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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 13

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

Quarterbacks

Jason Campbell, Redskins – Campbell had a huge game against New Orleans, throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a performance that deserved a win. It was good enough to help fantasy owners win, which is consistent with Campbell’s performances of recent weeks. He’s a top 15 fantasy quarterback at this point, and if you have an injured quarterback he’s a terrific fallback option. Verdict: Applaud

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – Freeman marched the ball up and down the field, throwing for 321 yards against the Panthers, but his five interceptions (three in the red zone) were killers. You simply can’t trust Freeman yet as a fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Bruce Gradkowksi, Raiders – In one of the day’s stunners, the Raiders went into Pittsburgh and won thanks to Gradkowski, who threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Gradkowski has done a nice job since entering the lineup, and his presence has made other Raiders (especially Zach Miller) fantasy relevant. But Gradkowski is not more than a backup for most fantasy leagues. Unless you’re in a league that starts two quarterbacks, stay away. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne had a huge effort (335 yards, two touchdowns) in the Dolphins’ come-from-behind victory over New England. But that doesn’t mean you can consider starting Henne in the playoffs in your league. He’s a decent enough backup, but not a starter. Still, if you’re in a keeper league, grabbing Henne at this point could prove productive. Otherwise, it’s a moot point. Verdict: A fraud

Brady Quinn, Browns – Quinn threw for three touchdowns against the Browns without an interception, finishing with 271 passing yards. Who knows what Eric Mangini will do with Quinn next year, but Quinn is starting to show that he does have the stuff to be a productive NFL starter. Maybe that happens in Cleveland, or maybe Mangini sets Quinn free. Either way, he’s worth a speculative claim in keeper leagues. But there are other options – Alex Smith, Jason Campbell – who are better bets to produce in fantasy lineups over the remainder of this year. Verdict: Applaud

Alex Smith, 49ers – Even though the Niners lost in Seattle, Smith starred with 310 passing yards and two touchdowns. He’s been productive since entering the lineup, and that makes him about as good a fill-in option as you’re likely to find now. If you end up having to start Smith, he won’t kill you. At this point in the season, that’s a plus. Verdict: Applaud

Running Backs

Joseph Addai, Colts – Addai had two rushing touchdowns against the Titans, and he finally appears to have steered clear of competition from Donald Brown and others in the Colts backfield. For the first time this season, it’s now safe to consider Addai among the top 20 fantasy running backs and a regular starter in normal-sized leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter only had 12 carries against the Chiefs, but he produced 113 rushing yards in the game. That reminds owners that Buckhalter has been a nice yardage producer throughout the season. But it was Knowshon Moreno, not Buckhalter, who got in the end zone twice for Denver. That limits Buckhalter’s value and keeps him outside the top 25 of fantasy running backs. Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – Harrison had 60 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards against the Chargers, and he caught two touchdown passes. That shows us that he’s the best option in Cleveland’s backfield right now. But that’s damning with faint praise. Harrison isn’t a starting option except for desperate fantasy owners, and if you’re that desperate your playoff hopes were probably done for anyway. Verdict: A fraud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart had a career-high 120 rushing yards and a touchdown, but remember that DeAngelo Williams missed this game due to injury. Once Williams returns, Stewart returns to a guy who’s a consideration for flex spots but not a starting fantasy back. This verdict is for Stewart as a top-20 fantasy back. Verdict: A fraud

Wide Receivers

Davone Bess, Dolphins – Bess, who was Miami’s leading receiver entering this game, went crazy with 10 catches for 117 yards and a score. If you’re desperate for a receiver, Bess is an option, but he’s still not going to produce enough numbers to be a top-40 fantasy wideout. Verdict: A fraud

Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant has been banged up most of the year, but he showed up big for Tampa Bay against the Panthers with five catches for 116 yards. He can provide a nice spark for fantasy owners down the stretch. Remember just how productive Bryant was at the end of last season? He may be headed for another December to remember. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon had six catches for 136 yards against the Titans, marking his sixth game with at least 50 yards receiving. while there’s still some risk in starting him, Garcon is regularly rewarding fantasy owners to the point that he should now be considered a flex option and among the top 25 fantasy wideouts. Verdict: Applaud

