Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMI

With the NFL season coming to a close, I usually lull around before posting anything here again. When I do, it’s usually regarding the NFL Draft, because I get carried away on that subject. This year, however, I want to see if I can create more discussion with those of you who are reading this. I want to talk about more than just the NFL game previews. So this week, I’ll be giving you my take on some of the biggest sports stories of the week. Feel free to comment on here, Facebook, or on Twitter @TorresSports.

Michael Sam:

In case you have been living under a rock all week, the NFL is set to have it’s first openly gay NFL player, as Michael Sam of Missouri announced he is gay. He will be drafted this year, and there has been much talk as to how people should take this. There’s only one way people should deal with this: tolerance and acceptance. This is 2014, and it shouldn’t be shocking that people are born differently every single day. Being a gay player means nothing more or less. People can make arguments about what it will be like in the shower with an openly gay player. Well guess, what? Your favorite players have been showering with gay players their entire collegiate and professional careers, they just didn’t know about it. Well what do you say to your kids about a gay player on your favorite team? Well if your kid doesn’t know about differences in sexuality, you should be teaching her/him a lot more than you are already. Take it as a teaching experience. What about the bible? Well if it is your belief that being gay is somehow a choice, and against the bible, I can’t change your mind on that. I will say, however, that I’m of the belief that the bible teaches you not to be judgmental, to love one another and not carry hatred. If people who disagree with your beliefs can tolerate them, you can do the same for theirs. What about Sam’s draft stock? I said I wouldn’t get into the NFL Draft, but there’s no reason this announcement should hurt his draft stock. I won’t get into the details about how good he is or what his weaknesses are. I will say though, that I’ll take a player who has been through a rough background like Sam (multiple family deaths, siblings in jail) and overcame obstacles to be a captain on a team that knew he was gay, over the entitled early draft entree who expects everything to be handed to him. So let’s be progressive, and accept that this should not be an issue for the fans, league, or players.

Derek Jeter:

The longtime Yankees shortstop announced he is retiring at the end of the season. Why is this a story? Because Jeter is arguably the greatest shortstop of all time. GASP! How could I say such a thing? He’s not even the greatest Yankee of all time! What about all the others in baseball history? Don’t forget them! Well I will, if they weren’t even alive when my dad was being born in the 50s. I’d like to see any of them get a hit off of Justin Verlander today, or beat a throw to second from Mike Trout. Cal Ripkin Jr., another you could make the argument for, doesn’t even come close to Jeter’s career batting average. Ozzie Smith, another candidate for the SS GOAT, only hit for over .300 once in his career, and he had 0 homeruns that year. Meanwhile, Jeter’s 3,000th hit? A homerun. I may be putting a lot into Jeter’s offensive numbers, but in his prime he had amazing range and is known for some of the best hustle plays in baseball history. Just go YouTube some of his historic highlights, and have fun watching one of the best. You won’t get to after this year.

LeBron James:

I cannot stand basketball arguments about who is better than whom? Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan? James or Magic Johnson? It doesn’t matter. So when James came out and said he’s going to be in the Mount Rushmore of NBA greats, I stayed away from all the polls and questions ESPN and other outlets had about whether this was true. Fans, especially James-haters, were in an uproar calling him cocky, arrogant, reminding people that he’s not clutch. So what did James do? He delivered one of the season’s best highlights by besting one of the league’s best shooters, Stephen Curry, with a last second three pointer and a dominating performance. If you ask me, James WILL be one of the best in NBA History, if not THE best, when he finally retires. All the Jordan disciplines can rag on me all they want, but the fact is James is unlike anyone else the Association has ever seen. Think of Wilt Chamberlain’s physical dominance over everyone else, and you have that with James today. No one else can lock down Derrick Rose in the playoffs of his MVP season like James did, AND play the five spot like he has done as well. Is he cocky? Maybe. But when you’re as good as James is, it’s simply confidence and truth. So let’s stop all the James hating and appreciate that every time we watch him play, we get to witness an all-time great.

Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognitio:

Ted Wells finally came to the conclusion of his investigation of the bullying situation in the Dolphins organization and concluded that Martin did not fabricate anything, and Incognito (with help from two other linemen) was harassing and bullying him along with others. This comes as no surprise, as I find Incognito to be one of the worst things about the NFL. He was kicked off of two college teams for his conduct, run out of St. Louis for the same reason, voted dirtiest player in the league, started a fight with a Houston Texans player this past pre-season, and accused of sexually harassing a woman at a team event. Why the Dolphins decided this guy should have a leadership role, I’ll never know. I suppose that speaks of why they can’t be a more successful franchise. Regardless, people need to stop blaming the victim in Martin just because they think he’s a pansy for running out on his team. Martin may have handled it wrong in terms of not bringing this to everyone’s attention sooner, or confronting Incognito, but the fact remains that Incognito is and was wrong on a much larger scale.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to discuss any of these topics or others with you, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Justin Edmonds

After a week without real football (the Pro Bowl doesn’t count), everyone is looking forward to what should be a great Super Bowl. Peyton Manning is back in the big game, and will be going against the league’s best defense. The Seahawks have one of the best young quarterbacks, and will have to get past a Denver defense which has been hot during the postseason. Before we get into a full prediction though, let’s look back at where I was wrong and right about the conference championship games.

Where Mike was wrong: 

I said both the 49ers and the Patriots would advance to the Super Bowl, and neither did. While the 49ers were close to making it to their second Super Bowl in as many years, the Patriots were never in the game against Denver, even though the final score indicates otherwise. I had a sneaking feeling that the Patriots would overcome all of their injuries and find a way to beat the Broncos, and that didn’t happen. I thought the 49ers would stay on fire, and they did, but for only three quarters in Seattle before they fell apart in the fourth quarter.

Where Mike was right:

I could totally discount what I said heading into conference championship weekend and revert back to my original pick before the season, which was the Seahawks versus the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Go back to my Facebook page, you’ll see that’s what I said. However, I don’t care about what I said before the season. Every casual fan of the NFL can say, “Oh yeah, I called it before the season started” and make themselves sound like a football genius, but I’m not going to do that. These are the two most talented teams in the league, and it means nothing to have said they would be in the Super Bowl in August. My grandma could have seen this game coming. It’s like picking all number one seeds, the most talented in the country, in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament; you’ve got a 25 percent chance of one of them being right. I’m more focused on getting this weekend right, rather than being right about what I said months ago. With that being said, here is my Super Bowl Prediction.

NFL Super Bowl Prediction: 

This game is going to be a back-and-forth, close game that could go down to the final possession. I expect to see a different team leading at the end of each quarter. Last week after the conference championships, I thought the Seahawks were going to win the Super Bowl. This may have been reactionary after the Seahawks had beat what I thought was the best team in the league, but I also took into account that the Super Bowl was going to be in freezing temperatures with wind and flurries. Manning has always struggled in cold, windy conditions, and I thought this would be a factor. I also thought the referees would allow the Seahawks to play their brand of hold-coverage and get away with pass interference on every play, and the Denver receivers would struggle in what would be a frozen or snowed over field.

After a week, however, I’ve taken everything into account, and it doesn’t appear as if the weather will be much of a factor on Super Bowl Sunday. As close as I think the game will be, here is why I think the Denver Broncos will win the Super Bowl.

