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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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FR: Preseason cuts

As the turk looms over NFL teams, the list of players released balloons in late August and early September. In this post, we’ll comment on some of the most significant cuts between the closing of training camps and September 1. For analysis of previous cuts, visit the training-camp cuts post and work your way back.

Bengals (cut WR Antonio Bryant and LB Rashad Jeanty) – Bryant became the Bengals’ second straight free-agent bust at wide receiver, joining Laveranues Coles. (Andrew Brandt broke down the numbers well.) Bryant got a four-year, $28 million deal just four months ago, but the knee problems that plagued him last year never went away long enough for him to emerge, and when Cincinnati added Terrell Owens last month, Bryant was no longer needed despite his big contract. The miscalcuation on Bryant’s health will cost the Bengals at least $8 million guaranteed (and maybe more, depending on how an upcoming grievance is resolved), but the Bengals still have enough passing weapons with T.O., Chad Ochocinco, and rookies Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham that Bryant won’t be missed on the field. Jeanty suffered a broken leg last year, and his inability to bounce back made him expendable. He was a quality backup linebacker and special-teams coverage player.

Jets (cut WR Laveranues Coles) – Coles’ third go-round with the Jets was grounded preemptively, and Coles claims he is done now. That may not be true, because the Jets may call Coles back after the first game so that they’re not on the hook for guaranteeing Coles’ base salary for the season. Coles’ skills really showed some decline last season in Cincinnati, and the Jets mainly wanted him as a bridge until Santonio Holmes’ four-game suspension ends. Now the Jets will rely on Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery and hope role players like David Clowney and Brad Smith emerge during the first month of the season.

Buccaneers (cut WR Derrick Ward) – Ward piled up 1,000 rushing yards two years ago with the Giants, and as a result he got a hefty deal to come to Tampa Bay as a free agent. But Ward managed just 409 rushing yards and a 3.6 yards per carry average last year, and this preseason he fell behind not only Cadillac Williams but also rookie Kareem Huggins. So the Bucs cut the cord on Ward right around his 30th birthday. Someone will take a shot on Ward, given how recently he had success, but he’s little more than a stopgap at this point.

Redskins (cut LB Chris Draft) – Draft has been a yeoman for years now, making the rounds as a linebacker good enough to back up any position but not good enough to make an impact. Unless his skills have significantly eroded, he’ll probably find another home in that role.

Broncos (cut LB Akin Ayodele) – Ayodele is a 3-4 inside linebacker who succeeds more on brains than on athleticism at this point in his career. Teams moving to a 3-4 this season may take a look to see how Ayodele moves around at age 31.

Saints (cut LB Troy Evans) – Evans, an eight-year veteran, played all 16 games for New Orleans last year and started twice. He’s bene more of a special-teams contributor than a defensive stalwart, and his two starts last year were the first two of his career. The Saints expressed great pain in cutting their former special-teams captain, but the fact that they did it so early indicates the decision wasn’t that close.

Cowboys (cut S Pat Watkins) – Watkins has started just once game since his rookie season, but but he had a role as a nickelback and on special teams. But he’s the kind of player that teams now seek to replace with low-cost inexperienced players.

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The ABCs of receiver roulette – Avery, Bryant, Coles

Laveranues Coles, Jets Wide receiver 2000–2002...

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Three major news items emerged at the wide receiver position this weekend, and we’re going to break them down like ABC. First comes Donnie Avery’s season-ending injury in St. Louis. Next comes the Bengals’ release of WR Antonio Bryant and then the Jets’ release of WR Laveranues Coles. We’ll analyze the ABCs below, both on the field and from a fantasy football perspective.

A – In St. Louis, Avery was set to become the Rams’ No. 1 receiver once again, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in the Rams’ third preseason game, which will land him on injured reserve and end his season. The injury is a big blow to the Rams, because Avery (who had 100 catches over the past two years) is the only proven receiver on the Rams’ roster. The injury not only stymies a St. Louis attack that’s bereft of playmakers; it also makes it harder for rookie QB Sam Bradford to succeed because he has so few quality targets to look for.
Fantasy impact: With Avery out, Laurent Robinson is probably the Rams’ best receiving option, with Danny Amendola close behind. Feel free to take a flier on either Ram in the final round of larger leagues, but both are long shots to make big impacts.