Santonio Holmes, Steelers – Holmes has had at least six catches and at least 74 yards in five straight games, and Sunday against the Raiders he had eight catches for 149 yards and a score. There’s no excuse not to have Holmes in your lineup every week. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Another week, another touchdown for Meachem, who has now scored in five straight games. And he did that Sunday against the Redskins not just with a fumble recovery for a touchdown but with a monster receiving game with eight catches for 142 yards and a second score. If you’re not starting Meachem at this point, it’s your fault. Verdict: Applaud

Louis Murphy, Raiders – The Raiders went crazy throwing the ball in Pittsburgh, and Murphy was a beneficiary with 128 yards and two scores on just four catches. While Murphy isn’t an automatic start, he’s probably the best receiver Oakland has at this point, and Bruce Gradkowski is a competent quarterback. That means Murphy is a pickup who could serve as a sleeper or an injury fill-in down the stretch. Verdict: Applaud

Devin Thomas, Redskins – Thomas has gone without a catch in five of the games he’s played in this year, but he’s now had multiple catches in four straight games, including a breakout performance with seven catches for 100 yards and two scores against the Saints. That’s worth noting in keeper leagues, because the second-year player is around the career path in which receivers often start to get it. But it would be foolish to expect Thomas to be a fantasy contributor the rest of this year. Verdict: A fraud

Roddy White, Falcons – If White can put up 104 yards and a touchdown with Chris Redman throwing the ball against an Eagles team that’s strong and deep at cornerback, then you can trust him as a starter going forward no matter how long Matt Ryan remains out. Verdict: Applaud

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Wide Receivers

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

We’ve already done this with the top 35 running backs and emerging running backs, both of which we covered last week. Now we turn to the top 35 receivers from our preseason draft board.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top wide receivers who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – It’s four games, four touchdowns for Fitzgerald, who had a two-score game in Week 5 to cement his status as a fantasy stud again this year. While Fitz hasn’t been the dominant force he was in the playoffs last year, he’s doing just fine as a No. 1 fantasy receiver. Expecting much more than this is just being greedy. Verdict: Applaud

2. Andre Johnson, Texans – Like Fitzgerald, Johnson had two TDs in Week 5, but his numbers actually look a bit better than Fitzgerald. Johnson is averaging 87 yards per game and has had two two-TD games. He’s also averaging a whopping 15.6 yards per catch. Aside from an average Week 1 performance, Johnson has been the fantasy bellweather that owners expected when they drafted him. Verdict: Applaud

3. Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson got off to a bit of slow start as rookie QB Matthew Stafford gained steam, and then a Week Five injury held him to just one two-yard catch against the Steelers. So Johnson’s numbers are not quite what fantasy owners expected, but he still has 325 receiving yards plus a bonus 37 yards rushing. Given his Week 5 injury, those numbers will do for a No. 1 fantasy wideout – just barely. We’ll clap, although if his current injury lingers we might have to reluctantly change our verdict. Verdict: Applaud

4. Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is averaging 73 yards a game, which is OK for a top receiver, but he has just one touchdown so far this season. The Tom Brady/Moss combo certainly isn’t what it was two years ago, which may be leaving some fantasy owners struggling. This is another marginal call for a top receiver, but we’ll clap based on Moss’ solid yardage total. Verdict: Applaud

5. Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith suffered through Jake Delhomme’s Week One meltdown, and the Panthers’ offensive woes have held him to 259 yards from scrimmage in four games. Even worse, his first and only score of the season was a two-point conversion in Week 5 against the Redskins. It’s certainly not his fault, but you just can’t praise what Smith has provided fantasy owners thus far. Even worse, you can’t project that much more going forward. Smith is not a No. 1 fantasy wideout this year. Verdict: A fraud

6. Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings has had a weird year. He had 106 yards in Week One, and then didn’t catch a pass in Week 2. He had 103 yards on just two catches in Week 3, and then had just 31 yards in Week Four. The overall yards-per-game total is OK for Jennings – 60 yards per game – but his wild inconsistency and lack of scoring (one TD plus a two-pointer) leaves him just short of applause. This year, he looks more like a good No. 2 fantasy receiver with upside than a true No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: A fraud

7. Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has been the most consistent fantasy wideout thus far this year, and his totals of 95 yards per game and four total touchdowns are nearly the best in the league. In only one game has Wayne had less than 60 receiving yards, which means you can rely on him for big numbers week after week. Clap it up for the No. 1 overall fantasy receiver thus far and going forward. Verdict: Applaud

8. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals – After a sorry Week One, in which he had just 19 yards receiving, Boldin has had at least 69 receiving yards in the last three games. He has just one touchdown, but his total of 252 yards is fine four games into the season. He’ll need to get in the end zone more often to draw season-long applause, but we’re clapping for now. Verdict: Applaud

9. Roddy White, Falcons – After a so-so start to the season, White had a huge Week 5 against the Seahawks with 210 yards and two touchdowns. Now his season totals of 329 yards and three TDs put him among the top fantasy receivers in the game. That’s his rightful place – as a solid No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

10. Terrell Owens, Bills – I kept moving Owens down my rankings in the preseason, to the point where I had him as a borderline No. 1 receiver, but I couldn’t imagine him bottoming out the way he has thus far. He was completely shut out in Week 3 and has just 12 catches in five games, and he’s averaging just 40 yards per game with a single touchdown in Week 2. Owens is barely startable in leagues that have three WR spots in the lineup. You can’t clap for that. Verdict: A fraud

11. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks – Houshmandzadeh is another wideout who started slow, but he has a 100-yard game and then a two-TD game in his last two outings. He’s averaging 65 yards per game, even though starting QB Matt Hasselbeck missed two games and much of a third. Plus, the arrow is pointing up at this point. Houshmandzadeh looks like he’s going to be a solid No. 2 fantasy wideout going forward. Given this draft position, that kind of production works just fine. Verdict: Applaud

12. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Bowe will give you heartburn because he seems to catch his TD passes late in games when it appears like he’ll be a fantasy bust. But the bottom line is that he has scored touchdowns in three of the four games he played, and in each of those games he had at least four catches. He missed Week 3 due to injury and had just one catch the following week when he still wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but when he’s been right he’s been an acceptable fantasy starter because of his touchdowns. So while it’s a little nerve-wracking to do so, we’ll clap for him as a No. 2 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

13. Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the de facto No. 1 receiver in New Orleans’ high-powered offense, but the Saints have so many threats that it’s hard to get consistent production out of any single player. Colston comes closest, with 228 yards and three touchdowns in four games thus far. But he’s also been held under 35 receiving yards in two of those four games. That keeps Colston from being a No. 1 fantasy receiver, but he’s a quality No. 2 fantasy wideout who can throw up big numbers any week. Verdict: Applaud

14. Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Jackson established himself as an every-week starter in fantasy leagues last year, and this year he’s taken the leap to being a No. 1 guy. His worst games are 56-yard efforts, and he’s totalled 373 yards in four games total. Plus, he has two touchdowns. He’s emerging as a No. 1 fantasy force, and that’s reason for a standing ovation. Verdict: Applaud

15. Braylon Edwards, Jets – Had we done this analysis last week, Edwards would have been judged a fraud with no hope for the rest of the season. But now that he’s been traded to the Jets, there’s reason for hope. Edwards had five catches for 64 yards and a score in his first game in green, and it looks like he’s immediately stepping in as a red-zone and down-field threat. And that’s even before he masters the offense. So while Edwards has had two awful fantasy games and has just 15 catches on the season and is averaging just 40 yards per game, we’ll applaud him based on what we expect going forward. He should at least be a regular fantasy starter now that he’s a Jet all the way. Verdict: Applaud

16. Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s litany of off-season transgressions impeded his fantasy value entering the season, and owners were right to have questions about his role even though his talent was undeniable. But the trend is undoubtedly pointing up at this point. In each of the last three games, Marshall has had at least 70 yards from scrimmage and at least one touchdown . Those are No. 1 fantasy receiver numbers. Now that Kyle Orton has proven he can put up some numbers in Josh McDaniels’ offense, Marshall is a No. 1 fantasy wideout as he has been the past couple of years. Verdict: Applaud

17. Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker had a huge game with 12 catches for 93 yards in Week One, and then he missed the next two games due to injury. But last week he appeared to be fully back with eight catches for 86 yards and a score against the Broncos. So while Welker has been a bust so far for fantasy owners because he missed so much time, he’s now back to being a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver. You can expect the same going forward. Verdict: Applaud

