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Pre-camp signings

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

New Titan Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

The NFL free-agent market opened with a flurry, and in this post we’ll try to make sense of it all. We’ll discuss all the major signings between the resumption of play and the August 4 date on which veteran signees could begin practicing. 

Panthers (keep DE Charles Johnson, RB DeAngelo Williams, and OLBs Thomas Davis and James Anderson; add NT Ron Edwards, PK Olindo Mare, QB Derek Anderson, TE Ben Hartsock, LB Omar Gaither and Safeties Kevin Payne and Sean Considine) – We discussed Johnson in this post and Williams in this post. Davis is a major impact player who has fought major knee injuries the last few years. While he wasn’t technically a free agent, the team had agreed to either re-sign him or cut him. So Davis got a five-year deal. So did Anderson, who stepped into the starting lineup when Davis was out last year and played quite well. He got a five-year, $22 million contract with an $8.5 million signing bonus. Anderson’s emergence will let the Panthers move Jon Beason back to middle linebacker, and it will give Carolina a powerful LB corps. Edwards fills a major need for the Panthers, who had terrible defensive tackle play last year. That’s why they gave him a solid three-year, $8.25 million deal. Even though the Panthers run a 4-3, they traditionally put one of their tackles right over the center, so Edwards fits in as he moves over from a 3-4. The Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million deal with a $4 million signing bonus. Mare has been terrific the last three years inSeattleafter a mid-career lull, and he’s got a powerful leg on kickoffs. That gives him an edge over Panthers fan (and owner) favorite John Kasay, who’s remained good on field goals into his 40s but who can’t kick off reliably anymore. Anderson, who played for new Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, comes on board as the veteran quarterback who can start Week One if Cam Newton isn’t ready. Hartsock, an ex-Cardinal, got a two-year deal to replace Jeff King as a reliable blocking tight end. Payne, who sat out last year, was a decent starting safety in Chicago and should be worthy of a roster spot. He may have to beat out Considine, a decent safety and strong special-teamer, to win that spot. The Panthers also extended the contract of Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason. Gaither busted out as a starter in Philadelphia last year, but he’s pretty good insurance against another Thomas Davis injury at strong-side linebacker. Like Considine, Gaither played for new Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Philadelphia.

Eagles (add CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, QB Vince Young, OG Evan Mathis, RB Ronnie Brown, OT Ryan Harris, DTs Derek Landri and Anthony Hargrove, S Jarrad Page, TE Donald Lee, and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins) – We discussed the major Asomugha move in this post. Jenkins moves over from Green Bay for a five-year, $25 million deal to provide a pass-rush push inside. He was one of the best defensive linemen on the market, and the Eagles adding him is a big upgrade. Jenkins played in a 3-4 last year, but he’s played in a 4-3 as well, which speaks to his versatility. Babin, who was a first-round pick in Houston once upon a time, bounced around the league (including Philadelphia) before having a breakout season in Tennessee last year. His DL coach with the Titans, Jim Washburn, is now in Philadelphia, so it makes sense that Babin would follow him to the City of Brotherly Love. Babin got a five-year deal worth up to $28 million (but with just $6 million guaranteed) to help the Eagles ramp up their pass rush. Young, who was released by the Titans, gets a one-year deal to back up Michael Vick. Despite his off-field reputation, he’s a pretty good insurance policy for the Eagles, and they could revive his career. Mathis looks to be a backup in Philadelphia, but he’s been a pretty decent starter at guard in the past. That’s a nice addition for depth. Brown may be starting the downhill part of his career, but he provides nice insurance behind starting RB LeSean McCoy. Harris was a good starter at right tackle at times in Denver. He adds depth but could challenge holdover Winston Justice for a starting shot. Landri and Hargrove add depth at a thin position. Landri probably fits better as a spot player; Hargrove can provide some interior pass rush. Page adds depth at safety, which is a young position on the roster. Lee is a blocking tight end with experience in the West Coast offense. Higgins has good return skills but will have trouble cracking the Eagles’ deep WR rotation.

Jets (keep WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie, OT Wayne Hunter, PK Nick Folk, CB Donald Strickland, Safeties Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, and QB Mark Brunell; add WR Plaxico Burress and S DaJuan Morgan) – We discussed Holmes’ signing and how it establishes him as a No. 1 receiver in this post. Cromartie was the consolation prize after the Jets missed out on Nnamdi Asomugha. Cromartie isn’t the shut down corner that Asomugha or Darrelle Revis is, but he’s good enough to make it hard on opposing quarterbacks. Plus, he’s dangerous if he ever gets the ball in his hands. He got a four-year, $32 million deal. Hunter, who filled in for an injured Damien Woody at right tackle last year, got a four-year, $13 million deal to take Woody’s place permanently now that Woody has retired. Folk performed well in his first year as a Jet and got a one-year deal to return. Strickland, Pool, and Smith are solid players who fit in well in the team’s DB rotation. Smith and Pool fit in as starters; Strickland a nickel back. Morgan adds depth at the position. Burress got a one-year, $3 million contract to replace Braylon Edwards as a starter across from Holmes. It’s a bit of a gamble for the Jets to rely on Burress, who has missed the last two seasons because of his legal problems, but if he’s the same player he was with the Giants he’ll be a nice addition. Brunell came back after being cut.

Chargers (add ILB Takeo Spikes, OLB Travis LaBoy and WR Laurent Robinson; keep S Eric Weddle, OT Jeromy Clary, TE Randy McMichael, S Bob Sanders, OLB Antwan Barnes, NT Jacques Cesaire, and QB Billy Volek) – Spikes, who played for new Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in San Francisco, is a solid veteran who is still a reliable run-down tackler. He’ll be a good fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, even if his three-year, $9 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus is a little rich given his age. LaBoy is another vet who is a solid but unspectacular outside linebacker. He’s shown pass rush ability in the past, but not in recent years. Weddle was the Chargers’ biggest free agent, and they paid big money to keep him – a five-year, $40 million contract with a $13 million signing bonus and $19 million guaranteed that his agent claimed as the richest contract ever for a safety. Weddle may not be the best safety in the league, but he’s very good. His range at free safety is remarkable, and his presence allows the Chargers more flexibility in pass coverage. They simply couldn’t afford to lose him. Clary got a four-year deal to continue to play right tackle, even though his pass blocking has been suspect. McMichael provides insurance against Antonio Gates injury, while Sanders brings a veteran influence and hard hitting to the strong safety position if he can stay healthy. Barnes bounced around last year but finally found a home that matches his pass-rush skills in San Diego. Cesaire has started at nose tackle the last couple of years and played well. His return stabilizes the front line, because he does a nice job against the run. Volek is a solid veteran hand backing up Philip Rivers. The Chargers know he can be a solid short-term replacement if Rivers were to get injured. Robinson has been hurt a lot, but he’s big and fast. If healthy, he could help replace Malcom Floyd.

Redskins (keep WR Santana Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Philip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, and S Reed Doughty; add DT Barry Cofield, DE Stephen Bowen, CB Josh Wilson, WR Donte Stallworth, QB Kellen Clemens, and OL Chris Chester)We discussed Moss in this post. Cofield was one of the big prizes of the free agent market, and might have been the best defensive tackle available. But it’s odd for Cofield, who thrived in a 4-3 last year, sign to play in a 3-4 in Washington. Maybe he will provide the Redskins a lot of scheme flexibility, but there’s a strong chance he’ll end up being a square peg trying to fit a round hole. That’s not what you want in a guy you’re giving a six-year megacontract. Bowen, who got a five-year, $27.5 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus, is a perfect fit for the system. He’ll step in as a solid five-techinique defensive end, and he’ll really improve the front. With Bowen and Cofield, the Redskins have taken a nice step forward up front. Wilson is a much better fit. He had a nice year in Baltimore last year, and he should provide an upgrade over the departing Carlos Rogers across from DeAngelo Hall. Wilson signed for a reasonable deal as well – three years, $13.5 million with $6 million in guarantees. We discussed all of these defensive additions in this post. Stallworth, who signed a one-year deal, adds depth to a receiving corps that is young aside from Moss. He’s likely a No. 4 receiver at best, but he still does have downfield speed. Clemens never made much of an impact as a second-round pick with the Jets, but like John Beck at one point he was a hot prospect. Clemens likely fits in as a No. 3 QB. Chester, who has been starting at guard for the Ravens, comes over to address a big need on the interior of the Redskins line. He got a five-year contract worth up to $20 million. Brown got a five-year deal to return and play right tackle. He didn’t have his best year last year, but he’s talented enough to play left tackle or right. Buchanon adds depth at corner, but he will miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension. Golston is a decent backup lineman. Doughty adds depth at safety.