B – In Cincinnati, Bryant became the Bengals’ second straight free-agent bust at wide receiver, joining Laveranues Coles. (Andrew Brandt broke down the numbers well.) Bryant got a four-year, $28 million deal just four months ago, but the knee problems that plagued him last year never went away long enough for him to emerge, and when Cincinnati added Terrell Owens last month, Bryant was no longer needed despite his big contract. The miscalcuation on Bryant’s health will cost the Bengals at least $8 million guaranteed (and maybe more, depending on how an upcoming grievance is resolved), but the Bengals still have enough passing weapons with T.O., Chad Ochocinco, and rookies Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham that Bryant won’t be missed on the field.
Fantasy impact: Bryant’s departure doesn’t raise the stock of Ochocinco or T.O., but it does mitigate some of the risk of both players by defining their roles more clearly. Ochocinco is a No. 2 receiver, while Owens is a No. 4. Shipley now becomes draftable as a sleeper, because his spot in the slot could help him carve out a role and some numbers. Gresham also becomes draftable in larger leagues as a top 20 tight end. Quarterback Carson Palmer’s status doesn’t change.

C – In New York, Coles’ third go-round with the Jets was grounded preemptively, and Coles claims he is done now. That may not be true, because the Jets may call Coles back after the first game so that they’re not on the hook for guaranteeing Coles’ base salary for the season. Coles’ skills really showed some decline last season in Cincinnati, and the Jets mainly wanted him as a bridge until Santonio Holmes’ four-game suspension ends. Now the Jets will rely on Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery and hope role players like David Clowney and Brad Smith emerge during the first month of the season.
Fantasy impact: Coles had no fantasy value before and still doesn’t. His absence doesn’t affect Braylon Edwards’ value but does make Jerricho Cotchery a solid flex play for the first four weeks of the season until Holmes returns to the field.

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FR: Pre-camp additions

In this post, we compare additions NFL teams made between the beginning of July and the beginning of NFL training camps. For previous signings from the offseason, go to the June signings post and work your way back.

10 – Bengals (add UFA WR Terrell Owens) – After a quiet year in Buffalo, T.O. had trouble finding a new job. But the Bengals finally stepped up just before training camp opened with a one-year, $2 million offer. It’s a massive pay cut for Owens, although that’s not unusual for NFL players at age 36. But it is a decent situation for Owens. He’ll have a better shot at playing time and targets than he would have with the Jets, another rumored suitor, and he’ll win more games than he would have as a Ram, which was another potential landing spot. Owens will be the possession receiver across from Chad Ochocinco, who had a renaissance year last season and still has some mid- and long-range ability. And Owens is probably good enough to beat out free-agent signee Antonio Bryant, who is plagued by a knee injury and could land on the physically unable to perform list. The trick will be spreading out the ball enough to keep Owens and Ochocinco, two star-sized egos, happy. But quarterback Carson Palmer pushed for Owens to come to town, and he knows enough stories to realize all that entails. The Bengals are a contender, and this addition helps their stock. They’re taking big risks in terms of character in their effort to win with players with locker-room issues as well as off-field issues (T.O. is exclusively in the former category), but it worked last year, and so they’re going all in with the strategy again.

9 – none

8 – Giants (add UFA LB Keith Bulluck) – Bulluck had a great career in Tennessee, but just as he approached free agency a late-season knee injury slowed his recruitment. Now he moves to New York, where he will be counted on to replace Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker. Bulluck played on the outside in Tennessee, and although he’s not huge he was a big-time play maker in the passing game. Now Bulluck will have to be a bit more disciplined to help center a Giants defense that fell apart last year. Still, given the market, Bulluck was the best option available for the Giants, and if he returns to his former Pro Bowl level or anything near it, he’ll be a huge addition. It’s worth a one-year, $2.5 million risk for a team that fancies itself a contender.

7 – Dolphins (add DEs Charles Grant and Marques Douglas and DT Montavious Stanley) – Grant, a former first-rounder in New Orleans, never lived up to the hype in the Big Easy, although he had 47 sacks and 30 passes batted down in his career. He’s big enough to move inside in a 3-4 defense and play the five-technique end, and he’ll help in that position. At age 31, if Grant takes to this role, he could really prolong his career, because there aren’t enough five-techniques out there. Douglas started 12 games for the Jets at defensive end last year and is a sturdy five-technique, even though he has little pass-rush pop. Still, adding two veterans who are starting-quality at this point is a big plus for the Dolphins. Stanley has bounced around a lot in his four NFL seasons, but he played OK as a backup in Jacksonville last year and should add depth for the Dolphins up front.

