VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – In this age of overlapping pro sports seasons, the MLB All-Star Game is more than just a sign the baseball campaign has reached its halfway point.
The Midsummer Classic is now also our annual heads-up that NFL training camps are just around the corner.
Optimism always abounds as teams enter these late-July grid workouts.
Every franchise is convinced that its offseason personnel moves — free agent signings, draft picks or a coaching change — have either made it a playoff contender or increased its already significant Super Bowl chances.
MAS offers this thumbnail sketch look at which NFL teams HAVE indeed improved — on paper, anyway (MAS always knows where the exit is) — and those that have not.
First, outfits who bettered their lot entering the 2013 campaign:
Kansas City — Andy Reid’s pass-first West Coast attack is perfect for the talented offensive personnel he inherits as the Chiefs’ new coach.
Electric Jamaal Charles should flourish — and avoid further injury — catching more aerials out of the backfield.
Buffalo — MAS likes first-round pick of rangy, strong-armed quarterback EJ Manuel — Bills’ post-Jim Kelly QB drought finally over.
The Bills are my dark horse AFC East contender.
St. Louis — Drafted speedy, slippery slot receiver Tavon Austin to help QB Sam Bradford bounce back.
Rams continue climb under second-year coach Jeff Fisher.
San Francisco — Added clutch receiver Anquan Boldin. The 49ers also hoping Boldin’s no-nonsense approach rubs off on their drama queen receivers.
Chicago — Marc Trestman — CFL offensive wizard — in as coach, replacing the defense-minded Lovie Smith.
New offensive system will better showcase enigmatic QB Jay Cutler’s talents — if Windy City weather allows.
Green Bay — Eddie Lacy (Alabama) and Johnathan Franklin (UCLA all-time rushing leader) fill Packer running back void that’s existed since Ahman Green last trod the frozen tundra.
Seattle — Pete Carroll’s lean, mean sea blue-n-chartreuse machine becomes more versatile offensively after trading for dynamic receiver Percy Harvin.
Denver — Adding cagey pass-catcher Wes Welker gives Peyton Manning a go-to guy. The Broncos failed, however, to have Manning checked for BFD (Brett Favre Disorder) which causes ill-advised and costly postseason throws.
New Orleans — The return of coach Sean Payton should prevent a repeat of last season’s debacle — but not bring drastic improvement.
Saints have a suspect D and are too Drew Brees-dependent on O.
Indianapolis — Oft-sacked QB Andrew Luck is given better protection through drafting of several bulky offensive lineman.
Tampa Bay — Traded top pick for premier cover corner Darrelle Revis. Still landed gifted passer Mike Glennon (North Carolina State) to push inconsistent QB Josh Freeman.
Philadelphia — New coach Chip Kelly brings his highly successful fast break offense with him from Oregon.
With resident talent on hand (Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy), it should also click in Philly.
Pittsburgh — MAS loves the pick of promising QB Landry Jones (Oklahoma) as a reliable backup when Ben Roethlisberger goes down with annual injury.
Cincinnati — Drafting of top-rated tight end Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) and game-breaking type runner Giovani Bernard gives Bengals more offensive flexibility.
Houston — In top pick, wideout DeAndre Hopkins, Texans FINALLY add a compliment to star receiver Andre Johnson.
Next, are clubs that have NOT improved; some could even hit the skids:
New York Jets — Offensive talent surrounding scapegoated QB Mark Sanchez keeps getting worse since he led Jets to two straight AFC title games.
We may find out if NYC grocers still offer paper bags.
Dallas — Owner Jerry Jones needs to fire his general manager (himself).
The Cowboys’ sexy draft picks and flashy free agents never mesh. And then all the blame is unfairly heaped on QB Tony Romo.
Baltimore — Can adequately replace retired linebacker Ray Lewis and jettisoned safety Ed Reed with rookies. But there’s NO replacing traded Anquan Boldin.
Atlanta — MAS doubts high-mileage free agent Steven Jackson is the answer at running back.
New York Giants — Replenishing aging offensive and defensive lines with nice draft picks means temporary setback leading to permanent gain.
Carolina — Will never contend until QB Cam Newton’s maturity matches his talent. Rookie breakaway runner Kenjon Barner (Oregon) may reduce Cam’s sulking.
New England — MAS dislikes its receiver exchange — faster and younger but injury-prone Danny Amendola in for Wes Welker, slower and a hair-weave recipient but very dependable.
Pats “in” trouble at tight end: injured Rob Gronkowski and incarcerated Aaron Hernandez.
Washington — Still paying and praying for Robert Griffin lll (traded 2013 first-rounder for him and now Tebowing RG3’s knee is OK).
Detroit — Lots of stars but also too many loose cannons (prime example: knucklehead Ndamukong Suh).
Adding multi-talented Reggie Bush won’t matter unless Lions exhibit self-control.
San Diego — Is Philip Rivers still an outstanding passer? The Chargers drafted speedy pass catcher Keenan Allen to help answer that question.
Miami — MAS the jurist still undecided on second-year QB Ryan Tannehill. Free agent deep threat Mike Wallace should lead to a thumbs up or down verdict.
And finally, teams who need a quarterback change before they can get better:
Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert has cool hair, though); Tennessee (better runners than passers like Jake Locker don’t cut it in the NFL); Minnesota (Christian Ponder can’t throw the deep ball accurately).
Oakland (one-game wonder Matt Flynn — record-setting Week 17 for Green Bay in 2011 — not the answer); Arizona (Carson Palmer hasn’t been the same since Cincy knee injury); Cleveland (stadium no longer “mistake on the lake”; Browns’ QB selections are).
Now, if the NFL had followed MLB’s All-Star Game lead and made its dreadful Pro Bowl more competitive, THAT would have been the biggest offseason improvement of all.
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