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Week 9 Transactions

Red Bryant Heads Off the Field

Image by Bernzilla via Flickr

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. 

For thoughts on the two big transactions of the week – Buffalo’s waiver claim of LB Shawne Merriman and Tennessee’s claim of WR Randy Moss – check out this post from earlier in the week.

Seahawks (put DE Red Bryant and C Ben Hamilton on IR; cut RB Quinton Ganther and S Nate Ness; add DT Frank Okam, DE Jay Richardson, WR Ruvell Martin, and C Chris White) – The Seahawks lost two starters to injury in Bryant, who has a knee injury, and Hamilton, who has a concussion. (Bryant is pictured above.) Both are key losses for a team that’s fighting for the NFC West title. Finding Okam, who played five games for the Texans this year, was a plus, and Richardson has three years experience in Oakland. Both guys should be good enough to plug into the rotation on the front four. Martin has been a Packer and Ram, and he plays special teams as well. Ness was immediately claimed by the Dolphins.

Chargers (put WR Buster Davis on IR, add WR Kelley Washington) – Davis, a former first-round pick, is the latest in a line of Chargers wideouts to be sidelined. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are currently out, and it appears TE Antonio Gates will miss time as well. San Diego still has several weeks to wait before Vincent Jackson makes it back from his suspension, so Patrick Crayton, Washington (most recently with the Eagles), and Seyi Ajirotutu will have to hold down the fort for now.

Buccaneers (put DT Bryan Price on IR, add DT Al Woods) – Price, the Buccaneers’ second-round pick this season, hadn’t broken into the starting lineup, but he was one of the youngsters who really added play-making ability to a defense that’s coming around. A pelvis injury now sidelines him for the rest of the season. He’s replaced by Woods, whom the Bucs took off the Steelers’ practice squad. Woods could be a nice developmental prospect.

49ers (put C Eric Heitmann on IR) – Heitmann, who has been the 49ers starting center in previous years, had not yet played this year because of a neck injury and a broken fibula. The Niners tried to wait on his return but decided this week to cut the cord for this season.

Texans (cut DE Adewale Ogunleye) – The Texans have brought in several veteran defensive ends this year, but they decided Ogunleye wasn’t performing up to snuff. So they released him and promoted Tim Jamison from the practice squad.

Panthers (claim LB Jason Williams) – Williams, a third-round pick in 2009, lost his job in Dallas, but the Panthers immediately claimed the Western Illinois prospect to see if he can develop there. Even though Williams has played just 10 career games, he’s still a better bet to develop than retread Abdul Hodge, whom the Panthers cut after just one week on the roster.

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Week 5 & 6 Transactions

Shawne Merriman during the Chargers vs. 49ers ...

Image via Wikipedia

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. Since we were out of town and unable to post at the end of this week, we’re giving you a double helping this week. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. 

By far, the most significant transaction was also the most arcane. By placing OLB Shawne Merriman on a unique injured reserve list, the Chargers basically cut the three-time Pro Bowler. Merriman won defensive rookie of the year honors and was dominant for the first three years of his career, but a knee injury in 2008 sidelined him for all but one game, and he hasn’t been the same since. “Lights out” had 39 1/2 sacks in his first three seasons but has just four sacks since his knee problem. That plummeting productivity, plus Merriman’s well publicized contract disputes and off-field issues, made him a pariah in San Diego. So this move fits with GM A.J. Smith’s scorched-earth negotiating and roster-management tactics. Still, it’s stunning to see such a whimpering end for Merriman in San Diego after he had such a dominant and exhilarating start to his career.

Chargers (add S Tyrone Carter and OLB Antwan Barnes, put OLB Shawne Merriman on injured reserve) – With Steve Gregory suspended, the Chargers added veteran safety Carter, who provides a veteran insurance policy in case Paul Oliver can’t hack it as a starter. Barnes, whom the Eagles traded for this offseason, got cut there, but he seems to fit a 3-4 defense like the Chargers run . He’ll fill Merriman’s roster spot.

Bears (add DE Charles Grant) – The Bears added Grant, the former Saint who couldn’t catch on with the Dolphins in the preseason and was playing in the UFL. Grant is a sturdy end who has provided pass rush in the past, and if he’s ready to play he could provide presence across from Julius Peppers. Grant replaces Mark Anderson, a rookie sack sensation who hasn’t done much since.

Texans (add DE Mark Anderson) – Anderson didn’t stay unemployed long, as he was snapped up by the Texans. Anderson has showed potential, but he needs to deliver. Houston helps a change of scenery will help him become a productive backup behind Mario Williams, Antonio Smith, and Adewale Ogunleye.