The Broncos are going to stop the Seattle running game, plain and simple. Sure, in the beginning of the game, Marshawn Lynch is going to pound his way into the Denver defensive line, but as the game goes on, it’ll become less and less about the running game. Terrance Knighton of the Broncos is playing as well as any defensive lineman in the league right now, and he should find his way into the Seattle backfield plenty of times. Historically speaking, there have only been two rushers who had 1,000 yards in the regular season who ran for over 100 yards in the Super Bowl. Frank Gore last season was one, and Thomas Jones of the Bears in 2006 was the other. Both of those guys were on the losing end of the Super Bowl. Combine that with the league being more about passing these days, it won’t be up to Lynch to win the game for Seattle. I expect both defenses to play well against the run, and even though I think the Seahawks will gain an early edge because of it, I don’t see it staying consistent. It will, however, give them the lead at the end of the first quarter, while Manning tries to figure out the Seattle defense.

The second quarter will be a different story, in my opinion. Manning will find a way to figure out what Seattle is doing defensively and exploit their weaknesses. With Seattle’s running game coming to a halt, I expect the Broncos to have the ball more often in the second quarter, gain a little traction in the running game, and lead entering halftime.

The second half will be a lot like the first. The Broncos will probably come out trying an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, but I expect the long halftime show to give Seattle’s defense the rest and adjustments they need to keep up. They’ll change their game plan, and it’ll take Manning a series or two to figure it out. The up-tempo won’t work, Seattle will get the ball back, and Russell Wilson will likely make some improvised play to score and give them the lead before the end of the quarter.

In the end, with both defenses playing equally well, it’ll come down to which offense can make the big play. The Super Bowl always has an unsung hero; a guy who the casual fan doesn’t know and makes a big play to give his team the shot it needs to win the game. There’ve been guys like Willie Parker, David Tyree, and Jacoby Jones just to name a few. I think this is the point in the game we’ll see someone step up to the plate so to speak, and be that guy in the spotlight. Look for someone like Jacob Tamme, Trindon Holliday, or Andre Caldwell to give the Broncos a game changing play in their favor. I think this will allow Manning to play ball control, take one final lead with little time left, and ultimately win the game. Both teams are equally matched, and when it comes down to it, I like Manning over Wilson to make the play when it counts. Final: Denver Broncos 24, Seattle Seahawks 20

AP Photo/Steven Senne | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The divisional round of the NFL playoffs may not have been as exciting as the wildcard round, but it did give us what should be two great conference championship games. Tom Brady faces off against Peyton Manning once more, which will add a whole new part to the argument of which quarterback is the better of the two. The 49ers and Seahawks, bitter division rivals, will play for the third time this season to settle their feud. Two legendary quarterbacks on one side, two young quarterbacks beginning their legacy on the other. Regardless of the outcomes, the NFL should come away with a great Super Bowl match-up.

Before I go into my predictions though, a quick recap of where Mike was right and where Mike was wrong.

Where Mike was right:

Three out of four isn’t bad, and seven of eight is even better. I thought the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos would win to advance to the conference championship games and they did. Combined with my picks from wildcard weekend, I’ve called seven of the playoff games correctly. To be fair, some weren’t too difficult, but it’s been fun to watch my predictions turn out to be true.

Where Mike was wrong:

The one playoff game I’ve missed on so far was picking the Colts over the Patriots. The Colts put up a fight, but couldn’t overcome the Patriots somehow great rushing offense. The New England backs are all above average, yet LeGarrette Blount looked like Jerome Bettis on Saturday. The interceptions by Andrew Luck weren’t the downfall of the Colts (get over it, people, interceptions aren’t the worst thing in the world). They simply got outplayed by Brady and company, and I was completely off. I should have known better than to doubt Bill Belichick.

NFL CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS:

New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos – Brady and Manning will be in the conference championship once more. It’ll be the first road playoff game for Brady since he lost to Manning in Indianapolis. I think the odds are against New England, but I’ve learned my lesson, and I don’t doubt the Patriots in this one. This game will be very close though, possibly overtime once again, like when these two teams met in November. The game won’t be similar, however, so let’s not dwell on a two-month-old game. The Broncos were able to run the ball at will against the Patriots the last time, and there’s no way Knowshon Moreno is rushing for 224 yards again. Look for Manning to take advantage of what should be good weather and a weak Patriots secondary instead. On the flip side, the Patriots should be airing it out too, unlike their performance against the Colts. The running game will help, but there’s no way Brady is going without a touchdown pass again. He’ll be killing an injured Broncos defense, and will ultimately be the deciding factor in this game. It may come down to a final possession, but I expect the Patriots to come away with a three point win.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks – Throughout the offseason and regular season, the 49ers and Seahawks competed against each other. Each transaction, each move, each strategy they made were done so to gain the upper hand on the other. Their feud since the offseason has been reminiscent of the 49ers and Cowboys in the early to mid-90s. To them, there were no other teams in the league. It was just them, and the winner was going to take it all, so everything they did was done in preparation of playing in the NFC Championship. That’s where the 49ers and Seahawks find themselves now. They split the regular season series, two games that hardly mean anything anymore. What matters now is that the 49ers are rolling and are close to full health. The Seahawks are not getting as much as they should out of Russell Wilson, and will be missing potentially key players. This is why I think the 49ers will win this game. I expect Colin Kaepernick to outplay Wilson, and the 49ers defense to do enough to stop Marshawn Lynch. It’ll be extremely physical, low scoring, but the 49ers should pull away late, and win by six.

The Patriots and 49ers will go to the Super Bowl.

Photo by: San Francisco 49ers

The divisional round of the NFL playoffs is this weekend, and it will be tough to follow the greatness that was wildcard weekend. Inspired by one of my favorite people in sports media, Colin Cowherd, I’ll be touching on where I was right and where I was wrong about wildcard weekend, and making my picks for this weekend’s games. It’s been a long time since I posted anything here, so if you’re taking the time to read this, I thank you very much.

Where Mike was right:

Not to brag or anything, but I called every game correctly this weekend. I could do a whole list of things I was right about, but I won’t gloat and bore you. Instead, I’ll just recap by saying I picked the 49ers, Chargers, Colts and Saints to win and they did.

Where Mike was wrong (kind of):

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Steelers to sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed. They did not make it over the Chargers, but very well could have if a proper penalty was called in the Chiefs-Chargers season finale, allowing Ryan Succop to attempt another field goal.

Where Mike was right: 

That Andrew Luck guy is amazing, isn’t he? I’ve been saying it since he entered the league. Right now, if you asked me what quarterback I would take out of all in the league, I would take Luck without hesitation. He’s the only quarterback who has any and all attributes you could want at the position. His team has made the playoffs twice in his two years, and have no business doing so with the personnel and injuries they have. Yes, that come from behind win over the Chiefs was a team victory, but the Colts wouldn’t have been anywhere close without Luck. He was the main reason why I picked them to win.

Where Mike was wrong: 

Also at the beginning of the year, I said the Texans and Falcons would make the playoffs as wild card entries. Instead, they’re picking first and sixth in the NFL draft, respectively, so I totally whiffed on that one. Who didn’t though? I also thought the Cowboys would make the playoffs, and even though it looked as though they would for a while, they Cowboyed up and missed it in the end once again. So thanks, Dallas.

