Arguably the greatest part of each and every NFL offseason is the draft, where three days are spent in front of the television, watching the big names in college football start off their pro career. For the past few months, experts have been comparing this year’s two top prospects–Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. RGIII may have won the Heisman over Luck last December, but the Stanford quarterback managed to earn the number one spot in the NFL draft. For many teams, the draft will be the difference between a shot at the playoffs, or yet another average season. Now that all seven rounds have been completed, it is time to look forward several months and predict the sleeper teams of 2012.
1. Cincinnati Bengals: The Cincinnati Bengals had what many would call a breakout season in 2011, all thanks to their incredible group of rookies. Top picks AJ Green and Andy Dalton helped resurrect a struggling organization, whose record improved from 4-12 to 9-7, earning them a spot in the playoffs. However, the team as a whole is still young, and has yet to mature. Clearly, the Bengal organization relies a lot on their youth, which is why the draft is so important for Cincinnati. When entering 2012, the Bengals found themselves with 2 first round picks and in need of a replacement for corner back Jonathan Joseph. With the 17th pick in the draft, Cincinnati drafted Alabama corner back Dre Kirkpatrick, a fabulous all-around defender. The Bengals ranked 9th overall in passing yards allowed, and Dre Kirkpatrick should further improve this statistic. Four picks later, the Bengals decided to give away their spot to New England in return for 27th overall and a pick in the third round (93rd). Cincinnati needed to draft an offensive lineman who could protect quarterback Andy Dalton and newly-aquired rusher Benjarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals decided to draft guard Kevin Zeitler with their second first-round pick, a decision I am not satisfied with. Guard Cordy Glenn of Georgia was still on the board, and is a much better blocker who deserved to be taken in the first round. Hopefully, Zeitler will be a nice fit for such an up-and-coming organization. One of the best picks for Cincinnati came in the second round, where they took defensive tackle Devon Still of Penn State. Many believed Still would be a first round pick, but somehow he managed to slip all the way back to 53rd overall. The one thing Cincinnati should try and do before the season starts is acquire a wide receiver like Braylon Edwards through free agency. Assuming Dalton and Green can stay healthy, this young team has the potential to win it all next season.
2. Carolina Panthers: After one of the best rookie performances in NFL history, Cam Newton is entering his second season, and will look to earn a playoff spot in 2012. The sophomore quarterback threw for a whopping 4,051 yards, 21 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing touchdowns. Assuming this future superstar can repeat last season’s performance, the Panthers should be in decent shape. Though Carolina’s quarterback had a spectacular rookie season, the Panthers finished the year with a 6-10 record. The main reason behind such a mediocre season? Defense. The Panthers ranked 24th in passing yards allowed, 25th in rushing yards allowed, and 25th overall in sacks. With the 9th pick in the draft, Carolina needed a spectacular player capable of resurrecting a defense. No one is a better fit than inside linebacker Luke Kuechly of Boston College. In his junior year, Kuechly won all different types of prizes, ranging from the Dick Butkus Award to a spot on the All American team. His combine times put him in an elite group of players, and clearly Kuechly deserved to be taken 9th overall. Not only did the Panthers have a successful draft, but they helped their offense by adding running back Mike Tolbert. Their running corp, consisting of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathon Stewart and Mike Tolbert, might be the best in all of football. The NFC South powerhouse (New Orleans Saints) is in a state of chaos, leaving an open door for Carolina. Offense should not be a problem next season, but the biggest concern will be on the defensive side of the ball. If the defense manages to play well, Carolina should earn a spot in the playoffs.
3. Buffalo Bills: One of the biggest headlines this offseason was the signing of Mario Williams, a defensive end who will be playing for Buffalo next season. Though he missed 11 games due to injury in 2011, Williams still managed to record 5 sacks on the year. Super Mario has become the highest paid defender in the league thanks to a 6 year, $96 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. The Bills also added another defensive end to the roster, free agent Mark Anderson. Last season, Anderson recorded 10 sacks with New England, and he should be a great new addition to the Buffalo Bills. The 6-10 Bills were looking to improve their offense through the draft last April, and had a succesful result. Buffalo spent their 10th overall pick on corner back Stephon Gilmore, even though an offensive lineman seemed like the better decision. However, when it came time for them to use their 41st overall pick, guard Cordy Glenn was still on the board. They ended up taking Glenn, and then a wide receiver from NC State in the 3rd round. The Bills must play New England twice next season, along with games between San Francisco and Houston. Otherwise, Buffalo has one of the easier schedules in the NFL. Running back Fred Jackson will be returning next year after an injury sidelined him for 6 games in 2011. CJ Spiller was an excellent replacement last season, and he should get more carries in 2012. Buffalo started off the year 3-0, but by week 9 they began playing sloppy on both ends of the football. The defense has made major strides this offseason, and the main question is if the offense can improve as well. New England has basically locked up the AFC East, but the Bills have a shot at earning their first playoff spot via wild card since 1999.