18. Roy Williams, Cowboys – Some penciled Williams in as a top No. 2 fantasy wideout, but I was skeptical entering the season. That skepticism was justified. He missed Week 5 with an injury, but before that he had two good games with at least 75 receiving yards and two games with 35 yards or less. Plus, he has just one touchdown on the season. Even though I was down on Williams, I wasn’t down enough. He’s no more than a No. 3 fantasy receiver going forward. Verdict: A fraud

19. DeSean Jackson, Eagles – I was high on Jackson before the year, ranking him as a borderline No. 2 wideout instead of as the No. 3 fantasy WR that most lists slated him to be. Thus far, that gamble has more or less paid off. He has just 13 catches in four games, but in two games he had more than 115 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and he added a return touchdown in Week One. He’s averaging 77 yards from scrimmage per game, which is quality production. While DJax isn’t a great player in a point-per-catch league, he’s been a solid fantasy stud. Last week’s one-catch, one-yard performance is a red flag, but we’ll consider that an anomaly until we see it again. Verdict: Applaud

20. Santana Moss, Redskins – Moss started really slow, with 5 catches for 41 yards in the first two games combined. But since then, he’s taken off with two really good games and a so-so game in Week 5. Moss’ unpredictability keeps him from being a sure-fire every week start, but if he’s a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver for your team, you’re in OK shape. That means we’ll clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

21. Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – I was down on ol’ 8-5 coming into the season, but Chad has rebounded to once again become a No. 1 fantasy receiver. He’s averaging 70 yards per game, and in his one paltry yardage game (24 yards vs. Cleveland), he scored two touchdowns. So he’s provided consistent production. So if you drafted Ochocinco here, or even as the No. 10 or No. 12 overall receiver, you’ve gotten all you wanted and then some. Give Chad some attention, because he deserves applause from fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

22. Eddie Royal, Broncos – While Brandon Marshall is emerging, Royal has yet to come close to matching his ’08 production. I moved Royal up in the preseason as I started moving Marshall down, so Royal probably should have ended up around No. 30 at receiver before the opener given the uncertainty about Kyle Orton. But even at that marginal No. 3 starter level, his production – 18 catches for 148 yards and just one touchdown in five games – is lacking. He’s a good player, but the production has yet to earn applause. He may turn it around, but we can’t clap yet. Verdict: A fraud

23. Bernard Berrian, Vikings – When Brett Favre signed, we figured that Berrian would follow up on his sneaky good ’08 fantasy season by becoming a starting-caliber receiver. But Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin seem to be getting as many looks as Berrian is, and Berrian hasn’t produced by numbers. He has just 19 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown. Those aren’t starting-caliber receiver numbers, and the way the Vikings’ passing game is spreading things out, it’s hard to see Berrian stepping things up big time. So we can’t clap for him here. Verdict: A fraud

24. Lance Moore, Saints – Moore had a great season last year, but injuries have limited him to just three catches so far in ’09. Even though he’s missed one full game and been limited in others, we can’t clap. Moore might be a sleeper pickup going forward, but projecting him anywhere near a starting lineup is farfetched right now. Verdict: A fraud

25. Santonio Holmes, Steelers – After the ’08 playoffs, it seemed as though Holmes was emerging as the Steelers’ top receiver. But Hines Ward is among the league leaders in receiving yards right now, and rookie Mike Wallace is filling the Nate Washington role to give Pittsburgh a legit No. 3 receiver. Those factors, plus a few drops, have held down Holmes’ value. He’s averging 67 receiving yards per game, which is OK, but he has just one touchdown. At this draft position, Holmes needed to be starting quality, and he’s just a hair below that level. So this is a close verdict. And since we’re being generous, close points to clapping – barely. Verdict: Applaud

26. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant had a ridiculously season coming out of nowhere last year, and we were skeptical he could repeat it and be a No. 1 fantasy receiver again. So we put Bryant as a No. 3 receiver. But he has not yet even been that. He missed Week Two and had just three catches through Week 3, but he is coming on at least a little bit with nine catches for 106 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. So that’s a sign of hope, but it’s not reason for applause, even at this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

27. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets – Cotchery ended up in this spot because he was an above-average receiver who was the default No. 1 option with the Jets. He delivered on that status early, with at least four catches for at least 71 yards in each of the first four games. He’s battling a hamstring now, which limited him to one catch for four yards, and now that Braylon Edwards is in town Cotchery’s role will slip, but we’ll clap for what he’s done so far. Cotchery was a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver for the first quarter of the season, and he’ll be a solid No. 3 fantasy wideout the rest of the way. Verdict: Applaud

28. Lee Evans, Bills – We figured Evans was so good that he would maintain at least decent fantasy production even with Terrell Owens coming to town. But as the Bills’ offense has bottomed out, Evans’ numbers have been awful. He’s averaging just 52 yards per game, and he has just one touchdown. Even worse, he has more than 32 yards in just one game. Evans is still a talent, but his bad situation keeps him from being anywhere close to a fantasy starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

29. Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter missed the first two games of the season due to injury, and since returning he has been up and down. He had a huge first game with seven catches for 96 yards and a score, but his next two weeks have averaged just 39 yards per game. Walter still should emerge as a No. 3 fantasy wideout given the Texans’ prolific offense, but he hasn’t yet, and so we can’t clap. Verdict: A fraud

30. Torry Holt, Jaguars – When he moved to Jacksonville, it appeared that Holt would be the Jags’ No. 1 receiver. But Mike Sims-Walker has assumed that role, keeping Holt’s value down. In the four games he’s played with Sims-Walker, Holt has had between 42 yards and 65 yards. He did break out in Week 5 with a 95-yard game, but that was because Sims-Walker was suspended. Holt hasn’t scored this year either. Holt’s worth owning, but he shouldn’t end up in your starting lineup unless the injury bug bites you multiple times in a single week. Verdict: A fraud

31. Hines Ward, Steelers – We downgraded Ward because we figured he had to slow down at some point, and we thought Santonio Holmes was ready to surpass him. But that hasn’t happened. Ward is fourth in the league with 440 receiving yards so far, and he scored his first touchdown last week. Ward is once again a solid fantasy starter and deserving of your applause. Verdict: Applaud

32. Laveranues Coles, Bengals – Coles has been a solid fantasy receiver for many years, and we figured that moving to the Bengals he would fall into the No. 2 role behind Chad Ochocinco. But Coles is behind Chris Henry and even Andre Caldwell in the Cincy WR pecking order, and his numbers have plummeted. He has just 10 catches for 78 yards through five games, and has just one touchdown. He’s not even ownable in fantasy leagues right now. It looks like the big contract the Bengals gave Coles isn’t going to pay off. Verdict: A fraud

33. Donald Driver, Packers – I’ve never been a Driver fan, even as he’s put up big fantasy numbers. This year, I projected him as just a marginal No. 3 fantasy wideout, but he once again has been better than I expected. He has at least four catches in every game and is averaging 72 yards per game. He also has two touchdowns. Those are No. 2 fantasy receiver numbers and good value for where he was drafted. Verdict: Applaud

34. Derrick Mason, Ravens – Mason was one of the hardest guys to rate before the season because he retired and then unretired. Still, we slated him as the Ravens’ best receiver and a marginal No. 3 fantasy guy. He has been the Ravens’ best receiver, and through five games he has 284 yards and two touchdowns. Even though he took a bagel in the catch column in Week 5, Mason has been a solid starting option given where he was drafted. And with Joe Flacco really emerging as a fantasy producer at quarterback, Mason should continue to have solid fantasy value. Verdict: Applaud

35. Devin Hester, Bears – We figured that with Jay Cutler in Chicago, someone had to emerge as a fantasy relevant receiver. We pegged Hester as the guy with the best opportunity for that, but the truth is that Cutler has spread the ball around using Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Greg Olsen, and even Kellen Davis. Hester has OK numbers through four games, with 189 yards and two touchdowns. But he’s had two great fantasy games and two horrible games. As a No. 3 fantasy receiver, he’s a boom or bust guy in your starting lineup, but this far down the draft order, that’s actually OK. Hester probably has 4-6 huge games left in him this season, and although it may be frustrating trying to find those games, that’s reason enough to clap for him at this draft position. Verdict: Applaud

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Filed under Applaud/A Fraud, Fantasy Football, Football Relativity

FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Regime change survivors

One of the biggest factors of a player’s fantasy football success is the offensive system he plays in. So as a service, we thought we’d go through the teams that are changing regimes this season and analyze how these changes should affect the relevant fantasy performers on each team. Where we’ve discussed players in more detail, we’ll include a link to our previous discussion. These offensive regime changes include teams with new head coaches as well as some teams with new offensive coordinators.

