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.
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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 Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers.
No. 20 Kansas City Chiefs
Training Camp Site: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.
Training Camp Start Date: July 26
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 40-1
What I Like About You: The Chiefs are a very young and yet a somewhat experienced squad. They’ve added key pieces on both O and D, will lay it on the line for their head coach and feature Pro Bowl players across the defense. Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles, two of the top players from the 2010 playoff squad, return from injuries.
What I Don’t Like About You: No player on the roster has been in the league for 10 years or more, the quarterback’s never won a big game in January, and the loss of Brandon Carr in free agency could sting more than anyone realizes.
Burning Question: Is Matt Cassel the guy to bring Kansas City its first playoff win since 1994? I’m not certain he is. This will be the former Patriots seventh-round pick’s fourth year as the full-time starter in Kansas City. With Kyle Orton in Dallas and Brady Quinn and Ricky Stanzi as the backups, there is no real quarterback competition this summer. Despite some really low points and seven games missed with an injury last season, Scott Pioli has put it all in Cassel’s hands. The talent’s there on this roster, but is the leader?
Key Training Camp Battle: Inside Linebacker: Jovan Belcher vs. Brandon Siler: Three of the four linebacker spots on this defense are set with Pro Bowlers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson and breakout star Justin Houston. The fourth spot is wide open. Belcher’s been the starter for a few years, but has never wowed anyone. Siler missed much of last year with an injury and could give him a run for his money at left inside linebacker. If Belcher/Siler can have big years, we could be talking about the best linebacker group in the entire league. And that includes San Francisco.
The New Veteran in Town: Stanford Routt, Cornerback: Even before Brandon Carr signed with Dallas, Routt was brought in and signed by the Chiefs. Routt, a guy who was cut by the Raiders just one yearafter signing a big three-year deal with Oakland, comes to Kansas City with something to prove. He’ll be the lockdown guy opposite Brandon Flowers. The “Two Brandons” were a great combo in KC; Routt’s shown he’s talented enough to ensure no drop-off.
The Young Gun to Watch: Dontari Poe, Defensive Tackle: The 350-pound Poe was the apple of draftniks’ eyes after an eye-dropping performance at the NFL Draft Scouting Combine last February. He then became the whipping boy of film junkies, as his Memphis tape showed him to take plays off and not make much of an impact when he was “on.” Pioli and Crennel love what they got with the 11th pick in the draft and he’ll be expected to make an impact right from the start. Poe still hasn’t signed his contract, but has been a constant presence since being drafted in April. There’s only positive things being said. I think he’s going to be a stud. And I think he’s going to be a stud in Year 1. This is a motivated young man.
Schrager Prediction: Nobody’s talking about what a difference Berry and Charles will make for this team. Both were gone after Week 3 last season and their impact was missed. Routt, Eric Winston and Peyton Hillis were all sound acquisitions and there’s great momentum after the way the team played for Romeo Crennel last season. It seems as though everyone’s making the AFC West into a two-horse race, but I think Kansas City has a shot to win the division. That is, of course, if Cassel does the job he needs to do.
Final Prediction: 3rd, AFC West
No. 19 Carolina Panthers
Training Camp Site: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.
Training Camp Start Date: July 27
BetOnline Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 40-1
What I Like About You: The greatest rookie quarterback we’ve ever seen in Cam Newton got a full offseason to prepare, a great ground attack, a solid offensive line, and a suddenly healthy and scary defense.
What I Don’t Like About You: The worst defensive line in the NFL, lingering questions at the receiver spots outside of Steve Smith, and the element of surprise being stripped from a year ago. No one’s going to be sleeping on Carolina in 2012.
Burning Question: Is the defense healthy? The Panthers lost so many key players on defense so early on last season that it’s hard to even imagine what could have really been for this team had they been healthy. Perennial Pro Bowler Jon Beason missed 15 games, Thomas Davis missed 14 and Ron Edwards didn’t play a single down. All three should be back and the Panthers added top-10 draft pick Luke Kuechly. At full strength, this could be a nasty little unit. With injuries, they could be among the league’s worst — as they were in 2011.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: Outside Linebacker: Thomas Davis vs. James Anderson: If healthy, Beason will start at one linebacker spot. We know the Panthers want to get Kuechly on the field right away. That leaves a very interesting battle between the oft-injured Davis and the unheralded Anderson for the other outside linebacker spot. Davis is a star when he’s on the field. Alas, that hasn’t been the case much in recent years. Anderson, meanwhile, had a very strong 2011, leading the team in tackles and serving as a defensive leader. This makes for a great competition between two battle-tested veterans.
The New Veteran in Town: Mike Tolbert, Running Back: As if DeAngelo Williams and James Stewart weren’t enough, the Panthers added the 5-9, 240-pound Tolbert into their backfield mix this offseason, too. I loved the signing, though some of my colleagues didn’t. In Tolbert, the Panthers get another goal-line threat and a guy who can move the pile. Surprisingly, he catches the ball out of the backfield, too. A natural blocker and all-around good guy to have in a locker room, his impact will be felt immediately. This signing was not a “must have” by any means, but it was one heck of a “nice to have.”
The Young Gun to Watch: Amini Silatolu, Left Guard: Silatolu caught the attention of scouts across the league with an eye-opening Combine performance in February. He’s in the right place in Carolina, where he’ll start at guard and get to work between two of the league’s best linemen in Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross. He’s a mauler with the versatility to play tackle down the road. This was viewed as a bit of a reach when the selection was made, but getting the opportunity to learn from vets like Kalil, Gross and Jeff Otah will only accelerate this small-school prospect’s progress. Very raw; could be very good.
Schrager Prediction: There are few teams I’m more excited to see than the Panthers this year. Cam Newton — and I stand behind this one — had a better rookie season than any quarterback we’ve ever seen play the game. And that was with an abridged offseason. The defense is healthy, he’s got more weapons than he did a year ago, and there’s an overall enthusiasm in Charlotte heading into this season. But I still don’t see Carolina knocking Atlanta or New Orleans off their perches. This is an eight- or nine-win team, and that’s likely just not good enough in the NFC this season.