Panthers (claim WRs David Clowney and Devin Thomas on waivers, cut WR Dwayne Jarrett) – The Panthers finally cut ties with former second-round pick Jarrett, who was a bust on the field, after he was arrested for a second DWI. In his place, they added Thomas, whom the Redskins gave up on as a second-round bust, and Clowney, who got cut in a numbers game with the Jets. Like Jarrett, Thomas is a big target, but Thomas has more speed, and for a receiver-poor team like the Panthers he’s worth a shot. Clowney is probably more of a third or fourth receiver, but he’s good enough to add depth to a team whose only proven wide receiver, Steve Smith, is out with injury right now.

Saints (add RB Julius Jones, cut RB DeShawn Wynn) – With injuries keeping Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush out, the Saints added Jones in Week 6. (Jones had been released by the Seahawks when they acquired Marshawn Lynch.) Jones replaced DeShawn Wynn and joined Ladell Betts in a fill-in backfield. Jones isn’t a special back, but he at least gets what’s there and provides a bit of a physical threat.

Rams (promote WR Danario Alexander) – With Mark Clayton now out for the year, the Rams promoted Alexander to add depth at receiver. They have hopes that Alexander can develop into a contributor and not just a fill-in.

Colts (add S Aaron Francisco, WR Kenny Moore) – To address injuries, the Colts added two veterans. Francisco comes in to help fill in for Melvin Bullitt, who’s out for the year with injury. Bullitt was replacing Bob Sanders, so the Colts have tapped out their depth at strong safety. Moore helps fill in for injuries that are slowing Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, and Anthony Gonzalez.

Vikings (add CB Frank Walker) – The Vikings added Walker, a veteran who has bounced around the league, to provide depth after losing Cedric Griffin to another torn ACL.

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Week 2 Transactions Roundup

Adewale Ogunleye

Image via Wikipedia

Here are some thoughts on the Week 2 NFL transactions. For analysis of players put on injured reserve this week, check out this post.

Texans (sign DEs Adewale Ogunleye and Ryan Denney) – After the injury of Connor Barwin, the Texans needed help at defensive end. So they added two veterans in Ogunleye (picture on right) and Denney. Ogunleye, a 10-year vet in Miami and Chicago, can provide some pass rush (he has at least five sacks in eight straight seasons)  and also hold up against the run. He’s still a starter-quality player who can bookend Mario Williams and hold up throughout the season. Denney’s more of a run-first defensive end who adds depth. It’s obvious Houston wanted to add DE help after Week 1, when you can sign veterans without guaranteeing a full year’s salary, and Barwin’s injury meant signing two instead of one. But getting Ogunleye and Denney at this point in the calendar is a big plus for a contender like the Texans.

Lions (sign CB Nathan Vasher) – After putting CB Aaron Berry on injured reserve, the Lions added Vasher, a former Bear who didn’t make the Chargers’ opening roster. Vasher isn’t the player he was in his prime, but he’s a serviceable corner who should help a secondary that’s below average.

Jets (sign DT Howard Green) – Green, who was with the Redskins in training camp, returns to the Jets after Kris Jenkins’ season-ending injury. Green played 12 games for the Jets last year, and the seven-year vet is sturdy enough to hold up and give Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha a break inside.

Seahawks (sign OG Mansfield Wrotto) – Wrotto, who was cut just before the season by the Seahawks, came back to add depth after OG Max Unger’s season-ending injury. Wrotto is a versatile player who can fill in at several positions without killing a team.

Jaguars (sign TE Ernest Wilford) – Wilford, who has played five of his six seasons with the Jaguars, comes back now that his contract isn’t guaranteed. Wilford started his career with little speed and now has even less, which is why he has moved to tight end, but he’s still a reliable receiver when he gets open and gets the ball.

Eagles (add FB Owen Schmitt, promote TE Garrett Mills) – Schmitt comes in to act as a West Coast-offense fullback replacing Leonard Weaver, who’s out for the season. Schmitt is a hard-nosed runner and blocker, but he lacks Weaver’s explosiveness. Mills can also help replace Weaver in a tight end/H-back role.

Bears (sign LB Rod Wilson) – Wilson spent the first three years of his career with the Bears, and now he returns to provide depth after Hunter Hillenmeyer was forced onto injured reserve by a preseason concussion.

Dolphins (sign DE Lionel Dotson) – The Dolphins brought back Dotson to help fill in while Jared Odrick is sidelined by injury.