6 – Lions (add CB Dre Bly) – Cornerback has been a huge problem area for Detroit recently, and so they’re bringing back Bly, who most recently played in Denver. Bly will take over for William James as the Lions’ designated veteran and a starter who provides some stability on at least one side. Bly gambles more than most coaches like, but he is a replacement-level starter going to a team that had subpar options at the position.

6 (con’t) – Steelers (add OTs Flozell Adams and Adrian Jones) – After starting ORT Willie Colon suffered a season-ending injury in a July workout, the Steelers needed to add a starter and depth at tackle. Flozell the Hotel doesn’t move as well as he used to, which made him a liability on the left side in Dallas. But Adams is big enough to hold up as a run blocker, and that should make him a passable replacement for Colon in the starting lineup. Jones, who last played in 2008, has experience and adds depth.

5 – Buccaneers (add UFA OG Keydrick Vincent) – Vincent played well as a starter for the Panthers the last couple of years, and he can bring that kind of run-blocking presence to the Bucs. Carolina wanted to get younger, but the Bucs need to get better, and Vincent helps in that area.

4 – Seahawks (add UFA OG Chester Pitts) – Pitts, a long-time Texan, played pretty well before getting hurt in 2009. That injury kept him from finding a home until just before training camp. But he knows offensive line coach Alex Gibbs’ system, and that will help Gibbs implement in Seattle.

3 – Saints (keep DE Bobby McCray, add QB Patrick Ramsey) – The Saints cut McCray in the offseason and now bring him back at less than half the price, while giving McCray an opportunity to make up some of the difference via incentives. That’s a prudent financial move, given that McCray didn’t start any games last year and had just 12 tackles. He’s a sturdy defensive end who provides depth, but he doesn’t need to be a starter at this point in his career. Ramsey, a former first-round pick, finds his sixth team in six years. He’ll replace aging Mark Brunell as Drew Brees’ backup.

2 – Browns (add UFA WR Bobby Engram) – Engram has been around forever, and he had his best years in Seattle playing for Mike Holmgren. Now the 37-year-old comes to Cleveland as Holmgren’s choice as a veteran receiver. Engram shouldn’t start, but he’s a reliable receiver who can contribute in a No. 4 role and (more importantly) in the meeting room.

1 – Jets (add UFA QB Mark Brunell) – Brunell won a ring with the Saints last year, and now he moves to the Jets as a veteran backup to Mark Sanchez and Kellen Clemens. Brunell, who turns 40 in September, is probably better as an emergency guy at this point in his career, and he can fill that role in New York. Brunell be the No. 2 quarterback, but if Sanchez were to get hurt for a long stretch Clemens could get the call to start over Brunell.

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T.O. Show means more drama in Cincy

The Terrell Owens shoe finally dropped Tuesday when the star (and star-crossed) wideout signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Bengals. Below are some thoughts on the move, both on the field and from a fantasy football perspective. You can see how this signing compares to others this month in a post later this week.

After a quiet year in Buffalo, T.O. had trouble finding a new job. But the Bengals finally stepped up just before training camp opened with a one-year, $2 million offer. It’s a massive pay cut for Owens, although that’s not unusual for NFL players at age 36. But it is a decent situation for Owens. He’ll have a better shot at playing time and targets than he would have with the Jets, another rumored suitor, and he’ll win more games than he would have as a Ram, which was another potential landing spot. Owens will be the possession receiver across from Chad Ochocinco, who had a renaissance year last season and still has some mid- and long-range ability. And Owens is probably good enough to beat out free-agent signee Antonio Bryant, who is plagued by a knee injury and could land on the physically unable to perform list. The trick will be spreading out the ball enough to keep Owens and Ochocinco, two star-sized egos, happy. But quarterback Carson Palmer pushed for Owens to come to town, and he knows enough stories to realize all that entails. The Bengals are a contender, and this addition helps their stock. They’re taking big risks in terms of character in their effort to win with players with locker-room issues as well as off-field issues (T.O. is exclusively in the former category), but it worked last year, and so they’re going all in with the strategy again.

