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FR: 2010 retirements

Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Walter Jones...

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We thought we’d play relativity with the various NFL retirements of the 2010 offseason. We’re comparing them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2010 season.

10 – OT Walter Jones, Seahawks – Jones, who played his entire 12-game career with the Seahawks, didn’t play at all in 2009, which is an unfortunate end for a great career. This mountain of a man was an elite cornerstone left tackle for almost all of his career, making nine Pro Bowls and earning first-team All-Pro honors four times. He had the incredible size that made him a quality run blocker for backs like Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander and the athleticism to protect the quarterback’s blind side as well. That made Jones an all-decade pick for the 2000s along with Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, and Willie Roaf. Jones and Pace were incredibly similar players, while Ogden had a little more height and athleticism. But those three are the Hall of Fame level offensive tackles from the last 10-12 years, and Jones was the best of them. When Jones played next to Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks had by far the best left side of the offensive line in the league, and had Hutchinson stayed in Seattle, that duo would have made a dent in the all-time side-by-side protector pairs. Jones was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft, and he got the franchise tag on multiple occasions, and all that goes to show that Jones truly was a franchise-making player for the Seahawks.

9 – QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals – Warner leaves the NFL at the top of his game. His career has as much distance between the peaks and valleys as just about anyone in the league. He was undrafted and had to go to the Arena Football League to earn a shot in St. Louis because of an injury to Trent Green. He then became a two-time MVP with the Rams, leading the high-octane “Greatest Show on Turf” offense to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi trophy. But a broken hand hampered him and sent him to the bench in St. Louis in 2002 and then for good in 2003, leading to a lull in his career. He went to the Giants as a placeholder for rookie Eli Manning and then went to Arizona, where he had two so-so seasons as a part-time starter before hitting his stride again late in 2007. But he ended his season with two fantastic seasons in ’08 and ’09, leading Arizona to two NFC West titles, four playoff wins, and the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. Warner has the three biggest passing-yardage games in Super Bowl history and leaves with a sterling reputation for clutch play. The question as Warner leaves is not whether he had a great career; that is certain. It’s whether he’s a Hall of Famer. His unlikely and unique career path makes that a huge question that will likely be debated for many years. He’s not a first-ballot guy, but he may well make it to Canton because his best was truly at the elite level. But his storybook career deserves admiration, and it was fun and fascinating to watch.

8 – OLB Derrick Brooks, Buccaneers – Brooks didn’t play last year, which is the only reason he isn’t even further up this list. But the current ESPN commentator, who played his entire 14-year career in Tampa Bay, retires as the preeminent Tampa-2 outside linebacker of his time. In an era where most teams played the 4-3, Brooks was the best weak-side linebacker, making 11 Pro Bowls and earning six first-team All-Pro honors. He was the heart and soul of Bucs defenses that were among the league’s best under coordinator Monte Kiffin for years and years. Even better, he was a prince of a guy, spending and raising a ton of money that helped teenagers in the Tampa area get better educated and experience life-changing trips to Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and even Africa. On a defense that also starred Warren Sapp and John Lynch, we believe Brooks was the best of the bunch. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

7 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins – Samuels made six Pro Bowls over his 10-year career with the Redskins, but after suffering a stinger five games into the ’09 season, he decided he wasn’t healthy enough to keep playing. Samuels wasn’t the top left tackle of the 00s decade – he fell behind Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, and even Orlando Pace – but he was on the next level down as a quality Pro Bowler who was reliable season after season. He started all 141 games he played, and before his ’09 injury he had missed just eight games over nine seasons. He had a great run in Washington and will be missed by the Redskins organization.

7 (con’t) – MLB Zach Thomas, Dolphins - Thomas, who signed a one-day contract with Miami so he could retire as a Dolphin, was an undersized middle linebacker who fell to the fifth round of the 1996 draft because teams were skeptical if he was big enough to make an impact in the NFL. But this smallish linebacker made a huge impact during his 12-year career with the Dolphins, which included five All-Pro nods and seven Pro Bowl berths. Thomas was a tackling machine who made the all-decade team for the 2000s and ended up being the perfect middle ‘backer for the Tampa 2, 4-3 defense that was so prevalent through the decade. Thomas was cut when the Dolphins moved to a 3-4 under Bill Parcells, and he started one season in Dallas before being cut there. Thomas is a borderline Hall of Fame player who made the most of his chance and his ability – and who should be thankful that he landed in the perfect situation for a player with his skills.

7 (con’t) – WR Isaac Bruce, Rams - Bruce was traded to the Rams so that he could retire with the team for which he holds records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. As part of the Greatest Show on Turf, Bruce was an elite receiver who produced time after time after time, including the go-ahead touchdown in St. Louis’ Super Bowl 34 victory. He made four Pro Bowls in his 16-year career and totaled 1,024 catches for more than 15,000 yards. Bruce falls just below the cut of Hall of Famers, but he was an elite receiver in his prime and continued to produce for a long and storied career that Rams fans will always celebrate and remember.

7 (con’t) – C Kevin Mawae, Titans - Mawae had three acts to his career – four solid years in Seattle, then eight elite years with the Jets, and then four more solid years in Tennessee. He made eight Pro Bowls, including six straight as a Jet and both of the last two years for the Titans. He was a physical center who provided good line leadership yet held his own. Plus, he was dependable, missing just 13 games over the last 15 years. He also served as the president of the NFL Players Association, so he’ll maintain a high profile over the coming year in that role. Mawae didn’t quite play at a high enough level to be a Hall of Fame center, but he was one of the best offensive linemen of the past decade, and that’s an accomplishment worth commemorating.

6 – DE Patrick Kerney, Seahawks – Kerney never got the publicity of the great defensive ends of his day, but he had a very solid career with Atlanta and Seattle. He made two Pro Bowls, one with the Falcons and one with the Seahawks, and had double-digit sacks in four of his 11 seasons. Kerney finished with 82.5 career sacks, and he was also sturdy enough against the run to be a solid two-way player. Kerney still had something left, but he leaves while still a solid contributor. He’s a loss for the Seahawks.

6 (con’t) – OT Jon Runyan, Chargers – Runyan played most of his career for the Titans and Eagles before making a cameo with San Diego last year. He only made one Pro Bowl, in part because he was a mauling right tackle instead of a left-side pass blocker, but he was an asset to many very good lines. He played in two Super Bowls and one Pro Bowl, and when he moved to the Eagles in 2000 he became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league at the time. He earned his money, starting 190 straight regular-season games along with all 18 postseason games he played during that span. Microfracture surgery after the 2009 season basically signaled the end of Runyan’s productivity, and now he’s trying to make an impact in the political arena as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the third district of New Jersey. No matter where his political career goes, Runyan leaves the NFL as a terrific long-time starter who made his mark during his 14-year career.

6 (con’t) – OT Tra Thomas, Chargers – Ironically, Runyan’s fellow tackle with the Eagles for most of the decade of the 2000s also retired as a Charger. Thomas, who played in Philly for 11 years starting most of those years at left tackle and making three Pro Bowls in the process, was a stalwart of those teams as a big yet still fairly nimble left tackle who protected Donovan McNabb’s blind side. After 11 years as an Eagle, Thomas was a part-time starter in Jacksonville last year, and San Diego brought him in as a fill-in for holdout Marcus McNeil this season. But Thomas decided he had hit the wall, and he hung up his cleats during training camp, ending a fine NFL career.

