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Football Relativity Week 16

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. Also, next week we will shift the comparison to focus on just the 12 playoff teams.

Saints QB Drew Brees broke the NFL passing-yards record vs. the Falcons, via nola.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – Green Bay bounced back from its first loss of the season with a convincing Christmas night win over the Bears. The blowout serves as a reminder that the Packers are the class of the league, after a week full of noise based on their worst performance of the season. Green Bay also claimed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the win.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers – These four teams have serious shots to beat the Packers, although they wouldn’t be favored. We like the Ravens and Saints the best of this bunch, because at their best they are most dangerous. Baltimore can’t afford a let-down during the playoffs like they had in the regular season; clinching a bye next week would help. The Saints need to take a lead, because when they do they are deadly. Again, a bye would help avoid a trip to San Francisco that could be problematic. The Steelers will likely have to go to the wild-card route, which they have done before, but it seems like a longer shock this year because of Ben Roethlisberger’s health. The Patriots clinched a bye and still can land home-field advantage, but their defense raises too many questions.

8 – Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions (UP A LEVEL), San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers got another win and still can land a bye, but while we can see them winning a playoff game at home, we don’t expect them to go to Green Bay and come out victorious. The Lions blasted the Chargers. They will be the most dangerous wild-card team in the NFC and maybe in the entire league. Explosiveness is scary, and the Lions have that offensively. The Falcons once again showed that while they are consistent, they aren’t dynamic enough to win playoff games.

7 – Cincinnati Bengals (UP A LEVEL), Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans (DOWN TWO LEVELS), New York Jets (DOWN A LEVEL), New York Giants (UP A LEVEL), Philadelphia Eagles (UP A LEVEL) – The Bengals took control of the race for the AFC wild-card spot with a win and a Jets loss. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten any elite teams, but credit to them for not losing any upsets either. The Jets lost to the Giants and seem to have a mess of problems. But they have had such problems before and still made playoff runs. If they make it in, you can’t completely count them out. The Cowboys and Giants will face off for the NFC East title. Neither team is great, but both have ceilings that can scare opponents. The Giants especially raise questions, because of the way they rose to the occasion against the Patriots and Packers this year. We’re writing off the Texans at this point. T.J. Yates can’t get the ball downfield, and as a result the offense isn’t scary enough. We don’t think even Andre Johnson can make a big enough difference. The Broncos fell apart in Buffalo and must show that their defense isn’t cracking. But with a win, they’re in. The Eagles are eliminated but are finally playing at a playoff level.

6 – Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers (DOWN A LEVEL), Tennessee Titans – The Raiders stayed alive with an overtime win against the Chiefs. But even if they make the playoffs, the Raiders are not a major threat to win in the postseason. The Chargers lost their momentum in Detroit and fell out of the playoff picture. The sum never equalled the parts in San Diego this year, and it wasn’t all Philip Rivers’ fault. The Titans stayed in the playoff picture with a win over the Jaguars, but playoff berth or no they aren’t serious threats.

5 – Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers (UP A LEVEL), Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks – The Cardinals and Seahawks fell below .500, but both teams had game efforts. The Cardinals lost in Cincinnati, while Seattle couldn’t hold off the 49ers at home. Both teams have improved during the season to the point where they are at least competitive. The Bears fell apart after losing Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, but the talent across the board still merits mid-level placement in the comparison. The Panthers are streaking at the end of the season and have tons of reasons for hope for 2012. They need to add pieces defensively, but Cam Newton is the real deal.

4 – Buffalo Bills (UP A LEVEL), Miami Dolphins – The Bills finally broke a long losing streak by blowing out the Bills. The Dolphins fell after taking a 17-point lead against the Patriots. Both teams have been competitive, at least in stretches, but both need more help in order to make a run at the playoffs in 2012.

3 – Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Redskins had some momentum but fell apart against the Vikings last week. It’ll be interesting to see who Washington rates as keepers and who the Redskins reject. The Browns have some nice pieces on defense but need a huge upgrade offensively if they are going to compete in 2012. The Jaguars also will need to figure out who to keep defensively as they address several huge issues.

2 – Indianapolis Colts (UP A LEVEL), Minnesota Vikings – The Colts have built something the last couple of weeks. Dan Orlovsky has probably earned another job as a backup quarterback somewhere, and some of the defensive pieces have demonstrated value as well. The Vikings got a win in Washington, and Joe Webb is forcing himself into the quarterback of the future conversation.

