Three WRs who will face more pressure
Evans, Johnson and Moss will see more double coverage this season
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Phil in Columbus, Ohio, wants to know why so many of us in the media have picked the Cincinnati Bengals for a second-place division finish. The reason is the tough schedule facing the Bengals, but I'm ready to change my position. As much as I thought the Baltimore Ravens were an 11- or 12-win team, the injuries in the secondary will pull them down. The Ravens have a great offense but a very shaky secondary. Now that I've seen both teams up close, I'm going with the Bengals to win the AFC North. Garrett in Canton, Mich., is among a bunch of people wondering about the improvements in the Detroit Lions and whether they can get to .500. Offensively, they are much better with the additions of Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler and Jahvid Best. But they are two drafts away from being good enough on defense. That puts them in the four- to six-win category. Dave D. in Lancaster, N.Y., admits he is a long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan, but he doesn't buy the argument the Bills could end up getting the first pick in the draft. Here's the problem: Despite their losing through the years, the only real starters the Bills have landed out of the first round recently are WR Lee Evans and DB Donte Whitner. DE Aaron Maybin is going to be a backup in this 3-4 scheme, playing only on passing downs; C.J. Spiller is exciting, but he's only a backup RB for the moment. The Bills need starters to get out of the basement. Shawn D. in Dallas wants to know the tradeoff if the players' union agrees to expand the regular season to 18 games. I would expect at least three more roster spots per team, maybe four more practice-squad jobs, less practice time during the offseason and two more regular-season game checks. Rob in Boston takes exception to me ranking the 49ers 14th, the Bears 18th and the Cardinals 19th in ESPN.com's Power Rankings the training camp edition. Understand that when you are ranking teams between Nos. 14 and 19, there might be only a one-game difference. From what I've seen in camp, I will improve the Bears' ranking in September. Rob has a higher opinion of the 49ers and Cardinals. When you are talking Nos. 14 to 19, you are talking about teams that are at the eight- or nine-win level. They very likely will have about the same record. Bryan in Morgantown, W.Va., is a 49ers fan loving how everyone is talking about his team being the best in the NFC West, but he raises a great point. His main concern is at cornerback, and I agree. Nate Clements didn't have much of a season last year. The problem is that there are no options on the street at the moment. Just ask the Ravens. Chris in South Florida asks about what it would take for Bruce Gradkowski to beat out Jason Campbell as the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback. My answer is an injury. Campbell is set as the starter. Parker in Boulder, Colo., can't figure out why Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels has torn apart the roster so much in his first two seasons. As he notes, a lot of talented players are no longer there. I wonder about that myself.
A: Being old-fashioned is not a bad thing, but the game has changed. Sure, teams can run the ball successfully. The Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson gained 2,006 yards last season and the Carolina Panthers had two 1,100-yard runners. But there are more top-level quarterbacks who can get the ball in a close game and beat those running teams in the fourth quarter. I call those quarterbacks elite. They have changed the style of the game to the point that teams must be bolder and more aggressive with their passing offenses. Keeping it close can get you to eight or nine wins. It's the fourth quarter that betrays the conservative, old-fashioned strategy. The rules are patterned to help the passer, and the best passers take advantage of those rules.
Q: I was wondering if you could speculate the extent to which Kyle Shanahan's move from Houston to Washington will affect both the Texans' and Redskins' offensive dimension. Do you expect the Texans to rely less on the pass because of the change in coordinator? And do you anticipate the Redskins to pass more due to Shanahan's arrival?From Joe in La Crosse, Wis. A: The loss of Kyle Shanahan might affect the Texans more than the Redskins, but the impact shouldn't be too bad. Head coach Mike Shanahan is the architect of the Redskins' offense; all his son will do is make the unit stronger and give Mike a trusted set of eyes. Gary Kubiak can handle the Texans' offense, but new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison could help build the running offense because he's a former offensive line coach. The Redskins will have more play-action passes for Donovan McNabb and they probably will use more two-tight end sets. Kubiak's challenge is to keep the passing offense at that 4,700-yard level, because Matt Schaub had a great year and wants to build on that.
Q: During a road trip with a couple of friends a few weeks back, an argument was started as to whether former Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott has a shot for the Hall of Fame. He has a franchise-high 71 TDs and is second to Derrick Brooks as the team's greatest player of all time, if not the best. There was also no one more dominant at the fullback position as he was during his prime. What is your opinion on this?
