- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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.
1. Miami heat: Perhaps the most interesting development is the rise of the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban. There are certain no-brainers in sports. Because of his history as a former NFL defensive coordinator and his success as a college head coach, Saban was destined for success. Kirk Ferentz out of Iowa is the other sure bet for success, but he's not leaving college anytime soon.
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.
2. NFC East scramble: The NFC East is the best division in football. Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin are winning coaches, and they have winning teams. The Cowboys might have the best chance to win the division. Their schedule, though tough, is slightly easier than the other three teams. The Giants have an impossible schedule. Their 26-points-per-game offense will be pounded until November with weekly exposures to some of the best defenses in the NFL, making it tough for them to go back to the playoffs even though they are better. The Redskins have a great three-receiver set run by Al Saunders, but they are coming off a horrible preseason.
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.
3. Prime targets: This should be a big year for tight ends. New England's Ben Watson looks like the latest to join the elite group of tight ends. Of course, Watson might end up being the best receiver on the team if the Patriots can't get holdout Deion Branch onto the practice field. Todd Heap will be better in Baltimore now that he has Steve McNair. L.J. Smith will have a busy season in Philadelphia. Ben Troupe is emerging as a good one in Tennessee. Heath Miller continues to get better in Pittsburgh. Chris Cooley is a big target for Mark Brunell in Washington. And don't forget the regular stars -- Antonio Gates in San Diego, Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City and Alge Crumpler in Atlanta.
4. No. 1 problem: What's becoming apparent is that using a No. 1 draft choice on a wide receiver doesn't necessarily give you a No. 1 receiver. Look at the casualties of late: Rashaun Woods, Stallworth, Ashley Lelie, Koren Robinson, David Terrell, Freddie Mitchell, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor, Sylvester Morris and Charlie Rogers are just a few examples of failed No. 1 draft picks as receivers. Some had to go to other teams to succeed. Others are out of the league. Reggie Williams hasn't become the go-to receiver in Jacksonville, leaving the Jags without a pure No. 1 receiver. Matt Jones is still developing. More and more teams are finding it harder to get that No. 1 guy through the draft.
5. Hybrid defenses: Teams are getting tricky, and the improving athletic ability of defensive players is giving coaches plenty of ammunition. More and more teams are using a 4-3 defense that can become a 3-4. It isn't that hard. In Baltimore, for example, the Ravens are back to a 4-3 scheme but defensive end Terrell Suggs can become a linebacker by taking a step back and not putting his hand on the ground.
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.
6. Big year for running backs: Bill Parcells ran the ball 48 percent of the time last year, and he wants Dallas to become more of a running team despite the addition of Owens. Jeff Fisher wants his three backs -- Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White -- to average 35-to-40 carries a game. Houston's Gary Kubiak vows to be a running team. The theory in coaching is a good running game and a good defense can get you to nine wins faster than any other formula. More teams are copying that.
7. Weird year for running backs: Parcells believes the days of the workhorse running back are ending. Fewer and fewer teams are putting the bulk of the running offense into the hands of one back. Those Earl Campbell days might be ending. Parcells, for example, has Julius Jones and Marion Barber sharing the position with Jones getting most of the carries. The demand for that second back has increased. Bidding was crazy for Saints backup Michael Bennett until the Chiefs plunked down a fourth-round choice to get him. Larry Johnson might be good enough to carry the offense alone, but the Chiefs felt they needed that second back. Most teams do.
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.
8. Impact of rule changes: Safety remains a big issue in this league and that's a good thing. The Competition Committee has gone as far as to protect centers and long snappers by not letting defensive lineman line up directly in front of them to pound them once they snap the ball. See, it's a kinder, gentler NFL. The big rule changes this offseason involve taunting and celebrations. Don't even think of showing up a player by getting in his face after a tackle. That's a 15-yard penalty. Chad Johnson's end zone celebrations will cause fines or penalties unless he totally scales them down. That's a shame. It is the No Fun League. Spikes are still OK. Lambeau Leaps are OK. Some dances are permitted, but not much.
9. The Easy Schedule Syndrome: The AFC is deeper without any truly weak divisions. While the AFC is still deeper and better than the NFC, the NFC is catching up. It's not like two years ago when the AFC was 44-20 against the NFC. But in the NFC, almost all of the power resides in the South and East. The NFC North and NFC West still remain weak, which creates the easy schedule syndrome. The Seahawks are the class in the NFC West. The Bears are the best team in the North. Unless you believe in Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit, the Seahawks and Bears should come out with the top two seeds in the NFC by beating up on their division opponents. It will be hard for the winners of the South and East to be anything better than No. 3 or No. 4 seeds, meaning they would have to go to Chicago or Seattle in the second week of the playoffs. Advice to the NFC East and NFC South: Either root hard for the other teams to the North and West to be better than expected or send them players.
10. Picking the Super Bowl: I hate doing this because I'm usually wrong. I stick by the theory that the best quarterbacks usually go to the Super Bowl, which is why I keep picking Peyton Manning and the Colts. I'm picking them again. Hey, I kept going for John Elway for years. Too bad it took him until late in his career to get Terrell Davis and win two rings. I'm picking the Colts despite the losses of Edgerrin James and linebacker David Thornton because they have fewer flaws than the other top AFC teams. Duce Staley has to come on as the big back to help Willie Parker in Pittsburgh. Can the Broncos have the great running game with two Bells -- Mike and Tatum? The Dolphins have caught up to the Patriots in the AFC East and both seem like playoff teams, but neither is a Super Bowl team. The Bengals and Ravens could be playoff teams, too, but they have to stay healthy. The NFC is simple. It's Carolina and Seattle. The Panthers are a more complete team than the Seahawks. They have a better defense. They have a good running game and a good quarterback. But, as a third- or fourth-seed, the Panthers would have to come to Seattle, where I give the Seahawks the edge. My picks are the Colts and the Seahawks, with the Colts hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on Feb. 4.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Miami has a legitimate shot to win the AFC East, writes John Clayton. And don't count out Philly in the loaded NFC East.