Top moves, teams to watch in 2013

By: Peter Schrager

NEW ORLEANS
Sure, the confetti is still being picked up off the Mercedes-Benz Superdome carpet, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to look toward next season. We’re still seven months away from the start of the 2013 campaign, but I’m already thinking about the storylines, matchups and potential Super Bowl XLVIII matchups next year in New York/New Jersey.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what to look for in 2013.

Five key storylines
1. The defending champions: As soon as the Super Bowl parade wrapped up at M&T Bank Stadium on Tuesday in Baltimore, Ravens executives Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta had to get to work on making some big personnel decisions. Linebacker Ray Lewis is retiring, yes, but that’s the least of their roster concerns right now. Quarterback Joe Flacco earned a monster paycheck and a long-term deal, but the question is how much and for how long? He’s going to want Drew Brees/Peyton Manning money. Are the Ravens willing to pay him at that scale?

Then there’s Ed Reed. A beloved player, now a Super Bowl champion, and though he’s not what he once was, he’s still an above average safety. Do the Ravens pay Reed a bit more than he’s worth to ensure he retires in Baltimore?

Linebacker Paul Kruger, the breakout pass-rushing star of 2012; left tackle Bryant McKinnie; linebacker Dannell Ellerbe; and cornerback Cary Williams are potential free agents, as well. Tight end Dennis Pitta can become a restricted free agent. The Ravens start the offseason roughly $5 million over the salary cap. Many decisions will be made before March 12, the start of the free-agent signing frenzy.

2. The evolution of the quarterback position: A handful of young, smart, athletic, strong-armed quarterbacks made “the leap” in 2012, proving you don’t need to be a traditional pocket passer from a big-name school to find success in the National Football League. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton all took the game by storm in different ways, masterfully running unorthodox NFL offenses and maximizing their abilities to catch unsuspecting defenses off guard.

Now, though, defensive coordinators will have seven months to slave over the film and prepare for coordinator Greg Roman’s read-option offense in San Francisco. Now, Griffin has to do it again — this time without a knee operating at full strength. Wilson isn’t catching anyone off guard next year, and Newton’s going to be working under a new offensive coordinator. Every quarterback-hungry team is on the quest to find the next great athletic quarterback. I’m curious to see if it’s already out of style by the third or fourth week of the season.

3. The return of West Division football: Once upon a time, the prime-time football schedule was loaded with Chargers, 49ers, Raiders, Seahawks, Rams and Broncos games. It feels like it’s been forever since the West Coast was really relevant. Seriously, outside of last year’s Seahawks-49ers game and the Week 1 Steelers-Broncos showdown, there wasn’t a single Sunday night game played out west. Well, between Wilson and Seattle, Kaepernick and the 49ers and Peyton and the Broncos, we know we’re set for at least a handful of big-time games being played out west in 2013.

4. Head injuries, fines and PEDs: A record 161 million people watched the Super Bowl Sunday night, advertisements were sold for more money than ever before and the city of New Orleans generated millions of dollar of local revenue. These are the good things of the week. The bad? Reed and Bernard Pollard opened a lot of eyes and created a lot of discussion last week, both indicating dissatisfaction with the way the league fines its players and the uncertainty of the sport’s future.

Don’t get it twisted — they’re both right. With lawsuits mounting and a growing amount of American parents swaying their children away from football, the game has multiple mounting dilemmas on its hands. Add in Lewis, deer antler spray, and the suspicion of widespread performance enhancers and some inconvenient topics are hovering above and below America’s Game.

5. The Patriot way: The Patriots made the playoffs but fell short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the eighth straight year this postseason. Quarterback Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger, nose tackle Vince Wilfork isn’t a spring chicken anymore, either and receiver Wes Welker’s future in New England remains murky. The Patriots had the No. 1 scoring offense in the league and fielded their best defense in years, but they lost to the Ravens at home in the AFC Championship Game. How many more years does this group have left? Was 2012 the Patriots’ best shot?

Top five teams
1. Baltimore: Vegas likely will peg the Packers, 49ers and Patriots as bigger favorites this summer, but the champs get my ultimate respect. The Ravens were an underdog in Denver, in New England and in the Super Bowl. They won all three. They have an elite quarterback — yes, he’s elite — and the hearts of champions. Their schedule won’t be easy — AFC North and NFC North opponents — but it wasn’t easy this year. As coach John Harbaugh told his team during the blackout in Sunday’s Super Bowl, “Ain’t no mountain high enough . . .”