6 (con’t) – CB Samari Rolle, Ravens – Rolle only made one Pro Bowl, but he was a long-time asset at corner for the Titans and the Ravens. During his best years, he was a No. 1 caliber corner who was both physical and fast. He was a big reason the Titans made the Super Bowl, and he also played on some of the great Ravens defenses of the last decade. He won’t make the Hall of Fame, but Rolle leaves knowing he made the most of a fine NFL career.

5 – RB Deuce McAllister, Saints – McAllister is the quintessential Bayou boy after playing collegiately at Ole Miss and putting in his entire nine-year career with the Saints. When he entered the league, he played behind Ricky Williams, but after Williams left New Orleans Deuce ran loose for 1,000 yard seasons in four of the next five years. With the arrival of Reggie Bush, McAllister’s role began to diminish, and he was cut by the team before the ’09 season. But once the Saints made the playoffs, the team signed McAllister for a game, let him serve as a captain in the playoffs vs. Arizona, and then let him retire with the team. That means McAllister leaves as part of a Super Bowl winning team. That’s a fitting legacy for one of New Orleans’ favorite sons who had 6,000 rushing yards and made two Pro Bowls for the team. He was well worth the first-round pick the Saints spent on him.

5 (con’t) – WR Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers – Muhammad entered the NFL back in 1996 for Carolina, and he played all but three of his 14 NFL seasons with the team. In his first tenure with the team, he emerged as a No. 1 receiver, and in 2000 he tied for the league lead in catches with 102. In a classic diva receiva moment, Muhammad used a 15-catch game in Week 17 to tie for the league lead, but it came in a 52-9 loss to the Raiders. After the game, Muhammad said of his accomplishment, “I guess you could say, in all the rubble today, a flower grew.” If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve with early newspaper deadlines, Muhammad would have been pilloried in the press the next day. But that moment doesn’t define Muhammad’s legacy. Instead, his willingness to block and to mentor Steve Smith in Carolina makes a lasting impression, to go with 860 catches for more than 11,000 yards. Muhammad was also a key player on Super Bowl teams for both Carolina and Chicago, and he still holds the record for the longest reception in a Super Bowl with an 85-yarder. Muhammad made two Pro Bowls, and although he won’t make the Hall of Fame, he’ll go down in history as one of the first great Panthers. That’s not a bad legacy to leave.

5 (con’t) – WR Joe Horn, Saints - When I think of Horn, I don’t think of his infamous cell-phone touchdown celebration. I don’t even think of him as a Saint, which is what he was for his four Pro Bowl berths. (That’s why it was fitting that Horn re-signed with New Orleans for a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Saint.) Instead, I think back to my days at Pro Football Weekly and editing rosters. Part of our job for the PFW Preview magazine each year (which is still one of the best) was to edit the rosters down to fit. Some players would get their own lines; others would be relegated to a paragraph at the end. Horn started his career in the paragraph after coming to the Chiefs out of the CFL – he played for Shreveport and Memphis during the CFL’s ill-fated U.S. expansion era. And when Horn moved up to his own line on the roster, his alma mater – Itawamba J.C. – stuck out like a sore thumb. Considering that beginning, Horn’s rise to prominence in New Orleans is nothing short of shocking. Horn fought for his NFL chance and made the most of it once he grasped it, surpassing 600 career catches and 8,700 receiving yards and scoring 58 touchdowns. Horn earned a well-deserved spot in the Saints Hall of Fame, and as he retires we should celebrate his determination to establish himself as an NFL star.

5 (con’t) – CB Aaron Glenn, Texans – Glenn, who made three Pro Bowls in his 15-year career, made his retirement official with a ceremonial Texans contract in July. He had not played since 2008. Glenn, a former first-round pick, had eight good years with the Jets and then moved on the Texans, making the final of his three Pro Bowls there. He also played for the Cowboys, Jaguars, and Saints. Glenn was a good cover corner who held up against the pass despite being just 5-foot-9, and it’s fitting that he gets a head-nod as he retires. And getting it in Texas, where he played both professionally and in his college career in Texas A&M, is fitting.

4- OLB Bertrand Berry, Cardinals – Warner wasn’t the only Cardinal to announce his retirement after the team’s playoff loss to the Saints. The last couple of years, Berry has been a featured pass rusher for the Cards, but throughout the years he has been a starter for the Cards and Broncos after starting his 12-year career with the Colts. Berry finished his career with 65 sacks, including two double-digit seasons in 2003-04 with Denver and Arizona. That’s a pretty good career for a guy who was cut after three seasons with the Colts and forced to go to Canada looking for a gig. Playing nine more productive years in the league after that kind of setback speaks to Berry’s work ethic and perseverance, and he leaves as a guy who continued to produce until the end of his career.

4 (con’t) – PK Jason Elam, Broncos – Elam played most recently for the Falcons, but he signed a one-day contract with Denver before he retired so he could retire with the team for which he played 15 of his 17 seasons. Elam made three Pro Bowls and was on two Super Bowl-winning teams, and he also tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in 1998. Denver made Elam a third-round pick back in 1993, which is a high price for a kicker, but Elam proved to be worth that and far more during his long and fine career.

4 (con’t) – NT Jason Ferguson, Dolphins - Ferguson, who was facing an eight-game suspension for his second violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, decided to retire after 13 years as a nose tackle. He was a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who became a Bill Parcells guy with the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Never a great pass rusher, Ferguson held his own at the point of attack and was the kind of pivot man who was easy to build a 3-4 defense around. That’s a good NFL legacy, even if it doesn’t come with gaudy numbers on the stat sheet.

4 (con’t) – WR Ike Hilliard, Giants – Hilliard, who last played in 2008, spent 11 seasons in the NFL, the first seven with the Giants after the team picked him in the first round of the 1997 draft. Hilliard then had a nice second act to his career with Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Hilliard was never a No. 1 receiver, but he was productive in tandem with Amani Toomer for many years, and he ends his career with 546 catches for nearly 6,400 yards with 35 touchdowns. That’s a nice return of investment for the first-rounder the Giants spent on him.

4 (con’t) – DE Aaron Schobel, Bills – Schobel, who played his entire nine-year career in Buffalo, played every game in all but one of his seasons and provided a sturdy presence against the run and some pass-rush as well. He had his fourth double-digit sack season in 2009 with 10 and finished his career with 78.5, averaging about nine sacks a year. He also made two Pro Bowls. He was still good enough to play, although he didn’t want to continue in Buffalo’s new 3-4 system, but Schobel decided to retire instead of chase the dream elsewhere.

4 (con’t) – DE Leonard Little, Rams – Little spent his entire 12-year career with the Rams, piling up 87.5 sacks. While he is primarily known for a drunk-driving incident in his second season that killed a woman, Little remained a Ram throughout his career. He was on the Rams’ Super Bowl winner in 1999 and made a Pro Bowl in 2003, which was one of his double-digit sack seasons. he didn’t play in 2010 and let the Rams know in December that he was hanging up his cleats after a solid career.

