With the season kicking off, it's time to rank the Arena Football League teams and offer our predictions for division winners as well as who will play in -- and who will win -- ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans.
This team never rebuilds -- it just reloads! The Predators return the nucleus of their roster that went to the ArenaBowl last year, plus they added the biggest free-agency prize, luring QB Shane Stafford from archrival Tampa Bay. The Predators are always good on defense and are a very smart and efficient team, but Stafford gives them stability and explosiveness at the QB position they haven't had before. Plus, he is being coached by the best in the business, Jay Gruden (Jon's younger brother). Orlando has the real look of a championship team in 2007.
2. Dallas Desperados
This was the most dominating team in the AFL during the regular season in 2006, excelling in almost every statistical category. The Desperados have a good blend of veteran leadership and young athletes (20 new players in 2007 and 16 returning players). They will have an improved secondary and are deep enough at FB/LB to dictate good matchups. Still, they must find a kicker, which is a huge concern. There are also question marks at wide receiver, partly because of free-agent losses and partly because their best two-way players may be forced to concentrate on defense. However, this is still a loaded roster, and they will be tough to beat.
As usual, this is a talented roster loaded with playmakers. There is excellent strength and depth at wide receiver and in the secondary. Plus, the passing duo of QB John Dutton to WR Damian Harrell will be explosive. The biggest adjustment may be the loss of both offensive and defensive coordinators (Brian Partlow and Lee Johnson). A veteran group of players and an inexperienced coaching staff may need some time to get on the same page. But they may have the offensive player of the year (Harrell) and the defensive player of the year (Rashad Floyd).
4. Chicago Rush
Last year, Chicago rolled through the playoffs en route to an ArenaBowl title, and hopes to maintain that momentum in 2007. The Rush return their championship roster almost totally intact and have a great blend of veteran players, young athletes and some interesting first-year AFL players with a lot of NFL experience. This is a team that handles pressure well, knows how to win on the road and has an excellent coaching staff. The passing game should be deep and explosive, and the tandem of QB Matt D'Orazio and WR Brian Sippio could be lethal. Chicago has the talent to repeat as ArenaBowl champion.
The Soul are hoping they can get another solid year out of QB Tony Graziani. They should have a formidable passing offense, but is there enough explosiveness? The Soul have a good offensive line (gave up only five sacks in 2006), but Graziani got hit more than those numbers lead you to believe. While there is concern about the defense, it seems to be heading in the right direction. They will have a better pass rush in 2007, should tackle better and should make more big plays on defense. It looks like they have some guys who can get after the QB, especially Eddie Moten and Sean Scott. If the defense comes around, this will be a well-balanced team capable of going deep in the playoffs. The Soul has the look of a sleeper team.
6. San Jose Sabercats
The Sabercats are rolling the dice in 2007 by retooling their roster. They decided to go young, with 23 first-year players. They must replace their pass-rushers and improve in the trenches and on special teams. But even with their youth movement, they have an explosive passing game that will simply outscore a lot of opponents. If the youngsters come along quickly, San Jose will be a strong playoff contender.
This is already a good team that has a chance to explode in 2007. They have an innovative, offensive-minded, new head coach (Brian Partlow) and great, young, offensive skill players to develop -- and this offense averaged 50.5 points a game in 2006. Defensively, they have several playmakers and they will get better. Plus, they should have an explosive return game with Sedrick Robinson. With an aggressive front office, this team will continue to raise the bar, and if their young offensive stars jell, they will be fun to watch.
8. Georgia Force
Georgia is a well-coached team with a strong front office and a commitment to being an outstanding franchise, but there are huge concerns at QB. There are game-breakers on offense, but can anybody get them the ball? Defensively, they should be solid and are very well-coached (third in AFL in points allowed in 2006), but they don't have a lot of experience in the secondary. They will be solid in the trenches and they have a lot of veteran AFL players who really know this game. It may all come down to the QB position.
After a successful 2006 season, expectations are high for the Blaze to be even better in 2007. Head coach Danny White continues to turn over his roster, trying to find the right guys for his system, and it's not surprising that he has a lot of players with Arizona Rattlers ties. QB Joe Germaine must remain healthy (and upright), but he has a big-time playmaker in WR Siaha Burley. Both lines must get better, along with a young secondary, to ensure improvement in 2007. The offense will move the ball and score points, but how quickly this roster develops chemistry will determine how far the Blaze go.
10. Tampa Bay Storm
Tampa Bay is a proud organization that doesn't stay down very long. The Storm had a very active offseason, adding a lot of veterans, and are now the most experienced team in the AFL (five players with 10 or more years of experience). But there are lingering questions. Are they too old? Can QB John Kaleo replace the production of departed free agent Shane Stafford? Will they be good enough in the trenches? Can they protect Kaleo? We do know the Storm have a deep and talented group of receivers and are a more physical team than they were a year ago. They know how to win, and even with a lot of new players, they should jell quickly.