1 – St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (DOWN A LEVEL) – Both the Rams and Bucs looked like ascendant teams at the end of last season,but this year they have completely fallen apart. Tampa Bay has lost nine straight, while the Rams could end up with the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years.

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FR: 2011 In-season trades

Brandon Lloyd

New Rams WR Brandon Lloyd. Image by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

Each year, we compare the significance of in-season trades in a Football Relativity post. In this comparison, the 10 level marks the most significant trades, and the 1 level the least significant. This post compares all trades through the Oct. 18 trade deadline.

10 – Bengals trade QB Carson Palmer to Raiders for first-round pick in 2012 and second-round pick in 2013 that can become first-rounder – Palmer had not played in 2011 after he told the Bengals he wanted to be traded. Notoriously stubborn Bengals owner/GM Mike Brown called Palmer’s bluff, letting him sit out without much hope of a silver (or even silver and black) lining. In the meantime, Cincinnati drafted QB Andy Dalton and made him their starter. Dalton got off to a good start as the Bengals opened 4-2, and that might have softened Brown a little. Then the Raiders – who lost QB Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone that’s at least a six-week injury – made a move for Palmer and paid a huge price to add him. The Bengals, who had once turned down two first-rounders for WR Chad Ochocinco, this time made the deal. They get Oakland’s first-rounder next season and a second-rounder in 2013 that can become a first-rounder if the Raiders make the AFC Championship game in either of the next two years. The Raiders, who now lack picks in each of the first four rounds of the 2012 draft, believe Palmer still has the big arm to maximize their young, talented group of wideouts. Head coach Hue Jackson, who coached Palmer during some of his best Bengals years, runs an offense that Palmer knows, which should aid the adjustment period. And Palmer has been working out as well. It’s a risky move for the Raiders, but Palmer does give them more upside than Campbell ever did. The question is whether Palmer can adjust to the silver and black quickly enough to lead the 4-2 Raiders to the playoffs. The price is incredibly steep, but the Raiders are so desperate to win that “just win, baby” is trumping long-term thinking right now.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – none

6 – Broncos trade WR Brandon Lloyd to Rams for 2012 sixth-round pick that could become a fifth-round pick – The Broncos, clearly in a rebuilding mode, dealt their leading receiver Lloyd to the Rams. With Denver moving to Tim Tebow as their starting quarterback, it makes sense to have him work with the receivers who will be around beyond 2011, such as Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, who is returning from injury to make his 2011 debut. Since Lloyd is a free-agent-to-be, he became expendable. But Denver didn’t get a great price – just a sixth-round pick that becomes a fifth-rounder if Lloyd catches 30 passes for the Rams. But the deal at least opens opportunities for Thomas, which is a legitimate developmental move for Denver. The Rams, who gambled and lost on a one-year deal for Mike Sims-Walker to be their No. 1 receiver this year, get Lloyd, who thrived under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in Denver. (Sims-Walker was released to clear a spot for Lloyd.) Since McDaniels is the only coach to unlock Lloyd’s potential over nine years with four teams, Lloyd couldn’t have found a better landing spot. He’s immediately the best receiver the Rams have, and he has the chance to finish the season strongly to earn a new contract, be it in St. Louis or elsewhere. The Rams are 0-5, so this isn’t a move for the playoffs, but it does allow QB Sam Bradford to keep developing and should help the offense move from awful closer to average. If Lloyd fits as the situation suggests, expect the Rams to extend his deal, to make the most of the draft pick they spent to get him.

5 – none

4 – Seahawks trade OLB Aaron Curry to Raiders for 2012 seventh-round pick and conditional 2013 fifth-round pick – We discussed Curry’s ups and downs in this post, which focused on trade rumors about him. Seattle finally gave up on Curry, the former fourth overall pick in the draft, even though their linebacker corps has been wracked by injuries. With Curry gone, rookie K.D. Williams emerges as a starter in Seattle. In Oakland, Curry provides some flexibility at linebacker and allows Kamerion Wimbley to move up to defensive end in pass-rushing situations. Curry is the kind of first-round disappointment that Al Davis loved to take a chance on. Given the price, you can’t blame the Raiders for taking a shot on Curry to see if they can unlock his potential in a way Seattle could not. The fact that Curry started his first game as a Raider only shows the potential impact of this deal.