Where Mike was right:

No one, except for Chargers fans, saw San Diego beating Cincinnati. The Bengals were undefeated at home this season, had a bunch of talent and were due for a playoff win. Sorry, they’re still the Bengals, and I knew they would be. Andy Dalton played his usual playoff role, throwing interceptions and hurting his team’s chances of winning. The Chargers, meanwhile, are riding high and have a completely underrated head coach in Mike McCoy. He and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for fixing Phillip Rivers and keeping their team fighting.

NFL PLAYOFFS DIVISIONAL ROUND PICKS: 

New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks – I like Seattle in this one. The Saints surprised everyone by using a lot of two tight end sets and running the football against the Eagles, and they’ll need to do the same against the Seahawks. However, I see this being stopped right away by the Seahawks, forcing them to revert back to their usual passing game, and making costly turnovers. Seattle is a team that needed the rest to get healthy, and will come out pumped by the raucous home crowd that provides a borderline unfair advantage. I’m taking the Seahawks by ten.

Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots – I have an upset in this one, with Indianapolis winning. Picking Tom Brady to lose at home in the cold? How dare I! *Gasp* Well the fact is The Patriots don’t have the greatest of teams around Brady, and he’s had to carry them throughout the year. The teams that go into New England and win are tough, gritty, and make enough plays when it matters, much like the Baltimore Ravens. Oh yeah, the Colts head coach, Chuck Pagano, came from Baltimore and has created the same type of team in Indianapolis. The Colts are a group that never gives up, and they have that Luck guy, so I’m taking them to beat New England by three.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers – I’m really not being biased here, but my pick for this one is San Francisco. When these two teams played earlier in the year, Colin Kaepernick was in a slump and played without Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, and Aldon Smith on defense. This time, Kaepernick is red-hot, has his weapons and Smith is back rushing the passer. I expect the experienced 49ers to come out firing and deliver a huge punch early to the Panthers. The Panthers will bounce back and make a valiant comeback because they have a great defense and a very talented quarterback in Cam Newton, but will ultimately fall short, giving San Francisco the win by six.

San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos – While I think this game is going to be a lot closer than people think, I’m taking Denver to avoid the upset. San Diego is coming into Denver on fire, and can very easily win this game. The Broncos, however, will be looking to make a statement and will do all they can to avoid what happened to them in the playoffs last season. Peyton Manning is playing as well as he ever has and should have most of his weapons available to him. It’s undeniable that Manning plays worse in the cold, but the temperature shouldn’t dip too low to have an effect. The suspect Denver defense is going to make for a competitive game, but look for Manning to control the ball at the end of the game to come out with a win by no more than three.

Thanks again for checking out the blog. Below you’ll find my mock draft for 2013. The drama, uncertainty and surprises during the draft are what make me love it so much, and this year will be no exception. In fact, with no surefire stars but so many potential starters, this draft could be as wild and unpredictable as any in recent memory. Now usually, I don’t like to include projected trades in mock drafts because my name is not Adam Schefter. I have no clue when the hell a trade will occur, but they happen all the time. However, I do feel so confident about one potential trade that I included it below. The rest is all predictions and players I feel would fit certain teams depending on how the draft plays out. I also try to include “Best available” picks because as Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim once told me in an interview, you have to pick the best player available rather than reach for a need. Check out my big board to see my best available players.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckell, OT, Texas A&M — The Chiefs need a solid tackle to be a cornerstone in the rebuilding process. Head coach Andy Reid knows he will need to protect Alex Smith at quarterback, and will get the guy to do just that. The Chiefs are looking into trading offensive tackle Brandon Albert, and will probably use that pick on defense later in the draft.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan — Even though the Jaguars have a new coaching staff and are left with a still-developing quarterback they didn’t draft, I think they’ll give him another year to prove himself and get some protection for him at this spot. It’s tempting to put Dion Jordan here, but Fisher is arguably the best player in the draft on some boards. Fisher is the pick.
3. Oakland Raiders: Shariff Floyd, DT, Florida — The Raiders need a lot of things, so as long as they get someone who can make an immediate impact, it’ll be a good pick. Floyd can do just that for this defense. Even though they traded for Matt Flynn, expect the Raiders to attempt the Seahawks approach of drafting a mid-round quarterback to compete with him.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon — There’s a lot of media buzz about how the Eagles are such a wild-card in this draft and how no one knows what they’re going to do with the number four pick. If Jordan is here at four, it’s simple. Jordan will fit in well with what former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly wants to do on defense. Jordan will also breathe some new life into a defense which was horrendous last season.
5. Detroit Lions: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU — The Lions will not only be filling a need with this pick since they lost Cliff Avril, but will be getting an extremely athletic player with enormous potential. Ansah could be the fastest rising prospect in draft history. Why is that? This guy didn’t play football until 2010. Now he’s a projected top five pick. His freakish athleticism combined with his ability to learn the game quickly will make head coach Jim Schwartz salivate.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama — This pick could be a possible trade down spot for the Browns, as there are a lot of decent cornerbacks in this draft and could garner a lot of attention from teams looking to get Lane Johnson. It’s too difficult to say who would jump up here though, so I have the Browns taking Milliner to combine with former first rounder Joe Haden. Ignore the recently-surfaced issues about Milliner’s ball skills and past surgeries. Milliner has said he models his game after Haden, and the two will make a great duo to stifle the AFC North passing attacks.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma — The Cardinals luck out that a great player falls into their lap to fill a need. The Cardinals offensive line is arguably the worst in the league, and Johnson is an athletic tackle converted from tight end. He’ll be able to protect newly-acquired Carson Palmer immediately, and whoever the long-term quarterback is in the future.
8. Buffalo Bills: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama — Warmack is one of the best players in the draft, and I don’t think the Bills hesitate if he’s still on the board. Some people this week have been saying the Bills will draft Ryan Nassib in a panic-move to make sure no one else gets him. I think they’ll be fine waiting a few picks and trading back into the round to get Nassib, a move I really think can and will happen. With Warmack, they’ll have a guard to protect Nassib for a decade.
9. New York Jets: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina — Guards are hardly graded at a premium, but they are rarely as talented as Warmack and Cooper. The Jets grab Cooper in an effort to ensure they can protect the quarterback and prevent whoever that may be from butt-fumbling.
10. Tennessee Titans: Barkevius Mingo, DE, LSU — The Titans could go a couple of different ways here, but I have them improving their pass rush to make it one of the best in the AFC. Sure, they need help at guard and safety, but the best guards are gone and this is a deep safety class where one can be picked in the second round. At this point, the Titans go best available with Mingo.
11. San Diego Chargers: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama — The Chargers had an almost non-existent offense last season, and much of it was because of the poor offensive line play. Fluker may not be as good as the three tackles going before him, but he will help a poor offensive line right away. Maybe with a new head coach and more protection, Philip Rivers can get back to his productive and winning ways.
12. Miami Dolphins: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State — With the Dolphins close to wrapping up a trade for Albert from the Chiefs, they’ll be set at tackle and won’t have to reach for one here. The Dolphins trading down with someone coveting Tavon Austin or Kenny Vaccaro is a possibility, and is probably the better option. If they can’t find a trade partner though, they could benefit from a big corner like Rhodes. He’s a big strong corner who played receiver in high school, and will do well if he takes his talents to South Beach.
13: New York Jets (From Buccaneers): Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia — Surprise! Not many people think the Jets will be taking Smith. In fact, the oh-so-great Todd McShay doesn’t even have Smith in the first round. Smith is not elite, but the hundred quarterbacks the Jets have on the roster are average at best. This is where new general manager John Idzik puts his stamp on the franchise. With the pick they get from the Revis trade, which officially started the rebuilding process, the Jets get their quarterback of the future. Smith isn’t elite yet, but he definitely has more potential than the other Jets quarterbacks.
14. Carolina Panthers: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah – The Panthers have been suffering at this position for a few years now. Remember, head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive guru. All the attention the Panthers get focuses on the offense because of Cam Newton and his weapons, but Rivera would love to have someone like Lotulelei anchoring his defensive line and helping his group of talented linebackers. Lotulelei may have slipped a couple of spots because of his health concerns, but the Panthers will pounce on him when he does.
15. New Orleans Saints: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia — I imagine Rob Ryan throwing a tantrum in order to have the Saints pick Jones. The offense isn’t the biggest worry except for tackle, but that could be found later. The Saints defense was horrible last year and Jones would be a huge improvement. There are concerns with Jones due to his health, but his explosiveness will outweigh them in the eyes of the Saints.