2. San Francisco: The 49ers are young, deep and dangerous. Losers in the NFC Championship Game in 2011 and the Super Bowl in 2012, they have only one place to go from here. Seventeen of 22 starters on this team are below the age of 30, the quarterback is only going to get better and the younger players are going to be more ready. The sky is the limit for San Francisco.

3. Green Bay: Receiver Greg Jennings likely won’t be back, but the rest of the gang should be. A year older, a year wiser and, hopefully, a year better prepared for unorthodox offenses like the 49ers one that ripped through them in the divisional round, the Packers should be back in the thick of things in 2013.

4. New England: The Patriots came up short of a Lombardi Trophy for the eighth straight year, but they’ll be back in the mix next January.

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5. Atlanta: Up 17-0 and then 24-14 at home in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons were oh-so-close to the Super Bowl this year. Quarterback Matt Ryan got the monkey off his back, as did coach Mike Smith, and the defense should only get better next year. Not the sexiest team, the Falcons will be a force to be reckoned with — yet again — next season.

Top-five sleeper teams
1. Philadelphia Eagles: We don’t know who will be playing quarterback, but we do know who will be the head coach. Chip Kelly, the Oregon coach-turned-Eagles head man, is such a wild card that it’s hard not to at least be intrigued by what his offense will look like. The hiring of Pat Shurmur — a longtime West Coast offense guy — as his offensive coordinator was a curious one. Will it be Vick at QB? Will it be Nick Foles? Will it be a rookie like EJ Manuel? How about Alex Smith? No one knows for certain who the Eagles’ quarterback will be, but I’m excited to see the new-look Eagles.

2. Cleveland Browns: Another team with questions at quarterback, I loved the Browns’ coaching and front office hires this off-season. Rob Chudzinski is a young, innovative offensive mind from Toledo who was raised as a diehard Browns fan. Norv Turner and Ray Horton were two of the most sought-after offensive and defensive coordinators. The Michael Lombardi/Joe Banner combo running the front office is awfully intriguing, too. The Browns have been in the AFC North cellar for pretty much a decade. Times could be changing.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Baby Bucs showed real signs in 2012 and should be better in 2013. Quarterback Josh Freeman is entering his crucial fifth year and he has real weapons in Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. The defense is rich with young talent and should improve next year. The NFC South is loaded with good teams, but the Bucs could shake things up.

4. New Orleans Saints: Coach Sean Payton is back. General manager Mickey Loomis is back. So could be the Saints. Crippled by Bountygate, don’t look at 2012 as anything more than a year lost. In 2013, the Saints should be better. The defense can’t be much worse. Under since-fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the unit surrendered the most yards in NFL history.

5. Chicago Bears: Lovie Smith was fired after a 10-win season and replaced by a first-year head coach whose last gig was in the Canadian Football League. And I love it. I’m confident Marc Trestman, a quarterback guru, will get Jay Cutler to the next level and the Bears back into the postseason. Cutler is entering the final year of his current contract. It’s time for him — like Flacco in 2012 — to make his money with a big season.

Top-three breakout stars
1. Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay: Cobb’s going to be the face of the Packers wide receivers corps in 2013. He had a good rookie season, a great second season and should have a Pro Bowl-worthy third season.

2. Glover Quin, DB, free agent: Headed for free agency, the Texans safety had a solid 2012 campaign and should fetch top dollar in March. Watching the tape, it’s often Quinn, not more celebrated teammates Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph, making the big plays in the Houston defensive backfield.

3. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago: Jeffery showed some real flashes during his rookie season. He’s going to be an integral part of Trestman’s passing offense in Chicago in 2013. At 6-foot-4 and a wonderful complement to Brandon Marshall, he’ll be a top target in this system.

Five lingering questions for struggling teams this offseason
1. Bills: Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be the quarterback?

2. Browns: Is Brandon Weeden the guy?

3. Panthers: How will Newton perform without Chudzinski calling the plays?

4. Jets: Can new GM John Idzik get them out of Salary Cap Hell?

5. Jets, again: Where does Tim Tebow end up?

Yep, it all comes back to Tebow.

The 2013 season is right around the corner. I can’t wait.

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