As always, you can read all sorts of other fantasy football analysis in our fantasy football category tag. And we have to give thanks to this site for a current list of offensive coordinators.

In this post, we’ve made some intentional omissions:
*With the Jets, Brian Schottenheimer survived the coaching change, and so that offense will look quite similar
*The Saints replaced Doug Marrone (now the Syracuse head coach) with Pete Carmichael Jr. but should run the same system
*The Patriots didn’t replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, but Bill Belichick and his lieutenants will keep the same offensive system in place
*The Seahawks, moving from Mike Holmgren’s regime to Jim Mora’s, will still run a similiar West Coast style of offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Arizona (from Todd Haley to Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm/Mike Miller) – Now that Haley has gone to become the head man in Kansas City, Whisenhunt will probably look to become a little more proficient running the ball in Arizona. Grimm, like Whisenhunt an ex-Steelers assistant, will be the run-game coordinator, and Miller is the passing game coordinator. This shouldn’t affect the numbers of QB Kurt Warner or WRs Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin much – call them floats– but WR Steve Breaston’s numbers will likely sink a little, while rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who will surpass Tim Hightower as a fantasy option, looks like the main beneficiary of this regime change.
*More on Fitzgerald here
*More on Boldin here
*More on Breaston and Hightower here
*More on Wells here

Cleveland (from Rob Chudinski to Brian Draboll) – This change is hard to quantify, but it probably pushes the Browns just a bit more conservative. It’s hard to know what to think of the Browns anyway, because QBs Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are fighting for a job. But this should cause WR Braylon Edwards’ numbers to sink a bit, and could help RB Jamal Lewis’ numbers rise if he’s not in too much physical decline.

Denver (from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy) – This is a pretty significant change from Shanahan’s more wide open West Coast style offense to a more mixed New England-style offense. McCoy comes from Carolina, where he was QB coach in a run-run-run offense. This (plus the change from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at QB) will cause the numbers of WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to sink just a bit. TE Tony Scheffler will see an even bigger sink in his numbers. The beneficiary is rookie RB Knowshon Moreno and, to a lesser degree, ex-Eagle Correll Buckhalter.
*More on Orton and Buckhalter here
*More on Marshall here
*More on Royal here
*More on Moreno here
*More on Scheffler here

Detroit (from Jim Coletto to Scott Linehan) – The Lions’ offense was pretty much a train wreck last year, as was everything else in an 0-16 season. In comes Linehan, who bombed out as a head coach in St. Louis but who has a good record as a coordinator in Minnesota and Miami. He’s more prone to pass than Coletto was, and that should help the numbers across the offense work well. At quarterback, neither Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper is a great prospect, because neither will likely play all 16 games. But Calvin Johnson remains a stud whose numbers will float, and one of the receiver additions, Dennis Northcutt or Bryant Johnson, could see his numbers rise if he can seize a starting job. Plus, Kevin Smith’s numbers, which weren’t terrible fantasy-wise in ’08, could rise at least a little.
*More on Smith here
*More on Calvin Johnson here
*More on Bryant Johnson and Northcutt here
*More on Stafford here

Indianapolis (from Tom Moore to Clyde Christensen) – The Colts should run the same system – Christensen has been on the staff for years, and Moore did a runaround on the NFL’s new pension system for coaches by becoming a consultant. So the changes here will be minor. You can expect the numbers of QB Peyton Manning, WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark to basically float. RB Joseph Addai’s numbers will sink because of the addition of Donald Brown, while WR Anthony Gonzalez’s numbers will rise because of the departure of Marvin Harrison.
*More on Manning here
*More on Wayne here
*More on Clark here
*More on Addai here
*More on Brown and WR Austin Collie here

