activities and minicamp. A wide-receiver unit that was widely considered the very worst in the league suddenly got a lot better. Can Robinson find the same success without Tony Romo delivering him passes? We’ll see.
Young gun: Rashad Jennings, running back: Jennings is no spring chicken in football terms — he’s 27 — but if Jones-Drew continues to skip team-sanctioned — both mandatory and voluntary — events, all eyes will be on Jennings to step up and deliver in the All-Pro’s absence. That might not be as big of a problem as you’d expect, as Jennings’ work jumps off the screen in film study and he’s a popular guy in the locker room. He’s no MJD, but if MJD’s not in uniform come August — and is talking on sports radio or the NFL Network, instead — it will be Jennings’ chance to make a name for himself. I have no doubt he will. Even in spot duty, he should see an increased workload in Mularkey’s offense.
Schrager prediction: I think the additions of Mularkey, Blackmon and Robinson will make Gabbert a much-improved quarterback this year. He also has had an entire offseason to prepare, learn the offense and command a leadership role in the locker room — something he missed last season because of the lockout. But I don’t see him leading the Jaguars to the playoffs. The pieces are coming together, but they’re still a year or two away from being the type of team new owner Shahid Khan wants them to be.