3 – Eagles trade RB Ronnie Brown to Lions for RB Jerome Harrison and conditional seventh-round pick in 2013 – With Jahvid Best battling concussion issues and rookie Mikel Leshoure sidelined for the year, the Lions added insurance in Brown. The longtime Dolphin had a slow start for the Eagles, running just 13 times for 38 yards and turning the ball over on one key Wildcat-type of play. Brown isn’t what he once was, but he’s sturdy and dependable enough to fill a lineup spot and protect QB Matthew Stafford if Best misses time. The Eagles basically gave Brown away, getting only a conditional seventh-rounder as well as Harrison, whom they traded for last season and then let leave in the offseason without a second thought. This trade was voided when Harrison failed a physical with the Eagles.

2 – none

1 – Jets trade WR Derrick Mason to Texans for conditional seventh-round pick – Mason was supposed to come to the Jets to be the dependable third receiver, replacing the departed Jerricho Cotchery. But instead of living up to his two-year contract, Mason had just 13 catches for 115 yards for the Jets. More importantly, the Jets coaching staff and front office identified Mason as a troublemaker in the locker room. That had never been Mason’s reputation before, but things quickly devolved to the point that the Jets basically gave Mason away. In his place, the Jets will go to rookie Jeremy Kerley as their third receiver. The Texans, who are without Andre Johnson at the moment, and Mason provides stability and reliability than guys like David Anderson (who was again released) or the inconsistent Jacoby Jones. Now, with Mason and Kevin Walter, the Texans can at least give QB Matt Schaub some options. And if Mason ends up with less than 33 catches as a Texan, Houston won’t owe the Jets a pick. If he does have that many catches, he’ll be well worth a seventh-rounder. The price was right for Houston, and Mason is likely thrilled to escape a situation where he wasn’t wanted.

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Two trades: Mason to Texans, Curry to Raiders

Derrick Mason

WR Derrick Mason, now of the Titans. Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

The NFL trade market heated up this week with two players changing addresses. Below, we talk about the moves of WR Derrick Mason from the Jets to the Texans and OLB Aaron Curry from the Seahawks to the Raiders. We’ll compare these trades along with any others during the NFL season in a future post.

Jets trade WR Derrick Mason to Texans for conditional seventh-round pick – Mason was supposed to come to the Jets to be the dependable third receiver, replacing the departed Jerricho Cotchery. But instead of living up to his two-year contract, Mason had just 13 catches for 115 yards for the Jets. More importantly, the Jets coaching staff and front office identified Mason as a troublemaker in the locker room. That had never been Mason’s reputation before, but things quickly devolved to the point that the Jets basically gave Mason away. In his place, the Jets will go to rookie Jeremy Kerley as their third receiver. The Texans, who are without Andre Johnson at the moment, and Mason provides stability and reliability than guys like David Anderson (who was again released) or the inconsistent Jacoby Jones. Now, with Mason and Kevin Walter, the Texans can at least give QB Matt Schaub some options. The price was right for Houston, and Mason is likely thrilled to escape a situation where he wasn’t wanted.

Seahawks trade OLB Aaron Curry to Raiders for 2012 seventh-round pick and conditional 2013 fifth-round pick – We discussed Curry’s ups and downs in this post, which focused on trade rumors about him. Seattle finally gave up on Curry, the former fourth overall pick in the draft, even though their linebacker corps has been wracked by injuries. With Curry gone, rookie K.D. Williams emerges as a starter in Seattle. In Oakland, Curry provides some flexibility at linebacker and allows Kamerion Wimbley to move up to defensive end in pass-rushing situations. Curry is the kind of first-round disappointment that Al Davis loved to take a chance on. Given the price, you can’t blame the Raiders for taking a shot on Curry to see if they can unlock his potential in a way Seattle could not.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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From T.O. to HOF?

 

Jerry Rice vs NY Giants cornerback (1995)

Should Terrell Owens make the Hall of Fame? And where does he rank among all-time receivers? This week’s news that T.O. suffered a torn ACL got us to thinking. We’ve already considered the way Owens’ career may have ended; now, let’s think about his place in history. (Hat tip to the Open Mic Daily guys for raising the questions and getting me thinking. UPDATE: Here’s the podcast of our conversation.)