3 – OT Brad Butler, Bills – Butler missed all but two games of the ’09 season with an ACL injury, but he had started the previous two years at right tackle. Now, at age 26, he’s decided to leave the NFL via retirement so he can pursue his passion for public service. It’s unusual to see a starting-caliber player leave NFL money behind so early, but you have to admire Butler’s desire to do something to help communities and individuals with his life. His former teammate, SI’s Ross Tucker, said that the retirement wasn’t really a shock for those who knew Butler. And for the Bills, this is a blow, because Butler was one of the few veterans slated to return to the offensive line for 2010.

3 (con’t) – P Jeff Feagles, Giants – Feagles played every game for 22 seasons as a punter for the Patriots, Eagles, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Giants, and to the end he remained a terrific directional punter if not a power leg. Feagles had enough leg to keep punting, but 22 years is enough, especially after finally claiming a Super Bowl with a Giants a few years ago. Feagles wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he made two Pro Bowls (including one in his 21st season) and had a fine career.

3 (con’t) – WR Eddie Kennison, Chiefs – Kennison, who didn’t play last season, signed a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Chief. The 13-year vet had more than 8,300 receiving yards in his career, and his two thousand-yard seasons came with the Chiefs in ’04 and ’05. For a guy who said he wanted to retire back in 2001 in Denver, Kennison’s five years with the Chiefs were a nice renaissance. The former first-round pick by the Rams lived up to that draft billing and had a good career, and it’s nice to see he gets a pat on the back as he hangs up the cleats.

3 (con’t) – WR David Patten, Patriots – Patten started his pro career in the Arena League, but he fought his way onto the Giants and into a 12-year career. His best days came with the Patriots’ three Super Bowl winners. He even became an NFL oddity by throwing a touchdown, receiving a touchdown, and running for a score in the same game back in 2001. Patten finishes his career with 324 catches for 4,715 yards and 24 catches, and Bill Belichick’s respect, which says even more about the way Patten prepared and played.

3 (con’t) – LB Mark Simoneau, Chiefs – Simoneau, who played nine years with the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints, was trying to come back after missing the 2009 season with injury, but after just one game in 2010 his body proved it couldn’t handle the game anymore. Simoneau started four seasons with the Saints and Eagles, and he won a Super Bowl ring on injured reserve for the Saints last season.

2 – P Craig Hentrich, Titans – Hentrich hung up his cleats after an injury-plagued 2009 season that capped off his 17-year career. But on the whole, it was a good run for Hentrich, who punted for the Packers and then Tennessee in his career. He won a Super Bowl with Green Bay and then went to Tennessee as a free agent. He made two Pro Bowls as a Titan and won Pro Football Weekly’s Golden Toe award in 1999 (I actually wrote the story on that award). Tennessee found a solid replacement for Hentrich during the season in Brett Kern, and that makes this a good time for a good guy to end a really good career.

2 (con’t) – OT Ryan Tucker, Browns – Tucker had a solid career with the Rams, where he started on the 2001 Super Bowl losing team, and then the Browns, but he played just one game in 2008 and missed the ’09 season with injury. If that wasn’t enough to show him the end of the road had come, the 8-game suspension he would have to serve for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy a second time most likely did. It’s an inglorious way to end a 12-year career.

2 (con’t) - WR-ST Sean Morey, Seahawks – Morey, who signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, made his living as a special-teams dynamo. He made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and was on a Super Bowl champ in Pittsburgh and a runner-up in Arizona. The Ivy Leaguer had just 11 career catches, yet he played seven full seasons after playing just two games between 1999 and 2002 at the start of his career. That’s a big statement on his value. Morey retired because of repeated concussions, and any player who has struggled with concussions needs to read what Morey told Peter King.

2 (con’t) – WR David Tyree, Giants – Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl 42 is one of the iconic catches in NFL history, and it was also the last grab of Tyree’s career. Better known as a Pro Bowl-level special teams player, Tyree played five seasons for the Giants before an injury shelved him in 2008. He returned to play 10 games on special teams for the Ravens last year, but Tyree wasn’t signed in the offseason and so he signed with the Giants to retire with the team. He’ll be a Giants legend for one play, and that’s not a bad legacy to leave with.

2 (con’t) – RB Glen Coffee, 49ers - Coffee, a third-round pick in 2009′s draft, had a nice career at Alabama and appeared to be a nice backup option to Frank Gore last season. That’s an important role, because Gore has missed a handful of games in his career. Glen got a cup of coffee as a starter early last season when Gore missed Weeks 4 and 5, but he ran for just 128 yards on 49 carries. On the season, he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, and he faced a challenge from rookie Anthony Dixon and holdover Michael Robinson for the backup RB role this year. But during training camp, Coffee decided that he wanted to move on from football. It’s a blow to the 49ers to have a young contributor hang up his cleats, and it raises questions about whether something in San Francisco drove the 22-year-old away.

1 – TE Casey Fitzsimmons, Lions – Fitzsimmons played seven seasons for the Lions, and although he rarely started, he had developed into a second tight end who could make some plays in the passing game and hold his own as a blocker. But concussions led the team to recommend that Fitzsimmons retire, and so he chose to end his career before his play dictated doing so.

1 (con’t) – OLB Jeremy Thompson, Packers – Thompson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, suffered a neck injury in a December practice that will force him to retire. The Wake Forest product played in 15 games, starting three, in his two years with the Pack and had just nine tackles from scrimmage.

1 (con’t) – LB John DiGiorgio, Bills  – DiGiorgio played three seasons in Buffalo, including one as a starter, but he suffered a severe knee injury in Week 7 in 2008 and hasn’t been able to recover. He’s retiring as a result.

1 (con’t) – LS Mike Schneck, Falcons – Schneck made one Pro Bowl in his 11-year career with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Atlanta, which makes him at least worth noting.

1 (con’t) – OT Matt McChesney, Broncos – McChesney started his career in 2005 as a defensive lineman, then moved to the offensive line to try to continue his career. But of all things, a golf-course injury ended his career when his surgically repaired ankle was run over by a golf cart. He played a total of four NFL games for the Jets and Dolphins and was expected to contend for a roster spot in Denver this year.

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Thoughts behind the Super Bowl tsunami

While most of the NFL players past and present were shillin’ and chillin’ in Miami for the Super Bowl, a few newsworthy nuggets emerged around the rest of the league. Here are some thoughts on them:

*Texans pay QB Matt Schaub a $10 million option bonus - Schaub finally stayed healthy all season for the first time in his Texans tenure, and the results were 4,770 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, along with the franchise’s first-ever winning record. So the Texans eliminated any doubt about Schaub’s future by cutting him a big check. By picking up this option, the Texans have Schaub under contract for three years at about $38 million, which is a reasonable rate for an above-average NFL quarterback. (This offseason we’ll do our annual comparison of the league’s starters to see just how Schaub compares.) And that’s what Schaub is at this point. He’s not Peyton Manning or Drew Brees in terms of efficiency, but he can put up numbers that keep up with guys like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers, and thus Schaub deserves to be paid as such. Injuries will always be a concern with Schaub, but if he can stay healthy he can in fact be a franchise cornerstone. That requires an investment, and Houston should be patted on the back for being willing to make it.