Seahawks (add WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OG Robert Gallery, DTs Alan Branch and Ryan Sims, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, and PK Jeff Reed, ; keep DT Brandon Mebane, CB Kelly Jennings, RB Michael Robinson, LB Leroy Hill and DT Junior Siavii) – Once Santonio Holmes re-signed with the Jets, Rice was the best receiver on the market, and Seattle stepped up to sign him to a five-year, $41 million deal with $18.5 million guaranteed. Rice fought injuries last year, but he showed in 2009 that he can be an elite downfield receiver because of his great size and ball skills. His presence will let Mike Williams settle in as a solid No. 2 receiver and shore up a trouble area. Miller, who was a fine receiving tight end in Oakland, wasn’t at a position of need, but his talent was strong enough that the Seahawks gave him a big deal (five years, $34 million, with $17 million guaranteed). He’s a big-time receiving threat. The question is who will get Rice and Miller the ball. The Seahawks couldn’t come to a deal with Matt Hasselbeck, and to replace him they brought in Jackson on a two-year, $8 million deal that basically puts him on equal footing with Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson fell far out of favor with the Vikings last year, but he played well down the stretch in 2008 before Brett Favre hit town. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was with the Vikings at that point, so he knows Jackson’s ability and potential. Still, Jackson will have to grow more consistent and protect the football if he is to knock off Whitehurst and seize the starting job. Gallery was a bust as a tackle, but he’s played well as a guard. Former Raiders head coach Tom Cable is now in Seattle, so he must trust that Gallery can add veteran experience to an offensive line that’s young at tackle with Russell Okung and James Carpenter. Branch was a disappointment in Arizona, but he is huge and moves well, so the Seahawks will try to unlock his potential. Branch got a two-year, $8 million deal with $4 million guaranteed. Mebane was a huge retention for the Seahawks. He was one of the top defensive tackles on the market and had several suitors. Now he returns to create havoc up front. Having a wide body like Branch alongside could allow Mebane to penetrate even more. Robinson is a backup running back who is a decent receiver as well.  Hill had played well for the Seahawks in the past, but off-field issues have limited his impact in recent years. Still, he has talent. Siavii adds depth inside. Sims and Wilkerson provide depth. Reed replaces the departed Olindo Mare. Jennings is a good but not great corner who’s probably better suited to play in a nickel set than as a starter.

Titans (add QB Matt Hasselbeck, LB Barrett Ruud, DT Shaun Smith and TE Daniel Graham; keep OG Leroy Harris, FB Ahmard Hall, and DEs Jacob Ford and Dave Ball) – The Titans stole Hasselbeck away from the Seahawks with a multiyear deal. The move will allow the team to develop rookie Jake Locker slowly, and and it will also help the Titans compete in the short term. Hasselbeck should have the personality to mentor Locker, but he’ll have to play better than he has the past 2-3 years if he is to really make the Titans contenders. Still, the team needed a veteran QB, and Hasselbeck was the best available. Smith has a reputation of crossing the line, but he played well for the Chiefs last year. He’s capable of starting and holding his own. Ruud, who was a tackle machine in Philadelphia, isn’t the thumper that departing MLB Stephen Tulloch is, but Ruud brings more athleticism to the position. The Titans will be able to play a little differently with him in town. Harris got a two-year deal to return as a starting guard, but he needs to continue to develop into that role. Graham is a solid blocking tight end with some receiving skills who will help to replace Bo Scaife. Hall is a solid blocking back who had options elsewhere but returned. Ball and Ford are not world-beaters, but they’re at least rotation-quality defensive ends who can hold up on run downs. Neither is going to create a ton of pass rush, though.

Texans (add CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning FB Lawrence Vickers, and P Brad Maynard; keep WR Jacoby Jones, OT Rashad Butler, QB Matt Leinart, and DT Damione Lewis) – The Texans have a lot of talent, but secondary play was their tragic flaw last year. They addressed it with two big signings. Joseph, regarded as the second-best corner on the market, got a monster five-year, $48.75 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus to be the lead corner. He played really well in Cincinnati, and he’ll be a huge upgrade. Manning, a versatile player who struggled to find just the right fit in Chicago, comes in to play free safety. He has immense talent if the Texans can figure out where to play him. Manning got a four-year, $20 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. Jones got a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million in guarantees in the hopes that he’s ready to fulfill his vast potential and emerge as a starter opposite Andre Johnson. The skills are there; the question is whether Jones can unlock them. Butler started four games at tackle as a fill-in last year. Leinart got a two-year, $5.5 million deal with $3.75 million guaranteed, which means the Texans expect him to compete with Dan Orlovsky for the backup spot behind Matt Schaub. Lewis got a one-year deal to play in Houston’s new 3-4; he played in a similar scheme in New England. Vickers, an ex-Brown, replaces Vonta Leach as a blocking fullback. Vickers isn’t as good as Leach, but he’s pretty good. Maynard started to fall off last year, but the vet may find punting easier in warm Houston than it was in cold Chicago.

Ravens (keep OG-OT Marshal Yanda, CB Chris Carr and LB Prescott Burgess; add FB Vonta Leach and S Bernard Pollard) – Yanda, who for years was a solid guard for the Ravens, moved out to right tackle last year and continued to play well. His strong play led to a strong market for his services, but the Ravens stepped up to keep Yanda with a five-year, $32 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus. Yanda is dependable, and his versatility will help him continue to make an impact through the length of the deal. That should make this a good deal for the Ravens. Burgess fits in as a backup outside linebacker. Carr is a solid nickelback who got a four-year deal to return. That’s important, especially after the Ravens lost two secondary starters – Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson – via free agency. Leach got a three-year, $11 million deal to replace LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee in the fullback role. Leach isn’t a great runner, but he’s a terrific blocker and will help Ray Rice tremendously in that role. Pollard is a great in-the-box safety who isn’t great in coverage. His skills mirror Dawan Landry, so he’s a decent replacement despite being older.

Rams (add S Quintin Mikell, OG Harvey Dahl, WR Mike Sims-Walker, DTs Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, CB Al Harris, LBs Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga, and RBs Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams) – The Rams had to cut FS O.J. Atogwe back before the lockout because of a huge escalator, and that was a huge loss. To replace him, they broke the bank for Mikell, an eight-year vet who has emerged as a top safety the last year or two. Mikell got a four-year deal worth $27 million with $14 million guaranteed, so he’ll need to continue to play at an elite level to be worth the price. But his presence will help the Rams defense continue to grow. Dahl is a good guard in large part because of his physical, borderline-dirty style of play. He’ll add an edge up front for a Rams line that features young OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold and C Jason Brown. They could become one of the best front fives in the league now that Dahl’s in town on a four-year deal. Sims-Walker is a big receiver who’s more talented than any on the Rams’ roster. Since Mark Clayton isn’t yet healthy enough to play, MSW could be the Rams’ No. 1 option. Bannan, who got a three-year deal, is a versatile lineman who got cut after a scheme change in Denver. He can be a decent backup inside or outside. Muir, who got a one-year, $1.85 million deal, is in the same boat. Both add good depth. Harris got a one-year deal to see if he can resuscitate his career. He adds veteran wiles at least. Diles is an athletic weak-side linebacker. Poppinga can play outside as well. Norwood and Williams add depth at a position that was razor thin behind Steven Jackson last year. Both are great on third-down; the question is whether one or both can stay healthy.

Jaguars (add MLB Paul Posluzny, OLB Clint Session, S Dawan Landry, CB Drew Coleman, and OG Jason Spitz) – The Jaguars made their splash by signing two linebackers to fix a trouble spot. Posluszny, an ex-Bill, got a six-year, $45 million contract that includes $15 million in guarantees. Posluszny is an athletic player who fits best in a 4-3 like the Jaguars run, not in the Bills’ 3-4. He’s a reliable tackler who also has the athletic ability to get deep in coverage, and he fills an area that was a problem for Jacksonville last year. The price was high, but the fit seems right for the Jaguars. Session, an ex-Colt, got a five-year deal worth $30 million with $11.5 million in guarantees to play on the weak side. He’ll add even more ranginess to the group. After building the defensive line through the draft the last few years, the Jaguars hope Posluszny, Session, and holdover Daryl Smith are ready to make the front seven formidable. Landry got a five-year deal to address safety, which was another big trouble area. Landry’s better in run support than coverage, but he’s a lot better than what Jacksonville had at the position. Coleman, who got a three-year, $7.4 million deal, is better playing in the slot than outside, but he will help a trouble area. We discussed all of these Jaguars defensive moves in this post. Spitz will get a chance to start a left guard.

