NFL Nation: 2012 NFC pressure point

Pressure point: Redskins

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Washington Redskins and why.

Trent Williams was the No. 4 pick in the 2010 NFL draft -- Mike Shanahan's first draft pick after he became the Redskins' coach. There were pre-draft questions about Williams' work ethic and focus, but the Redskins took him super-high because they saw a rare talent -- a franchise left tackle with enough athleticism, skill and technique to dominate at the position for years to come. Over the course of the 2010 season, they would see occasional flashes of brilliance, but Williams did not sustain those, and too often he struggled against the tough pass-rushers of the NFC East. In the early part of the 2011 season, he seemed to be developing greater consistency, and the Redskins began to think he would soon justify his draft position and their hopes for him.

Alas, there were injuries. And then that four-game drug suspension at the end of the year. And now Williams enters his third NFL season with a lot of those same old question marks yapping at his heels. Can he stay focused? Heck, can he stay clean? Can he take another leap forward toward or even into that elite level of which his team believes him capable? Can he project himself as a responsible leader on a young team that needs him to be among its best players? The Redskins spent four very high draft picks on Robert Griffin III as their quarterback of the future, and the protection of that investment against injury falls to Williams as much as it falls to anyone in the organization. Does Williams understand the magnitude of his responsibility?

If he gets busted for drugs again, the problems are probably not fixable. He'd be banned for a year without pay, forfeiting a tremendous amount of the money he got on a rookie deal in the final year before the implementation of the rookie wage scale. But assuming he's not going to make that same dumb mistake again, the Redskins still need more from Williams in 2012. It's not about potential anymore with Williams. It's time for him to play like one of the best in the league at his position. We've seen him do it for a game or two here and there. The Redskins need to see it for 16.

Pressure point: Eagles

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
11:20
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Philadelphia Eagles and why.

Some of these are easier to pick than others. This one, for example. The person under the most pressure to deliver big-time results for the Eagles in 2012 is clearly, without question, quarterback Michael Vick. The Eagles have put every conceivable piece in place around him. They kept wide receiver DeSean Jackson, giving him the long-term deal he wanted after he sulked through a disappointing 2011 campaign. They just locked up running back LeSean McCoy, who scored 20 touchdowns last season and showed he can alleviate any pressure Vick might once have felt to score on his own at the goal line. They beefed up on defense. They tried to keep the offensive line together, and when an injury to Jason Peters kept them from doing that, they went right out and signed the best left tackle still left on the market.

The Eagles watched what Vick did in 2010 and believed they had something special -- a quarterback of such unique talent that, if all else were equal, he could elevate them above the rest of the league and to Super Bowl glory. But the Vick of 2011 let them down. He was too turnover-prone during the team's slow start, helping cost the Eagles very close games in September and October. He got injured and missed three games late, denying the Eagles a chance to climb back into a winnable division race. He played fine and put up nice numbers when he was healthy, but he didn't do anything to make the Eagles extra-great, and too many times he did things that hurt the cause.

The Eagles have high hopes for 2012, and reason to believe they've addressed trouble spots on a leaky defense. They have star-caliber players at key spots on the roster -- running back, receiver, defensive end, cornerback. They believe they have the pieces in place to be one of the best teams in the league. But they need their quarterback to make it all go, and for that reason Vick faces more pressure this season than does any quarterback in the entire league.

Pressure point: Giants

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
10:40
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the New York Giants and why.

This was a tough one, since the Giants are basically playing with house money after their second Super Bowl title in five years. Sure, they're expected to defend that title, but if they don't, how disappointed can Giants fans really be? After everything the Giants' players proved in December, January and February, the roster isn't exactly loaded with guys who have much left to prove.