From a fantasy football perspective, Owens’ arrival dampens the stock of Ochocinco and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham, who we were bullish on just last week. Ochocinco is still a No. 2 fantasy receiver, but Gresham is now draftable only in mega-sized leagues. The Owens signing also is a big statement about Bryant’s role on the team, which means our endorsement of Bryant as a potential top-35 receiver no longer applies. Owens’ arrival isn’t enough for us to promote Carson Palmer’s stock into the top 15 at quarterback.

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Fantasy Football: Rookie receivers

Last season was a surprising one for fantasy football owners, because the conventional wisdom failed. In the past, only truly elite rookie receivers were able to step in and make enough of an impact to be relevant for fantasy owners. But last season, many rookies – from Minnesota’s Percy Harvin to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks to Tennessee’s Kenny Britt to Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace to Indy’s Austin Collie – made fantasy impacts. So it’s worth fantasy owners’ time to take a closer look at this year’s crop of rookie receivers.

Now that we’ve broken down rookie running backs and their fantasy stock this season, we’re going to turn our attention to receivers – both wideouts and tight ends. In this post, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to indicate which receivers are worthy of being drafted. If a receiver is worthy of being drafted, we’ll indicate where in the post.

Just a reminder before we begin – you can search all our fantasy football coverage in this category.

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant was the hot receiver name going into the draft, and he’s Jerry Jones’ pet pick as the Playmaker 2.0. But what kind of fantasy option is he? Obviously, Miles Austin has emerged as a No. 1 receiver both on the field and on fantasy scoresheets. But Tony Romo has spread the ball around, and Bryant immediately becomes a better option than Patrick Crayton and the disappointing Roy Williams. Don’t get your head out over your skis too much on Bryant, because Austin and Jason Witten are still ahead of him in the pecking order. But a 60-catch, eight-TD season is well within the realm of possibility for Bryant, and that makes him a No. 3 fantasy receiver in 10- to 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Broncos – After the Broncos sent Brandon Marshall out of town, they rebuilt their receiving corps with two rookies.  Thomas, a first-round pick, is a speedy outside threat who played in such a run-heavy offense that he may face an adjustment period to the NFL. Decker was a super-productive receiver at Minnesota who has good size and runs good routes, but he’s recovering from a foot injury and sat out OTAs. That’s enough for us to rule out Decker on draft day, although we believe he could be a pick-up during the season. Thomas, meanwhile, is worth a shot as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver simply because the Broncos have so few other options that are attractive in Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokely, and Jabar Gaffney. Verdict: Applaud for Thomas; A fraud for Decker

Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Buccaneers – Like the Broncos, the Buccaneers overhauled their receiving corps in the offseason, and now Benn (a second-round pick) and Williams (a fourth-round pick) look like they have clear shots to starting berths. Holdovers Sammie Stroughter, Reggie Brown, and Michael Clayton aren’t great shakes, while Benn and Williams are both big talents. The question is whether an offense helmed by second-year QB Josh Freeman can produce enough numbers to make Benn and Williams fantasy producers and whether both rookies can emerge at the same time. It’s hard to answer those questions definitively, but the talent is good enough with both guys that we’d recommend drafting either Benn or Williams as your No. 5 receiver and seeing how well they emerge. Verdict: Applaud for both Benn and Williams.

Golden Tate, Seahawks – Tate, a second-round pick, is Pete Carroll’s handpicked receiver to be the Seahawks’ big-play threat. That’s something that the Seahawks don’t have with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch. Matt Hasselbeck has had success in Seattle, and Nate Burleson (a similar player to Tate) had some good numbers in the offense. So Tate is a great option for fantasy owners as a bench guy with lots of upside. As a No. 4 or No. 5 receivers, Tate is a great investment. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, Panthers – There’s plenty of opportunity for Carolina’s two third-round picks, because after Steve Smith the Panthers don’t have a proven receiving threat. The tricky thing is figuring out whether LaFell or Edwards will step ahead of the other receivers, and if so what that means for fantasy owners. I reserve the right to amend this guess after visiting Panthers training camp, but the guess for now is that Edwards will find more of a role as a slot receiver as well as a return man, and that will make him a top-60 receiver, while LaFell will fall just below that level. That makes Edwards draftable in 12-teams league and LaFell a guy I’d rather follow as a early-season claim. Verdict: Applaud for Edwards; A fraud for LaFell