We went to Pro Football Reference to look at the numbers. Going through the list, we considered 17 receivers from the top 20 in all-time receptions. (We left out No. 6 Tony Gonzalez, since he’s a tight end; No. 19 Larry Centers, since he was a fullback; and No. 20 Steve Largent, since he’s clearly from another era.) Of that group, only two are in the Hall of Fame – No. 1 Jerry Rice and No.  11 Art Monk. And Monk is the only guy on the list who played a significant portion of his career in the pre-Jerry Rice era (which began in 1985.)

Of these 17 receivers, we knocked out six – Monk, whose peak began before the era began, and five players who weren’t among the top 30 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns – Derrick Mason, Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith. We then added in four others – Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson, who don’t meet the numbers thresholds yet but should soon; and Michael Irvin, who has made the Hall of Fame.

So we set out to compare Owens to the other receivers of his era.

Hall of Fame level: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Hines Ward, Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison – We prefer Moss to Owens slightly, since Moss was the more dynamic threat, but both belong in the Hall. So does Carter, who may finally get over the hump now that Shannon Sharpe has gotten in to ease the receiver backlog. Ward has moved into the Hall of Fame level in the last few years as the leading receiver in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run; if Irvin is in, Ward should be in too. They’re equals. Harrison is an interesting case; his numbers say he’s in, but was he a really good player with a great quarterback, or a great player in his own right.

Current players: We’d also put Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson in this level at this point in their careers. They need to continue adding to their accomplishments, but they’re on track to get in. Reggie Wayne strikes us as a 50/50 case right now; could he eventually pass Harrison in line?

Just outside the HOF bubble: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Art Monk, Irving Fryar – Brown’s numbers are great, but he strikes us as a really good player who compiled great numbers. Bruce and Holt played in a WR-friendly system with the Rams; how could you choose between them for the Hall? Reed falls short, and we believe Monk should have as well. But if any of these players made the Hall of Fame, it wouldn’t be a travesty. We were shocked Fryar hit the numbers standards, but he did so just barely. He’s a level below the rest of the bubble guys.

Current players: Derrick Mason, Chad Ochocinco, Donald Driver, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, and Santana Moss have gaudy numbers but fall below the bubble as well. We don’t see any of this group crossing the HOF threshold.

Just missed the numbers thresholds: Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith – These guys were good but not great. They may be Hall of Fame finalists, but they won’t find their way in.

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The last signings

Jeremy Shockey during a 2007 training camp Cat...

New Panther Jeremy Shockey. Image via Wikipedia

This may be the last week of NFL transactions for a long, long time. And as teams and players prepare for a potential lockout, a few deals are being made. So today and tomorrow, we’re going to look at these moves and their impact on the field in 2011. Today, we start with the last signings; tomorrow, we’ll look at salary-cap clearing cuts.

Saints add DT Shaun Rogers, keep RB Pierre Thomas – Rogers, who was released by the Browns last month, can still be a disruptive force inside. So you can see why the Saints wanted him in the middle of their defense. Rogers got a $4 million contract (reportedly $2 million less than he was offered elsewhere), which is pretty good money but reasonable for a starter. But it’s a good deal for the Saints, for two reasons. One, not many guys are available because of CBA limbo, and Rogers is clearly the best defensive lineman available at this point. And getting Rogers on a one-year deal should ensure that he stays motivated and focused throughout the season, since the carrot of another payday is out there. Give the Saints credit for anteing up and making a deal while they can. Thomas got a four-year, $12 million deal to remain in New Orleans after a rather contentious contract squabble throughout 2010. The deal is worth it to the Saints because they saw how their offense fell off when Thomas’ solid if unspectacular production wasn’t in the lineup in 2010 due to injury.

Chargers add S Bob Sanders – When healthy, Sanders is a premier in-the-box safety who hits like a ton of bricks and makes plays as a tackler, blitzer, and coverman. But Sanders has been healthy far too infrequently in the past three years, which led the Colts to cut their losses on the former defensive player of the year. But the Chargers were more than happy to take a one-year shot on Sanders, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle (or on the helmet?) and get a premium player for cheap. For a defense with far too few impact plays last year, it’s a good gamble. But Chargers fans should remember Sanders’ health problems just as much as they remember his highlight film.

Patriots add NT Marcus Stroud – Stroud, who had been released by Buffalo, moves within the AFC East to the Patriots. New England hopes that, like Gerard Warren last year, Stroud can provide sturdy play in a limited role. If he can do so, it will allow the Pats to use standout Vince Wilfork as a 3-4 defensive end in addition to a nose tackle, which makes the Pats defense more dangerous and more versatile. So for a contending team like the Patriots, giving Stroud a two-year deal to play a specific role makes sense.