*Bears hire Mike Martz as offensive coordinator - Last week in our loose ends post we discussed how the Bears seemingly couldn’t get anyone to come to town as a coordinator. Well, they finally landed a guy in Martz who has quite an impressive resume – a Super Bowl title as a coordinator, a Super Bowl appearance as a head coach, and success calling plays in San Francisco and Detroit as well. Martz was out of the league last year, and many observers cited his often prickly personality as the reason he had trouble getting a gig. But Martz knows offense, and he knows head coach Lovie Smith, who was Martz’s defensive coordinator for a time with the Rams. So Lovie (who needs to improve his record to save his job) is willing to take the risk of spirited coaching discussions for the sake of offensive success. At his best, Martz will unleash Jay Cutler in the passing game and turn him into a huge threat. Martz had success with Kurt Warner, Trent Green, and Jon Kitna, and it’s arguable that Cutler has more natural talent than any of that crop. But Martz’s disdain for extra blockers could create a problem given how porous the Bears’ offensive line is. This is a swing for the fences, but given how tenuous Smith’s job is (not to mention GM Jerry Angelo’s), now is the time to take such a swing. It will work, or the Bears will go down fighting, but either way it will be interesting to watch.

*Bills hire George Edwards as defensive coordinator and will install the 3-4 defense – New Bills head coach Chan Gailey is making a switch on defense from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4, and he’s bringing in Edwards, a former Dolphins assistant, to install it. Edwards has been a coordinator in the NFL before, and he seems to be a very solid hire. The question is whether the Bills have the personnel to thrive in the new defense. The good news is that ’09 first-rounder Aaron Maybin fits in better as a 3-4 rush outside linebacker than he did as a defensive end in his rookie year. Also, defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay are big enough to move inside and become 3-4 ends if they’re willing to see their sack numbers diminish. And in Marcus Stroud, the Bills have a guy who can play on the nose in the defense as well. Paul Posluszny should fit in well as a 3-4 inside ‘backer. That’s a pretty good personnel fit for a team switching defenses. Buffalo will need to look at linebackers in this year’s draft, but if Maybin can make an impact a la Clay Matthews in Green Bay this year, the Bills’ first year in a 3-4 could be a really pleasant surprise.

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Buffalo’s Buddy

We’re covering major front-office changes with NFL teams, and the Bills made one on New Year’s Eve by promoting chief operating officer and de-facto general manager Russ Brandon to franchise CEO to make room for national scout Buddy Nix to emerge as the team’s new GM. Below are some thoughts on the Bills’ new front office situation; you can compare it to other front-office changes in the NFL in this accumulated post.

After firing head coach Dick Jauron, the Bills realigned their front office by promting Brandon to the top spot under owner Ralph Wilson in the organization and making long-time scout Nix their GM. Although Brandon had been filling the GM role for the Bills, he is considered more of an overall organization man than an on-field talent evaluator. So now those duties go to Nix, who at age 70 has a long resume working with John Butler and A.J. Smith first in Buffalo and then in San Diego. That’s a pretty good pedigree when it comes to finding players. The question is whether Nix can take off his scout’s hat and begin to put together a team systematically. That’s especially important now considering that the Bills have a vacancy at head coach. The Bills are a team without a true identity and without a clear future at quarterback, and those are big issues that outweigh the presence of good to very good players like rookie safety Jarius Byrd, WR Lee Evans, or DE Aaron Schobel. Nix’s stamp has to go beyond good drafts to an overall plan. Maybe his long tenure in college coaching helps him do that, but getting a first shot at running an NFL front office at age 70 makes it far from a sure thing. Nix will help a ton on draft day; it’s what he does the rest of the year that will determine how the Bills go from here.

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The 2009 All-Jersey Number Team

Over the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed the best players in the league at each position by jersey number. Now we’re combining those lists to create our 2009 all jersey-number team. From 1 to 99, here are the best players at each jersey number.

To see how we selected our finalists, you can review the jersey number project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this postand quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this postand kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post and linebackers in this post and defensive backs in this post.

1 – PK Neil Rackers, Cardinals

2 – QB Matt Ryan, Falcons. Other position winner: P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs

3 – PK Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots. Other position winner: QB Derek Anderson, Browns

4 – QB Brett Favre, Vikings. Other position winner: P Andy Lee, 49ers

5 – QB Donovan McNabb, Eagles. Other position winner: P Mike Scifres, Chargers

6 – QB Jay Cutler, Bears. Other position winner: PK Joe Nedney, 49ers

7 – QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. Other position winner: P Jason Baker, Panthers

8 – QB Matt Schaub, Texans. We originally gave the position nod to Matt Hasselbeck, but as Hasselbeck continues a steep decline, we’re switching to an ascending player in Schaub. Other position winners: QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks; PK Ryan Longwell, Vikings

9 – QB Drew Brees, Saints. Other position winner: P Shane Lechler, Raiders

10 – QB Eli Manning, Giants. Other position winners: WR Santonio Holmes, Steelers; PK Nate Kaeding, Chargers

11 – WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals. Other position winners: PK Sebastian Janikowksi, Raiders; QB Daunte Culpepper, Lions

12 – QB Tom Brady, Patriots. Other position winner: WR Marques Colston, Saints

13- QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals. Other position winner: WR Johnny Knox, Bears

14 – WR Brandon Stokely, Broncos. Other position winner: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills

15 – WR Brandon Marshall, Broncos. Other position winners: QB Seneca Wallace, Seahawks; P Craig Hentrich, Titans

16 – WR/RS Josh Cribbs, Browns. Other position winner: QB Charlie Batch, Steelers

17 – QB Philip Rivers, Chargers. Other position winners: WR Braylon Edwards, Jets; PK Shayne Graham, Bengals

18 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts. Other position winners: WR Sidney Rice, Vikings; P Jeff Feagles, Giants

19 – WR Miles Austin, Cowboys

20 – S Ed Reed, Ravens. Other position winner: RB Thomas Jones, Jets

21 – CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders. Other position winner: RB LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers

22 – CB Asante Samuel, Eagles. Other position winner: RB Matt Forte, Bears

23 – RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins. Other position winners: CB DeAngelo Hall, Redskins; WR Devin Hester, Bears

24 – CB Darrelle Revis, Jets. Other position winner: RB Marion Barber, Cowboys

25 – RB Ryan Grant, Packers. Other position winner: S Ryan Clark, Steelers

26 – CB Antoine Winfield, Vikings. Other position winner: RB Clinton Portis, Redskins

27 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens. Other position winner: CB Rashean Mathis, Jaguars

28 – RB Chris Johnson, Titans. Originally, we opted for Adrian Peterson over Johnson, but as Johnson continues his historic season, and as Peterson continues to struggle, we’re going to make a switch. Other positional winners: RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings; S Gibril Wilson, Dolphins

29 – CB Leon Hall, Bengals. Other position winner: RB Joseph Addai, Colts

30 – S Mike Brown, Chiefs. Other position winner: FB John Kuhn, Packers

31 – CB Cortland Finnegan, Titans. Other position winner: RB Jamal Lewis, Browns

32 – RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars. Other position winner: S Eric Weddle, Chargers

33 – RB Michael Turner, Falcons. Other position winner: CB Charles Tillman, Bears

34 – RB Ricky Williams, Dolphins. Other position winner: S Dominique Barber, Texans