Packers (sign RB Dmitri Nance and DE Jarius Wynn) – Nance, who was signed off the Falcons’ practice squad, becomes the only backup for Brandon Jackson after Ryan Grant’s season-ending injury. The Pack also brought Wynn back to provide depth after Justin Harrell’s season-ending injury.

Patriots (promote RB Javarris James from the practice squad) – James, an undrafted free agent from Miami, got moved up to the main roster to replace Laurence Maroney, who was traded to Denver.

Giants (promote TE Bear Pascoe from the practice squad) – Pascoe, a sixth-round pick in 2009 for San Francisco, played for the Giants last year but just missed the main roster as the season opened this year. But with Kevin Boss feeling ill effects from a concussion, Pascoe came up to supplement Travis Beckum, the only healthy tight end on the roster.

Ravens (sign CB Prince Miller) – Miller, an undrafted rookie who was in camp with the Ravens but spent Week 1 on the Patriots’ practice squad, comes in to help on punt returns. I’ve seen Miller play and play well since he was a freshman in high school, and he’s always been an explosive returner. He’s a little small to be an NFL corner regularly, but Miller should help in the return game and keep Tom Zbikowski, who is starting for Ed Reed right now, fresh for his defensive duties.

Rams (claim LB Bryan Kehl on waivers) – Kehl was cut by the Giants so that they Giants could add a tight end to fill in for Kevin Boss, but the 2008 fourth-round pick was quickly claimed by the Rams. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo was in New York when Kehl was drafted, so he must think Kehl has potential to help pretty quickly.

Chargers (sign LS James Dearth) – Dearth comes on board to replace LS David Binn, who had to go on injured reserve.

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Football Relativity: Week One injuries

The injury list from Week One featured several devastating injuries that significantly impact teams moving forward. That made it necessary to analyze these injuries and how they impact teams moving forward. We’ll do that using our Football Relativity tool, placing the team with the most significant losses at the 10 level and teams that got off relatively easily at the 1 level. Note that a player going on injured reserve means he is officially out for the rest of the season.

10 – Packers – put RB Ryan Grant (torn ankle ligaments) and DT Justin Harrell (torn ACL) on injured reserve – Grant has been a solid workhorse back for the Pack since he first emerged in 2007, but torn ankle ligaments suffered against the Eagles in the opener will bench him for the rest of the season. Brandon Jackson, who was the Packers’ only backup tailback, gets the chance to replace him, and while Jackson has more speed than Grant he’s never really taken hold of opportunities before. Green Bay also added Dmitri Nance off the Falcons’ practice squad for depth. Harrell, a first-rounder back in 2007, has played in just 14 career games due to a variety of injuries. He finally looked healthy enough to contribute this season before he tore up his knee. His injury is another blow to a defensive line that had already lost Johnny Jolly for the season to a suspension.

10 (con’t) – Jets – put NT Kris Jenkins (torn ACL) on injured reserve – For the second straight year, Jackpot Jenkins suffered a knee injury that will bench him for the remainder of the season. It happened on the Jets’ sixth defensive snap, which is devastating for a player who makes such an impact and has worked so hard to overcome last year’s problem. Fill-ins Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha have proven they can play efficiently, but they’re not the game-changers that Jenkins is at his best. Signee Howard Green is another workmanlike player. And after two devastating knee injuries, Jenkins may even consider retirement. That would be a disappointing end to what has been a great career for the three-time All-Pro.

9 – Eagles – put FB Leonard Weaver (torn knee ligaments) and C Jamaal Jackson (torn triceps tendon) on injured reserve; QB Kevin Kolb (concussion) and LB Stewart Bradley (concussion) – The Eagles lost two starters in Weaver and Jackson. Weaver suffered a horrific ACL injury that puts a damper on the Eagles’ offense. He was not only a fullback but a power runner and explosive receiver. Mike Bell will have to step in in short-yardage situations, and  signee Owen Schmitt will do a lot of blocking. Jackson, a four-year starter who was returning from a knee injury, will miss the season with a torn triceps. Either rookie A.Q. Shipley or Mike McGlynn will take over for Jackson. Both Kolb and Bradley have concussions which could keep them out of at least this week’s game at Detroit. Given Michael Vick’s play last year, Kolb’s absence might not be a killer, but it’s still quite significant.

8 – Colts – S Bob Sanders (torn biceps tendon) – Sanders is out “indefinitely” and could miss the rest of the season, which is a blow to a Colts defense that is always different when Sanders is in the lineup. But since Indy has played without Sanders so often in recent years, this injury falls a bit down this list. Melvin Bullitt is a solid fill-in for Sanders, but he doesn’t provide the dynamic aspect that Sanders can.

