Top story lines to watch
Miami has a legitimate shot to win the AFC East, writes John Clayton. And don't count out Philly in the loaded NFC East.
Perhaps the biggest surprise heading into the 2006 season is the lack of surprises.
From my vantage point, the NFL is entering an interesting era. In many ways, it's a good era. Free agency, which has turned offseasons into year-long headline machines, has made the NFL stronger. Fantasy football has drawn borderline fans closer to the sport and more knowledgeable about the players.
With growth comes change. I call it a maturity. It was clear from the start teams couldn't beat the system and buy a championship through free agency. The salary cap prevented a George Steinbrenner baseball-like domination of the sport because teams could only spend to a certain limit.
Where the NFL has matured is that free agency grows weaker by the year, and 2006 is the start of an era of smart football. Teams, thanks to the riches of more television money and many new businesses, have a salary cap of $102 million. Next year, the number grows to $109 million.
Such growth in the cap is watering down free agency, making it harder for teams to make those dramatic jumps, those worst-to-first improvements of the past. With more money at their disposal, the good teams are able to retain more of their top free agents, limiting the pool of talent for the teams trying to make quick turnarounds.
The NFL is the best for being an equal opportunity sport. It gives the worst teams the best draft choices and first dibs on non-vested players released on the waiver wire. The scheduling format provides a few extra breaks for the worst teams, although that impact has been lessened by the eight division realignment that provides 14 common games among division opponents.
But the maturity of the free-agent system is making it tougher for the bad teams to become good. The rising teams are more predictable, but those totally surprising jumps are harder to find.
Naturally, you can make the case for several new playoff teams this year. The Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers could replace three still-talented playoff-caliber teams in the AFC. The Cowboys, Bucs, Falcons, Eagles and maybe the Vikings can move into playoff spots in the NFC. None of those moves would be considered surprising because those teams have been getting better on paper for the past couple of years.
Last year, it was clear to see the Bengals and Jaguars were ready to make the move. This year, the NFC East is so deep that all four teams are of playoff caliber. There are three playoff-caliber teams in the NFC South. The Chargers get an easier schedule and should be able to return to the playoff-type record of two years ago. Nick Saban has the Dolphins seriously challenging the Patriots.
None of that is surprising. Teams have to be smarter about the way they build because the landscape is getting tougher and this will be the trend for the next several years. It's going to be harder to find good quarterbacks, so teams without them better make the right moves. Teams must draft better or they will be stuck in mediocrity.
The good news is that more teams are getting better, so the league is becoming more competitive. Making the playoffs is no longer a lottery of getting a couple of good free-agency hits and getting the benefit of an easy schedule. General managers and coaches have much harder jobs, but that isn't a bad thing.
Here are 10 story lines to follow as the 2006 season unfolds.
Saban learned under Bill Belichick and now his Dolphins are ready to put the heat on the Patriots in the AFC East. Don't get me wrong, the Patriots are still a playoff team. They still have Belichick and Tom Brady. They just don't have as many players as they did during the three Super Bowl runs.
Saban turned the Dolphins into a nine-win team and appears to have made the big gamble to get them over the top. He acquired Daunte Culpepper, giving the Dolphins a quarterback who can compete with Brady. Ronnie Brown is a big-time running back. The offensive line is better. The defense is good and getting better.
The Patriots are thin at wide receiver and have issues at linebacker. This could be the year the Dolphins beat out the Patriots in the AFC East, but don't be surprised if both teams meet again in the playoffs to determine the true division champion.
The interesting twist could come in Philadelphia. Quietly, the Eagles have had a great offseason. Their offensive and defensive lines are loaded. With Terrell Owens in Dallas, they have no controversies. Donovan McNabb is hoping Donte' Stallworth will be the answer to their receiving issues. Don't count out the Eagles.
More and more teams are copying that look. Highy touted rookie Mathias Kiwanuka gives the Giants those options. Some of the league's best defenses -- Steelers, Chargers, Patriots and Cowboys -- use a 3-4. The Dolphins are a hybrid defense moving to a 3-4. Though it might be easier to stock a 4-3 defense, the 3-4 look is much more complicated for quarterbacks to pick up the extra rusher or two. More coaches are compromising. They are switching their 4-3 personnel into 3-4 looks just to drive quarterbacks crazy. And it's working.
Steven Jackson (Rams), Kevin Jones (Lions), Shaun Alexander (Seahawks) and Ronnie Brown (Dolphins) are just a few of the remaining workhorse backs. Parcells makes a good point. Colleges are rotating backs more. He points out the USC Trojans. They had Reggie Bush, the most talented player in the draft. He shared the halfback position with current Titans rookie White. Enough said.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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