So to answer the question of who faces the "most challenging" season, I'm going with running back Ahmad Bradshaw. He's proven that he's tough by playing through pain. He's proven that he's good by putting up big numbers when given the starting job. He's proven he has leadership qualities by calling out his offensive line early last year. But with Brandon Jacobs gone off to San Francisco in free agency and a group of very young backups behind him, Bradshaw in 2012 has to prove he can handle a full season's workload without breaking down.

This isn't going to be easy. He has said the procedures he's had done this offseason on his chronically injured foot have corrected the problem and he's going to be 100 percent going forward. But there's no way to know that until we see (and he sees) how this particular season wears on him. Jacobs got about 40 percent of the Giants' running back touches last year, and unless someone like Da'Rel Scott, D.J. Ware or first-round pick David Wilson is ready to step in and assume Jacobs' share of the work, more is going to fall to Bradshaw. He has the ability and the will to be "the guy" at running back for the Super Bowl champs, and he may well be able to pull it off. He could be one of the breakout offensive stars of the NFL season -- a fantasy sleeper, even. But he heads into the season with less help than he's had in the past and without the safety net that's always been provided by his friend Jacobs.

Pressure point: Cowboys

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Dallas Cowboys and why.

The Cowboys' problems are defensive problems, and for this reason the man under the most pressure in Dallas in 2012 is second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Brought in to fix a defense that ranked among the league's worst in 2010, Ryan enjoyed some good early returns but saw his defense collapse and effectively give away a division title that was within the Cowboys' grasp with five games left in the season.

There was improvement, of course, as there almost had to be. The Cowboys allowed the second-most points in the league in 2010 and only the 17th-most in 2011. And in terms of yards allowed, they improved from 23rd in the league to 14th. But grading a defense against the one the Cowboys employed in 2010 is like grading a song against Jessica Black's "Friday." Just because it's better doesn't mean it's acceptable. Ryan was brought in to be a savior -- to overhaul the defense and elevate it to a championship level. Not only did he not do that in 2011, but the defense was the clear reason the Cowboys failed to reach the playoffs. The Cowboys couldn't stop anyone in December other than the sorry Buccaneers, and that's why they lost four of their last five.

Now, if the Eagles are allowed to use the lockout and the reduced preparation time as an excuse for why things didn't work as well as they'd planned, the Cowboys can too. It's fair to assume that Ryan's defense will be better in his second year in Dallas, given a full offseason in addition to the year he's already spent installing and running it. And the additions at cornerback -- free agent cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne -- address what was the defense's biggest problem. But Ryan's got to show something really impressive this year, because if the Cowboys' defense is costing them games again in December, his record and his pedigree aren't going to be enough to spare him the blame.

Pressure point: Buccaneers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Buccaneers and why.

Back in 2010, the Buccaneers decided to invest heavily in the middle of their defensive line. They used a first-round draft pick on Gerald McCoy and a second-round choice on Brian Price. The thinking was the duo would make Tampa Bay solid in the middle for years to come. But things haven’t worked out exactly as planned.

McCoy and Price each have shown a few flashes, but injuries have prevented them from being anything close to dominant. A new coaching staff is taking over and there still is hope that McCoy and Price can prosper. But this coaching staff isn’t as deeply wed to players it didn’t play a role in drafting. The pressure is especially on McCoy, who was drafted with the No. 3 overall choice and forever will be compared to Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, who was selected just before him. To date, McCoy has four career sacks and has missed 13 games with injuries.

The Bucs are hoping this is the year McCoy and Price finally stay healthy, but new coach Greg Schiano has brought in alternatives in case the injury problems continue. The Bucs have added free-agent defensive tackles Amobi Okoye, a former first-round pick by Houston, and Gary Gibson, who played for Schiano at Rutgers and has bounced around the league. McCoy and Price will get every benefit of the doubt, but they have to be able to stay on the field to make an impact.

Pressure point: Saints

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the New Orleans Saints and why.