From Jesse in Palm City, Fla.
A: Alstott has no chance. He might have gone to the Pro Bowl often as a fullback, but he was more of a running back, and his yards don't match up with the top runners of his day. As a voter, you must make value judgments on positions because you have so many qualified candidates. A fullback-running back with 71 touchdowns is not going to beat out a receiver who ranks in the top five all-time or a 100-plus-sack defender. Just being the best fullback doesn't get you into the Hall of Fame, but it gets great honors within a franchise. Alstott deserves all honors in Tampa Bay because he was a very good player.
Q: Considering how teams have to work nowadays to find a steady kicker, how big of a deal is it that Jason Hanson isn't going to be there through the preseason? He did this last year and had a less-than-stellar season. Or is this a good thing for the Lions finally giving them an opportunity to find a successor to Hanson who has manned the spot for a couple of decades?From Gary in Middlebury, Ind. A: The medical reports on Hanson -- who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee recently -- are good enough that he should be ready for the regular-season opener. Still, the Lions probably do need to start the search for a new kicker. It would be great for the franchise if he can get through this season and maybe handle next year because the Lions still need to find five or six starting defensive players. Hanson has been a treasure for the Lions. He's been dependable, but at some point everyone wears out.
Q: What will the Redskins do with Andre Carter if Lorenzo Alexander beats him out for the OLB spot opposite Brian Orakpo? I have to imagine that a 10-sack rush end has to be worth a third-round pick to a 4-3 team, or will Mike Shanahan keep him for third downs?From Ryan in Colorado Springs, Colo. A: Lorenzo Alexander is expected to beat out Carter, so the plan is to use Carter as a defensive end on passing downs. The Redskins are a 3-4 team, but most 3-4 teams go to a four-man line when they go to the nickel or dime defense. Carter could get 60 percent of the playing time if opponents try to pass the ball on him, and that's where he can get the sacks. Why trade him? Carter has value to the Redskins going against Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Kevin Kolb six times a year.
Q: Yes, I am a Bucs fan from the N.Y. area.. The Bucs seems to be putting all the right pieces in place, yet so many analysts are already marking them off. They had their best draft in recent memory. Gerald McCoy and Brian Price will fill in huge voids that were missing last season along the D-line. Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn complement well with Josh Freeman, and will sure make an impact along with newcomer Reggie Brown. Donald Penn has reported to camp. Earnest Graham has more than accepted his role at fullback. If Freeman overcomes some of his inaccuracy issues, I see the Bucs pulling down 8 or 9 wins this season, which is a vast improvement. How do you think they'll fare this season?From Danny in New York A: I loved the Bucs' first four picks, but they need another draft or two to get back to the eight- or nine-win level. They are missing that big-play defensive end, they still have questions along the offensive line, they need another player or two in the secondary and Freeman is still a young quarterback. The Bucs are going in the right direction, but I have them at the six-win level for now.
Q: Are the Chargers really going to move on without Vincent Jackson? I understand their concerns with the CBA, but I thought teams search far and wide for a franchise WR. If they end up letting him go 10 games on the bench and eventually in free agency next year over money, doesn't that just put them back where they were a few years ago without a No. 1 WR?
From Alex in Phoenix
A: I hate to say it, but the Chargers concede they will probably go 10 games without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill, a big blow to the offense. Even though Jackson has the talents of a No. 1 wide receiver, he is technically the No. 2 or No. 3 option in the Chargers' passing offense. Antonio Gates is No. 1. The running back is usually the second option, but we will have to see how Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles handle those duties now that LaDainian Tomlinson is gone. I know there's confusion, but both sides boxed themselves into tough positions.
Q: Professor, in Mike Martz's offense, Jay Cutler will need to throw to a spot, rather than a receiver (timing). What will be more imperative for Cutler to be effective in this offense, his arm strength or having the time and accuracy to complete the pass. And will the O-line give him time?
From Kevin P in Louisville, Ky.
A: Cutler's accuracy and brains work to the benefit of the Bears. I liked what I saw in camp. Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu are getting to the spots and Cutler is hitting them. Martz has them motioning all over the place to confuse defenses. You'll like what you see in the preseason. The mistake would be trying too many seven-step drops. I would be concerned about the offensive line, because while Chris Williams looks much better at left tackle, the rest of the line is shaky. Martz can scheme his way out of trouble by sticking to shorter routes.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.