Most years most teams like to go into the season creating at least some sort of vision that they can be the last team standing, the franchise hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy handed out at the end of the Super Bowl in February.
Arguably one-quarter of the league this year appear to have their sights set much lower … or would it be higher? They will be competing less for the championship and more for the consolation prize – first pick in the draft and the rights to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
By most accounts, Luck would have been the first pick had he chosen to leave Stanford after his junior year. That honor went instead to Auburn signal caller Cam Newton.
Several teams spent their off-seasons not getting better, some of them barely masking the fact that they are sacrificing 2011 for the potential riches that may follow.
Eight teams vying for Luck:8. Oakland – Hue Jackson may be a great coach. But Al Davis continues to make questionable calls. Tom Cable was fired for going 8-8, sweeping the division and showing the most promise the Raiders have offered in years? I don’t think they’re bad enough to fall all the way to the first pick in the draft, but they definitely are closer to this competition than they are to the Super Bowl.
7. Buffalo – Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson aren’t bad and the Bills defend the pass alright. They added Shaun Merriman, Nick Barnett and Marcell Dareus to the defense. There is some promise for the Bills to start improving. But they’re still closer to the bottom than the top, especially in a division with New England and the New York Jets. Bad enough to land Luck? I doubt it, but they are in the mix.
6. Miami – The Dolphins are running Chad Henne out at quarterback and he doesn’t seem to be getting much better. They jettisoned Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, hoping Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush can provide some semblance of a running game. They aren’t very good, but a solid-to-strong defense led by Cameron Wake and Vontae Davis will keep them strong enough to finish somewhere outside the bottom of the pack. Luck would be the best quarterback to lead this team since Dan Marino retired. Unfortunately for those in south Florida, this team isn’t bad enough.
5. Washington – John Beck and Rex Grossman. An offensive line anchored in the middle by guys named Will Montgomery, Chris Chester and Kory Lichtensteiger. I don’t see a lot of reason for optimism in Washington this season. Add in a tough schedule and the Redskins will be in the mix for the top pick in the draft. This team can’t be trying to convince its fan base it is trying to win. They’re not my top guess for winning the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, but they are the first of my real, top-notch, true contenders.
4. Cincinnati – It just keeps getting weirder for the Bengals. This offseason they lost Carson Palmer to a retirement nobody is really convinced he wanted, but he simply tired of the act of owner Mike Brown. Andy Dalton is a rookie who might not really be ready to start. AJ Green should be a stud wideout, but can he be on this roster? Cedric Benson is pedestrian. There are pieces on the defense, but just a few years after it looked like Cincinnati might have some upside potential it now looks like they’ll be back in the mix for the top pick in the draft. Now, with a commitment seemingly made to Dalton, would Brown decide to pass on Luck? Unlikely, though Luck may be lucky if they do.
3. Carolina – The Panthers reportedly would have taken Luck with the first pick this year if he had not returned to Standford. They have a new coach and have added two quarterbacks toward the top of the last two drafts, so they might be the one team that would pass on Luck if they had the shot – assuming Cam Newton shows promise in his first year with the team. The Panthers still have a solid running back tandem and a couple good offensive linemen, but they’re a couple years away from really being able to compete with anybody on a regular basis.
2. San Francisco – Keeping Alex Smith may be as much a result of the NFL lockout as it is a desire to tank the season, but this team just didn’t get much better during the offseason. They lost Aubrayo Franklin, an underrated nose tackle who anchored what had been a solid nose tackle. They did take Colin Kaepernick and I believe they really do like him. But I also believe the team’s new coach, Jim Harbaugh, would love nothing more than the opportunity to bring his college prodigy with him to San Francisco. The problem? As bad as they are, I’m not convinced the 49ers are even the worst team in their division, much less the entire league.
1. Seattle – Seattle made the playoffs last year, but was arguably the worst team ever to do so. They got rid of Matt Hasselbeck and anointed Tarvaris Jackson the unquestioned starter. Not that Jackson doesn’t deserve a chance to start, but any team willing to commit to him without any kind of competition is barely masking their motives: ending up with the Stanford star in next year’s draft. In fairness, not everyone believes they’re tanking. But the Seahawks are my top prediction for who will end up with the Stanford star.
** I’m not the only one looking into the Luck sweepstakes. While I wrote most of this piece several days ago, I just got around to doing links tonight. In researching, I found many interesting posts discussing theories about individual teams and their chances at getting Luck. However, SBNation actually beat me to the punch in posting on the topic. They had an interesting writeup that you can read clicking this link.