Photo credit: AP

16. St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia — The Rams catch a break with Austin still being available, and rush up to the podium to get him. Austin is the perfect weapon for Captain Check-down, AKA Sam Bradford. He’ll be able to run bubble screens, quick slants and hitch routes for Bradford and will be a big time threat for yards after the catch. With Danny Amendola gone, there’s no way the Rams pass on Austin if he’s available.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas — Many draft experts think Vaccaro will conveniently be available for the Cowboys so that the Longhorn can play in Dallas. However, the Cowboys will have to trade up ahead of the Steelers if they really want Vaccaro. Vaccaro could sit behind either Ryan Clark, who gets banged up throughout a season and can’t play in Denver, or Troy Polamalu, who is also injury prone and getting old. Yet if called upon, Vaccaro could contribute right away and would be the first player in a much needed Pittsburgh youth movement.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri — Dallas could use a couple of more picks and trade down a few spots, but Richardson might be too good to pass up here. If the Cowboys are indeed going into a 4-3 defense, Richardson would be perfect under Monte Kiffin. He’s got a good combination of strength and quickness, and could even move to a 3-4 defensive end should Dallas decide to switch back to that.
19. New York Giants: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia — In my opinion, ever since the Giants acquired Eli Manning, they’ve nailed it every time they had a first round pick. They take an extremely talented player despite questions other teams may have about them. This year won’t be any different. By getting Ogletree, the Giants will not only be addressing the linebacker issues, but getting one of the ten best players in this draft. Questions be damned, Ogletree will be a Giant.
20. Chicago Bears: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee — Didn’t it seem like all the Bears offense was last season was Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall? This left defenses able to focus on Marshall for the entire 60 minutes. With a big-time threat like Patterson, that won’t be happening much longer. Yes, the Bears need to replace Brian Urlacher, but Patterson is too good to take a middle linebacker at this point.
21. Cincinnatti Bengals: John Cyprien, FS, FIU — The Bengals are interested in Cyprien, who would not only fill a need for them, but is a darn good player. People can try to knock Cyprien for playing at Florida International, but he held his own at the Senior Bowl with the other top talent and played well when FIU went up against bigger schools. Plus, the Bengals don’t care where you’re from, what you did, or who you are if you can help them win.
22. St. Louis Rams (From Redskins): Eric Reid, S, LSU — This one is a trickier pick for the Rams. They could go best available after addressing a big time need at number 16, but this pick could be a bit need-based as well. In a division with the 49ers and Seahawks, the Rams need a player who can help against the run, cover tight ends and prevent the deep ball. Enter Eric Reid to replace the loss of Craig Dahl to San Francisco.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Manti Te’o, MLB, Notre Dame — Picking Te’o is going to get a huge reaction from the crowd at Radio City Music Hall, but the Vikings will also be getting a decent player to step in right away and help a struggling linebacker group. A coach like Leslie Frazier is not going to care about Te’o’s fake girlfriend or overblown 40-yard dash time. All he’ll care about is Te’o’s ability to keep up with tight ends such as Martellus Bennett, Jermichael Finley and Brandon Pettigrew. Te’o can do that.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Bjoern Werner, OLB/DE, Florida State — Dwight Freeney is no longer a Colt, Robert Mathis is aging, Jerry Hughes is off and on as a pass rusher, and Erik Walden is a linebacker the Packers didn’t care to keep. So how do you solve this? Take Werner, stand him up as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and let him get after the quarterback. The Colts were twenty-third in sacks last season with only 32. Werner can get at least 10.
25. Minnesota Vikings (From Seahawks): Keenan Allen, WR, Cal — The Vikings haven’t had much luck with free agent wide receivers in recent memory (see Bernard Berrian and Michael Jenkins), and they just signed Greg Jennings away from Green Bay. To avoid another wide receiver letdown, the Vikings could benefit from a young, quick receiver like Allen. Allen could not only act as Jordy Nelson opposite Jennings, but will certainly help Christian Ponder grow into the above average quarterback he can be.
26. Green Bay Packers: Matt Elam, S, Florida — Elam will be able to eventually take over the position Charles Woodson left empty, but will be able to immediately help this team in dime packages too. With his playmaking ability and excellent ball skills, the Packers won’t have to worry about another interception/touchdown debate with the Seahawks. Too soon? Good thing Elam is available then.
27. Houston Texans: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State — All the talk here is that the Texans could draft Andre Johnson’s eventual replacement, or at least a wide receiver to help him immediately. That could happen, but another thing that will help the Texans passing game is keeping Matt Schaub on his feet. Watson could compete for a starting job immediately at right tackle. Houston has been making a habit of drafting someone that leaves people scratching their head on draft day, but working out well for them like Kareem Jackson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Watson could be next in that list.
28. Buffalo Bills (From Broncos): Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse — Since John Elway doesn’t particularly like this draft class, I don’t expect the Broncos to be picking here at all, but rather trading down. This was as close to a logical spot I could envision for the Bills to be trading back into the round to get their quarterback. Nassib’s college head coach, Doug Marone, is of course the new Bills head coach. Nassib will know the offense well, has a strong arm to through in Buffalo, and will beat out Kevin Kolb for the starting job at some point this season. The Bills won’t reach for Nassib at eight, but will get him twenty picks later.
29. New England Patriots: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington — It seems as if the Patriots will always need help in their secondary as they consistently have above average cornerbacks. Trufant, however, has potential to be really good and will contribute immediately in nickel/dime situations and on special teams. That, or the Patriots could go back to being the Patriots and trading down for picks in future drafts.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State — Speaking about needing a cornerback, the Falcons are probably hurting the most at the position. All they have is Asante Samuel at cornerback. They’ve lost Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and Chris Owens. They could take any one of the available corners and be happy, but with Taylor they’ll get a sound, quick player who will be the number two cornerback from day one.