Redskins add S O.J. Atogwe – The Redskins love to make a free-agency splash, but with the lockout looming, the pool of players was limited. Still, they spent big money on Atogwe, the turnover-causing machine from the Rams. Atogwe could combine with LaRon Landry, who had a breakout season in 2010, to provide an elite safety pair, and Atogwe’s ability in coverage makes him a nice compliment to Landry, who’s at his best in the box. Plus, Atogwe played some of his best ball in St. Louis under current Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. But the five-year, $26 million deal is miles beyond any other deal on this list, and it makes you wonder if this is a savvy move or an overreaching headline grab by the Skins.

Panthers add TE Jeremy Shockey – Shockey was released by the Saints after an injury-plagued tenure there, and now he lands with the division-rival Panthers on a one-year deal. His former University of Miami tight ends coach Rob Chudzinksi is the new offensive coordinator in Carolina, so there will be some familiarity for him there. Shockey is still a good (not great, but good) receiver, and if he can stay healthy he’ll add an element to the Panthers’ offense that hasn’t been there in a while.

Texans keep TE Owen Daniels – Daniels, who was miffed to get a restricted free-agent tender instead of a long-term deal last season, was paid off for his patience this year with a four-year deal worth up to $22 million with $13 million in guarantees. It rightfully pays Daniels as a top-10 tight end, which he has proven to be. Daniels’ receiving ability adds an important dimension to the Texans’ offense, and now that he’s healthy, it should help Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson find a few more openings for big plays.

Seahawks keep RB Leon Washington – Washington, whom the Seahawks acquired in a draft-day trade last offseason, got a four-year, $12.5 million deal with another $3.5 million in incentives. That’s a nice payday that Washington has been seeking for several years. Washington is an elite returner – he practically won a game against the Chargers by himself with two kickoff return touchdowns last year – and he is also a dangerous third-down back. The price may be steep, but Washington adds value in his role.

Bills keep OT Mansfield Wrotto and S George Wilson – Wrotto, whom the Bills signed off the scrap heap at midseason last year, ended up starting seven games for the Bills, earning a callback for 2011. Wilson serves as Buffalo’s special-teams captain and also has started some games at safety.

Giants keep RB Danny Ware – Ware, who has been the Giants’ third-string back the past couple of years, returns to provide depth. That’s important considering that Brandon Jacobs is likely on the outs and Ahmad Bradshaw is a free agent.

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Bengals/Falcons thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we focus on the topsy-turvy contest between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons, which the Falcons won 39-32.

Roddy White celebrates for the Falcons against the Bengals. Photo from espn.com

It’s hard to know how good these teams are after such a strange game. Atlanta took a 24-3 halftime lead in a dominating first 30 minutes, but Cincinnati used big plays to score 22 unanswered points in the third quarter to take the lead. But the Falcons responded with two big drives to score 14 fourth-quarter points to put the game away. Atlanta is now 5-2 and at the top of the NFC standings, while the Bengals fall to 2-5 and are three games behind the Ravens and three and a half behind the Steelers in the AFC North.