35 – CB Zack Bowman, Bears. Other position winner: RB Jerome Harrison, Browns

36 – S Nick Collins, Packers. Other position winner: RB Brian Westbrook, Eagles

37 – S Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins. Other position winner: FB Jason McKie, Bears

38 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers. Other position winner: RB Samkon Gado, Rams

39 – RB Steven Jackson, Rams. Other position winner: CB Brandon Carr, Chiefs

40 – TE Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings. Other position winners: RB Brian Leonard, Bengals; S Marquand Manuel, Lions

41 – S Antoine Bethea, Colts. Other position winners: FB Lorenzo Neal, Raiders; TE Spencer Havner, Packers

42 – S Darren Sharper, Saints. Other position winner: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

43 – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers. Other position winner: RB Darren Sproles, Chargers

44 – TE Dallas Clark, Colts. Other position winners: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants; S Jarrad Page, Chiefs

45 – FB Mike Sellers, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Leonard Pope, Chiefs; DB De’Von Hall, Colts

46 – RB Ladell Betts, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Daniel Fells, Rams; LB Vinny Ciurciu, Lions

47 – FB Lawrence Vickers, Browns. Other position winners: S Jon McGraw, Chiefs; LB Brit Miller, 49ers

48 – S Chris Horton, Redskins

49 – FB Tony Richardson, Jets. Other position winners: LB Zack Follett, Lions; DB Rashad Johnson, Cardinals

50 – LB Curtis Lofton, Falcons. Other position winner: OG Ben Hamilton, Broncos

51 – LB Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers. Other position winner: C Dominic Raiola, Lions

52 – LB Ray Lewis, Ravens

53 – LB Keith Bulluck, Titans

54 – OG Brian Waters, Chiefs. Other position winners: LB Andra Davis, Broncos; DE Quentin Groves, Jaguars

55 – OLB Terrell Suggs, Ravens. Other position winners: DE John Abraham, Falcons; C Alex Mack, Browns

56 – LB Brian Cushing, Texans

57 – LB Bart Scott, Jets. Other position winners: C Olin Kreutz, Bears; DE James Wyche, Jaguars

58 – DE Trent Cole, Eagles. Other position winner: LB Karlos Dansby, Cardinals

59 – LB London Fletcher, Redskins. Other position winner: OG Nick Cole, Eagles

60 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins. Other position winner: DT Joe Cohen, Lions

61 – C Nick Hardwick, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Gerard Warren, Raiders

62 – C Casey Wiegmann, Broncos

63 – C Jeff Saturday, Colts

64 – C Jake Grove, Dolphins. Other position winner: DT Kedric Gholston, Redskins

65 – OG Andre Gurode, Cowboys

66 – OG Alan Faneca, Jets. Other position winner: DT DelJuan Robinson, Texans

67 – C Jamaal Jackson, Eagles

68 – C Kevin Mawae, Titans. Other position winner: DE Jonathan Fanene, Bengals

69 – DE Jared Allen, Vikings. Other position winner: OT Jordan Gross, Panthers

70 – OG Leonard Davis, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Kendall Langford, Dolphins

71 – OT Michael Roos, Titans. Other position winner: DE Kroy Biermann, Falcons

72 – DE Osi Umenyiora, Giants. Other position winner: OT Vernon Carey, Dolphins

73 – OG Jahri Evans, Saints. Other position winner: DT Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings

74 – C Nick Mangold, Jets. Other position winners: OLB Aaron Kampman, Packers; NT Jacques Cesaire, Chargers

75 – NT Vince Wilfork, Patriots. Other position winner: OG Davin Joseph, Buccaneers

76 – OG Steve Hutchinson, Vikings. Other position winner: NT Jamal Williams, Chargers

77 – OT Jake Long, Dolphins. Other position winner: NT Kris Jenkins, Jets

78 – OT Ryan Clady, Broncos. Other position winner: DE Jacob Ford, Titans

79 – NT Ryan Pickett, Packers. Other position winner: OT Jeff Otah, Panthers

80 – WR Andre Johnson, Texans. Other position winner: TE Bo Scaife, Titans

81 – WR Randy Moss, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Owen Daniels, Texans

82 – TE Jason Witten, Cowboys. Other position winner: WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs

83 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Heath Miller, Steelers

84 – WR Roddy White, Falcons. Other position winner: TE Benjamin Watson, Patriots

85 – TE Antonio Gates, Chargers. Other position winner: WR Chad Ochocinco, Bengals

86 – WR Hines Ward, Steelers. Other position winner: TE Todd Heap, Ravens

87 – WR Reggie Wayne, Colts. Other position winner: TE Brent Celek, Eagles

88 – TE Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Other position winner: WR Isaac Bruce

89 – WR Steve Smith, Panthers. Other position winner: TE Daniel Graham, Broncos

90 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers

91 – DE Will Smith, Saints. Other position winner: OLB Tamba Hali, Chiefs

92 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos. Other position winner: DT Albert Haynesworth, Redskins

93 – DT Kevin Williams, Vikings. Other position winner: OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys

94 – OLB DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Aaron Schobel, Bills

95 – OLB Shaun Phillips, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons

96 – OLB David Bowens, Browns. Other position winner: DE Tyler Brayton, Panthers

97 – NT Kelly Gregg, Ravens. Other position winner: OLB Calvin Pace, Jets

98 – DE Robert Mathis, Colts. Other position winner: LB Brian Orakpo, Redskins

99 – OLB Jason Taylor, Dolphins. Other position winner: DE Andre Carter, Redskins

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FR: General managers

We’ll follow major front-office changes in this growing post throughout the offseason and compare them using our Football Relativity tool. The 10 level is reserved for what looks to be the best move, and 1 is for the worst. So here are the big changes that have happened thus far in the front offices of NFL organizations.

10 – Cleveland (George Kokinis out as general manager, Mike Holmgren hired as team president, Tom Heckert hired as general manager) - In this role, Holmgren will serve as a Bill Parcells-esque figurehead who makes the major hiring decisions and guides the personnel and schematic philosophy on the field. Holmgren has had similar power before in Seattle, where he served as (deep breath) head coach, general manager, executive vice president, COO of Microsoft, shift manager of a Starbucks, and Miss Teen Seattle. All those duties spread Holmgren too thin, and it wasn’t until after Holmgren gave up his front-office job that he was able to coach the Seahawks to the playoffs. But the personnel Holmgren acquired helped the Seahawks’ multi-year run atop the NFC West, showing that he does know what he’s doing in that area. In Cleveland, Holmgren will focus on the front-office side, showing he knows that he can’t do everything. Eric Mangini basically ran the organization this season – ex-GM George Kokinis was his hand-picked guy – and Mangini showed a couple of things. First, his version of discipline was far too petty, and it showed too much disregard for player safety. (Ask James Davis or Syndric Steptoe.) Second, he overvalued guys he had coached before, which led to getting 50 cents on the dollar in trades with the Jets in which Cleveland gave up two of their best assets, WR Braylon Edwards and the fifth overall pick, and didn’t get enough in return. The Browns’ recent wins show that maybe Mangini is salvageable as a head coach, but he needs someone above him holding him accountable on his organizational decisions. Holmgren can do that. Heckert, meanwhile, brings his personnel acumen to the player selection process. While Heckert implemented Andy Reid’s plan as Philly’s GM, Holmgren says he will have more authority in the draft and free agency with the Browns. Holmgren says his role will be to establish an organizational philosophy and then break ties when Heckert and Mangini differ about how to implement it. Holmgren and Heckert are both tremendous hires for the Eagles, and they’re the kind of people who can get the Browns back on track.