Photo by kcchiefs.com

31. San Francisco 49ers: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU — With all the picks the 49ers have, it’s possible they move up from this spot to get a safety. D.J. Swearinger will be available three picks later at 34 though, so they can get him there. They could look at tight end Zach Ertz, a player Jim Harbaugh recruited to Stanford and who has also said his biggest influence is former 49er great Brent Jones. But again, he’ll be available three picks from now, so who do they take? In this great position, I say the 49ers go with Margus Hunt. The guy is freakishly tall and with a year behind Justin Smith to learn and get some bulk, the 49ers won’t have to worry about losing their entire pass rush when Smith is gone. Until then, Hunt can contribute on special teams. He set an NCAA record with 17 blocked kicks. He’s a player Harbaugh will love.

32. Baltimore Ravens: Arthur Brown, MLB, Kansas State — He signed with Miami coming out of high school. Draft experts say he is undersized. Instinctive defender who players bigger than he is. Sound familiar? I wasn’t describing recently retired Ray Lewis. Brown is all of these things and would immediately help the Ravens alongside Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw. Sometimes, things work out just right. A lot of times, general manager Ozzie Newsome nails it in the draft. This is one of those times.

My favorite time of year could possibly be late April. This is not because of the weather, baseball’s return, or the NBA playoffs (although I do love baseball and NBA playoffs), but because of the NFL Draft. Therefore, it’s only fitting that I return to blogging with a post on the draft.

If you’re new to TorresSports, I welcome you and hope you enjoy what I’m rambling about. If you used to read this blog when I kept up with it, I thank you for taking the time out to read it once again. My last post was on September 4, 2012, and seven-plus months is far too long. I have been lacking the desire to write in the past few months, and you simply viewing this page encourages me to get back into it. For that, I thank you.

Now, back to the topic at hand. Below you will find my 2013 NFL Draft Big Board (it’s more of a long list than an actual big board, but whatever). I originally wanted to do a list of the top 50 players in this draft, but after I listed 50, I kept thinking about other players I really liked. Before I knew it, I had a top 70 list, so I decided to just do my homework and make it a solid 100. I won’t get into detail for every player, but here are some thoughts on my rankings.

The quarterbacks are nowhere close to what we saw last year, but under the right systems, there are a handful that can succeed in the NFL. The running backs in this draft are getting undersold because the NFL is a passing league, but there are several good backs available. I’ve ranked a dozen of them here, and not much separates them, which is why you’ll see a few of them clumped together. If I were an NFL GM, I would love to have any one of them on my team. The draft is not full of stars, but more players with starting capabilities than any draft in recent memory. It is a deep draft for both offensive and defensive line prospects. I really like the top few tight ends available. We’re also getting a worthy safety class, whereas in the past couple of years the safety position has been weak.

Remember, this is all just a matter of opinion. It’s not a prediction of where these players will be drafted. You’ll see rankings vary wherever you go, from NFL.com to Bleacher Report to USA Today. I simply take what I know from the college game, reading and watching videos and present to you 100 players I like in the NFL Draft. Have fun with it: use it while you’re watching the draft to see who my best available player is, argue with me over how much I over/under value someone, or marvel in how awesome I am at ranking these guys. Just kidding. Kind of. Either way, here it is.

1. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

2. Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan

3. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama

4. Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon

5. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

6. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma

7. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

8. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina

9. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

10. Ezekiel Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU

11. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

12. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia

13. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

14. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

15. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia

16. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama

17. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State

18. Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina

19. Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU

20. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State

21. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M

22. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington

23. Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford

24. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame

25. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

26. Robert Woods, WR, USC

27. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee

28. Keenan Allen, WR, Cal

29. Matt Barkley, QB, USC

30. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama

31. Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame

32. Margus Hunt, DE, SMU

33. John Cyprien, FS, FIU

34. Eric Reid, S, LSU

35. Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State

36. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee

37. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas

38. Kyle Long, OL, Oregon

39. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State

40. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State

41. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU

42. Matt Elam, S, Florida

43. Cornellius Carradine, DE, Florida State

44. Datone Jones, DE, UCLA

45. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

46. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU

47. Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State

48. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State

49. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson

50. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor

51. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

52. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama

53. Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati

54. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky

55. Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State

56. Giovanni Bernard, RB, North Carolina

57. Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia

58. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse

59. Dallas Thomas, OT, Tennessee

60. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin

61. D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston

62. John Jenkins, DT, Georgia

63. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina

64. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State

65. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford

66. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson

67. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon

68. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State

69. Kevin Reddick, ILB, North Carolina

70. Justin Pugh, OT, Syracuse

71. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin

72. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State

73. D.J. Swearinger, SS, South Carolina

74. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford

75. Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech

76. Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas

77. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut

78. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State

79. Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State

80. Jordan Reed, TE, Florida

81. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA

82. Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida

83. Kiko Alonso, LB, Oregon

84. Khaseem Greene, OLB, Rutgers

85. Nico Johnson, ILB, Alabama

86. Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

87. Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M

88. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State

89. Mike Glennon, QB, NC State

90. Khaled Holmes, C, USC

91. T.J. McDonald, FS, USC

92. Robert Alford, CB, Southeastern Louisiana

93. Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego St.

94. Brian Winters, OG, Kent State

95. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego St.

96. J.J. Wilcox, FS, Georgia Southern

97. Philip Lutzenkirchen, TE, Auburn

98. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M

99. Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn

100. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee

Keep an eye on these players also, because if they get a chance with the right team or system, they can flourish: Zac Dysert, QB, Miami (Ohio), Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma, Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU, Bacarri Rambo, SS, Georgia, Denard Robinson, WR, Michigan, Terrell Sinkfield, WR, Northern Iowa.

As the NFL season is set to kick off, here are my predictions for this season. Feel free to comment on whether you agree, disagree, or don’t care for any portion of this post, but above all, enjoy the return of football.

AFC East

AP Photo/Dave Martin, File

1st- New England Patriots: Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. And, wait for it, a couple of first round draft picks actually used for once? This team will dominate the division yet again, and their schedule is the easiest on paper in the NFL. The biggest weakness for this team last season was a pass rush, and the Patriots used two first round draft picks, instead of trading back for more, on defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Also, if having Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker wasn’t enough, throw wide receiver Brandon Lloyd into the mix for Brady to play with. Expect the Patriots to be playing late into January once again this season.

2nd- Buffalo Bills: The Bills lead the group in this division which is a clear drop off from the Patriots. Nevertheless, the Bills should be an exciting team to watch. They have some excellent weapons on offense in wide receiver Stevie Johnson and running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Overpaid quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will have to settle down with the interceptions though, because he threw almost as many picks as he did touchdowns last season (24 TDs to 23 INTs). The Bills definitely improved on defense with the signing of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, and drafting of Stephon Gilmore. However, many players return from a unit which gave up 434 points last season. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt will have to instill a different mindset into this group for the team to catch the Patriots.