Colts (keep QB Peyton Manning, PK Adam Vinatieri, S Melvin Bullitt and RB Joseph Addai; add QBs Dan Orlovsky and Nate Davis, LB Ernie Sims, DE Jamaal Anderson, and DT Tommie Harris) – Manning, who was the franchise free agent for the Colts, had some tense moments of negotiation but eventually re-signed for a massive five-year, $90 million deal. He tried to take a little less money to make room for the Colts to re-sign some key players such as Addai, who is still the best back the Colts have despite his age and fragility. Vinatieri got a three-year deal to remain as the Colts’ dependable clutch kicker. Bullitt, who missed most of last season, also got a three-year deal. He’ll be in the mix to start at safety. After Orlovsky was cut by Houston, he quickly got a new gig in Indy. He’ll be an upgrade at backup quarterback. Davis, a bust as a 49ers draft pick, gets a two-year deal in Indy to compete with Curtis Painter for the No. 3 job. We discussed the Colts’ additions of three former first-rounders – Harris, Sims, and Anderson – in this post.

Falcons (add DE Ray Edwards; keep OT Tyson Clabo, OG Justin Blalock, and OLBs Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson) – Edwards, the second-best defensive end on the market behind Charles Johnson, got a solid but not earth-shattering deal to come to Atlanta – five years, $30 million with $11 million guaranteed. He’ll add pass rush and allow the Falcons to use John Abraham more strategically. That kind of pass rusher was one of the biggest needs for the Falcons, and Edwards was one of the best available. That’s a win for the Dirty Birds. Atlanta fought off a major challenge from the Bills to keep Clabo, who provides physical play at right tackle. The Falcons, who had three OL starters hitting free agency, gave Clabo a five-year, $25 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed to stay. Blalock got a six-year, $38 million deal to return at left guard. Clabo and Blalock will stabilize a run game and give the Falcons more flexibility with their other guard spot. Nicholas has emerged as a quality outside ‘backer for a Falcons defense that is strong at that left. He got a five-year, $17.5 million contract that includes $7 million in guarantees to stay and help the Dirty Birds get over the hump. Peterson, who plays at the other outside linebacker spot, returns as well. He’s got a ton of experience and still drops into coverage pretty well.

Cowboys (keep OT Doug Free, DEs Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, OL Kyle Kosier, and S Gerald Sensabugh; add DE Kenyon Coleman and S Abram Elam) – The Cowboys had to cut a bunch of salary just to get under the salary cap, but they kept cutting to make sure they could keep Free, who emerged as a starting left tackle last year. Dallas fought off Tampa Bay by signing Free to a four-year, $32 million contract with $17 million in guarantees. If Free develops into an above-average left tackle, he’ll be worth that deal, and he’s young enough to do so. That makes this a wise investment for Jerry Jones. Kosier is a versatile player who can start inside. He got a three-year, $9 million deal. Spears got a five-year, $19.2 million deal to stay and play defensive end. He became a priority when Stephen Bowen went to the division rival Redskins. Hatcher got a $2.5 million signing bonus on a three-year, $6 million deal to help out in the defensive end rotation as well. To add depth after Bowen’s departure, the Cowboys brought in Coleman, a veteran who played for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Cleveland. Elam is another Cleveland import. He’ll team with Sensabaugh, who played well in Dallas last year, to improve Dallas’ safety situation. Both Sensabaugh and Elam got one-year, $2.5 million contracts.

Steelers (keep CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay, OT Willie Colon, OG Jonathan Scott, NT Chris Hoke, RB Melwede Moore, PK Shaun Suisham and P Daniel Sepulveda; add TE John Gilmore) – Taylor, regarded as one of the best corners on the market, stays in Pittsburgh on a four-year deal. His physical style fits the Steelers’ system well, and the system keeps him from being exposed in coverage. He wouldn’t fit any other scheme as well. Gay isn’t as good as Taylor, but he’s been a decent starter for the Steelers. Suisham stepped in for Jeff Reed last season and did a nice job for the Steelers. Colon has battled injuries the last two years, but he has played well when healthy at left tackle. Pittsburgh’s counting on him to man the position at a high level, because they cut Flozell Adams and Max Starks as they gave Colon a five-year, $29 million deal. Scott adds solid depth at several positions. Sepulveda returns to punt for Pittsburgh once again. He’s been effective when healthy. Hoke and Moore are key players at their positions. Gilmore helps to replace departed backup TE Matt Spaeth.

Chiefs (add WR Steve Breaston, NT Kelly Gregg, ILB Brandon Siler and RB LeRon McClain; keep DE Tamba Hali, C Casey Wiegmann, WR Terrance Copper, S Jon McGraw, and CB Travis Daniels) – Breaston showed promise in Arizona, especially when now Chiefs head coach Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator there. He comes in to provide a complement to Dwayne Bowe as first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin develops. Breaston got a five-year deal that includes $9 million in guaranteed money. Gregg, who played for the Ravens, has been a solid plugger up front who frees the players around him to make plays. He’s a nice replacement for the departed Ron Edwards and could be an upgrade if he can maintain his past performance. Siler is a solid inside linebacker who will help against the run. McClain can play tailback but probably fits in better as a versatile fullback. Hali, the Chiefs’ preeminent pass rusher and franchise player, got a long-term deal – 5 years, $60 million with $35 million guaranteed. It’s a high price, but Hali has earned it. Wiegmann, who has played more than 10,000 consecutive snaps since 2001, got a one-year, $2.25 million contract to remain K.C.’s starting center. Copper, McGraw (who got a one-year deal), and Daniels all add experienced depth, which is key after a no-minicamp offseason.

Bengals (add DE Manny Lawson, QB Bruce Gradkowski, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nate Clements, and OG Max-Jean Gilles; keep RBs Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard and S Gibril Wilson) – Lawson is a talented pass rusher who doesn’t have many sacks but still makes an impact. He could spring to life replacing Antwan Odom. He’s certainly worth a one-year, $3 million deal. Gradkowski, who had some success as a starter in Oakland, comes to Cincinnati to be the placeholder until rookie Andy Dalton is ready. Gradkowski played for Jon Gruden in Tampa, so he’ll be comfortable in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s system. He was the right fit to be the Bengals’ Week 1 starter. Howard got a two-year, $6.5 million deal to move over from Oakland and step into the starting lineup. Clements, who never lived up to his massive contract in San Francisco, returns to Ohio (where he played college football) to replace Johnathan Joseph in the starting lineup. Gilles is a massive player who can play either guard spot or even fill in at tackle. He got a one-year, $1.15 million deal. Benson has had off-field problems, but he’s been a decent back for the Bengals. The question is whether his career is on the decline given his age. Leonard, who got a two-year deal, is a versatile back who can run, catch, and block. He’s a key contributor to the Bengals’ offense. Wilson was a starting safety last year. He’s OK but not great.

49ers (keep QB Alex Smith, DE Ray McDonald, and C Tony Wragge; add C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, S Madieu Williams, PK David Akers and OLB Antwan Applewhite) – In one of the worst kept secrets of the lockout, Smith got a one-year, $5 million deal to be the 2011 starter and placeholder for Colin Kaepernick. McDonald got a much bigger deal to provide sturdy play up front – five years, $20 million with $7 million guaranteed. McDonald pushes the pocket more than most think. Wragge, who got a one-year deal, provides depth at center after the loss of David Baas to the Giants. But Goodwin, who came over from the Saints for a three-year, $10.9 million deal with $4 million in guarantees, should become the starter at the pivot. Rogers, an ex-Redskin, takes over for Nate Clements. Rogers has hands of stone, but he’s pretty good in coverage and may be an upgrade over Clements. Williams fills in at safety, which is a position full of question marks right now. Akers, a long-time Eagle, comes to town to replace injured kicker Joe Nedney, who was cut. Akers has a ton of experience if he can keep his skills intact. Applewhite moves over from San Diego to add depth at an outside linebacker spot that’s been hit hard by free agency.

Buccaneers (keep OLB Quincy Black, OG Davin Joseph, and OT Jeremy Trueblood; add P Michael Koenen) – Black, who is the best playmaker among the Bucs’ linebackers, got a big-time deal to stay – five years, $29 million, with $11.5 million guaranteed. He’s playing the weak-side spot that Derrick Brooks made so many plays in for so many years. Joseph is a talented guard who struggled a bit last year but had a Pro Bowl season in 2009. He got a big deal – 7 years, $52.5 million with $19 million guaranteed – to continue to anchor the Bucs’ line. Trueblood is a marginal starter at right tackle, but he still got a two-year deal to ensure continuity on the line. Koenen comes over from Atlanta on a major deal – six years, $19.5 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – to replace Adam Podlesh. Koenen’s also great on kickoffs.