On-field perspective
*Roddy White (pictured) showed in this game why he is a true No. 1 receiver in this league. Even though he’s the Falcons’ only real outside threat, he still caught 11 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, with a two-point conversion catch thrown in for good measure. White doesn’t get the publicity that other receivers get, but he’s just as important to the Falcons as guys like Andre Johnson or Calvin Johnson are to their teams. After a slow start to his career, White has developed into an elite player.
*While White proved once again in this game that’s he’s elite, there are still questions about whether Matt Ryan is at that same blue-chip level. Ryan showed good patience in the pocket against the Bengals, and he completed 24-of-33 passes for 299 yards, so in this game he showed his talent. But Ryan has always been better at home than on the road, and until he can take his show out of the dome, he’s not near the top-flight level of others at his position.
*The Bengals piled up  412 passing yards, and both outside receivers Chad Ochocinco (10 catches, 131 yards, 1 TD) and Terrell Owens (9 catches, 88 yards, 1 TD) put up big numbers. It was hard to tell whether Carson Palmer was favoring either outside receiver, because the modus operandi seemed to be picking on Christopher Owens outside. (That’s why Christopher Owens had 11 tackles.)
*Rookie Jordan Shipley, now that he’s healthy, is a terrific inside threat to complement Ochocinco and T.O. Shipley broke free for a 64-yard touchdown in the Bengals’ third-quarter explosion, showing great speed in the process. As he develops, he’s going to be tough for safeties to cover inside, and he could turn into a Wes Welker-esque threat.
*The Falcons defense gave up 32 points (although seven came from the Bengals D), but one underrated player impressed – DT Vance Walker. Last year, watching Falcons games unveiled Kroy Biermann to Football Relativity readers, and now we want to pump up Walker, a second-year man out of Georgia Tech. He had five tackles in this game, including one tackle for loss and another stuff of Cedric Benson. Walker’s development inside gives the Falcons another front-four threat.
*The strength of the Bengals’ defense is the secondary, and even though they let White go crazy in this game, Cincy still had two terrific plays. Leon Hall made a leaping interception of  Ryan pass to set up Shipley’s touchdown, and on the next possession Adam (Don’t call me Pacman) Jones stripped White and returned the fumble 59 yards for a touchdown. Still, the consistency was lacking in covering White, and that ended up being a huge reason the Bengals fell to 2-5.
*It didn’t decide the game, but the Bengals made a mistake by going for two points when they scored a touchdown to make it 24-19. They failed on that pass, and after scoring another touchdown failed again, so that they led 25-24 instead of leading by three. The Falcons later made a two-point conversion, and the difference ended up being a field goal. Chasing a two-point conversion to trail or lead by a certain amount is unwise until the fourth quarter, but the Bengals fell into that mindset. (The one exception comes when a team has a chance to tie a game via a two-pointer, as the Dolphins did against the Steelers. But instead of going for two, Miami kicked and trailed 17-16, and ended up losing by one after the teams traded field goals the rest of the way. Anytime a team has a chance to go for two to tie, we believe it should do so.)

Fantasy Football perspective
*While White is an elite receiver and a no-doubt No. 1 fantasy receiver, no one else in the Falcons’ passing game is a starter. That includes TE Tony Gonzalez, who had just two catches in the game and was rarely targeted. There are better under-the-radar tight end options to start now than Gonzalez despite his name value.
*It’s hard for fantasy owners to make the call about who’s better, Owens or Ochocinco. Both players produced this week, and there’s always the chance for that to happen, especially if the Bengals fall behind. Both players fall into the second dozen of fantasy receivers.
*Both Michael Turner and Cedric Benson ran for more than 100 yards in this game, and both remain solid every-week fantasy starters.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Quarterbacks

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. Check out the running backs here and the wide receivers here.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a quarterback, that means throwing/scoring 35 touchdowns and 4,500 yards. For quarterbacks, that includes guys who make their way onto Tiers 1A, 1B, or 1C.

No-brainers

Drew Brees, Saints – Brees continued his dominant play in New Orleans, passing for 4,388 yards and 34 touchdowns. He’s thrown for at least that many yards in his four years as a Saint, and he has thrown 34 touchdown passes in each of the last two years. Brees also added two rushing TDs last year to cement his dominance. Brees has a ton of targets, so even an injury to his top target Marques Colston won’t substantially damper his fantasy ceiling. Brees’ phenomenal performance puts him at the head of the class for fantasy quarterbacks, and makes him an A-Team guy. Out of a group of quarterbacks with closely bunched stats, Brees stands above the pack.

Close calls

Aaron Rodgers, Packers – In his second year as a starter, Rodgers took a step forward, going from 4,038 passing yards to 4,434 and from 28 touchdown passes to 30. That step forward is the difference between a good fantasy quarterback (which there are a bunch of, as you’ll see) and an A-Team guy. The underrated thing that sets Rodgers above the pack is his ability to run. Last year, he ran for 316 rushing yards and five touchdowns, after running for 207 yards and four touchdowns in ’08. Those rushing stats last year gave him the equivalent of a 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown season, which are ridiculous quarterback numbers. And since Rodgers has run the ball well two years in a row, we can consider it part of his arsenal and not a fluke. If you’re wondering what separates Rodgers from the quarterbacks below him on the list, it’s those running stats.

Peyton Manning, Colts – Manning has long been the elite fantasy quarterback, but this year our first instinct was to knock him off of the A-Team. But Manning’s numbers – exactly 4,500 passing yards and 33 touchdowns – were basically the A-Team borderline last year. And although those are actually Manning’s best season numbers since his record-setting 2004 season, Manning can do it again. With top targets in Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark and emerging youngsters in Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, Manning suddenly has the best group of targets he’s had since Brandon Stokely, Wayne, and Marvin Harrison were in place. At age 34, Manning is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he has enough of his prime left to include him on Tier 1C for one more year.