Long before the news of the bounty scandal broke, it was clear the Saints needed to do something dramatic on defense. Gregg Williams’ system worked nicely in the 2009 season as the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl. But defensive breakdowns were the main reason why the Saints lost a playoff game to Seattle in the 2010 season and to San Francisco last season.

That’s why the Saints quickly replaced Williams with Steve Spagnuolo as soon as the season ended. His chore is to build a more consistent defense and get away from Williams’ philosophy of taking big gambles in hopes of producing turnovers. Spagnuolo’s had success before by getting pressure almost exclusively from his front four and letting the back seven focus on pass coverage and run support. But middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games.

The Saints added Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne and they should make up for the loss of Vilma. But while Smith is out and even after he returns, Spagnuolo has to find ways to get a strong pass rush from a group of guys (aside from Smith) that don’t have a strong history of putting pressure on the quarterback. Spagnuolo’s defense doesn’t have to be dominant.

If the Saints can just come up with some stops at key times, Drew Brees and the offense are good enough to outscore anyone.

Pressure point: Panthers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Panthers and why.

There probably isn’t a defensive coordinator in the league who has faced more criticism than Sean McDermott the past two seasons. He was fired by Philadelphia after the 2010 season, and his defense was dismal in his first season in Carolina.

McDermott got a bit of a pass because Carolina had a bunch of injuries on defense, it was the first year for a new coaching staff and rookie quarterback Cam Newton and a suddenly explosive offense gave fans a nice distraction. But, no matter how many points Newton and the offense scored, the Carolina defense had enormous trouble protecting leads in a 6-10 season. The excuses won’t fly this time around.

Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are returning from injuries and the Panthers added linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of this year’s draft. McDermott has the personnel necessary to put together a respectable defense. The injured players and Kuechly join a nucleus that includes defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble, and the pressure is squarely on McDermott to put a good defense on the field.

If he can do that, Carolina could be a legitimate playoff contender. If not, McDermott could be on the hot seat.

Pressure point: Falcons

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
9:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Atlanta Falcons and why.

From ownership through the front office and coaching staff and into every corner of the locker room, the Falcons firmly believe Matt Ryan has everything it takes to be an elite quarterback. He’s a natural leader, works as hard as anyone and has won a lot of games during his first four seasons.

The problem is that every one of those wins has come in the regular season. The lack of a single postseason victory has a lot of people on the outside doubting whether Ryan really is the long-term answer for Atlanta. If Ryan goes a fifth season without a playoff victory, some of that doubt may creep into the Falcons' own building.

There have been excuses -- most of them valid -- for Ryan's inability to win in the postseason. But those excuses are disappearing. The Falcons brought in Julio Jones last year to be a deep threat, and they’re overhauling their offensive line to give Ryan more time to find receivers down the field. They also have brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who supposedly is installing a system that’s tailored to get the most out of Ryan’s ability.

The Falcons are going out of their way to give Ryan everything he needs to succeed. Now, with his current contract set to expire in 2013, it’s up to Ryan to take the next step. If he can win a playoff game, a contract extension is sure to follow and the doubts will disappear.

Pressure point: Lions

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
12:30
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Detroit Lions and why.

Mikel Leshoure has one week of NFL practice to his name. He hasn't played in a single preseason game, let alone in the regular season, and is still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered last August.

But if the Lions are going to achieve more offensive balance in 2012, Leshoure will have to play a primary role. That's why he was drafted in 2011, to serve as a big between-the-tackles runner, and it's what the Lions sorely lacked after his injury.

The presumed recovery of fellow running back Jahvid Best (concussion) is really a parallel issue. Best gives the Lions a playmaker in the passing game but is best suited for a modest role as a runner. Leshoure's full-strength return would allow the Lions to use Best the way he should be while also imposing a new power threat on defenses as well.

Pressure point: Packers

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Green Bay Packers and why.

Today is May 16. That leaves about 2 1/2 months before training camp and almost four months before the start of the regular season for reinforcements to arrive. But for the time being, there is only one player on the Packers' roster who seems suited to be a No. 1 back in the NFL.