3rd- Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are in rebuilding mode, but I’m going out on a limb and saying they finish ahead of the Jets. Running back Reggie Bush was a pleasant surprise last season, and leads a group of running backs which will need to help the rookie quarterback. Speaking of which, Ryan Tannehill takes over as the starter and still doesn’t know his NFL conference alignment. It makes sense since his college team was leaving to the SEC and who knows what’s happening in college football realignment, but that’s another story. Tannehill will at least be playing under a familiar system with his college head coach, Mike Sherman, as the offensive coordinator. The defense kept several games close last season and, if they do it again this year, could steal some games away from teams. The biggest issue is the secondary though, as an already weak group lost Vontae Davis to trade.

4th- New York Jets: This team, despite the media circus which surrounds them 24/7, is set up for a disappointment. Mark Sanchez sorely needs the full support of a team and he did not get it when the Jets traded for Tim Tebow. If and when Sanchez struggles, the media and fan base will be calling to see what Tebow can do. The Jets also plan to misuse Tebow in all sorts of ridiculous ways rather than letting him develop in his third offense in as many years. Their running backs are slow and above average, and their defense is overrated. Yes, they have Darrelle Revis and David Harris, but everyone else is aging or above average. Rex Ryan had this team in great position a couple of years ago, but this team has serious locker room issues which could be disastrous. Ryan will have to retake control quickly to avoid a big downfall.

AFC North

AP Photo/Nick Wass

1st- Baltimore Ravens: In the most physical division by far, I expect the Ravens to survive and make it out on top. I don’t care what anyone says, Joe Flacco can sling it during crunch time and is better than people give him credit for. He’ll have Ray Rice, one of the best in the league, once again to do damage in both the running and passing game. The defense is still a great one, and lucked out with linebacker Courtney Upshaw falling to them in the draft because they’ll be without Terrell Suggs for most of the year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, despite being grandpas in football years, can still play with the best of them. This team is remarkably similar to their rival in Pittsburgh in many ways but, if they stay healthy, should be able to stave off an angry Steelers team.

2nd- Pittsburgh Steelers: How do you replace a good offensive mind in Bruce Arians? Replace him with a better one in Todd Haley. With head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Haley, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers have one of the best coaching staffs in the country. Which is why I believe they will be in playoff contention despite injuries and departed players. The iconic Hines Ward will not be playing for Pittsburgh for the first time since 1997, and mainstays James Farrior and Aaron Smith are gone as well. The Steelers had one of the best draft selections in guard David DeCastro, but he is out for most the season after tearing his MCL and dislocating his knee. The defense will be similar to last season, and the Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger to lead the offense. The key, as always for this time, is staying healthy. They will be banged up during the season as their bye week comes quick in week four, but if they can get well in December, this time will be playing in January again.

3rd- Cincinnati Bengals: The popular consensus seems to be that the Bengals will improve from last year’s playoff appearance. This is Cincinnati we’re talking about though, who has only made the playoffs in consecutive years once (1981-82) and is led by head coach Marvin Lewis, who has a below .500 career record with zero playoffs wins. With the Ravens and Steelers to contend with, it will be difficult for this team to repeat the success of last season. The Bengals did set themselves up greatly for the future, with an excellent draft class and the signing of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The focus of the team will once again be youngsters Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, who took the league by storm in their rookie season.  Not much has changed from the successful team last year, but I just have a hard time seeing another playoff appearance this season. Look out in 2013 though.

4th- Cleveland Browns: The Browns will try to do what the Bengals did last year: start two rookies on offense as your main threats and fight hard enough on defense to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the team outside of the two rookies isn’t very good. The old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden will have a bunch of unproven, under-achieving targets to throw to, and fellow rookie Trent Richardson is already banged up. The defense is a scrappy bunch, but for every good player they have, there is an average one. Cornerback Joe Haden is also facing a four game suspension. They really need to improve their rush defense, and adding defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker is not the answer. Sorry, Cleveland fans, this just isn’t the turn around year you’re waiting for.

AFC South

AP Photo/Bill Haber, File

1st- Houston Texans: If Matt Schaub had been healthy last season, they very well could have been the representative in the Super Bowl last season. Schaub is back, and so is Arian Foster. So is Andre Johnson. As long as the three can stay healthy, they form part of one of the best offenses in the league. Mario Williams is gone, but so what? This defense was great without him last season and the loss will not have as much of an impact as many think. Brooks Reed played great when Williams was hurt, and the Texans also added first round draft pick Whitney Mercilus to get after the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is excellent in this role rather than a head coach, and his group will have continued success pounding teams into the ground. This is a balanced team which is poised to make plenty of noise in the post-season.

2nd- Tennessee Titans: The key to the Titans finishing this high will be how Jake Locker handles being the starting quarterback. I believe Locker can excel in this league and provide enough spark for this team to actually make the playoffs this year. Last season, the Titans were the only team to have a winning record and miss the playoffs, and no one seems to be giving them credit going into this year. The addition of Kendall Wright will make up for when Kenny Britt gets hurt/suspended/taken out of the game. Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer give the Titans a good one-two punch in the backfield. The defense will actually benefit from having troubled cornerback Cortland Finnegan leave for St. Louis, and have a young defensive line which has potential to be explosive. If the Titans last through a tough early schedule, their second half allows for a chance to get hot when it counts.

3rd- Indianapolis Colts: The Colts were atrocious last season, but I think they turn a few heads by not finishing last in the division. Everyone compares first overall pick Andrew Luck to John Elway or Peyton Manning, but in my opinion, he is the first Andrew Luck and will succeed right away. One of the most underrated moves the Colts made which could pay off big as the season progresses was drafting Luck’s college tight end Coby Fleener. The team still has Reggie Wayne and Donald Brown on offense, so they could actually score some points this season with Luck instead of Kerry Collins/Curtis Painter. The defense is still below average, but defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will have this 3-4 defense much improved by the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to see how Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis handle the hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense. If Freeney and company can get after the passer, they may surprise some people.

4th- Jacksonville Jaguars: Analysts keep praising Blaine Gabbert for his great pre-season, but I’m still not sold on him. He’s learning a new system with new head coach Mike Mularkey, which is something no young quarterback wants to do (see Alex Smith’s first few years). Maurice Jones-Drew is finally back with the team after his lengthy holdout, and history tells us that players in that situation don’t immediately return to their previous form. The team does have rookie Justin Blackmon, who will electrify the field when he can and if he stays out of trouble. The defense has a decent set of linebackers, but there are too many question marks in the secondary and defensive line in order to sustain success.

AFC West

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File

1st- Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning hardly had good defenses in his time with Indianapolis. The Broncos did not have consistent quarterback play last year when they made the playoffs. Combining Manning with this defense seems like a perfect match, at least one to win the division that is. Manning has always been able to make those around him better, no matter how average they seemed. This offense has a few above average to decent players, and Manning will make the likes of Eric Decker, Joel Dreessen, Willis McGahee and DeMaryius Thomas better. If the defense can continue the way they played last season and create turnovers for Manning, we’ll see bigger leads for the Broncos and higher sack totals for Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil as teams play from behind.

2nd- San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are the best of the rest in the division, but that doesn’t mean they’re a good team. I honestly believe this team will be stuck in neutral until Norv Turner is out as head coach. Until then, Phillip Rivers will have to pass his arm off and force more throws to keep his team in the ball game. This is a tougher task without Vincent Jackson and a banged up Ryan Matthews. The defense has some talented players like safety Eric Weddle and rookie outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, but it’s not an overwhelming group. The problem is that this team can never seem to put together a string of wins when they matter most, and this year will be no different. Chargers fans, you’ll get your wish of a new head coach after this season.

