Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru analyzes the upcoming NFL season and predicts who will reach Super Bowl XLI
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
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4 Cleveland Browns
Romeo Crennel went on a free agent frenzy with the signings of DE Willie McGinest, DT Ted Washington, WR Joe Jurevicius, C LeCharles Bentley, OT Kevin Shaffer and P Dave Zastudil. Rookie QB Charlie Frye showed enough the last five weeks to merit a starting role in 2006; he spent the off-season working out heavily with WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow Jr., both of whom were recovering from serious leg injuries. RB Reuben Droughns (1,232 yards) became the first Cleveland back to rush for 1,000 yards since 1985, when Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack both did it. The Browns, who are 36-77 since returning to the NFL, shouldn't have trouble improving on last year's 6-10 record.
1 Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning remains the NFL's premier quarterback. He led the NFL last season with a 104.1 rating, throwing for 3,747 yards and 28 touchdowns. But Manning has yet to take the Colts to the Super Bowl. With the loss of RB Edgerrin James to Arizona, the road could get bumpier this time. Manning still has his top receivers, led by Marvin Harrison (82 catches, 1,146 yards and 12 TDs) and Reggie Wayne (83 receptions and 1,055 yards), and WR Brandon Stokley (41 grabs, 543 yards) will see more action in a three-receiver set. Dominic Rhodes is the returning running back, but coach Tony Dungy is hoping No. 1 draft pick RB Joseph Addai from LSU can step right in. Signing clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri (100 points) was big. Sparked by DEs Robert Mathis's 11.5 sacks and Dwight Freeney's 11 sacks, Indy improved with an 11th-ranked defense. The Colts can win shootouts.
2 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars had a softer-than-Kleenex schedule last season, finishing 12-4 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Nine of those wins came against teams with a losing record and the Jags were exposed in the playoffs by a 28-3 whipping in New England. QB Byron Leftwich needs to remain healthy if the team is going anywhere with a tougher schedule. He won't have WR Jimmy Smith, who retired in May with 862 receptions, seventh most in NFL history. He caught 70 passes for 1,023 yards last season and led the team in receiving yards for the last 10 years. Jacksonville didn't have much of a running game with Fred Taylor's 787 yards, so coach Jack Del Rio took UCLA's Maurice Drew with his second draft selection.
3 Houston Texans
There were howls across the state of Texas, and they weren't from coyotes, when the Texans rejected USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and made North Carolina State DE Mario Williams the No. 1 overall selection. The fan favorite was Bush, but Williams has a big upside, drawing comparison to Carolina's Julius Peppers, and will be an immediate starter. Offensive-minded Gary Kubiak takes over as head coach and QB David Carr, who was sacked 68 times, will be his first project. Free agent WR Eric Moulds was recruited to help Carr as Andre Johnson caught only 63 balls. Domanick Davis (976 yards) is a solid runner, but he's no Bush. The Texans need a lot more smoking guns on offense, which is why they hired Kubiak away from Denver.
4 Tennessee Titans
The Titans got their QB of the future, and maybe the present, grabbing Texas Longhorn Vince Young with the third pick in the 2006 draft. Young is a lethal weapon who can beat you with both his arm and legs, and he'll have gifted offensive coordinator Norm Chow to groom him. Billy Volek is the incumbent QB who could be pushed by Young. Chris Brown (851 yards) is set at RB but must keep a step ahead of No. 2 draft pick LenDale White of USC. The Titans, who need receivers, got a proven one in New England's David Givens. Tennessee was also busy in free agency, signing C Kevin Mawae, LB David Thornton and S Chris Hope, all of whom will be in the starting lineup with Young before the season is over. How the mighty have fallen. It's hard to believe the Titans were a Super Bowl team seven seasons ago. Owner Bud Adams needs to butt out.
1 Denver Broncos
Coach Mike Shanahan is on a Rocky Mountain high. He moved up in the first round to nab Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler and made another good move in trading for WR Javon Walker from the Packers. "I feel Cutler will be the best of the three [Vince Young and Matt Leinart are the other first-round QB picks]," declares former Panthers college scouting director Tony Softli, now the Rams' vice president of personnel. Shanahan added fast second-round pick TE Tony Scheffler (4.5-second 40-yard dash) and 6-foot-4 WR Brandon Marshall in the fourth round, giving the Broncos the makings of an offensive machine to repeat as West champions. Jake Plummer improved his quarterback rating to 90.2, with his favorite target being WR Rod Smith (85 catches, 1,105 yards). Tatum Bell takes care of the running (921 yards) and will see more carries this year, but CB Champ Bailey (8 interceptions) needs help in improving a 15th-ranked defense.
2 Kansas City Chiefs
It's now or never for the Chiefs, simply because they have 16 players who are 30 years of age or older. The team has averaged 10 wins a season the last three years, but has no championships to show for it. It's no fault of QB Trent Green or RB Larry Johnson. Green threw for 4,014 yards as the NFL's No. 8 passer, and when Priest Holmes went down with a head/neck injury, Johnson took over and had a dynamic year, leading the AFC in rushing (1,750 yards, 20 TDs) in only nine starts. Former Jets coach Herm Edwards takes over a club that led the NFL in offense, but was undermined by a 25th-ranked defense, losing two late-season games that kept the Chiefs out of the playoffs.
3 San Diego Chargers
If the front office rift between general manager A. J. Smith and head coach Marty Schottenheimer continues, the Chargers could short-circuit again. Schottenheimer wanted to keep QB Drew Brees, but Smith let him go to New Orleans as a free agent. That made Philip Rivers, who was landlocked for two years, the starting quarterback by elimination. "I haven't played a ton, but I know the abilities I do have," says Rivers. Everyone knows the abilities that RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates have. Tomlinson caught 51 passes and ran for 1,462 yards and 18 TDs, while Gates was the AFC's No. 2 receiver (89 receptions, 1,101 yards). WR Keenan McCardell proved he could still play (70 catches, 917 yards and 9 TDs), but there has to be peace if the Chargers want to light up the sky.
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