7 – Lions – QB Matthew Stafford (separated shoulder) – It’s unclear how long Stafford will be out after separating his shoulder, but most reports indicate 2-6 weeks is a safe bet.  That’s a blow for a Lions team that had such hopes of building wins up this season, since Shaun Hill does not have the big-play potential that Stafford provides.

6 – Texans – put DE/OLB Connor Barwin (dislocated ankle) on injured reserve – Barwin, a 2009 second-round pick, was supposed to be an athletic freak of a pass rusher to help get to the quarterback and take pressure off of Mario Williams. But he suffered a gruesome dislocated right ankle in the season opener against the Colts and will miss the rest of the season. Barwin, who had 4.5 sacks as a rookie, will be replaced by signees Adewale Ogunleye and Ryan Denney, both of whom are solid players with some pass-rush ability but not Barwin’s potential for the dynamic.

6 (con’t) – Seahawks – put OG Max Unger (toe) on injured reserve – Unger, a former first-round pick, is one of the stabilizing forces on the Seahawks’ offensive line, but he’s on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Seattle has really had a lot of changes up front, including losing OL coach Alex Gibbs to retirement just before the season began. So missing one of the solid guys they have is a real blow.

5 – none

4 – Panthers – QB Matt Moore (concussion) – Moore suffered a concussion in the second half against the Giants, and it’s unclear right now about whether he’ll be ready to play this week at home against Tampa Bay. Losing Moore would be huge, because the Panthers need to salt away a win in this home game chance, and starting rookie Jimmy Clausen would inhibit their chances to do so. 

3 – Giants – TE Kevin Boss (concussion) – Boss suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the opener against the Panthers, and he’s already been ruled out for this week’s game against the Colts. That’s a blow not only because of the absence of Boss’ receiving and blocking skills but also because the Giants had only one other tight end, Travis Beckum, on the roster. They’ve promoted Bear Pascoe to give them a little more flexibility.

3 – Dolphins – DE Jared Odrick (broken right fibula) – Odrick, the Dolphins’ first-round pick, had become a starter at defensive end in the Dolphins’ reworked 3-4 defense. But he’ll miss at least the next two games with a broken leg. Odrick was replacing Philip Merling, who’s also out for the year, so this injury really tests Miami’s depth. Tony McDaniel can fill in as a starter, but Miami will be looking hard for someone to step into the rotation behind the fill-in for the fill-in.

2 – Bills – LB Paul Posluszny (torn MCL) – Posluszny, who has battled injuries throughout his career, suffered a torn MCL and will miss at least a couple of weeks. That’s a blow to a Bills defense that played OK in Week One but is still looking to adapt to a new 3-4 defense. The fact that the Bills are thin at linebacker only makes Posluszny’s absence more damaging.

1 – Steelers – OT Max Starks (ankle sprain) – There are conflicting reports about whether Starks will miss this week’s game at Tennessee with an ankle sprain, which is why this injury isn’t further up the list. But after losing Willie Colon for the season, Pittsburgh simply can’t afford to lose another tackle.

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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OP: Whither Julius Peppers, 2010?

Last offseason, we pondered the question of whither Julius Peppers (not once but twice), and then we reflected once Peppers decided to play the season in Carolina for the $18-million plus franchise tag. Now, Peppers is on the precipe of the open market again, and we once again think we know how this whole situation should play out.

If the Panthers want to keep Peppers for another year, it’ll cost 20 percent more than it did in ’09. That $20-million-plus outlay is strong, even in an uncapped year. And since Peppers continues to seem disinclined to sign a long-time deal in Carolina, it seems as though the Panthers’ only choices are the franchise tag or letting Peppers go. And letting him go is what the Panthers should and will do.

Peppers had 10.5 sacks last year, which is solid but not spectacular enough to justify the league-topping salary. And that’s pretty much his average season, since he has 81 career sacks in eight years. He’s an immense talent who is a very good but not great player. Even more, Peppers doesn’t want to be a franchise standard. He’s felt the pressure of being a North Carolina kid who went to North Carolina and then played his career at home, and he’s ready to leave the Carolinas for greener pastures somewhere else.

All those reasons are fine, but if the Panthers didn’t have other options on the free agent market, letting Peppers go would be unadvisable. But this year, even with the market limited by the potential uncapped year, there are pass rushers available. Someone like Aaron Kampman of Green Bay or Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee or Richard Seymour of Oakland or even Adewale Ogunleye of Chicago could approach 10 sacks at a far lesser cost than what Peppers would cost in Carolina. And while Seymour and perhaps Vanden Bosch will get tagged, a couple of those guys will break free. And the Panthers have always shown the willingness to make quick, aggressive strikes in free agency – the kind of approach that could guarantee the arrival of someone like Kampman.