It's difficult to know for sure, but from the outside it appears the Packers are clearing the road for James Starks to take over that role in his third NFL season. Veteran starter Ryan Grant has not been re-signed and the Packers did not draft a running back last month. Behind Starks are veteran fullback/short-yardage specialist John Kuhn and two second-year players in Alex Green and Brandon Saine; Green is recovering from a torn ACL in his knee.

Grant could always re-sign at a later date, but if not, the Packers are taking a bit of a leap in hoping that Starks can stay on the field for a full season. He missed the first 13 games of 2010 because of a hamstring injury and was limited during the second half of 2011 because of knee and ankle ailments. Overall, he's missed as many games (16) as he's played. The pressure is on Starks to demonstrate he is not a part-time back.

Pressure point: Bears

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Chicago Bears and why.

For months, the Chicago Bears have systematically picked off their roster holes, large and small. They traded for receiver Brandon Marshall, giving quarterback Jay Cutler his long-sought "big target." They signed backups at quarterback (Jason Campbell) and running back (Michael Bush), drafted a pass-rusher (Shea McClellin) to complement Julius Peppers, and added another big receiver in rookie Alshon Jeffery.

But rather than address two years of uneven play along their offensive line with additional personnel upgrades, the Bears instead placed their faith in new offensive coordinator Mike Tice to handle that job. The Bears are confident that Tice's background as an offensive line coach will ensure a scheme that offers his blockers plenty of help and limits the difficulty of the position they find themselves under.

In the end, however, football is about the skills of the players more than it is the schemes of the coaches. If Tice can't help the Bears' incumbent linemen play at a winning level, then the rest of the Bears' upgrades won't matter for much. That's an awful lot of pressure to put on one coach.

Pressure point: Vikings

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Minnesota Vikings and why.

As the Vikings' interim coach in 2010, Leslie Frazier won three games and lost three games. Promoted to the permanent job shortly thereafter, Frazier was part of a 3-13 disaster in 2011 that prompted an organizational shift in power to general manager Rick Spielman and a significant overhaul of the roster.

So in sum, Frazier has a 6-16 record, is entering the second year of a three-year contract and will be asked to compete with a roster that is at least a year away from legitimate contention. Playing in arguably the NFL's toughest division, he'll have a second-year quarterback in Christian Ponder, three new starters on the offensive line, a rookie place-kicker and first-time starters down the middle of his defense -- at nose tackle, middle linebacker and possibly both safety positions.

Oh, and Frazier's best player -- tailback Adrian Peterson -- is recovering from a serious knee injury suffered last December. Peterson insists he will be ready for the opening of the season, but the Vikings' medical staff has refused to confirm that timetable.

Frazier is a good person and a good coach, but that's a challenging series of obstacles for someone hoping to make it to a third season. At 6-16, the honeymoon period of his tenure is over. If nothing else, he'll be undermanned as he attempts to steer the team toward more victories.

Pressure point: Cardinals

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Arizona Cardinals and why.

The 2012 season should be less challenging for Kevin Kolb than the one that came before it, but Kolb still qualifies for consideration on a varied list of NFC West players with tough roads ahead. Quarterback is a difficult enough position without the added burden of unrealistic expectations. The $12.4 million annual average Arizona paid to Kolb demanded immediate production, and at a high level. Kolb struggled, raising the stakes for 2012.

Kolb should benefit from the added preparation time this offseason affords players in general. Last year, Kolb remained property of the Philadelphia Eagles until late July. Rules prevented him from practicing with his new teammates until Aug. 4. This year, Kolb gets a full offseason to master the offense. The Cardinals also expect Kolb's fundamentals to improve now that the detail-oriented John McNulty has shifted over from receivers coach to handle quarterbacks.

Kolb faces at least three tough challenges.