Just missed

Matt Schaub, Texans – Schaub has as much fantasy upside as any quarterback this year aside from Brees, and he proved last year that when he stays healthy he can put up huge numbers – 4,770 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. Schaub has perhaps the most talented wideout in the league in Andre Johnson, and top-flight TE Owen Daniels returns as well to add to a deep group of receivers. So in a vaccuum, Schaub is a Tier 1 guy. But injury history keeps Schaub off the A-Team, since last year was the first time in his three years as a starter that he played more than 11 games. Schaub will put up huge numbers when he plays, but the nagging concern that he won’t play enough drops his fantasy stock ever so slightly.

Tony Romo, Cowboys – Romo has had elite fantasy seasons, with 36 touchdowns in ’07 and 26 in just 13 games in ’08. Last year, he had a career best in passing yards with 4,483, but that came with just 26 touchdowns. Other numbers like interceptions and quarterback rating suggest that Romo is entering his prime, and the emergence of Miles Austin as a No. 1 target along with the presence of Jason Witten and the addition of Dez Bryant are good signs. But because of Romo’s touchdown slip last year, we’re going to keep him off the A-Team. He has the potential to end up with the elite guys at the end of the year, but owners are wiser to slot Romo on Tier 2 for now.

Tom Brady, Patriots – After missing almost all of the 2008 season with a knee injury, Brady returned with a big season in ’09 with nearly 4,400 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. With Randy Moss in place, Brady has a top target, but Wes Welker’s late-season injury takes away a huge part of the Pats’ passing game. And behind Moss and Welker, the Pats have an inexperienced crew of receivers that could struggle enough to limit Brady’s fantasy numbers. Brady’s still a fine quarterback, and he proved last year that he’s healthy, but the situation around him limits his fantasy upside this year to about the numbers he posted last year. And those numbers put him on Tier 2, not with the A-Team on Tier 1.

Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers is a terrific quarterback on the field, but owners saw last year that he’s not among the fantasy A-Team. After throwing 34 touchdowns in 2008, Rivers slipped down to 28 last year. Plus, Rivers’ yardage total topped out at 4,254, which puts up a notch below the Brees/Rodgers/Manning/Brady/Schaub level. Rivers is a good fantasy starter, and he has good targets in Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. But Rivers is clearly a Tier 2 guy who slips below the elite fantasy producers at the position.

Brett Favre, Vikings – Despite all the offseason hand-wringing about his status, the king of separation anxiety had a terrific fantasy season with 33 passing touchdowns, 4,200 yards, and just seven interceptions. Spanx turned Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe into elite fantasy performers, and his young receivers should only be better this year. Favre’s absence during offseason work is a small concern, and at age 41 entering the season Favre could pretty quickly slip in his performance level. For that reason, we’ve got to look at Favre’s 2009 numbers as an outlier and slot him at the end of Tier 2 instead of among the A-Team for 2010.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – Of course, Roethlisberger can’t be an A-Teamer since he’s facing a three- or four-game suspension entering the season. But his numbers from ’09 – 4,328 yards and 26 passing touchdowns (plus two rushing scores) despite missing a game – nearly put him on the A-Team. Big Ben is a Tier 3 quarterback because of his suspension, but we wanted to note here that he could post Tier 1-caliber numbers once he returns to the field in October.

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Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Wide Receivers

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. You can check out the running backs here and the quarterbacks in an upcoming post.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a receiver, that means someone projected get at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, or the equivalent in fantasy points. The A-Team at receiver includes players on Tier 1A, 1B, and 1C of our draft board.

No-brainers

Andre Johnson, Texans – Johnson put up his second straight 1,500 yard season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns in ’09. He’s a catch monster who has triple-digit receptions in three of the past four seasons, and last season he hit the century mark yet still averaged 15.5 yards per catch. The touchdown total is perhaps a tad lower than ideal, but it’s still a no-brainer to make Johnson the top-rated wideout and a member of the A-Team as a Tier 1B entrant.