Mardy Gilyard, Rams – Gilyard, the first pick in the fourth round of April’s draft, fell into an ideal situation to emerge as a fantasy receiver. After being a big-play guy at Cincinnati, Gilyard is probably the best receiving option the Rams have after Donnie Avery. Granted, the Rams’ passing game will struggle this season with rookie Sam Bradford sure to get plenty of snaps, but Gilyard could still be a 40-50 catch guy who provides value and some upside as a No. 5 receiver in leagues with at least 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – We discussed McCluster in our rookie RB post because he could have RB eligibility in some leagues. As strictly a receiver, McCluster looks to be a 40-catch guy who could end up being in the top 60 at the position in fantasy terms if he finds the end zone enough. So if you’re in a 12-team league or larger, McCluster could be worth a final-round shot, just to see how much of a role he earns. Verdict: Applaud

Damian Williams, Titans – Williams, a third-round pick, goes into a Titans offense that turned rookie Kenny Britt into a fantasy factor last year. But that receiving group is deeper than it was last year because of Britt’s emergence alongside Justin Gage and Nate Washington. That means Williams will struggle to find targets and end up below the draftable level for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Jordan Shipley, Bengals – Shipley was a do-everything slot receiver at Texas, and the third-round pick could find a similar role in Cincinnati. But we see another rookie as the better prospect for fantasy relevance with the Bengals (see below), and because of that view we see Shipley as more of a bit player. That will prevent him from having draft-worthy fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers – Sanders, a third-round pick by the Steelers, has an opportunity to step into a No. 3 receiver role in Pittsburgh behind Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. And fantasy owners know that role was fruitful for Wallace last season. But given the Steelers’ miserable QB situation in the first quarter of the season, our thought is to pass on Sanders in the draft and watch him as a pick-up prospect, especially once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – We raved about Gresham in the pre-NFL draft process, and he landed in a fantasy friendly offensve in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t gotten a lot of tight end production in recent years, but that’s been more of a personnel issue than a system issue. Gresham is a terrific receiver who should be the third receiving option behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, and that may be enough to find top-20 value at tight end. So in larger leagues, Gresham is worth drafting, and in keeper leagues he’s also worth a look because he could develop into a top-8 tight end within a couple of seasons. Verdict: Applaud

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Patriots – The Patriots cleared out their tight end corps in the offseason and drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez while signing only veteran Alge Crumpler, who’s mostly a blocker at this point in his career. New England has produced some tight end numbers under this offensive system, but they’ve usually been spread out among several players. If you had to pick one Pats tight end to draft in fantasy leagues this year, it would be Gronkowski, but he’s unlikely to break into the top 20 at tight end since it’s such a deep position at this point. So unless you’re in a mega league or a strong keeper league, neither Gronkowksi or Hernandez is draftable. Verdict: A fraud

Ed Dickson, Ravens – Dickson’s a nice prospect at tight end for the Ravens, but with Todd Heap still around, there’s not much room for Dickson to be a fantasy force this season. He’ll be on draft boards at some point in his career, but not this year. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football: Finding gems at quarterback

It’s clear in fantasy football this year who the top eight quarterbacks are. But who are the sleeper quarterbacks in this year’s crop?

In a previous post, we identified the top quarterbacks, and we’ve also discussed Donovan McNabb’s declining stock and Jason Campbell’s promise in this post. Now we’re going to comb through the rest of the NFL’s starters to see which have the upside to contribute as fantasy starters this season.

Our baseline in this post is to find guys who are better than Big Ben. Roethlisberger would belong with the top 8 quarterbacks if not for his suspension, and so this post seeks to find guys we’d rather have than Roethlisberger starting in Week 5.  We’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to do this, identifying with each verdict what it means in relation to Big Ben plus a fill-in.

Jason Campbell, Raiders – We covered Campbell earlier and told of our reasons for optimism with his fantasy stock. But is his stock going to rise enough to put him over the Big Ben level? Last year’s 20-TD season was Campbell’s career high by quite a bit, and throwing 20 TDs is basically replacement level for a top-15 quarterback. So while Campbell has upside, he’s more of a fill-in for Big Ben than an improvement over him. There’s upside here, but not enough to surpass Big Ben plus a fill-in. Verdict: A fraud

Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler’s first season in Chicago was interesting but inconsistent. With 27 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, Cutler was a fine fantasy quarterback in leagues where interceptions didn’t deduct points. But if he matches his TD and yardage numbers (3,666) from last season and drops just a few interceptions, he’ll shoot up the fantasy charts toward the top 10 at the QB position. Plus, Cutler seems to have a better environment to succeed this year with Mike Martz stepping in as offensive coordinator and young receivers like Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu emerging. Cutler may not break the 30 touchdown barrier, but he’ll break the Big Ben plus a fill-in mark by throwing for 25 TDs and approaching 4,000 yards. Verdict: Applaud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback in his second season, throwing for 21 TDs in ’09 after throwing just 14 the year before. He also threw for 3,613 yards, an increase of about 650 yards. And many fantasy analysts are projecting even bigger things for Flacco this year now that the Ravens have added Anquan Boldin. Boldin immediately becomes the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver, and he and Derrick Mason are a fine pair of receivers. Adding other players such as Donte Stallworth and rookie TE Ed Dickson add to Flacco’s group of receivers. That’s all good news, but consider that Flacco was basically a replacement-level backup QB last year. He’ll take a step forward to around 25 TDs, but counting on Flacco as a top-10 quarterback is risky. Still, Flacco moves above the Big Ben or fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

David Garrard, Jaguars – The past two years, Garrard has been a consistent yardage producer, throwing for right at 3,600 yards both seasons. But in both seasons, he threw only 15 touchdowns a season. Even though he has run for five TDs in the last two seasons combined, those low TD pass numbers keep Garrard from being a top-15 fantasy quarterback. Even though Garrard has a talented group of young receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker, it’s just too hard to imagine him making a huge jump in TD passes that will make him a better option than Big Ben plus a fill-in. Garrard is far better suited as a fill-in in that scenario than as a replacement for Big Ben. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck’s fantasy stock plummeted due to injury two seasons ago, and last season his numbers were pedestrian even considering he missed two games. His yardage total (3,000 in 14 games) was fine, but 17 TDs put him with the average fantasy quarterbacks. And now that Pete Carroll is the new sheriff in Seattle, it seems like the heat has been turned up on Hasselbeck’s seat. Hasselbeck is probably a safe bet for 20 touchdowns and 3,200 yards if he stays healthy, but that puts him just under the Big Ben or a fill-in level. Hasselbeck is merely a fantasy backup at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne had a solid first season, throwing for 2,878 yards despite playing only 14 games. Even better, he seemed to click into gear late in the season. After throwing for 220 yards or more in only one of his first nine games, he did so in four of his final five contests. So projecting Henne for 3,200 yards seems safe, and he has the ability to ratchet that number up into the 3,600-yard range pretty easily, especially after the Dolphins added Brandon Marshall in the offseason. The question with Henne is touchdowns. He threw for just 12 last year. If he follows the Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco pattern, he’ll move up to the 20-TD level in his second year as a starter, and if that happens Henne will be a replacement-level top-15 fantasy quarterback. But projecting Henne to double in his TD total – which is what it would take to put him over the Big Ben and a fill-in level – seems like a two-year project, not a 2010 occurrence. Henne is a terrific fill in with Big Ben, but we can’t quite put him over that level. Verdict: A fraud

Kevin Kolb, Eagles – Kolb doesn’t have much of a track record with just two career starts, but he steps into a  fantasy gold mine in Philadelphia. Andy Reid loves to throw the ball, and with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek, the Eagles have one of the best groups of young receivers in the league. And in Kolb’s two starts last year, he put up solid fantasy numbers by throwing for more than 300 yards in each game with two TDs in each game. Of course, Kolb won’t live up to those numbers through a full season, but his potential and his ideal situation makes us willing to take the risk on Kolb before we take the risk on the Big Ben plus a fill-in strategy. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Leinart, Cardinals – After Kurt Warner’s retirement, Leinart finally gets his shot to start in Arizona. He hasn’t started more than four games since his rookie season, and his performance then mirrored what we’ve seen from guys like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan more recently. And in his one start last year, he was 21-of-31 for 220 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, which is not a warning flag. Now that Anquan Boldin’s gone, Arizona seems to be tipping toward the running game, but even with that emphasis Leinart has a great collection of targets in Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Early Doucet. We can’t put Leinart above the Big Ben and a fill-in level, but he’s a decent gamble as the fill-in because he could emerge as a nice fantasy performer who becomes an attractive trade chip once Roethlisberger returns to the field. Verdict: A fraud