First, he must hold off John Skelton for the starting job. Skelton faces no pressure as a 2010 fifth-round draft choice earning $490,000 in base salary. Skelton scored points with fans and the team for his role in a few fourth-quarter comeback victories last season. Skelton has also proved durable, which leads into the second challenge for Kolb: staying healthy. Concussions have knocked Kolb from the lineup in Philadelphia (2010) and Arizona (2011).

Finally, Kolb enters what is clearly a make-or-break year for him with no assurances that the Cardinals can protect him adequately. Arizona has questionable pass-protection credentials at both tackle spots. Kolb did not demonstrate much feel for the pocket last season. The Cardinals did add weaponry for Kolb by using a first-round pick for Michael Floyd. Floyd, unlike Kolb, will be given a couple of years to develop.

Pressure point: Rams

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the St. Louis Rams and why.

Jason Smith should be hitting his prime years as an offensive tackle for the Rams. There's a chance that will be the case, unlikely as it seems after three underwhelming seasons marked by injuries. The Rams reworked Smith's contract and will find out whether new line coach Paul Boudreau can help Smith, still only 26, fulfill more of his potential. Smith, limited to six games last season after suffering a concussion during a freak collision, will need better luck with injuries for that to happen.

It's instructive to recall the Rams' thinking when they made Smith the second player chosen in the 2009 draft. The feeling then was that Smith remained in the early stages of a transition from tight end to tackle, and that Eugene Monroe, selected eighth overall that year by Jacksonville, was more polished coming out of college.

"The way we look at it, he has played at a high level with only three years at the position," Billy Devaney, then the Rams' general manager, said of Smith at the time. "So you try to project a year or two down the road with that kind of development that we see, he’ll be that much better. If you take Monroe, he comes in and lines up on Sunday, if we're playing, at left tackle and plays. He's been there longer. Jason has been a right tackle and that’s what gives us flexibility. ... His production is good now and his potential is outstanding."

The Rams are envisioning more of a run-oriented offense this year. That could help Smith, their projected starter at right tackle, find his bearings. The schedule presents challenges, however. Smith opens the season on the road against Detroit and the Lions' franchise player, Cliff Avril. The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is on the schedule in Week 2, followed by matchups against rookie first-round picks Shea McClellin (Chicago) and Bruce Irvin (Seattle). Green Bay's Clay Matthews is also on the schedule in the first seven games.

Pressure point: Seahawks

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Seattle Seahawks and why.

Tarvaris Jackson earned the respect of his Seahawks teammates by playing through much of the 2011 with a torn pectoral muscle on his right side. Jackson never complained or made excuses. The injury made it tougher for Jackson to take hold of the starting job for the long term. The Seahawks' inability to make key plays in critical moments left them with a 7-9 record and kept them in the market for help at the position.

Jackson has gone from probable starter to potential roster casualty over the last two months. Seattle's signing of Matt Flynn from Green Bay in free agency made Jackson the presumed underdog in a two-man race for the starting job. The dynamic changed again when the Seahawks used a third-round choice for Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who subsequently impressed coaches during a recently completed rookie camp. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is now talking about a three-man race for the starting job.

The Seahawks acquired Jackson primarily for his knowledge of coordinator Darrell Bevell's offense during a lockout-shortened 2011 offseason. Sure, they hoped Jackson might turn into something more than a stopgap, but they entered into that relationship with the shorter term in mind. That is one reason Carroll broke from his competition mantra by installing Jackson as the starter heading into camp.

Circumstances are different now. The Seahawks targeted Flynn and Wilson as potential franchise quarterbacks, not as stopgap solutions. The team has a pretty good idea what Jackson offers. Expectations are higher for Flynn and Wilson. It's now an upset if Jackson wins the starting job. It's probably an upset if the Seahawks pay him $4 million in base salary, the figure spelled out for 2012 in the two-year deal Jackson signed in July 2011.

This is looking like a most challenging year for Jackson.

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