This move would save the Panthers $10 million or more this year, and it could help them hold onto Tyler Brayton, a solid if unspectacular run-stuffer who has started across from Peppers the last couple of years.

So that’s what the Panthers should do, and that’s what we expect they will do. Panthers fans, say goodbye to Peppers – and hope that a Vanden Bosch or a Kampman is on his way to Charlotte ASAP.

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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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The Bears’ net Gaines

Yesterday, my wife and I went to the Wake Forest/Clemson game. The bad feelings that I as a Wake grad had during the 38-3 monstrosity reminded me of one of the early dates my wife and I had when we went to the Wake/Clemson game in Winston-Salem three years ago. In that game, Wake controlled the first three quarters until Gaines Adams destroyed a FG attempt and took it back for a touchdown to spark a Clemson rally. I was unhappy, but I remained pleasant. My date was happy. We’re now married. So perhaps Gaines Adams is the reason I got married.

I tell that story because Gaines Adams was traded on Friday from the Buccaneers to the Bears in exchange for a 2010 2nd-round draft pick. Here are some football thoughts on the deal.

Adams was once the fourth overall pick in the draft, but in two-plus seasons he has just 13.5 sacks, including just one this season. Now that the Buccaneers’ regime has changed, they decided to cut their losses and deal Adams. The salary cap hit that comes with giving up on a top-5 pick isn’t an issue because the Bucs have more cap room than anyone else in the league. They get a second-round pick that should be in the bottom half of the round, but that should still provide a starting-caliber player if the Bucs draft right. The Bears now take a shot at Adams. Two reasons they did this: one, new defensive line Rod Marinelli, while a bust as a head coach, is known as one of the best coaches at getting the most out of linemen. The Bears also face free-agency with DEs Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson after the season, and so Adams could provide a replacement or at least leverage in those negotiations. The Bears had already given up their first-rounder in 2010 in the Jay Cutler trade, so they’re now all but out of the draft. But Adams (and Cutler, for that matter) are both young, which makes trading draft picks make more sense.

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Where do the Bears go now that Urlacher is gone?

In our latest blog entry for the Most Valuable Network Football Wire, we assess the state of the Chicago Bears defense now that MLB Brian Urlacher is gone for the season. You can read the blog below in an archive of our original MVN post.

The Chicago Bears lost the biggest name their franchise has had this decade for the season when MLB Brian Urlacher suffered a wrist injury in Week One against the Packers. But the loss of Urlacher the linebacker isn’t a death knell, because he’s not the player that will determine the ultimate success of that defense this season.

The Bears are a team in transition defensively. The core of the unit that was so good in the NFC Championship game three seasons ago is not what it once was. DT Tommie Harris, who was near Albert Haynesworth’s level of disruption on the front line, is fighting knee injuries and can’t make the consistent impact he once did. CB Nathan Vasher, once a ballhawk, is now a target. CB Charles Tillman has been hurt a lot. Play-making S Mike Brown is gone. Only WLB Lance Briggs remains an elite player on a league-wide level on this defense.

Urlacher, like many of his teammates, had begun the slow decline of his career. He’s still a good tackler, but he was no longer the massive threat he was earlier in his career. In fact, Briggs would have been a bigger loss than Urlacher for the Bears. While replacement Hunter Hillenmeyer is not a special player, he’s solid enough to provide stability in the middle. The question is what other players will emerge to make big plays for the Bears D.

Briggs can drop into coverage, range to make plays, and even provide an occasional pass rush. Some have suggested moving Briggs to the middle and signing Derrick Brooks, who knows the Lovie Smith take on the Tampa-2 defense like the back of his hand, to stabilize the unit. But that would be a mistake — since Briggs is the best guy on the defense, you want to put him in the optimum position to make plays, and that’s right where he is.

Instead, the Bears need DE Adewale Ogunleye to be a consistent pass rusher like he was in the opener against the Packers. The Bears need Alex Brown and Mark Anderson to do much the same thing. The Bears need CB Charles Tillman to return to his pre-injury form, and they need young DBs like Al Afalava and Zack Bowman to emerge as plus players.

In other words, the Bears need more than Urlacher was going to give them anyway. Urlacher wasn’t the biggest answer for the Monsters of the Midway before, and replacing him isn’t the biggest qusetion for the team now. The Bears have the same ifs that will determine their season that they did before Urlacher was lost.

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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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