Close calls

Randy Moss, Patriots – For all of his accomplishments, Moss isn’t the yardage producer that Johnson is. Moss has only broken the 1,500-yard mark once in his career, and that was back in 2003 with the Vikings. But Moss is the best receiver in the league at finding the end zone. He’s had an eye-popping nine double-digit touchdown seasons in his 12-year career, including all three of his campaigns in New England. At age 33, Moss could start slowing down a bit, and if his touchdown rate slows he can quickly plummet down draft boards, but given his sterling performance in New England and his contract-year motivation, we’ll include Moss as a Tier 1C receiver and part of the position’s A-Team.

Miles Austin, Cowboys – In one of the most shocking breakouts we’ve ever seen, Austin went from being a fourth receiver for the Cowboys to being an undeniable No. 1 receiver. It started with a 10-catch, 250-yard day against Kansas City in Dallas’ fifth game, but Austin kept it up over the rest of the season and finished with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but even more eye-popping is what Austin did over the last 12 games, which projects to a 101-catch, 1,652-yard, 13-touchdown pace over a full 16-game season. Nothing else in Austin’s background or career suggested this kind of fantasy dominance, so the call on him for 2010 comes down to whether he can maintain this top-level production despite the presence of Roy Williams and rookie Dez Bryant, among others. And our take is that Austin will do just that. We’re including Austin on the A-Team and making him our No. 3 receiver overall as a guy who ekes above Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne on his way to Tier 1.

Just missed

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – After two 1,400-yard seasons, Fitzgerald came back to earth a little in ’09 with 1,092 yards. But he did have a career high in touchdowns with 13, leaving him with A-Team quality numbers once again. The questions about Fitzgerald are not about his talent but about his quarterback, with Matt Leinart replacing Kurt Warner. That figures to put a bit of a drag on Fitz’s numbers, which is just enough to knock him off the A-Team. We’d rather draft Fitzgerald as a Tier 2 receiver with upside than overdraft him by including him on the top tier.

Reggie Wayne, Colts – We’ve long included Wayne as a Tier 1 receiver, but the numbers don’t consistently back that up. Last year was only the fourth of his career with 1,200 yards and at least nine touchdowns, and he’s never had more than 12 touchdowns while only passing 1,310 yards once. That keeps him from having the upside potential that Moss has because of touchdowns or Johnson has because of yards. Plus, the emergence of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon last year meant that the Colts aren’t looking at Wayne as often. So Wayne falls to Tier 2 instead joining the A-Team.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles – After a solid rookie season, Jackson blew up last year in a big way, with nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns (9 receiving, 1 rushing, and 2 on punt returns). There may not be a player in the league more prone to bust a big play than Jackson, who averaged an amazing 18.6 yards per catch last season. Jackson’s catch total won’t blow your mind, but he should be in the 1,200-yard-from-scrimmage neighborhood again this season, and if he can score 10 touchdowns or more he’ll be a Tier 1 producer. But with the Eagles changing from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, we can’t quite project Jackson to fully reach his upside, even though we’re tempted to do so. For now, we’ll keep Jackson near the top of Tier 2, and we’ll reserve the right to move him onto the A Team at a later date.

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson has perhaps the best physical gifts of any receiver in the league, and so fantasy owners drool over his potential year after year. That potential hasn’t changed, and Megatron’s 2008 campaign with 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns points to it. But last year, Johnson had just 1,057 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. He missed two games, which plays into things, and rookie Matthew Stafford struggled with injuries and interceptions as a rookie. So it wasn’t all Johnson’s fault. But while Johnson has the upside to join Tier 1, there are enough minor hiccups around him that he falls just below that mark. Maybe Megatron will transform into a no-doubt A-Teamer in 2010, but we can’t project him there right now.

Brandon Marshall, Dolphins – Marshall has passed the century mark in catches the last three years, and last year he scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time. But while his Denver numbers were just enough to match Tier 1 performance, it’s hard to project him reaching the same heights in his new home in Miami. The Dolphins’ more conservative offense should leave Marshall closer to 80 catches than 100, and that puts him on Tier 2. While there’s no player more fitting of being BA on our A-Team, the numbers don’t justify casting Marshall in that role.

Roddy White, Falcons – Since his breakout 2007 season, White has been a consistent fantasy producer, piling up at least 1,151 yards in each season and topping out with 11 touchdowns last season. But even with the development of QB Matt Ryan, White’s upside seems to be right around the borderline for Tier 1. And inclusion in the A-Team can’t rely solely on the best-case scenario. White is a quality fantasy receiver who fits well on Tier 2, but he’s not among the elite.

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