9 – none

8 – Washington (Vinny Cerrato out as VP of football operations out, Mike Shanahan hired as exec. VP/head coach and Bruce Allen hired as exec VP/general manager) - Cerrato, a former recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame, spent most of the last decade as owner Daniel Snyder’s right-hand man. But instead of being a positive influence, Cerrato often appeared to be the errand boy sent out to execute every whim Snyder had. That, plus the fact that Cerrato always emerged unscathed despite the Redskins’ repeated changes at head coach, made him a rather unpopular and disrepected figure. Cerrato has some skills, but he probably fits a little further down the food chain in an organization. Allen, on the other hand, served as Al Davis’ right-hand man with the Raiders and then as a general manager for the Buccaneers. He has chops, as well as D.C. ties because his father George Allen famously coached the Redskins. But Allen’s main job is to caddy for Shanahan, who has final decision-making say there. Shanahan had lost steam with the Broncos at the end of his tenure there, although he showed a knack for drafting offensive linemen who fit his system, and it’ll be interesting to see whether a new spot reinvigorates him. The questions in DC  fall more on the personnel side than the coaching side. But if Shanahan can find talent, especially on offense, he should be able to coach a winner in Washington.

7 – none

6 – none

5 - Seattle (Tim Ruskell out as general manager, Pete Carroll in as executive vice president of football operations, John Schneider in as general manager) – The Seahawks were going to let Ruskell’s contract as general manager expire, and so he chose to leave his post in early December. Ruskell arrived in Seattle from Atlanta to take over as general manager from Mike Holmgren, who maintained his head-coaching role. The duo led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl appearance, but over the past two years injuries have plagued a roster that has gotten too old. While many Seahawks fans point to the departure of OG Steve Hutchinson as the turning point, the fact is that too many of Seattle’s core players – including Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones – have passed their prime, and there simply aren’t elite players around to replace them. Ruskell’s reputation as a scout is still intact, and he’ll get another job somewhere, but Seattle needs a new approach. So they turn to Pete Carroll, an average NFL head coach in the late 1990s who ruled the world at USC. Carroll isn’t the general manager, but he is in a position of authority to at least be equal to and perhaps above the general manager who is yet to be hired. Carroll knows how to run an organization from his time at USC, and that’s going to be a plus. His GM is John Schneider, a long-time football operations guy in Green Bay and Seattle. He and Carroll don’t know each other, which may provide a valuable give and take if they can disagree agreeably. The advanatage is that Schneider knows the NFL and the players in it, which will help speed Carroll’s reacclimation process. The relationship between Carroll and Schneider will determine how this works, but this isn’t a bad plan on paper.

4 – San Francisco (Scot McCloughan out as GM, director of player personnel Trent Baalke gains responsibility) – It’s unclear why McCloughan was releived of his duties, and the timing 5 weeks before the draft seems troublesome. But at that juncture in the offseason, the 49ers knew their free-agency plan and had their draft board basically organized, which makes McCloughan’s absence more feasible. McCloughan was GM in San Francisco for two years, after three seasons as director of player personnel, and during that time the 49ers have moved back toward relevance, primarily by drafting players such as Patrick Willis and Michael Crabtree. McCloughan’s evaluation skills will be missed, but the 49ers seem to have a good plan in that area, and so giving Baalke and his team more responsibility makes sense.

3 – none

2 – Philadelphia (Tom Heckert leaves as GM, Howie Roseman hired as GM) - With Tom Heckert leaving for Cleveland’s GM job, the Eagles promoted vice president of player personnel Howie Roseman into the GM’s job. It’s the right move to hire from within, because the system is working in Philly. But with team president Joe Banner and head coach Andy Reid still in place, Roseman’s job will be finding players, not overhauling the system. That will give Roseman a chance to grow into this job. But largely, there won’t be a lot of changes in how the Eagles get things done because the organization alpha dogs are still in place.

1 – Buffalo (Russ Brandon promoted from chief operating officer to CEO, Buddy Nix promoted from scouting director to general manager) – After firing head coach Dick Jauron, the Bills realigned their front office by promting Brandon to the top spot under owner Ralph Wilson in the organization and making long-time scout Nix their GM. Although Brandon had been filling the GM role for the Bills, he is considered more of an overall organization man than an on-field talent evaluator. So now those duties go to Nix, who at age 70 has a long resume working with John Butler and A.J. Smith first in Buffalo and then in San Diego. That’s a pretty good pedigree when it comes to finding players. The question is whether Nix can take off his scout’s hat and begin to put together a team systematically. That’s especially important now considering that the Bills have a vacancy at head coach. The Bills are a team without a true identity and without a clear future at quarterback, and those are big issues that outweigh the presence of good to very good players like rookie safety Jarius Byrd, WR Lee Evans, or DE Aaron Schobel. Nix’s stamp has to go beyond good drafts to an overall plan. Maybe his long tenure in college coaching helps him do that, but getting a first shot at running an NFL front office at age 70 makes it far from a sure thing. Nix will help a ton on draft day; it’s what he does the rest of the year that will determine how the Bills go from here.

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Linemen

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post. Now we move to defensive linemen, who can wear numbers in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 90s, with the 90s by far the most popular and populated numbers. If a number is omitted, it’s because no defensive lineman who has played this season wears those digits.

54 – Quentin Groves, Jaguars – Groves has been a bust after being a second-round pick by the Jaguars back in 2008, going without a sack this year after notching just 2.5 in 16 games as a rookie. But since he’s the only defensive lineman wearing No. 54, he gets the nod.

55 – John Abraham, Falcons - Abraham is an impactful pass rusher who has five career 10-sack seasons, including a career-high 16.5 last year. He has just 3.5 sacks this season but is still a strong pass-rush threat. Other notable 55s: Darryl Tapp, Seahawks

57 – James Wyche, Jaguars – Wyche made his NFL debut last week vs. the Texans after spending two seasons on the Jaguars’ roster. But like his teammate Groves, he’s the only defensive lineman currently wearing his number.

58 – Trent Cole, Eagles – Cole has developed into a strong pass-rushing threat off the edge for the Eagles. He has 44 career sacks, including 9.5 so far this year. He is also one of the best defensive ends in the league in terms of solo tackles. First-round pick Aaron Maybin of the Bills, another 58 who has yet to record a sack in his rookie season, hopes to one day be the kind of impact pass rusher that Cole is.

60 – Joe Cohen, Lions – Cohen, a first-year player out of Florida, is a backup defensive tackle who has seen action in five games this season. He gets the nod over injured Panthers rookie Corvey Irvin.

61 – Gerard Warren, Raiders – Warren, in his ninth year, never lived up to the billing he had as the third overall pick in the 2001 draft. But he has been a starter every year of his career but one, and now serves as a run-stuffing defensive tackle for Oakland. Other notable 61: Derek Landri, Panthers

64 – Kedric Golston, Redskins – Golston, in his fourth year with the Redskins, is a solid rotation defensive tackle. That’s something every team needs a couple of. Other notable 64: Antonio Dixon, Eagles

66 – DelJuan Robinson, Texans – Robinson, a third-year defensive tackle out of Mississippi State, played in all 16 games last year and has seen action in seven contests this season. He’s the only defensive lineman wearing 66 who has seen action this year.