11. Arizona Rattlers
Arizona is full of experience and maturity, but it is also an older team with a lot of players in the twilight of their careers. They started slow in 2006, then played well in the middle of the season, but faded down the stretch. They have experienced playmakers, but for the Rattlers to compete, the old guys must stay healthy and the young guys must get into the mix and produce fast. The good news is they are in a division that doesn't have a runaway team.
After starting out with a solid 6-3 record in 2006, the Kats faded in the second half of the season and finished 8-8. Head coach Pat Sperduto is a defensive-minded coach and preaches tough, mistake-free football. His defense will be rock-solid, especially in the secondary, but there are questions on offense. QB Clint Stoerner is talented but inconsistent. And are there enough offensive weapons? New offensive coordinator Lary Kuharich has a great history in developing QBs and explosive offenses. If he can perform his magic in Nashville, the Kats will be competitive in 2007.
13. Los Angeles Avengers
Although a 5-11 record was a bitter disappointment for an organization that sets high standards in a very competitive sports market, the Avengers may have found their QB of the future in Sonny Cumbie. They lost a couple of key playmakers on offense (WR Tony Locke and WR/LB Greg Hopkins), but they still have Kevin Ingram, who can seemingly do it all. The offense is creative and will put up a lot of points, but the Avengers must improve their pass protection for their young QB (they gave up 31 sacks last season). Defensively, they will be solid and aggressive, but do they have a good enough pass rush? They are in a balanced division and will be better than they were last year.
14. New Orleans VooDoo
Building a team from scratch would suggest that success will come slowly, but this organization has done it before. With all the assets of the New Orleans Saints at their disposal, the VooDoo have already put together a very interesting roster. They will run the ball well, will be physical on defense, and if they can protect 38-year-old QB Andy Kelly, they can manufacture a solid passing game. You get the feeling that this team will surprise a lot of people and be competitive in 2007.
15. New York Dragons
When QB Aaron Garcia is in the lineup, anything is possible for this potentially explosive passing offense. However, reportedly the leg that Garcia fractured last season has not healed, and he may not be ready in 2007, which means that the Dragons' QBs right now are Leon Murray and Rohan Davey (and neither comes close to matching Garcia's production). Defensively, the return of Billy Parker will help, but depth is a problem. There is also some work to do in the trenches, especially the offensive line and pass protection. It looks like the Dragons must rely on their offense to win games, but that puts added pressure to be perfect every week. They have an excellent receiving corps loaded with experience and depth, but without Garcia this just isn't the same offense, and that puts the Dragons in a deep hole.
16. Columbus Destroyers
As QB Matt Nagy goes, so goes Columbus. He has plenty of receivers at his disposal, but will any of them emerge as go-to guys? There is potential for a good passing game, but pass protection will be an issue and there is work to do in the trenches. The pass defense may be lacking playmakers, as well. It just doesn't seem like there are enough explosive playmakers on this roster, but Nagy can keep the Destroyers in a lot of games.
17. Grand Rapids Rampage
Grand Rapids has had only one winning season since winning the ArenaBowl in 2001, and the Rampage just don't seem to have enough playmakers. Their coaches believe in a physical, ball-control offense that eats up the clock and an opportunistic defense that creates turnovers. They lack stability at the QB position and have significant questions at WR. But if ex-NFL star Troy Edwards can adjust to the indoor game quickly and become a big playmaker at WR, it would be a big lift. They need the secondary to come together quickly to be competitive in 2007, but more than likely they will be hurt by a lack of explosiveness.
18. Kansas City Brigade
The coaches are trying to retool this roster quickly, with 23 new faces from a year ago, including nine new linemen. The Brigade have major questions at QB and a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball to get all the new faces on the same page. Defensively, they may be pretty good, especially in the secondary, but they may be a year away from being a more stable and cohesive roster.
19. Las Vegas Gladiators
This is a difficult team to get a handle on. There is inexperience everywhere. The Gladiators have 27 first-year players on their preseason roster, and while they have a lot of players with NFL résumés, whether they can adapt to the indoor game is anybody's guess. There is a lot of work to be done on both lines, and a potentially talented group of receivers will have to get on the same page with a new quarterback (former Tampa Bay Bucs QB Shaun King). Oh yeah, they have a rookie head coach in Danton Barto, too. In a city where people love to roll the dice, that's exactly what the Gladiators are doing in 2007. Will big names like King and Peter Warrick be enough to make Las Vegas a contender?
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.