Giants (add C-OG David Baas, P Steve Weatherford, QB David Carr, TE Ben Patrick, and DT Gabe Watson; keep RB Ahmad Bradshaw, OT Shawn Andrews, OG-OT Kevin Boothe, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, and WR Michael Clayton) – After purging three starting offensive linemen, the Giants started the rebuilding process with Baas, who proved with San Francisco that he can be an effective starter at center as well as guard. Boothe got a two-year deal to provide depth at tackle, and he may get a chance to start at left guard. Kiwanuka is a versatile player who has contributed both at defensive end and at strong-side linebacker. With Osi Umenyiora threatening a holdout, the Giants couldn’t afford to let Kiwanuka leave. Weatherford, an ex-Jet, is an upgrade over last year’s punter for the Giants. Plus, he has experience kicking in the Meadowlands. Bradshaw tested the market but stayed in Big Blue with a four-year, $18 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. He’s the best back the Giants have. Patrick is a solid blocker but not much of a receiver. Watson and Clayton were high picks who disappointed elsewhere but still have talent. Andrews, who had been cut, returns and could start again. Carr returns as Eli Manning’s backup after a year in San Francisco.

Saints (add RB Darren Sproles, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Fabian Washington, and OTs Alex Barron and George Foster; keep WR Lance Moore, OTs Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, LBs Scott Shanle and Danny Clark, Safeties Roman Harper and Chris Reis, and CB Leigh Torrence, add LB Will Herring) – After trading Reggie Bush, the Saints signed Sproles, who proved in San Diego that he can be a game changer as a returner, runner and receiver if used correctly. The Saints’ RB depth should let them feature the diminutive Sproles without wearing him out. If they can do that, the four-year, $14 million deal with $6 million guaranteed will look like a bargain. Franklin came to town on a one-year deal that significantly upgrades the Saints’ front line. (We’ll analyze that addition further soon.) Harper got a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed to return as the starting strong safety. He’s been a very solid player for New Orleans. Moore, an ideal slot receiver, got a five-year deal to stay in New Orleans. He can be a real X-factor for the offense, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him. Bushrod has started at left tackle for the last two years for the Saints and has held up OK. He had other options in free -agency but wanted to return to New Orleans on a two-year deal. Torrence is a backup corner and special-teams ace, as is Reis, a backup safety. Herring, an ex-Seahawk, adds depth at linebacker, in addition to solid contributors Shanle (two years, $4 million) and Clark. Washington adds depth to help replace the departed Usama Young. Strief is a solid swing tackle, but he’ll have to beat out former first-round picks Barron and Foster to keep his job. Barron and Foster have been disappointments elsewhere.

Bills (keep CB Drayton Florence; add S Brad Smith, LB Nick Barnett, and QB Tyler Thigpen) – Florence played well for the Bills last year, his first in Buffalo. His reward is a three-year, $15 million deal. Thigpen started for the Chiefs in 2008, but his skills fit a Pistol offense that few teams use. Bills head coach Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator during Thigpen’s best NFL season, so he will be able to make the most of the QB’s skills if Ryan Fitzpatrick gets hurt or falters. This is a good match of player and coach for a backup quarterback. Smith, an ex-Jet, got a four-year, $15 million contract. He can make an impact as a slot receiver, option quarterback, and kick returner, which creates a lot of options for the Bills. Let’s just hope having Smith run the Pistol isn’t one of them. Barnett, who was cut by the Packers, will help replace Paul Posluszny. Barnett, who’s more physical than Posluszny, should fit the 3-4 defense better than the former Bill did. Barnett got a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.

Vikings (keep PK Ryan Longwell and OT Ryan Cook; add WRs Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, DL Remi Ayodele, and OT Charlie Johnson)- Longwell has been a reliable kicker for the Vikings, so they anted up to keep him with a four-year, $12 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Jenkins, who got a three-year deal, never lived up to his status as a first-round pick in Atlanta, but he has great size and speed and is a willing blocker. He won’t replace Sidney Rice, but he’s going to get a chance to. At the least, his presence will allow the Vikings to continue to play Percy Harvin in the slot. Aromashodu showed some promise with the Bears, but he fell out of favor last season and was not tendered a free-agent contract. Still, his ability and size makes him worth a shot for the Vikings, especially since their biggest target, Sidney Rice, left in free agency. Ayodele did a nice job as a rotation player for the Saints. He’ll provide depth behind the Williams wall and help to fill in during their suspensions. Johnson and Cook add depth at offensive tackle, and Johnson may start after Bryant McKinnie’s release.

Cardinals (add OGs Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack, LB Stewart Bradley, WR Chansi Stuckey, CB Richard Marshall, and TE s Todd Heap and Jeff King) – Colledge, who was a starter for the Packers, moves over to provide help at a big trouble spot. He’ll also take over some of the veteran leadership role that the retired Alan Faneca had last year. Womack, an ex-Brown, is versatile enough to fill in at guard or tackle. He’s an ideal sixth lineman. Bradley is a big, physical inside linebacker who has seen his skill sapped by injuries the last two years. Still, he’s worth a look to see if he can return to form. Stuckey adds depth at receiver after the departure of Steve Breaston. Marshall’s 2010 season wasn’t good, but in previous years he was a good starter for the Panthers. He will get a chance to start in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and on a one-year deal he’s a nice addition. Heap, a longtime Raven, got a two-year deal to return to Arizona, where he played his college ball. Heap will add an element that hasn’t been in the Cardinals passing game in past years. King, a solid blocker who also has good receiving skills, becomes the tight end complement for Heap and rookie Robert Housler in Arizona. King got a one-year deal.

Browns (add S Usama Young, RB Brandon Jackson and CB Dmitri Patterson; keep PK Phil Dawson,  TE Evan Moore and DE Jayme Mitchell) – Dawson, a reliable kicker who was the Browns’ franchise player, signed for the guaranteed one-year tender of about $3 million. Young, an ex-Saint, can play corner but likely fits in as a starting free safety with the Browns. He brings ability and locker-room leadership to the mix. Patterson, an ex-Eagle, was exposed as a starter last year, but he’s good enough to be a nickel back, and he fills a need position. Moore emerged as a good pass-catching tight end last year and could earn a bigger role. Jackson got a two-year, $4.5 million contract. He fits in as a good third-down back for the West Coast offense, although he showed last year he’s not a starting caliber back. Mitchell didn’t play much after coming over via trade last year, but the Browns see him as a starting tight end in their new 4-3 defense. He got a two-year deal.

Packers (keep PK Mason Crosby, WR James Jones and FB John Kuhn) – The Packers re-signed Crosby, who has been a solid kicker even in bad winter weather, to a five-year deal. Jones was looking to move up the depth chart by moving in free agency, but he didn’t find a deal to his liking. His return means the Pack remains incredibly deep at receiver. Kuhn is a blocking full back who can catch and can run in short yardage. He fits the Packers better than any other team, and so re-signing makes sense.

Raiders (keep OLB Kamerion Wimbley, S Michael Huff, OT Khalif Barnes, C Samson Satele, OG Justin Smiley, OLB Jarvis Moss and LS Jon Condo; add QB Trent Edwards and OT Stephon Heyer) – Wimbley, the Raiders’ franchise player, had his best season since his rookie year last year, but that doesn’t mean his massive five-year, $48 million contract with a whopping $29 million guaranteed is a good deal. That deal was necessary so that the Raiders didn’t take the full brunt of the franchise tag this year. Huff had a breakout year at safety last year, but he didn’t find big money on the open market. The Raiders happily took him back. Barnes got a one-year deal to return as a starter at tackle while youngsters at the position develop. Moss, whom the Raiders picked up off the scrap heap last year, was a first-round bust in Denver, but he has enough pass-rush ability to be a solid backup at a one-year, $1.25 million price. Condo is a dependable long-snapper for the Raiders’ elite specialists, so he’s worth keeping around. Edwards comes to town as Jason Campbell’s new backup. Satele, Smiley, and Heyer (who got a one-year, $1.7 million deal) add depth at offensive line, and a couple of the trio could end up starting.

Dolphins (keep DE Tony McDaniel; add ILB Kevin Burnett, OLBs Jason Trusnik and Jason Taylor, QB Matt Moore, DT Ronald Fields and OT Marc Colombo) – With trade negotiations for Kyle Orton falling apart, the Dolphins added Moore, who was a bust as a starter in Carolina last year but who might be good enough to keep Chad Henne on his toes. Moore’s no Orton, but he should be an average backup. McDaniel got a two-year deal to remain as a backup defensive lineman. Trusnik, most recently with Cleveland, is a solid outside linebacker and special-teams player who provides quality depth behind Koa Misi and Cameron Wake. Trusnik got a two-year deal as well. Taylor does as well, returning to the team he has spent most of his career with for the third time. Taylor can still make a play or two as a featured pass rusher. Burnett got a big deal – five years with $10 million in guarantees – to replace Channing Crowder at inside linebacker. Burnett’s more athletic (and less annoying) than Crowder. Fields is an inside plugger who can back up Paul Soliai. Colombo has ties to Tony Sparano from the Dallas days, and it appears the Dolphins are moving Vernon Carey inside so that Colombo can start at right tackle. But Colombo didn’t really hold up at the position last year, so that plan seems risky.