Kansas City (from Chan Gailey to Todd Haley/Gailey) – Gailey survived the coaching change in K.C., but with Haley now serving as head coach we should see a little different offensive system for the Chiefs. By the end of the year, Gailey was basically running a spread-type system that used the running talents of QB Tyler Thigpen and also let him fling the ball around. If the Chiefs are better this year, you have to think they’ll play it a little more conservatively, which would bode well for RB Larry Johnson. If Johnson plays the full year, his numbers should rise from his 874-yard, 5-touchdown campaign in 2008. WR Dwayne Bowe’s numbers should continue to rise just a bit, if for no other reason than the fact that import Matt Cassel is better than Thigpen. Look for Mark Bradley’s numbers to rise a little bit as well, and we’ve already predicted that free-agent addition Bobby Engram’s stats will float. Engram actually could fill the reliable role that Tony Gonzalez held for so many years in K.C. Cassel’s numbers should float in Haley’s pass-friendly system as well. All in all, the Chiefs should be a fantasy-friendly team this year.
*More on Cassel here
*More on Engram here 
*More on Bowe here

Oakland (from Lane Kiffin/Greg Knapp to Ted Tollner) – Good luck trying to describe the Raiders’ offense last year – best I can tell, it was more or less a West Coast offense approach, given Knapp’s history. And good luck trying to even identify the offensive leader this year – Tollner is passing game coordinator, Paul Hackett is quarterback coach, and there is no run game coordinator. But given the fact that head coach Tom Cable is an offensive line coach, and given Al Davis’ history, we can expect a run-friendly offense with deep passing. That means Darren McFadden is ready for his numbers to rise, especially if he stays healthy. McFadden’s just too good not to get a bunch of carries. If he does, as we expect, then Michael Bush and Justin Fargas will see their numbers sink. Passing wise, don’t expect too much out of JaMarcus Russell, who could lose snaps to Jeff Garcia. That could cause Russell’s modest numbers to sink even a bit more. Meanwhile, TE Zach Miller’s numbers should rise a little bit – he won’t have just one touchdown again – and Darrius Heyward-Bey actually has good fantasy potential for a rookie receiver.
*More on Miller here
*More on Heyward-Bey here

St. Louis (from Scott Linehan to Pat Shurmur) – Linehan is a quality offensive coordinator, but his head-coaching tenure was a disaster. Now the rams are under the system installed by Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ QB coach. His pedigree (his uncle Fritz was a longtime Mike Holmgren aide) indicates a pedigree in the West Coast offense. The Rams have completely reworked their offense, letting stalwarts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce go. It should center around RB Steven Jackson, whose numbers should at least float. QB Marc Bulger is coming off a horrendous season, and if he can stay healthy his numbers will rise, but not enough to make him a fantasy starter. He’s not even really a feasible backup in most fantasy leagues. The only other Ram who is draftable is WR Donnie Avery, who had a decent first season and could see his numbers rise if he can up his touchdown total from the three he tallied in ’08.
*More on Jackson here

San Francisco (from Mike Martz to Jimmy Raye) – The 49ers had a pass-happy system under Martz last year, at least until Mike Singletary took over. Now Singletary will revert to a more old-school, pro-style offense that will feature lots of running and short passing. That means that RB Frank Gore’s numbers should float and that rookie Glen Coffee is worth a look late in the draft. The quarterback situation is still a battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, so watch to see who wins the war before investing in one of them as a sleeper. At receiver, Michael Crabtree is a draftable prospect (as long as he doesn’t hold out too long) and either Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones could emerge as a quality fantasy backup. And while TE Vernon Davis isn’t draftable at this point, he’s a fantasy sleeper to watch if he finds more of a role in the 49ers’ new system.
*More on Gore here
*More on Crabtree and Coffee here

Tampa Bay (from Jon Gruden to Jeff Jagodinski) – Gruden fancied himself an offensive guru who used a high-flying offense, but new coordinator Jeff Jagodinski will likely be a bit more conservative. That means that breakout WR Antonio Bryant’s numbers will likely sink, and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow’s numbers will rise only because he missed time with injury last year. At running back, both Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are draftable, but the fact that they’re splitting carries is nettlesome for fantasy owners. We expect Ward’s numbers to sink and Graham’s to sink as well given the new split, which should be almost 50-50. QB Byron Leftwich’s numbers will rise because he should start some games, but don’t rely on him too heavily because rookie Josh Freeman is in the wings and could see time in the second half of the season.
*More on Bryant and Ward here
*More on Leftwich and Mike Nugent here
*More on Graham here
*More on Winslow here

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Fantasy Football: Applaud or a Fraud?