68 – Jonathan Fanene, Bengals – One of the most surprising stat lines I uncovered in researching this project was the season Fanene is having for the Bengals. He has five sacks, two passes defensed and a interception (which he returned for a touchdown). That’s a huge step forward for a player who had just one sack in his first four seasons. Other notable 68: Eric Foster, Colts

69 – Jared Allen, Vikings – This was an easy call. Allen is one of the league’s best pass rushers, with 12.5 sacks thus far this season and 70 in his six-year career. He’s just entering his prime, which means he’ll give the Vikings many more sacks to come. Other notable 69s: Leger Douzable, Rams; Anthony Hargrove, Saints; Henry Melton, Bears; C.J. Mosley, Browns; J’Vonne Parker, Broncos

70 – Kendall Langford, Dolphins – Langford is a second-year starter at defensive end in Miami’s 3-4 system. He has 3.5 career sacks, which is enough to give him the nod at this number over long-time backup DT Alfonso Boone, now with the Chargers. Other notable 70: Mike DeVito, Jets

71 – Kroy Biermann, Falcons – Biermann, a second-year defensive end for Atlanta, is coming into his own as a pass-rushing specialist. He has five sacks this season. So we give him the nod over Kendrick Clancy of the Saints, who has started three of the past four seasons but has played just two games this year. Other notable 71s: Lionel Dotson, Dolphins; Gary Gibson, Rams; Israel Idonije, Bears; Alex Magee, Chiefs; Ahtyba Rubin, Browns; Dave Tollefson, Giants

72 – Osi Umenyiora, Giants – Umenyiora isn’t having his best year after missing the entire ’08 season with a knee injury, yet he still has five sacks and is still a dangerous pass rusher. Osi has 46.5 career sacks and has performed at a level far above what we’ve yet seen from 2008 top-five draft picks Chris Long of the Rams and Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs, who also wear 72. Dorsey is at least among the leading tacklers on the defensive line. Other notable 72: Stephen Bowen, Cowboys

73 – Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings – Kennedy was once the 12th overall pick, but his career has been disappointing. Now in his seventh season, he’s nothing more than a rotation defensive tackle for the Vikings. But since he’s the only notable defensive lineman wearing 73, he gets props here. Sometimes the world ain’t fair.

74 – Jacques Cesaire, Chargers – Cesaire, now in his seventh season with the Chargers, has started 11 games this season as a 3-4 defensive end, taking over the spot that Igor Olshansky vacated. He’s been a solid hand for the Bolts for many years now.

75 – Vince Wilfork, Patriots – Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles around, and he’s going to be rewarded for his ability (and his girth) as a free agent this season. He has started regularly since his second season, and he is now one of the few impact players left on the Patriots defense. He’s made one Pro Bowl. Other notable 75s: Jovan Haye, Titans; Turk McBride, Lions; Juqua Parker, Eagles; Hollis Thomas, Panthers; Matt Toeaina, Bears

76 – Jamal Williams, Chargers – Williams played just one game this season before injuries shelved him, but for many years he was the preeminent 3-4 nose tackle. He made three bowls and was the heart of several terrific Chargers defenses. Other notable 76: Chris Hoke, Steelers

77 – Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins made the transition from a dominant tackle in a 4-3 defense with Carolina to being a stud nose tackle in the Jets’ 3-4. He played in just six games this season before getting hurt, so he’ll have to be content with four Pro Bowl appearances for now. He gets this nod over his brother Cullen, a defensive tackle for the Packers. Other notable 77s: RaShon Harris, Steelers; Matt Shaughnessy, Raiders

78 – Jacob Ford, Titans – Ford hasn’t yet broken through as a defensive end starter in Tennessee, but he has provided solid pass-rush skills in his two seasons. He has 3.5 sacks this season after notching seven as a rookie. Other notable 78s: Alan Branch, Cardinals; Tony McDaniel, Dolphins

79 – Ryan Pickett, Packers – Pickett was a bit of a disappointment as a first-rounder in St. Louis, but he’s found a home in Green Bay. In fact, Pickett’s ability to move from a defensive tackle in the 4-3 to playing on the nose in a 3-4 has been a key in Green Bay’s relatively seamless transition between those defensive schemes. Other notable 79s: Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins; Raheem Brock, Colts; Ropati Pitoitua, Jets; Sammie Lee Hill, Lions; Red Bryant, Seahawks; Marcus Thomas, Broncos

90 – Julius Peppers, Panthers – This is an incredibly close call for Peppers, who has all the talent in the world and has turned it into 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this year. Among the top competition is Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, who has seven sacks and is among the leading DL tacklers in the league; Mario Williams of Houston, a talented pass rusher; solid run-defending DE Chris Kelsay of Buffalo; and top-flight NT Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys. Other notable 90s: Ryan Baker, Dolphins; Desmond Bryant, Raiders; Adam Carriker, Rams; Colin Cole, Seahawks; Kenyon Coleman, Browns; Fred Evans, Vikings; Jarron Gilbert, Bears; Darren Howard, Eagles; Grady Jackson, Lions; Jeremy Jarmon, Redskins; Jevon Kearse, Titans; Travis Kirschke, Steelers; Daniel Muir, Colts; Kenny Peterson, Broncos; DeMario Pressley, Saints; Trevor Pryce, Ravens; B.J. Raji, Packers; Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons; Pat Sims, Bengals; Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers; Julius Williams, Jaguars

91 – Will Smith, Saints – This was another tough call, as Justin Tuck of the Giants is well known for his ability to be a force both at end and at tackle. But Smith is having a terrific season with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles, so we’ll give him a slight nod over Tuck. Ray Edwards of the Vikings (6.5 sacks) is the sleeper candidate here, and Pittsburgh DE Aaron Smith woudl be if he were healthy. Other notable 91s: Everette Brown, Panthers; Chris Clemons, Eagles; Ronald Fields, Broncos; Robert Geathers, Bengals; Justin Harrell, Packers; Tommie Harris, Bears; Derrick Harvey, Jaguars; Kenny Iwebema, Cardinals; Rob Jackson, Redskins; Spencer Johnson, Bills; Jason Jones, Titans; Leonard Little, Rams; Ray McDonald, 49ers; Brandon McKinney, Ravens; Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Chargers; Amobi Okoye, Texans; Sione Pouha, Jets; Myron Pryor, Patriots; Brian Schaefering, Browns; Trevor Scott, Raiders; Stylez White, Buccaneers

92 – Albert Haynesworth, Redskins – Haynesworth doesn’t get to pile up numbers, but no one wreaks more havoc from the inside than Haynesworth does. That’s why the Redskins made Haynesworth the highest-paid defensive player in the league in the offseason. With Cleveland NT Shaun Rogers hurt, Haynesworth is the easy choice. Haloti Ngata of Baltimore, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends, deserves mention as well. Other notable 92s: Cliff Avril, Lions; Remi Ayodele, Saints; Ron Brace, Patriots; Chauncey Davis, Falcons; Ryan Denney, Bills; Shaun Ellis, Jets; Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers; Wallace Gilberry, Chiefs; Damione Lewis, Panthers; Vaughn Martin, Chargers; Brandon Mebane, Seahawks; Rob Meier, Jaguars; Jayme Mitchell, Vikings; Dre Moore, Buccaneers; Frostee Rucker, Bengals; Richard Seymour, Raiders; Jeff Zgonina, Texans