Bears (add P Adam Podlesh, TE Matt Spaeth, WRs Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, RB Marion Barber, DE Vernon Gholston, DT Amobi Okoye, and C Chris Spencer; keep DT Anthony Adams and LB Nick Roach) – After cutting stalwart Brad Maynard, the Bears brought Podlesh over from Jacksonville on a five-year deal worth more than $10 million. The Bears traditionally have among the best special teams in the league, so adding Podlesh’s stronger leg to the mix will make a difference. Spaeth, an ex-Steeler, replaces blocking TE Brandon Manumaleuna. He’s not as bulky but is a better receiver out of short-yardage sets. Williams was a bust in Dallas, but he had his best season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in Detroit. He’s a worthwhile gamble, especially since the Bears don’t have a receiver with his kind of size. Hurd is a nice depth signing at wide receiver; he’d be a quality fourth option at the position. Adams got a two-year deal to return as a solid tackle who can play over the center. He’s solid and allows the guys around him to make plays. Barber got a two-year, $5 million deal to add some physicality to the running game. The question is whether injuries limited him in Dallas, or whether his career is winding down. Gholston and Okoye, both disappointments as first-round picks, are rebuilding projects for Rod Marinelli, considered one of the best defensive line coaches around. Both got one-year deals, and if Marinelli turns them into forces, it will be a huge win. Roach got a two-year, $4.5 million deal to return as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. After failing to come to a deal with long-time center Olin Kreutz, the Bears added Spencer on a two-year deal. The former first-round pick was never great in Seattle, and his style is more finesse than physical. But O-line coach Mike Tice is one of the best in the league, so he might be able to get a little more out of Spencer’s talent.

Lions (add CB Eric Wright, LBs Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, and WR Rashied Davis; keep QB Drew Stanton, CBs Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, OL Dylan Gandy, LB Bobby Carpenter, and PK Dave Rayner) – Wright has played pretty well in Cleveland, and he got a one-year deal to address a huge need area for the Lions. Wright’s at least good to be a top three corner. Houston returns as a starter. He was Detroit’s best corner last year, and he’s good enough to be a solid starter. Detroit couldn’t afford to lose him. Durant, an ex-Jaguar, got a two-year deal to upgrade the linebacking corps that was such a problem last year. Tulloch will be an even bigger upgrade; he was hoping to hit it big in free agency but took a one-year, $3.25 million deal to reunite with Jim Schwartz. The Lions will be glad he did, because he’s a big-time thumper at middle linebacker. Davis, an ex-Bear, is a fine special-teams cover player who can contribute at wideout in a pinch. Stanton, a former second-round pick, played well in relief last year and provides a solid backup option. McDonald played in six games, starting two, as a backup corner last year. Rayner filled in for long-time kicker Jason Hanson after Hanson got hurt; now Rayner has a chance to steal away Hanson’s job. Gandy got a two-year deal. Carpenter returns to add LB depth.

Broncos (add RB Willis McGahee, WR David Anderson, TEs Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario, and DT Ty Warren) – McGahee, who had been released by the Ravens, got a four-year, $9.5 million deal to come in as Knowshon Moreno’s backup. It’s a ridiculous deal for an older running back who hasn’t shown much pop in recent years, and the fact that it takes away from Moreno’s carries makes it even worse. Anderson, who was released by the Texans, adds depth at wide receiver. Fells (an ex-Ram) and Rosario (an ex-Panther) have shown pass-catching potential, but neither has been consistent. Still, they should help the passing game. Warren, whom the Patriots cut after he failed a physical, got a two-year, $10 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed to help the Broncos move to a 4-3. Warren and trade acquisition Brodrick Bunkley now form the center of that defense. Warren has been great at points in his career, but he must prove he is now healthy enough to still play well. Still, he’s a nice and necessary addition for Denver.

Patriots (keep OT Matt Light, RB Sammy Morris and RB Kevin Faulk) – Light returns to play left tackle, but now he’s a place holder until Nate Solder is ready. Still, he provides good insurance for the Pats on Tom Brady’s blind side. Morris, a versatile back who takes snaps at tailback and fullback, re-signed on a one-year deal. Faulk, who missed much of last season due to injury, returns as the Patriots’ do-everything back. But with the emergence of young backs, Faulk could face an uphill battle for a roster spot.

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The final cuts

Yesterday, we prepared for the coming NFL lockout (or, as reports today suggest, extended negotiating window) by looking at the last signings before the league year ended. Now we’re going to look at the final cuts teams have made before the deadline.

The Bears cut DT Tommie Harris. Image via bearsgab.com

Bears cut DT Tommie Harris, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, and OT Kevin Shaffer - Harris, once the league’s preeminent 4-3 under tackle, has been sapped by injuries and is no longer an impact player. So instead of paying $3 million in offseason bonuses to keep him, the Bears let the former All-Pro go. Harris showed he still had life in his legs with a strong playoff performance against the Seahawks, but at this point he needs to be a featured role player, not a regular starter, so that his legs last longer. Hillenmeyer, a versatile backup and special teams player who had his moments as a starter, is fighting concussions and may not be able to play again. Shaffer, a veteran who served as a third tackle last year, couldn’t hold up as a starter and therefore wasn’t worth the freight.

Redskins cut RB Clinton Portis, OG Derrick Dockery, OLB Andre Carter, and DT Ma’ake Kemeoatu – Portis is going the way of old running backs, and as his performance declines his outsized personality becomes more of a locker-room stumbling block. Dockery, brought back to play guard last year, is a replacement-level player who was making too much money. Carter had a good 2009 season, but he didn’t fit the Redskins’ 3-4 defense in 2010. He could find a nice home as a pass-rushing specialist for a 4-3 team. Kemeoatu’s rebound from an Achilles injury in 2009 didn’t go well, making him too expensive for his performance.

Jets cut NT Kris Jenkins, OT Damien Woody, OLB Vernon Gholston, OLB Jason Taylor, and TE Ben Hartsock - The Jets cleared cap room by letting four vets and one major draft bust go. Jenkins has missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, which means he’ll have to plug in somewhere at a much lower price tag. Woody, the starting right tackle, is also trying to come back from injury. Taylor made a few plays but wasn’t a huge impact player, and retirement is lurking for him. Gholston, on the other hand, missed out on a $9 million contract escalator because he failed to record a sack or forced fumble in his first three years. The former top-6 pick has done nothing to validate his draft stock, and anyone that brings him in would be just taking a flyer on the former Jet.

Broncos cut DE Justin Bannan, NT Jamal Williams, TE Daniel Graham – Bannan and Williams, both signed last year, got $14 million in guarantees to step in and start in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense. But now, with John Fox replacing Josh McDaniels and the 4-3 defense coming in, they became extraneous pieces. They’re just more examples of McDaniels’ epically poor performance as a pro personnel evaluator. Graham, a Mike Shanahan signing, would have made more than $4 million next season, so the Broncos decided on the less costly route. He’s still an elite blocking tight end, and that will get him a job elsewhere, although not at the same price.

Lions cut LB Julian Peterson and RB Kevin Smith - Peterson was once the best all-around linebacker in the game, but as he left his prime he became less of a factor for the Lions. Now that he’s 11 years into his career, it’s fair to assume that Peterson’s best days are past. Maybe he can become a specialist and plug in with a contender somewhere, but his jack of all trades days are done. Smith had a nice first couple of years with the Lions, but he has been set back so much by a 2009 ACL injury that he lost the ability to contribute. Now, after falling behind Jahvid Best and Maurice Morris on the depth chart, he’s been released. If he can show he’s healthy, he could be a decent fill-in somewhere, but that seems like a long shot at this point.

Packers cut TE Donald Lee, S Derrick Martin – Lee has put in some good years with the Pack, but the emergence of JerMichael Finley and the play of Andrew Quarless give the Packers better, cheaper options.

Seahawks cut TE Chris Baker - Baker has had some moments as a receiving tight end, but his chance to back up John Carlson was taken by youngster Cameron Morrah this year.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.

10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run. 

10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.

9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.

9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.

8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.

8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.

7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.

7 (con’t) – Houston Texans - The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.

7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets - The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.

7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.

6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.

6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.

5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.

5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.

4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.

4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.

4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.

4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.

3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack.  Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.

3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.

3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.

2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.

1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the  Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.

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Outlandish Prediction: The jet pack team of 2010

Chad Henne of the Miami Dolphins against the N...

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On Friday, we went out on a limb and predicted the parachute team of 2010 that will fall out of the NFL playoff picture. Now, it’s time for some positivity as we predict the jet pack team that will move into the playoffs. And that team that’s movin’ on up is the Miami Dolphins.

Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

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Who’s rebuilding, who’s reloading? AFC edition

As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the AFC edition; the NFC edition is available here.

