As the dust is settling on the wildest, wackiest and most contentious offseason in NFL history — I know baseball has started, but who's paying attention? — it’s time to apply some pressure to some folks. They made the moves and now we’re expecting them to deliver big time come September. -- John Czarnecki
The Rams made a strong commitment to their young quarterback, who will have his third offensive coordinator in three years. Basically, the Rams stuck with Bradford over Robert Griffin III. These two will be judged forever going forward. Granted, the Rams were committed financially to Bradford, but they opted to rebuild their team with the draft-pick haul from the Redskins. Bradford was given a couple of offensive weapons (receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead) in the draft, but he'd better be as productive as RG3. If the Redskins get to the playoffs before the Rams, all bets are off.
New England Patriots
Other than the Bengals, no team received higher draft grades than the Patriots after what Bill Belichick did to shore up the pass rush. The Patriots took the player they coveted in Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and then traded ahead of the Baltimore Ravens for Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The Patriots needed defense and Belichick spent the first four picks on just that. All the new arrivals should get on the field this season. New England had only 40 sacks in 2011, and 10 of them were by Mark Anderson, who signed with the Bills. Andre Carter, who also had 10, remains unsigned. The rookies better perform.
You can put some of this on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who made the dramatic trade to move up to the No. 6 overall spot to select the best cornerback prospect in the draft. LSU’s Claiborne will be an immediate starter with the departure of Terence Newman. And with five fourth-quarter collapses last season, Claiborne is being billed as the player who is the missing piece to Rob Ryan’s defense. The Cowboys do have a pass rush and a talented front seven. In order to return to the playoffs, Dallas needs Claiborne to stop the opposition’s best receiver.
The Jets aren’t convincing when they talk about how much Tebow will be playing in place of highly paid starter Mark Sanchez. But there’s no doubt new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano wants to use the wildcat offense, believing Tebow’s running ability in the red zone (and elsewhere) will freak out opponents. And the more they use Tebow, the more opponents will have to plan for him and the conventional Sanchez offense. But if Tebow doesn’t deliver and the wildcat turns into a pussy-cat, then the boos will rain down on coach Rex Ryan. This is a huge gamble, on the field and to locker-room chemistry.
The NFC North is quickly joining its AFC counterpart among the league’s strongest divisions, and the Bears are built to win this season, especially with linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs nearing the end of their careers. Granted, they better make RB Matt Forte happy, but they do have ex-Raider Michael Bush ready to run through the Packers and Lions. QB Jay Cutler will have two huge receiving targets in Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery. The Bears also landed backup QB Jason Campbell and special teams star Eric Weems. Granted, Chicago didn’t upgrade its offensive line, believing offensive coordinator Mike Tice can work his magic with that unit. Otherwise, the Bears are loaded on offense, and there are no excuses if they miss the playoffs.
With the Saints engulfed in Bountygate and minus coach Sean Payton, the expectations this season in Carolina are off the charts. Newton loves to mimic Superman on the field, and after being named Rookie of the Year, he better play like it. Other than signing running back Mike Tolbert away from San Diego, the Panthers didn’t upgrade their offensive weapons much, meaning they fully believe Newton won’t have a sophomore slump. He passed for 21 touchdowns and ran for 14 more last season, but was inaccurate at times and threw 17 interceptions. The Panthers believe Newton can double last year’s win total (six) and make the playoffs with the Saints in decline.
In the end, they really wanted to trade with the Rams for Robert Griffin III, but there were communication problems. Who messed up? Nobody's talking. On one hand, coach Pat Shurmur was still expressing confidence in Colt McCoy — what a snow job — but then they drafted Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick. The positives are that Weeden threw 71 touchdown passes in his last two college seasons, but the big negative is he will be 29 in October after first failing at a pro baseball career. Mike Holmgren is hoping his obvious maturity will immediately translate on the field and in the locker room. This was a huge gamble for a quarterback who some teams didn’t believe was a first-round prospect.
Dolphins teammates still can’t believe the post-draft photos of their new quarterback and his new wife, model Lauren Ufer, posing with owner Stephen Ross. I don’t recall a wife ever being in a first-round photo like that. There's a lot of pressure on this kid to erase Dan Marino from the memory of Miami fans. And all this talk about the Dolphins' offense being so similar to what he ran at Texas A&M is not helping his cause. The Dolphins claim they're happy they weren’t in the Manning derby or didn't have a chance to draft RG3, either. Well, time will tell on this one.
The Eagles looked all offseason to upgrade their quarterback position and fell short in every attempt, from Robert Griffin III to Peyton Manning. We all know coach Andy Reid falls in and out of love with his quarterbacks, and he was sick about Vick’s 18 turnovers last season. The Eagles smartly focused on defense in the draft, meaning Vick should be in better field position to score points. Reid still took a pass at a quarterback in the third round — Arizona’s Nick Foles — and is gambling that seventh-round pick Bryce Brown can make the team and take the load off RB LeSean McCoy. Running back was supposed to be a priority in this draft, but the Eagles apparently didn’t listen to Reid.
Based on his ability as a player, I’m sure Elway is pretty confident that he’s made all the right moves, beginning with the signing of Peyton Manning in conjunction with the trading of Tim Tebow. The Broncos are favorites to win the AFC West, and if they don’t win a playoff game — equaling what they did under Tebow — then Elway messed up. Elway also had a solid draft, but he drafted a quarterback-in-waiting in Brock Osweiler, who sports an NBA small forward body. The big kid better look good. To prove that he’s making all the personnel moves (with help from coach John Fox), Elway parted ways with his cap guy Brian Xanders, who was masquerading as a general manager. It's a very odd time to put his so-called No. 2 football guy on the street.