93 – Kevin Williams, Vikings – This was an exceedingly close call between Williams, the disruptive Vikings defensive tackle, and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, a preeminent pass rusher. Freeney outpaces Williams in sacks this year 10.5 to 6, but the fact that Williams is one of the top sackers from the tackle position gives him the edge in what amounts to a coin flip. These two are a step above other candidates like Tennessee DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jets DE Marques Douglas, who is second in tackles among defensive linemen this season. Other notable 93s: Jay Alford, Giants; Tim Bulman, Texans; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Luis Castillo, Chargers; Phillip Daniels, Redskins;  Nick Eason, Steelers; Dwan Edwards, Ravens; Chris Ellis, Bills; Demetric Evans, 49ers; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Thomas Johnson, Falcons; Tommy Kelly, Raiders; Trevor Laws, Eagles; Bobby McCray, Saints; Roy Miller, Buccaneers; Adewale Ogunleye, Bears; Greg Peterson, Jaguars; Craig Terrill, Seahawks; Tank Tyler, Panthers

94 – Aaron Schobel, Bills – The crop of defensive linemen at 94 is a little thinner, but Schobel is a solid choice. He has seven sacks this year yet is also solid against the run. We’ll give him the nod over Vikings NT Pat Williams, who is the big run-stopper who allows Kevin Williams to attack more aggressively. Other notable 94s: Victor Adeyanju, Rams; Jason Babin, Eagles; Ervin Baldwin, Colts; Justin Bannan, Ravens; Copeland Bryan, Lions; Charles Grant, Saints; Marcus Harrison, Bears; Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; Peria Jerry, Falcons; William Joseph, Raiders; Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants; Louis Leonard, Panthers; Sen’Derrick Marks, Titans; Anthony Montgomery, Redskins; Kyle Moore, Buccaneers; Jarvis Moss, Broncos; Jeremy Navarre, Jaguars; Domata Peko, Bengals; Cory Redding, Seahawks; Antonio Smith, Texans; Justin Smith, 49ers; Randy Starks, Dolphins; Ty Warren, Patriots;  Jarius Wynn, Packers

95 – Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons – While 94 is a gaunt number for defensive linemen, 95 is straight slim pickings. So we go with Babineaux, a solid defensive tackle who has 5 sacks this season. Other notable 95s: Victor Abiamiri, Eagles; Anthony Adams, Bears; Tim Anderson, Cowboys; Rocky Bernard, Giants; Shaun Cody, Texans; Jared DeVries, Lions; Ron Edwards, Chiefs; Jason Ferguson, Dolphins; Howard Green, Jets; Orien Harris, Bengals; William Hayes, Titans; Chris Hovan, Buccaneers; Lawrence Jackson, Seahawks; Ricky Jean-Francois, 49ers; Charles Johnson, Panthers; Fili Moala, Colts; Darrell Reid, Broncos; Clifton Ryan, Rams; Junior Siavii, Cowboys; Montavious Stanley, Jaguars; Kyle Williams, Bills; Chris Wilson, Redskins

96 – Tyler Brayton, Panthers – This is another group of slim pickings, to the point that Brayton’s 37 tackles and four sacks are enough to give him the nod. That’s one more tackle and the same number of sacks as Chicago’s Alex Brown. Other notable 96s: Kentwan Balmer, 49ers; Barry Cofield, Giants; Tim Crowder, Buccaneers; Keyunta Dawson, Colts; Andre Fluellen, Lions; Cornelius Griffin, Redskins; James Hall, Rams; Ziggy Hood, Steelers; Tim Jamison, Texans; Travis Johnson, Chargers; Terrance Knighton, Jaguars; Mike Montgomery, Packers; Brian Robison, Vikings; Paul Soliai, Dolphins; Marcus Spears, Cowboys; Kevin Vickerson, Titans

97 – Kelly Gregg, Ravens – This is more like it – a number filled with quality players. The best of the bunch is Gregg, the run-stuffing nose tackle for Baltimore who is currently sixth among defensive linemen in tackles. His ability to take on defenders and stuff inside runs allows the rest of the Ravens to run free. He gets the nod over Packers DE Johnny Jolly, who is by far the leader among defensive linemen in passes broken up with eight, and periennially solid pass rusher Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks. Other notable 97s: Mark Anderson, Bears; Tony Brown, Titans; Brodrick Bunkley, Eagles; Jeff Charleston, Saints; Jarvis Green, Patriots; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys; Reggie Hayward, Jaguars; Jason Hunter, Lions; Trey Lewis, Falcons; John McCargo, Bills; Phillip Merling, Dolphins; Frank Okam, Texans; Bryan Robinson, Cardinals; Darell Scott, Rams; LeKevin Smith, Broncos; Hilee Taylor, Panthers; Jimmy Wilkerson, Buccaneers; Renaldo Wynn, Redskins

98 – Robert Mathis, Colts – Mathis doesn’t get as much pub as his teammate Dwight Freeney, but he’s nearly as devastating as a pass rusher. Mathis has 9.5 sacks thus far this season, tied for fourth among defensive linemen. So he gets the nod over Cleveland DE Robaire Smith, who leads the league in tackles among defensive linemen; up-and-coming Saints DT Sedrick Ellis; and Steelers NT Casey Hampton. If Bengals DE Antwan Odom hadn’t gotten hurt after six games, he would have more than eight sacks and would have certainly claimed this honor. Other notable 98s: C.J. Ah You, Rams; Jamaal Anderson, Falcons; Dave Ball, Titans; Connor Barwin, Texans; Landon Cohen, Lions; Dusty Dvoracek, Bears; Letroy Guion, Vikings; Nick Hayden, Panthers; John Henderson, Jaguars; Curtis Johnson, Cowboys; Ryan McBean, Broncos; Mike Patterson, Eagles; Nick Reed, Seahawks; Jay Richardson, Raiders; Fred Robbins, Giants; Ian Scott, Chargers; Ryan Sims, Buccaneers; Kelly Talavou, Ravens; Gabe Watson, Cardinals

99 – Andre Carter, Redskins – Carter, a former top-10 pick, is kind of a forgotten guy, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league. He has nine sacks, which places him sixth among defensive linemen, and is fourth among defensive linemen in tackles. When you think about how solid the Redskins’ defense is, you have to give Carter much of the credit. So he gets the nod over solid Bills DT Marcus Stroud. Other notable 99s: Gaines Adams, Bears; Chris Canty, Giants; Greg Ellis, Raiders; Atiyyah Ellison, Jaguars; Vonnie Holliday, Broncos; Antonio Johnson, Colts; Tank Johnson, Bengals; Brett Keisel, Steelers; Maake Kemeoatu, Panthers; Igor Olshansky, Chargers; LaJuan Ramsey, Rams; Derek Walker, Seahawks; Vance Walker, Falcons; Dewayne White, Lions; Corey Williams, Browns; Mike Wright, Patriots

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys- It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts - No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets - New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks - At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins - In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns - The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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