AFC East

Buffalo is reloading – This isn’t the wisest approach, because the Bills didn’t have enough premium talent and haven’t been contenders. But instead of churning the roster in search of better players in the first year of Chan Gailey’s tenure as head coach, the Bills have largely stuck to the status quo this offseason. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm are still the quarterback options, and the Bills haven’t rebuilt an offensive line that struggled last year. The main additions – DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis – were designed to help the Bills move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. And the first round of the draft yielded a specialty player in C.J. Spiller whose best role is as a featured gamebreaker, not an every-down back. The Bills seem to be in denial about how lacking in talent they truly are, especially on offense. Verdict: Wrong approach

Miami is reloading – The Dolphins are closer to the surface than the Bills are, and so their decision to reload makes more sense. Trading for WR Brandon Marshall and signing OLB Karlos Dansby are the kinds of big strikes that teams close to the playoffs make to try to get over the top. The Marshall acquisition makes sense, since Chad Henne shows a ton of promise at quarterback and the offensive line is good enough to provide time for Henne-to-Marshall to become an elite combo. Dansby doesn’t make up for the loss of veteran pass rushers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but he is a playmaker who perfectly fits the Bill Parcells prototype. It’s hard to say whether these moves will put the Dolphins over the top, but we are comfortable asserting that the arrow is pointed in the right direction. Verdict: Right approach

New England is rebuilding – There’s a stigma to the word rebuilding, because often teams use it as a synonym for giving up. But it’s possible to rebuild without giving up, and that’s the Pats’ approach right now. While they’ve added veterans like Torry Holt, Gerard Warren, and Damione Lewis to fill bit roles, the larger picture shows that New England is trying to infuse youth into its defense with guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes, and into its offense with guys like Rob Gronkowski and Taylor Price. These are the players that will determine whether Bill Belichick’s second decade in New England gets off to a good start. But given the age of New England’s offensive and defensive fronts, rebuilding on the fly in the past two offseasons has been the right call. Verdict: Right approach

New York Jets are reloading – There’s not a team in the NFL headed in a win-now direction more than the Jets are right now. Their offseason additions are littered with veterans like Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor, all of whom are proven vets who should step in a lot quicker than draft picks would have. While draft picks Kyle Wilson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Joe McKnight should find roles quickly, it’s the veterans that will determine whether the Jets can get one step further and into the Super Bowl this season. Verdict: Right approach

AFC North

Baltimore is reloading – The Ravens always do a good job in the draft, and that steady talent infusion over the years has put the franchise in position to keep things pointed in the right direction. But this year, the Ravens put the reloading into overdrive by trading for WR Anquan Boldin, who provides the No. 1 receiver the team has been missing since its move to Baltimore. While rookies Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones add depth on defense, the Boldin move is the one that sets the tone that this franchise is going for glory now. We can’t blame the Ravens for taking that tack. Verdict: Right approach

Cincinnati is reloading – Coming off the second division title of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals are looking to fill in holes and keep positive momentum. Antonio Bryant is supposed to be the complement to Chad Ochocinco that Cincy was missing without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and if he can’t perhaps Matt Jones or rookie Jordan Shipley or even first-round TE Jermaine Gresham can. In the draft, the Bengals continued to take talented guys with question marks in Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Ghee, and both are good enough to fill roles right away. And taking a shot on the talented but troubled Pacman Jones is the ultimate win-now move. The Bengals know they have something going, and so they’re going for it. Verdict: Right approach

Cleveland is rebuilding – The Browns know they’re in need of serious changes, as the hiring of Mike Holmgren in the offseason proved. So the team has made wholesale changes, not just at quarterback where Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy arrive, but across the roster. Veterans CB Sheldon Brown, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and OT Tony Pashos will help stabilize problem areas, but the team knows they’re not long-term solutions. Instead, the Browns are looking to build around youngsters like Joe Thomas and first-rounder Joe Haden as they try to start a new era in Cleveland. Verdict: Right approach

Pittsburgh is reloading – The Steelers have had a tumultous offseason, but the roster moves they’ve made are a sign that they still consider themselves contenders. Bringing back WR Antwaan Randle El, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, and QB Byron Leftwich shows that they don’t want much of a learning curve at work in training camp, and drafting C Maurkice Pouncey shows that they wanted immediate help in the first round. The approach is risky, but given how recently the Steelers won the Super Bowl, you can’t blame them for getting the band back together for one last hurrah. They can only hope that the Ben Roethlisberger issues don’t break up the band. Verdict: Right approach

AFC South

Houston is reloading – The Texans are coming off their first winning season, and their offseason approach demonstrates that they think more is in the offing. Unhappy CB Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but first-rounder Kareem Jackson can step in and start. He used the same terminology in college that he will in Houston, and that will ease his transition. The Texans kept WR Kevin Walter and added rookie Ben Tate to a RB group that was problematic at times last year. These moves preserve the status quo and give the Texans a chance to build on their modest ’09 success. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the status quo scenario work. Verdict: Right approach

Indianapolis is reloading – The Colts made a few more changes than normal, letting DE Raheem Brock, CBs Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, and OG Ryan Lilja go, but in terms of additions they continued to do what they usually do and build through the draft. Sometimes Indy’s rookies contribute immediately, but more often it’s the second- and third-year players who start to flourish the longer they’re in the system. When a team gets that approach going, the smartest thing to do is to keep the train rolling. And since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian are such good conductors, the train continues to roll along. Verdict: Right approach

Jacksonville is reloading – The Jaguars have a long cut list this offseason, but aside from DT John Henderson none of them were core players. Meanwhile, the Jaguars signed veteran DE Aaron Kampman and traded for MLB Kirk Morrison to add veteran experience to the front seven. On offense, it’s status quo, as the Jags rely on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and a young corps of receivers and linemen. This team was barely on the cusp of contention last year, so reloading seems like a strange course, and the success depends on whether Garrard can be a top-10 NFL quarterback or just a league average starter. We’re skeptical, and so we disagree. Verdict: Wrong approach

Tennessee is rebuilding – The Titans embarked on a rebuilding project by saying goodbye to stalwarts like Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They also seem to be willing to let Kevin Mawae go. That means youngsters like Derrick Morgan and Rennie Curran will need to take on bigger roles. With Vince Young at the helm and Chris Johnson on the run, the Titans now have a young offensive corps, and they’re trying to move the same way on defense. That makes sense, even though holes in the secondary make it appear like the rebuilding project isn’t yet done. Verdict: Right approach

AFC West

Denver is rebuilding – The Broncos continue to chase away the vestiges of Mike Shanahan’s era and move to Josh McDaniels’ desired future. So at wide receiver, Brandon Marshall is out and Demaryius Thomas is in. At quarterback, Jay Cutler is long gone, and Tim Tebow is on the horizon. On the offensive line, Ben Hamilton is gone and Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are in. Meanwhile, the defensive overhaul continues as the Broncos tried to supplement the new 3-4 defense that fell apart in the second half of last year with NT Jamal Williams, DE Jarvis Green, and ILB Akin Ayodele. At some point, Denver will have to spend its highest draft picks on defense to make the rebuilding project stick. But at this point, McDaniels has changed so much that there’s nothing the Broncos can do but go all out on their rebuild. Verdict: Right approach

Kansas City is rebuilding – The Chiefs still have a long way to go in the rebuilding project that began last offseason and that now continues this offseason. S Eric Berry is the prize of this year’s crew, with fellow SEC products Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas also slated to become key contributors. Most of the veteran additions, notably Ryan Lilja and Thomas Jones, are designed to keep the Chiefs from being abysmal as the talent infusion takes effect. There’s still a long way to go in Chiefs land, but at least they’re on the right path. Verdict: Right approach

Oakland is reloading – The Raiders never admit that they’re in the doldrums, but it actually makes some sense this offseason. The defense has a lot of good pieces, and adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston in the draft and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves via trades should help the front seven’s performance go up a level. But the biggest change is on offense, where Jason Campbell gives the Silver and Black a qualified pro quarterback who will prepare and take advantage of the talent outside. Campbell’s not great, but he’s better than average, and that should allow Oakland to make the most of its other talents. A run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question, and that makes just win, baby, the right approach – finally – for the Raiders. Verdict: Right approach

San Diego is reloading – The Chargers know that they have talent, and so they once again used the offseason to get pieces that will push them over the top. Paying a ransom for first-round RB Ryan Mathews demonstrates this approach, and the Chargers also added cornerback depth with Nathan Vasher, who knows coordinator Ron Rivera’s system. Is it enough for a team that’s been on the cusp a painfully long time? Reloading as the Chargers are is the only way they’re going to find out. Verdict: Right approach

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FR: April pre-draft signings

In this post, we’re comparing signings between the beginning of April and the NFL draft. For previous signings in free agency, go to the March signings post and work your way back. We’re using a comparison in which 10 marks the team with the most noteworthy moves and 1 indicates the team with barely noteworthy moves.

