The NFL is never void of juicy storylines and questionable decisions, but it seems the 2012 season may be even more lush. Of course, there is the Bounty-gate situation in New Orleans, a new quarterback in Denver and a powerful Super Bowl winner hoping to repeat. Yeah, we're just a little bit excited for football to begin.
The Return of CJ2K?
A 1,000-yard season for most running backs is a banner year, but for Chris Johnson last season, it was a full-fledged disaster. Johnson, who rushed for 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009 and nearly 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010, his meager 4.0 yards per carry last year dropped him from his pedestal as one of the game's best and most dangerous backs. The question for Titans fans and fantasy drafters entering 2012 is whether Johnson can re-establish himself as an elite runner. With second-year quarterback Jake Locker in control of the starting gig, it's hard to tell how many carries Johnson will receive. He had just four 100-yard games though last season, down from a combined 20 over his previous two. While a bounce back to premier status is well within the realm of possibility, a return to CJ2K form? That's highly unlikely.
Will The Giants Repeat?
New York's core playmakers of Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Ahmad Bradshaw, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul all return, but as Super Bowl champions, the league's hardest schedule awaits. The Giants -- who open Sept. 5 with arch-rival Dallas at home -- will travel to San Francisco and Baltimore this season, and will also host Green Bay, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Keep a keen eye on rookies David Wilson and Rueben Randle; Wilson is a dynamic threat who should fill the backup running back role left by Brandon Jacobs and may even share carries with Bradshaw. Randle, out of LSU, has displayed great hands and disciplined route running, and will likely be Manning's third receiving option with Mario Manningham gone to San Francisco.
Can The 49ers Make Another Push?
Last season's run to the NFC Championship may have been a surprise to many, but the 49ers once again feature a dominant defense anchored by Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, the league's premier linebacking duo. Of course, defense is not the question mark for this team. While quarterback Alex Smith may be coming off the best season of his career, tossing 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions, he is still viewed by many as the weak link on an otherwise Super Bowl caliber unit. But armed with new weapons in free agent acquisitions Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, Smith should enjoy another productive -- if not spectacular -- season, just by not turning the ball over and letting his defense do the rest. Last year, San Fran ranked fourth in time of possession, thanks to Smith's efficiency and the running of Frank Gore. That should continue in 2012 as well: Per ESPN, 4 of the 5 O-line starters played at least 92 percent of the offensive snaps last season.
Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Everyone Else
If Calvin Johnson is considered the premier wide receiver in the game, then it's safe to say an even bigger gap yawns between Graham and Gronk at tight end and the rest of the league. Both are behemoth targets with exceptional hands and a remarkable ability to post-up on safeties and corners in the end zone. Gronkowski, who led the league in receiving touchdowns (17) last season, became the first tight end ever to accomplish such a feat. Meanwhile, Graham's 18 catches of 20-plus yards placed him second among all tight ends, behind, you guessed it, The Gronk. Without question, both have benefited greatly from the NFL's increasing predilection for passing and empty formations. Tight ends also do not block as much as they once did, and both New Orleans and New England love to employ spread formations. Even so, no other tight end broke 1,000 yards in 2011 or eclipsed the eight-touchdown mark.
What's Next For The Saints?
The Saints couldn't be much further removed from last season's bid for the NFC Championship berth. After the unprecedented Bounty-gate disaster, this defense now faces a four-game suspension of defensive end Will Smith and a year-long suspension for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Plus, it must go the entire year without head coach and offensive guru Sean Payton. Yes, Drew Brees is still there, as is Jimmy Graham, but offense wasn't the problem for New Orleans in 2011. Remember, this was a defense that surrendered 260 passing yards per game, good enough for 30th in the league. Making matters worse, the NFC South is becoming a more and more aerial division: Carolina's Cam Newton is a budding superstar, while Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan will consistently be throwing the ball more than 30 times a game. Merely outscoring your opponent will work at times, but as New Orleans learned last year, you need to create defensive stops to be a contender in this league.
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