3rd- Kansas City Chiefs: This team could have been much better last season had everyone not gotten hurt. Returning for the Chiefs are some of their best players like running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry. The defense was much better when Romeo Crennel took over last year, and I expect more of the same this year. In this 3-4 scheme, rookie nose tackle Dontari Poe has potential to be a huge assist to linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. The secondary should do fine without Brandon Carr, as they still have Berry, Brandon Flowers and added Stanford Routt. A backfield consisting of Charles, Peyton Hillis and Dexter McCluster should be dangerous, but a lot relies on whether quarterback Matt Cassel can finally produce. Sadly for the Chiefs though, Cassel may not provide enough.

4th- Oakland Raiders: This may sound mean, but the Raiders were never going to get better with Al Davis still leading the charge. With Davis gone, this team could have a bright future. That future does not start now though, as the Raiders welcome yet another head coach in first-year-man Dennis Allen. Carson Palmer returns at quarterback and while he showed flashes of his old self last year, he isn’t quite what he once was. Running back Darren McFadden is one of the best in the league when healthy, but he is also made of glass and will most likely get hurt at some point in the season. This year, the Raiders will not have Michael Bush to fill in for Run DMC. The defense has a good defensive line and safeties but bad cornerbacks. When signing former 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer is your best option at the position, you’re in for a bad year. With not much of a draft to bolster the defense, expect the Raiders to stick around in games but falter too often.

NFC East

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

1st- New York Giants: The Giants were a good team last year during the regular season, despite their struggles and criticism from the media. Then in the playoffs, they proved just how good they were. Most of that team returns, as the pieces they lost in the off-season were replaced via free agency or the draft. Eli Manning showed he truly is one of the league’s best, and will carry the offense. The loss of Mario Manningham won’t hurt too much as they still have Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Brandon Jacobs won’t me missed either with the addition of first round running back David Wilson. Wilson was the sole reason Virginia Tech had an offense last season, and will thrive in the NFL. Defensively, the pass rush should be able to mask any weaknesses, like losing Terrell Thomas again. Adding linebacker Keith Rivers will be a big help too. The Giants have the toughest schedule in the league, but they have proven time and again they are a resilient bunch. I expect them to build the bridge and stay successful.

2nd- Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have done enough to get back into the playoff race, but they will be in a tough battle with the Eagles for second place in the division. In all honesty, a playoff berth for either team would be a success, but everyone knows the ridiculous expectations for each franchise will not allow that. Dallas will look better on defense as they drastically improved their secondary. Brandon Carr was a big signing, and Morris Claiborne will only get better with experience. The question marks for Dallas are really on offense. Will their receiver’s mature and live up to their potential while Jason Witten’s spleen suffers? Can DeMarco Murray stay healthy for a full season? Will Tony Romo be, well, not Tony Romo? Okay, maybe that was harsh, but Romo will have to continue to hold his end of the bargain for this team to survive.

3rd- Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles look poised to bounce back from the infamous ‘Dream team’ season, but there seems to be one thing after another to put that in question. Left tackle Jason Peters was lost for the season earlier this year. Andy Reid’s son tragically passed away, bringing about the usual doubts of the team’s focus. Michael Vick proved during the entire preseason to be made of glass still and it is highly unlikely he will last all sixteen games. Nevertheless, the Eagles did make improvements on defense, adding to their defensive front seven with players like first round pick Fletcher Cox and middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans from Houston. LeSean McCoy will continue where he left off last season and could potentially lead the league in rushing. Still, there are too many questions with this team and will be in a fierce competition with the Cowboys for second place.

4th- Washington Redskins: All the excitement in Washington surrounds the arrival of Robert Griffin III, but they will need more than RGIII to get out of last place. The Redskins have added “weapons” for Griffin, but none are truly formidable. Griffin’s best target remains Fred Davis, his tight end, despite the additions of wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Both receivers have potential, but only potential to be solid number twos at best. Santana Moss is past his prime, and dropping nearly twenty pounds off his 200 pound frame will only help so much. The running backs are supposed to excel in Mike Shannahan’s zone blocking sceme, but I have a hard time believing in the likes of Roy Helu, Alfred Morris and Evan Rosyter. The defense will keep them in games enough for RGIII to steal a few here and there, but eventually in this pass-happy league their secondary will be exploited. RGIII could one day be one of the elite, but he will need help getting there, and it won’t happen immediately this year.

NFC North

AP Photo/Al Behrman

1st- Green Bay Packers: For the Packers last year, the best defense was a good offense. Expect more of the same this season. A draft full of defensive players, Including outside linebacker Nick Perry and defensive end Jerel Worthy, will certainly help but the secondary needs to step things up. The Packers lost Nick Collins last season and it hurt them a lot; Collins will not return this season. When the offense is as good as this one though, not much defense is required. Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in the game, and he has a crew of wide receivers that can be number one guys on many other teams. The addition of Cedric Benson at running back is a big improvement over any other player in their backfield. The Packers will still be explosive, but until defensive coordinator Dom Capers gets his group to be more consistent, another 15-1 season will be virtually impossible.

2nd- Chicago Bears: The Bears at number two in the North is not so much that I think they are much better than the Lions, but more of a hunch. After a season plagued with injuries, this team definitely improved it’s depth chart with names like Michael Bush, Jason Campbell, Blake Costanzo, Brandon Marshall, Chilo Rachal and Eric Weems. Top picks Shea McClellin and Alshon Jeffery will help too. Quite a bit, isn’t it? And with a healthy Jay Cutler, this team shouldn’t go through the disastrous downfall it did last year. The key will be consistency on defense, much like the Packers. This is an aging defense with an average secondary. If the pass rush isn’t there, this defense could be exposed. Expect the Bears to start off well, with only one playoff team from last year in their first five games. They’ll need to hang on and stay healthy to avoid a repeat of last year.

3rd- Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson is on the cover of Madden NFL 13, therefore rendering the Lions a non-playoff team. Just kidding. All jokes aside though, the Lions will have a hard time repeating the same type of run they had last year. Their passing game will remain one of the best in the league, but where will the balance be with no semblance of a running game? Electrifying running back Jahvid Best will start the season on the PUP list, and his concussion history is not a good sign. Kevin Smith is also made of glass, leaving Mikel Leshoure, who was out all of last year due to injury. On defense, the Lions lost cornerback Eric Wright, and Jacob Lacey won’t be as good as him right away. They do return ten starters, but is that a good thing when this is a defense which gave up over 900 yards and 90 points in their final two games? Plus, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are wildcards who could get injured, suspended or thrown out of a game. It’ll be a battle for a playoff spot in Detroit.

4th- Minnesota Vikings: Last year I said Christian Ponder was a huge reach and he proved he was. I stick by my opinion in that he is not that good or ready to lead this team, and their offense will continue to suffer. The Vikings have taken a big step back from where they were just a few years ago, when they had one of the best rushing attacks and rush defenses. Adrian Peterson will be returning from his injury, but with an injury history like his, we’ll see if he can hold up. If not, Toby Gerhart is not the man you want getting 25 carries a game. Percy Harvin is a dangerous player playing for a non-threatening team, and it’s a shame. Defensively, the Vikings have lost their groove and while head coach Leslie Frazier has a good defensive mind, he does not have the talent. Their secondary is below average and put far too much pressure on Jared Allen and the defensive line. Combine all of this together and you have another down year, and Frazier on the hot seat.