10 – Jets (added UFA OLB Jason Taylor) - Taylor is a specialty player at this point as a 3-4 outside pass rusher, but he had seven sacks in that role last year and should be able to shine in Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. He got a two-year deal nominally worth $13 million, but in reality it’s a one-year deal worth up to $3.75 million with a bunch of funny money in the second year. Taylor will help the Jets continue to gear up for a major run at a championship this year. And his Dancing with the Stars-inspired acting career won’t suffer from a year in the Big Apple, either.

9 – none

8 – Saints (added DE Alex Brown and UFA DT Jimmy Wilkerson) – Brown was cut in Chicago after Julius Peppers landed there, and now he makes his way to New Orleans. There, he’ll take the spot of former first-round disappointment Charles Grant. Brown is a pretty good (but not great) defensive end who can rush the passer and stop the run, and he’s better than any other defensive end on the market in April – by a lot. For the Saints to get him was a coup that came at a reasonable two-year, $5.5 million price. That’s fair but not excessive starter money. Wilkerson got a one-year, $2 million deal even though he’s recovering from an ACL injury. If he gets healthy, he’ll be a fine second or third tackle who can help stabilize the interior of the Saints’ defense.

7 – Vikings (added CB Lito Sheppard) – Sheppard has bounced around the last couple of years, after being dissatisfied in Philly and falling out of favor with the Jets. But he’s still a pretty good player who will help a Vikings secondary that’s probably the weak link on an otherwise stacked team. Sheppard can’t play man-on-man coverage all day long, but he can be a dependable cog in a strong defense, and that’s exactly what the Vikings have. So getting Sheppard for $2 million over one year is a coup for the Vikes.

6 - Patriots (added WR Torry Holt, DT Damione Lewis and P David King) – Holt had an OK but not spectacular season in Jacksonville last year, and he’s definitely falling off from his Greatest Show on Turf days. Holt will get up to $1.7 million this year, which is a fair price for a veteran receiver, but you have to wonder if the Holt signing will repeat the failed Joey Galloway experiment of last year. Lewis had plenty of good moments as a rotation tackle for the Panthers, showing that he can get into the backfield on occasion. But the Panthers, in a youth movement, let Lewis walk. Now he goes to New England, where the Pats need a backup who can bring the pass-rush skills that Jarvis Green used to bring. Lewis is a decent bet to fill that role well, and that makes him worth a low-cost shot for the Pats. King is another of the Australian Rules Football players trying to make the move into the NFL punting fraternity.

5 – Giants (added S Deon Grant, kept UFA P Jeff Feagles) – Grant has started every game for the last nine seasons for Seattle, Jacksonville, and Carolina, and his presence at free safety will help protect the Giants against Kenny Phillips’ major 2009 injury. With Grant and Antrel Rolle, the Giants now have a solid safety duo in a spot that was troublesome last year. Feagles returns for a 23rd season, and he remains one of the best directional kickers in the league. Feagles isn’t the boomer he once was, but he gets the job done.

5 (con’t) – Bengals (kept UFA OG Bobbie Williams) – Williams was perhaps the best guard on the market, but the Bengals were able to get a deal to keep him around. He’s been a starter for the last three years, and his physical blocking is one of the reasons the Bengals have strengthened their run game the last two years.

4 – Redskins (added UFA RB Willie Parker, UFA DT Howard Green, WR Roydell Williams, and RB Ryan Torain) – Parker becomes the latest import into the Redskins’ aged backfield, as the Redskins are paying him up to $3.1 million on a one-year deal. This is an uncapped-year special by Washington, which is giving Parker a chance to vie for carries against fellow vets Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson. Parker doesn’t have the speed he did in his Fast Willie days, but he probably still has more pop than Portis or Johnson does at this point. Perhaps a five- to eight-carry role will allow Parker to showcase what speed he has left. But our suspicion is that the Redskins just wasted a couple million dollars on a bet that won’t come in. Green is a sturdy 3-4 nose tackle who should probably be a backup but who can fit the role as the Redskins move to that defensive system. Williams once was a prospect for the Titans, but he hasn’t played an NFL game since 2007. Torain was a Shanahan favorite two seasons ago in Denver before injuries shortened his rookie campaign. It’s hard to see him getting a shot behind Parker, Portis, and Johnson, but Torain probably landed with the coach most likely to give him a fair shot.

4 (con’t) – Rams (added LB Na’il Diggs) – Diggs, part of the Panthers’ purge of experienced players this year, lands in St. Louis, where his former LB coach Ken Flajole is the defensive coordinator. Diggs can take over the veteran role Will Witherspoon had in St. Louis before being traded last year. Diggs is consistent, but he doesn’t make many plays from the outside linebacker spot.

4 (con’t) – Seahawks (added OG Ben Hamilton and WRs Mike Williams and Reggie Williams) – The Seahawks’ receiving corps is pretty sorry, and so Pete Carroll is taking a shot on a couple of reclamation projects. Mike Williams, who played for Carroll at USC, hasn’t panned out anywhere as a top-10 draft pick. Reggie Williams showed some flashes of ability in Jacksonville, most recently in 2008, but he sat out last year after repeated legal problems. Reggie is more likely than Mike to make the 2010 roster, but both of these guys look like longshots at this point. Hamilton started eight games for the Broncos last year, but as a holdover from Alex Gibbs’ days as the line guru in Denver, he no longer fit the Broncos. But Gibbs is now in Seattle, and Hamilton’s knowledge of and fit in the system makes him a natural to replace the traded Rob Sims at left guard, at least in the short term.

3 – Lions (kept DE Jared DeVries) – DeVries, who Detroit had released in the offseason, returns to the only team he has played for on a one-year, $1.7 million deal. He’s probably better off as a backup at this point in his career, but DeVries is a veteran who can still be an asset.

3 (con’t) – Jaguars (kept UFA DE Reggie Hayward) – Hayward returns for his sixth season in Jacksonville after coming off an injury that limited him to a single game in ’09. He’s little more than a rotation pass-rusher at this point, but he could provide depth behind youngsters Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey and offseason acquisition Aaron Kampman.

2 – Cardinals (added UFA PK Jay Feely) – Feely, whom the Jets didn’t make a big push to retain, moves to Arizona, where he’ll replace Neil Rackers. Feely has been a reliable kicker in past years, and moving out of the Meadowlands into the Arizona dome at age 34 could help prolong his effectiveness.

2 (con’t) – Texans (added UFA Neil Rackers) – Rackers lost his gig to Feely in Arizona, and so he moves to Houston to compete with Kris Brown. Neither Rackers nor Brown was at his best last year, and the Texans’ prolific offense needs a consistent kicker to produce maximum points. If Rackers makes good and wins the job from Brown, he’ll earn $4.1 million over two years. But with only $350,000 guaranteed, Rackers will have to go out and take the job from Brown.

2 (con’t) – 49ers (added UFA OLB Travis LaBoy) – LaBoy missed the entire 2009 season with torn tendons in his foot, but before that injury he had 23.5 sacks in five years with the Cardinals and Titans. At age 28, he’s worth a one-year, $1.6 million risk to see if he can recapture his pass-rush skills.

2 (con’t) – Bears (kept UFA LB Pisa Tinoisamoa) – The linebacker we affectionately call The Tower missed most of his first Chicago season with injury, but he knows Lovie Smith’s defense well from St. Louis days and can be an effective fill-in starter.

2 (con’t) – Steelers (kept UFA DE Nick Eason) – Eason started five games last year, but he’s best as a fourth defensive end who can hold up in the 3-4 defense. He’s also one of the all-time good guys and the subject of one of the most telling stories I picked up covering Clemson football back in 2001. Just for personal reasons, I’m glad to see Eason stay in the league as long as possible.

1 – Browns (added C Eric Ghiaciuc) – Ghiaciuc started at center for the Bengals for several years, but he bounced around last year. Now he lands in Cleveland as Alex Mack’s backup.

1 (con’t) – Titans (added QB Chris Simms) – The Titans brought back Simms, who spent last year with Denver, to serve as the No. 3 quarterback behind Vince Young and Kerry Collins.

1 (con’t) – Raiders (added QB Kyle Boller) – Boller, who started a few games as the Rams’ backup last year, moves to Oakland to serve as the No. 3 quarterback behind JaMarcus Russell and Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski’s offseason pectoral muscle injury makes having Boller, a veteran who knows new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, a nice insurance policy.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (added PK Todd Carter and S Aaron Francisco; claimed DB Brian Witherspoon on waivers) – Carter, a small-school kicker, comes in to serve as the kickoff guy in Carolina. The Panthers had Rhys Lloyd in that role last year, but finding a first-year player to fill that role saves them $800,000. And right now, every penny seems to count in Carolina. Francisco is a special-teams ace who has played on the last two Super Bowl losers. He won’t make much of a defensive impact, but he could help replace the departed Dante Wesley. Witherspoon brings some kick return skills.