Eli Manning, Giants – Manning had his best fantasy season last year, throwing for career highs with 4,021 yards and 27 touchdowns. That yardage total was about 700 yards above what Manning had hovered around the three previous seasons, but that may be attributable to an improved group of receivers that features youngsters Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Even in Manning reverts to the 3,300-yard, 23-touchdown level that was his career norm before last year, he’s still above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. But last year showed that Manning has the upside to knock on the door of the top 10 at the position. Verdict: Applaud

Donovan McNabb, Redskins – We discuss McNabb previously, but just to reiterate our reservations about his stock. He’ll turn 34 during the season, which means his prime is waning if not completely gone. He’s never been a paragon of health, and now he’s moving behind an offensive line that’s more vulnerable up the middle than Philly’s was. Most of all for fantasy owners, McNabb’s cadre of receivers in Washington is two or three levels below what he had at his disposal in Philly last year. His numbers will decrease to the point that Roethlisberger’s a better bet starting in Week 5. You’d be better off with Big Ben and a fill-in than with McNabb. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – After an injury-plagued ’08 season, Palmer returned to play all 16 games in ’09. The problem was that his fantasy production didn’t return with him. After throwing for between 26 and 32 touchdowns in ’05 to ’07, he threw just 21 in ’09. (Three rushing touchdowns, more than his previous career total, mitigated that somewhat.) And instead of being in the 4,000-yard range, Palmer barely cracked 3,000. Part of the reason was that there was no real complement to Chad Ochocinco in the offense, and the Bengals believe signee Antonio Bryant addresses that issue. But fantasy owners know that a bigger reason is that the pendulum in Cincinnati has swung toward the running game. That means Palmer falls between 15 and 20 on the fantasy QB pecking order. Maybe there’s upside for him to begin to approach his glory-year numbers, but our hunch is that Big Ben and a fill-in will end up with better totals. So we’re placing Palmer below that level. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Although Ryan missed two games last year, his TD numbers went up from 14 to 22 as he took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback. Ryan hasn’t been a superb yardage producer – less than 210 yards per game – and that limits his fantasy value. But with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has two elite targets, and with a full season he should be in the 25-touchdown neighborhood again. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of risk of Ryan falling off the map. He’s not an elite fantasy quarterback, but you can comfortably put Ryan in the top 12 at the position and slot him above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie numbers were pretty typical – 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions with 2,444 yards (in 15 games). But he seemed to develop in the playoffs with four TD passes and just two interceptions, making him worth a second glance for fantasy owners this season. The Jets maintain a run-first offense, but by adding Braylon Edwards at midseason last year and Santonio Holmes (suspended four games) this season, the Jets have given Sanchez more to work with. Those guys, plus Dustin Keller and Jerricho Cotchery, create a deep group of receivers. It’s feasible to see Sanchez ratcheting up to the 20-TD, 3,000-yard mark, which would make him a fantasy backup. But expecting Sanchez to jump past Big Ben and a fill-in level to the top-12 at quarterback is asking too much. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford’s rookie numbers – 225 passing yards per game and 13 passing touchdowns in 10 games – weren’t bad. And if you project Stafford to take the same kind of second-year jump that Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did, he would move from an 18-TD pace to a 22- or 23-TD clip. That, plus his 3,500 yard pace from last year, are promising. Add in the fact that the Lions added Tony Scheffler, Nate Burleson, and rookie Jahvid Best to Calvin Johnson to set Stafford up to succeed, and it seems like Stafford’s set up to succeed. But Roethlisberger’s track record makes us just a smidgen more secure in picking him than Stafford. Ideally, Stafford would be the fill in you pair with Big Ben, because Stafford’s upside could give you a top-12 fantasy quarterback to trade once Roethlisberger returns. But for now, we’ll leave Stafford just a hair below the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: A fraud

Vince Young, Titans – Young is an unconventional fantasy quarterback. In basically three seasons’ worth of starts, he has thrown just 32 touchdown passes, but he’s also run for eight. As much as his value comes from running the ball (about 25 yards per game last year) as from passing (about 150 yards per game last year). Some are projecting Young to emerge as a fantasy quarterback, and some signs are there. Young seemed to mature last season, throwing for 235 yards or more in three of four games down the stretch. Plus, Kenny Britt seems to be becoming the best receiver the Titans have had since Derrick Mason left. But even with those positive harbingers, we can’t put Young above the Big Ben plus a fill-in level. The numbers just don’t support it. Verdict: A fraud

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