NFC South

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

1st- Atlanta Falcons: Two main reasons why the Falcons will win this division, and they are not related to their offense or defense: The Saints won’t overcome the loss of their head coach and several players to suspension, and the NFC South has never had a repeat winner. Therefore, as the next best team in the division, the South is the Falcons’ to lose. Expect Julio Jones to have a breakout sophomore season, and the running game to flourish with more of a committee. This way, Michael Turner will not be worn down by the end of the season. Matt Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in this conference, and should lead the offense to many points. The loss of linebacker Curtis Lofton on defense will hurt, but they also improved their secondary on the cheap by trading for Asante Samuel. In a division with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Cam Newton, having elite corners like Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson will be great. The key will be the pass rush, but that’s why defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was brought in. The Falcons should do well, the question is can they win a playoff game.

2nd- Carolina Panthers: Sophomore slump for Newton the way Freeman had one in Tampa Bay? Don’t expect one. Newton not only silenced doubters last year, but tied, gagged and threw them into the ocean. Together with backs Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams, Newton and the Panthers form one of the best backfields in the league. Steve Smith proved me wrong last year when I thought he would slow down due to injuries, and I now expect him to play through them again and at a high level. With a decent offensive line and Greg Olsen at tight end, the offense should remain a high octane one. The defense could use improvement though. Their linebackers should be solid with the return of Thomas Davis and the signing of first round pick Luke Kuechly, who could be a Pro Bowl player in his rookie season. Their sack production was weak last year and outside of Chris Gamble, the secondary is suspect. If this team can make some stops though, the offense could propel them to a playoff spot.

3rd- New Orleans Saints: Had the bounty scandal never occurred, I would pick the Saints to play for a Super Bowl in their own stadium. However, head coach Sean Payton is just as vital to the team as Drew Brees is, and Brees cannot carry them alone. Although the team will have different interim head coaches, the offense will basically be run by Brees. Although he is great, I don’t know if that is a good thing. The Saints still have plenty of playmakers on offense to keep them in games, but can the defense hold up their end of the bargain? They were able replace the loss of Jonathan Vilma to suspension by signing Lofton away from Atlanta, but Greg Williams will no longer be there to add incentive. Without Williams’ strategy, smarts and funds, I expect the defense to take a step back. In this division, losing their best coaches will cost them a playoff spot.

4th- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers will be better under head coach Greg Schiano than they were with Raheem Morris, but not immediately. Nevertheless, expect quarterback Josh Freeman to bounce back from last year’s disaster. He’ll have better weapons with wide receiver Vincent Jackson and rookie running back Doug Martin. Expect Schiano to take the pressure off Freeman and utilize Martin, as he hopes he’ll be like Ray Rice was for him at Rutgers. On defense, the additions of cornerback Eric Wright and rookie safety Mark Barron will provide sorely needed upgrades to a secondary which got torched last season. If the front seven, can stay healthy, they’ll avoid getting run over as well. If players start going down like last season though, there is little quality depth. This team will be exciting to watch, but that does not always leads to wins.

NFC West

AP Photo/Joe Mahoney, File

1st- San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers came two Kyle Williams fumbles away from playing in the Super Bowl last season. Even though their schedule will be much more grueling than it was last season, expect them to come back with a vengeance. Williams returns for the 49ers, but behind much better options for quarterback Alex Smith. When the Giants exposed the 49ers weakness at receiver, they vowed to improve the position, and they did with the likes of first round pick A.J. Jenkins, Manningham and Randy Moss. Also, to avoid running back Frank Gore from wearing down like he did last season, he’ll have help from Kendall Hunter again, but also Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James. The team also returns all 11 starters on defense, bringing back a group which did not allow a rushing touchdown for the first 14 games. The 49ers are considered a Super Bowl contender due to their stingy defense, strong rushing attack and improved passing game, but the team has to find a way to convert on third down and red zone situations. Kicker David Akers had so many field goals last year because the 49ers could not punch it in. If they do, big things could happen.

2nd- Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks were a quarterback from contending for the playoffs last season. Therefore, the team signed Matt Flynn away from Green Bay. But then comes rookie Russell Wilson who steals the job away and could possibly take the NFC by storm. Wilson provides a spark the Seahawks offense has been lacking in recent years, and should be formidable with a solid Marshawn Lynch-led rushing attack. If Wilson’s receivers can step up, like Sydney Rice and Golden Tate, they could give San Francisco a run for their money. The defense is led by a great secondary, a quality needed in today’s NFL. They’ll also play against weak offenses this year like Arizona and St. Louis twice, Miami Minnesota and the New York Jets. They will need a better pass rush though, which is why they reached for defensive end Bruce Irvin of West Virginia in the draft. If Russell Wilson and the secondary can perform at a high level, no one will care about Pete Carroll’s recent draft reaches, as they’ll be in the playoffs.

3rd- Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals had a weak quarterback competition during training camp and the pre-season, and the one who survived the stalemate was John Skelton. As much as I personally would like to see the El Paso, Texas native do well, I don’t anticipate him being leaps and bounds better than Kevin Kolb could have been. Skelton will have big, strong targets in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, as well as running back Ryan Williams, who missed the entire season last year. But their offensive line is still shaky. They stole guard Adam Snyder away from San Francisco, but lost tackle Levi Brown to injury. The Cardinals have a solid defense, and I expect Patrick Peterson to get better and be more of a shut down corner.

4th- St. Louis Rams: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sam Bradford is overrated. The last quarterback drafted in the same class as Bradford, Zac Robinson, could have won rookie of the year when he did in that dink and dump system. This offense is the Steven Jackson show and Bradford is simply a beneficiary of it. There is still no proven wide receiver and the line is still one which allows several sacks. The defense is one which has made several improvements, with the likes of cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, and first round draft pick defensive tackle Michael Brockers. This group would have been even better had Greg Williams not gotten suspended for the bounty scandal. The defense will no longer be a pushover under Head coach Jeff Fisher, but still not a great one. Fisher has this team in a great position for the future as they have almost every Redskins draft pick in the next couple of years, but this season will be another struggle to stay relevant.

Final note: In the AFC, I have the playoff seedings as follows: (1) Patriots, (2) Texans, (3) Broncos, (4) Ravens, (5) Steelers, (6) Titans.

In the NFC: (1) Packers, (2) Giants, (3) 49ers, (4) Falcons, (5) Cowboys, (6) Seahawks.

In wild card weekend, I have the Broncos beating the Titans, the Steelers beating the Ravens, the 49ers beating the Seahawks and the Cowboys beating the Falcons. The following week the Patriots beating the Steelers, the Texans beating the Broncos, the Packers beating the Cowboys and the 49ers beating the Giants. In the conference championships, I’m going with the two number one seeds losing, with the Texans beating the Patriots and the 49ers beating the Packers.

Finally, in the Super Bowl, a first for both franchises: The Texans win their first Super Bowl, and the 49ers lose their first in a low scoring, defensive affair. Houston Texans 20, San Francisco 49ers 17.