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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

As the free-agent market opens (midnight eastern Friday morning), I thought I’d list the cream of the crop (as I see it) at every position. I’m not a scout, so I probably am leaving some people out, but here’s a pretty good list by position. I’ve only included players that are unrestricted on the market, so that eliminates all the restricted free agents as well as the franchise players.

Quarterback – Chad Pennington (Mia.), Jake Delhomme (Car.) – Pennington is the only quarterback in the market I’d consider as an option for a training-camp competition, because he’s consistent and accurate, but Delhomme could find a similiar role.

Running back – Thomas Jones (NYJ), Chester Taylor (Minn.), Ladell Betts (Wash.) - At age 32, Jones shouldn’t get a long-term deal, but he’s a fine option for 2010. Taylor is a good fit in two-RB sets because he’s a good blocker and receiver who can also carry the load when necessary. Both are better at this point than recent releases and fellow over-30 running backs LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Jamal Lewis. Betts becomes an under-the-radar choice as a No. 2 back after being released by the Redskins.

Wide receiver – Antonio Bryant (TB), Derrick Mason (Balt.), Kevin Walter (Hou.), Nate Burleson (Sea.), Terrell Owens (Buff.), Torry Holt (Jax.), Kassim Osgood (S.D.) – Bryant is wildly inconsistent, but he’s the only guy in this group with the potential of being a No. 1 receiver. Mason is still a dependable guy who fits as a No. 2 receiver, and Walter can make some plays in that kind of role as well. Burleson is a little too up-and-down to be a No. 2, but he is a nice option. Owens’ skills are declining to the point that he’s barely a No. 2., and the same is true for Holt. Osgood, a special-teams ace, never got much run at receiver for the Chargers, but he’s big and fast, which may lead someone to give him a chance he hasn’t yet had in the NFL.

Tight end – Ben Watson (NE), Brandon Manumaleuna (SD) – Watson is inconsistent, but he can be a passing-game threat. Manumaleuna is a big, sturdy blocking tight end who would fit as a nice piece with Mike Martz’s new Chicago system or perhaps a Wildcat team.

Center – Kevin Mawae (Tenn.), Casey Rabach (Wash.) – Mawae and Rabach are both veterans who still perform acceptably but won’t get long-term deals. Still, a team with a short-term need has options.

Guard – Bobbie Williams (Cin.), Rex Hadnot (Cle.), Stephen Neal (NE), Keydrick Vincent (Car.) – Williams is a big guard who’s good in the run game and OK in pass protection. At age 33, he’s not in his prime, but he’s got a few good years left. Vincent, who started the last two years in Carolina, is a similar player whose performance is a tick below that of Williams. Hadnot isn’t great, but he’s still a good player who is an acceptable NFL starter. Neal is undersized compared to the other massive guards in this group, but he’s still an above-average player as well. None of these guys will get overpaid, but a couple of them at least should get multi-year deals.

Offensive tackle – Mike Gandy (Ariz.), Chad Clifton (GB), Barry Sims (SF), Tra Thomas (Jax.) – There’s little to no tackle help to be found, as Clifton and Thomas are on their last legs and Sims is a fill-in at best. Gandy is probably the best option. He’s started at left tackle for the Cardinals the last three years, and while he’s better in the run game than in pass protection, he gets by. And at age 31, he’s still an acceptable starting option going forward.

Kicker – Neil Rackers (Ariz.), Shayne Graham (Cin.) – Neither Rackers nor Graham had his best year, but both have been solid in recent campaigns. They could provide an upgrade for teams with inconsistent young kickers. Cundiff

Defensive ends (4-3) – Julius Peppers (Car.), Aaron Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tenn.), Charles Grant (NO), Adewale Ogunleye (Chi.), Leonard Little (STL), Tyler Brayton (Car.), Ryan Denney (Buff.)  – This is perhaps the most stacked position in free agency, and Peppers of course is the class of the group. Although he’s 30, he’s still a premium pass rusher, and as a player who has been known for so-so effort, he could be reinvigorated by a change of venue. He’ll get the biggest deal in this free agent market. For teams that miss out on Peppers, Kampman and Vanden Bosch are nice options. Both still have a little pass rushing juice and are sturdy vs. the run. Grant never lived up to his potential as a first-rounder, but he has talent and could get a look as a fresh-start candidate. Ogunleye is a formerly productive pass rusher who has moved into the solid but unspectacular part of his career, while Little is probably just a situational pass rusher at this point. Brayton is a solid run-stopper but not much of a sack man. Denney is like Brayton but even older.

Defensive ends (3-4) – Dwan Edwards (Balt.), Justin Bannan (Balt.), Jarvis Green (NE), Vonnie Holliday (Den.) – The Ravens reportedly want to keep both Edwards and Bannan, who are key rotation players on their front 3, but it’s likely that at least one of those guys will get a big deal elsewhere. Edwards could be one of the big winners in this free-agent market. Green and Holliday are veterans who are solid 3-4 ends and great options for teams looking to fill a rotation spot.

Defensive tackles (4-3) – Tank Johnson (Cin.), Damione Lewis (Car.), Jimmy Kennedy (Minn.), Fred Robbins (NYG) – Johnson is well known for his legal problems, but he was on his best behavior last year in Cincinnati, and he played well too. He’s the best 4-3 tackle on the market by far. Kennedy, a former bust with the Rams, showed some flashes as a backup tackle who can slash into the backfield on occasion. Robbins is more of a fill-in who could fit as a fourth tackle at a veteran minimum salary. Lewis, a late cut, is a pretty productive slashing tackle but is more effective as a backup than a full-time starter.

Nose tackles (3-4) – Jason Ferguson (Mia.), Hollis Thomas (Car.), Maake Kemeoatu (Car.), Jamal Williams (SD) - All of these guys are long in the tooth, but they can plug the nose. With so many nose tackles franchised this year, this is a scarce position, and that may help their marketability. Kemeoatu is the youngest of the group, but he’s coming back from a major Achilles injury. Williams and Ferguson are more accomplished, but health and age are big concerns.

Outside linebackers (3-4) – Joey Porter (Mia.), Jason Taylor (Mia.), Tully Banta-Cain (NE), Derrick Burgess (NE) – The outside pass rushers are all veterans. Porter had 26.5 sacks over the past two years and is still a quality pass rusher. Taylor has slipped a little below that level, but he’s still a quality situational rusher. Banta-Cain had just 12.5 sacks in his first six seasons, but he had 10 for the Patriots last year in what was either a breakout season or a fluke. Some team may outbid the Patriots hoping for the former. Burgess is the consolation prize in this group.

Linebackers – Karlos Dansby (Ariz.), Gary Brackett (Ind.), Keith Bulluck (Tenn.), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Scott Fujita (NO) – Dansby is another prize in this market. He’s a 3-4 inside backer who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the 4-3, and he’s a playmaker with great range at both spots. He’ll get a huge deal somewhere. Brackett is more of a system player, but he’s an impactful 4-3 middle linebacker despite being undersized. Bulluck has been a terrific weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 for many years, but at his age he’s starting to slip. Still, he’s a good starting option who would also be a great leader. Fujita isn’t the athlete Bulluck is, but he’s also a starting-quality player. Pierce has been a top 4-3 middle ‘backer, but injuries are a huge concern. But if he can pass a physical, he can help a team.

Cornerbacks – Dunta Robinson (Hou.), Leigh Bodden (NE), Lito Sheppard (NYJ), William James (Det.) – Robinson has talent, but his production last year didn’t match his franchise-player salary. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he is a talent who will make good money. Bodden had a solid year with New England, repeating some of the success he had in Cleveland. His year in Detroit was a bust, but on the whole he’s proven his worth. James is a veteran who’s good enough to start, although he’ll need help over the top. Still, corner desperate teams could do worse than James. Sheppard is a talent who thinks more of himself than his play merits, but he’s still a top-3 cornerback for most teams if he’s willing to take a role instead of star.

Safeties – Antrell Rolle (Ariz.), Ryan Clark (Pitt.), Darren Sharper (NO), Mike Brown (KC), Jermaine Phillips (TB) – Rolle is a big-time play maker with great range and great size who is hitting the market because his contract is outsized. But he’s one of the few impact players on the market, and that should lead to a pay day. Clark is a big-hitting strong safety who has limited range but still has made big plays for the Steelers in recent years. Sharper had a big impact on the Saints in ’09, but his age makes a long-term contract unwise. Still, Sharper can help. If a team is looking for veteran wiles but can’t get Sharper, Brown and Phillips are options.

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