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NFL Preseason Preview
by Ben Burns - 08/01/2008
Preseason football is nearly upon us, which means the "best" time of the sports year is just around the corner. Organizations have spent the spring and summer making changes to try and improve their football team. A year ago, two teams that received among the most accolades for improving their personnel were the 49ers and Patriots, both with several key additions. The 49'ers were so confident of their moves that they gave the Pats their number one pick in the 2008 draft. Note that the 49'ers went 1-3 in the preseason, including losses in each of their final two games. New England lost its first two preseason games. However, when the starters saw some more playing time, they closed out the preseason on a 2-0 run, including a convincing 24-7 win at Carolina in Week 3, when the starters typically get the most playing time of any preseason week. The Patriots went 18-1, the 49ers went 5-11. In other words, some changes work out, some don't!
As usual, every team has made at least a few changes - some more than others. Here's a brief look at five teams which made some key moves. Keep an eye on how these changes affect their various teams in the preseason. For starters, there's real money to be made in the preseason. Additionally, even though the star players generally don't get all that much playing time, one can still often gain valuable insight as to how the various changes might work out for their respective teams once the regular season begins.
San Francisco 49ers:The pressure is on Mike Nolan after a disastrous 2007 season. To change an anemic offense the 49'ers hired Mike Martz, the former Rams head coach who favors wide-open, spread offenses. This will be a sharp departure from the last two years where the 49ers were plodding and predictable on offense, mainly with RB Frank Gore up the middle. Veteran WR Isaac Bruce joins the team, teaming up with Martz again, while WR Ashley Lelie was seen running reverses in practice, so expect a very different 49er offensive look. The real question is: Who will be behind center? Former top pick Alex Smith had a falling out with Nolan and is working his way back from a separated shoulder. Backup QB Shaun Hill (5 TDs, 1 pick) was impressive last season, while J.T. O'Sullivan, who Martz knows from Detroit, is also in the mix. As you know, teams with quarterbacks battling for the starting job can often provide some value during the preseason.
Nolan had all three working out in summer practice. "Alex is very athletic," Nolan said. "He probably has the strongest arm of all the guys. Now he's got to go in there and put in four quarters and move the ball consistently and make plays he should make." Asked if Smith has the edge, Nolan replied, "I wouldn't go there right now." QB Hill tends to play better in games than he shows in practice: "Shaun's been OK in practice, but he's that type of player," noted Nolan. The coaches like O'Sullivan competitiveness and the fact that he learned Martzâ€™s system last year in Detroit. Look for a heated battle in preseason between those three, plus a more aggressive offense under Martz, even in August, as they learn his new bag of tricks.
Baltimore Ravens: Brian Billick had a reputation as a fierce competitor and as someone who always liked to win, regardless of whether or not a game was 'meaningless.' An anemic offense cost Billick his job though and thereâ€™s an old wagering adage that says to take a look at new coaches in preseason. while it seems rather simplistic, the logic is that new coaches typically want to show fans (and upper management) that they were the right pick for the job. Therefore, they want wins, even in preseason. John Harbaugh is the new head coach, the former Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach. Cam Cameron comes in as the new offensive coordinator and he'll have a trio of quarterbacks battling to direct his preferred vertical passing game. Kyle Boller figures to have the inside track but he's just 18-21 as a starter. He'll be fighting off former Ohio State star, Troy Smith, along with rookie QB Joe Flacco from Delaware along. The 6-foot-6 Flacco, the team's 1st round pick, has a big arm and is the highest quarterback ever drafted by the Ravens. Harbaugh was quoted as saying: "We said all along that the quarterback job is going to be an open competition. Whoever gives us the best chance to win, I think is going to be our quarterback."
Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota has been built from the inside out, with exceptional line play on both sides of the ball. They were number one defensively against the run last season. On the other side of the ball, they had a power running game last season with a strong offensive line and running back Adrian Peterson. Now about those skill positions? The Vikings will be interesting as they give young QB Tavaris Jackson some speedy help. They added wide receiver Bernard Berrian from the Bears, a speed-burner alongside second-year WR Sidney Rice, who is also fast. While Jackson should enter the season as the unquestioned starter, the Vikings did bring in backup Gus Frerotte to back him up. (Note that Jackson had three more interceptions than touchdowns last season.) John David Booty will compete with Brooks Bollinger to become the third-stringer.
New Orleans Saints: New Orleans is a team of extremes: Great offense (when healthy), bad defense (when healthy or not). Not surprisingly, they made almost all their offseason moves at upgrading a terrible defense that ranked 26th overall and 30th against the pass. The Saints added defensive end Bobby McCray along with veteran linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan. The secondary saw the additions of Randall Gay and Arron Glenn. They also added Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter with their second round pick int he draft. Speaking of the draft, they moved up to take USC nose tackle Sedrick Ellis with the 7th overall pick, along with DT DeMario Pressley (5th round, NC State) They hope cornerback Mike McKenzie will be ready to go. He tore a ligament in his right knee late last season and is 'rehabbing.' They didn't completely ignore the offense though, as they recently traded for tight-end Jeremy Shockey. When healthy, Shockey can have a major effect on a game. He won the 'Rookie of the Year' award in 2002 and has been selected to play in four Pro Bowls.
Jacksonville Jaguars: One gets the sense that Jacksonville is slowly moving from a power defensive team to a wide-open offensive one. Jacksonville has a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, who was with the Redskins last fall under Joe Gibbs. The problem is they lost DT Marcus Stroud in free agency and defensive end Bobby McCray went to the Saints. Looking to get pressure on the likes of Manning and Brady, they did grab two of the draft's best pass rushers though, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. On offense, they rewarded quarterback David Garrard with a longterm contract and immediately upgraded his receiving corps by adding WR Jerry Porter from the Raiders, who is being penciled in as the No. 1 receiver. Not satisfied, they also acquired speedster Troy Williamson. You may recall that the Jaguars closed out the 2007 preseason with three straight wins, each of those victories coming by more than a touchdown.