We’re going to play another one of our site games here as we continue our fantasy football preparation. In this post, we’re going to look at several of the breakout players from 2008 and see whether we should applaud them or consider them fantasy frauds for 2009. These are judgments of fantasy football value, not of a player’s ability or contribution to his NFL team. Feel free to leave comments with other guys you’d like included in this post, and we’ll update it as we go forward.

Note: Some guys who fit this category have been analyzed elsewhere. For example, you can read about Steve Slaton, DeAngelo Williams, and Chris Johnson in this post. You can find that and all of our other ’09 fantasy football coverage  through this category link.

QB Matt Cassel, Chiefs – After taking over for Tom Brady last year, Cassel had a supersolid year, throwing for nearly 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns, with two rushing TDs added in for good measure. Cassel is moving on to Kansas City, which at first seems like a recipe for fantasy irrelevance. He’s a fantasy sleeper, though, because he has a top-flight receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and the Chiefs’ new head coach Todd Haley proved he could put together a pass-happy offense in Arizona last year. Cassel isn’t a fantasy starter, so we can’t clap for him, but he’s an intriguing backup option in most leagues. We give this verdict with our fingers crossed. Verdict: A fraud

QB Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers had been a so-so fantasy quarterback for two seasons before exploding last year with 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns. Those are elite numbers, and the fact that he did it for the first time leads to the question of whether he can do it again. Here’s why we say yes. First, he continues to build experience with coach Norv Turner, who has his faults as a head coach but is money tutoring quarterbacks. Secondly, Rivers finally got an elite receiver last year because Vincent Jackson emerged as a true No. 1 threat. With Jackson, TE Antonio Gates, and RBs LaDanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, Rivers has plenty of places to throw the ball. With all that going for him, Rivers should be a top-8 fantasy quarterback yet again. Verdict: Applaud

QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – Rodgers waited and waited and waited his turn in Green Bay while Brett Favre changed and unchanged and changed his mind again. Finally, the Packers went with Rodgers, and he delivered with 4,000 yards, 28 passing TDs, and 4 rushing TDs. Rodgers has an elite target in Greg Jennings, and there’s a lot of receiver depth in Green Bay as well. Rodgers might not be a top-5 fantasy quarterback, but he’s definitely a top-10 guy at his position. That’s worth a hand clap. Verdict: Applaud

RB Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson was a bust with the Bears after being a top-5 pick in the NFL draft, but after signing with Cincinnati during the ’08 season, he finished with 747 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games. That projects to a 1,000-yard season and begs the question of whether Benson is back as a fantasy consideration. He’s certainly not a top-20 back, but the RB crop drops off so quickly that Benson becomes a consideration rather quickly. For a guy who was completely off the radar in last year’s draft, Benson has put himself back on the list. So while we’re not giving him a standing ovation, we can muster at least a golf clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

RB T.J. Duckett, Seahawks – Duckett only had 172 rushing yards last year, but in his short-yardage role he scored a whopping eight touchdowns. That role is very unpredictable, and so predicting another eight touchdowns in ’09 is flatly unwise. Draft Duckett at your own risk. Verdict: A fraud

RB Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower broke out as a fantasy back last year, beating out Edgerrin James for a primary back role. But after winning the job, he ended up struggling, and he finished with just 399 rushing yards. He did score 10 touchdowns on the season. Hightower doesn’t have to contend with James anymore, but he will have to outman Chris “Beanie” Wells for carries. The guess here is that Wells will win that race and that Hightower’s touchdown total takes a significant dip in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

RB Le’Ron McClain, Ravens – The Ravens’ backfield was a mess from a fantasy perspective, as McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice all had games in which they were the primary ball carrier. McClain, who entered the year as a backup fullback, ended up with the best fantasy numbers after piling up 902 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. But in ’09, I wouldn’t want to rely on McClain as a fantasy starter or even as my primary backup at the position, because it’s much more likely that Rice ends up as Baltimore’s best fantasy producer at running back. So while McClain has some skills and might be a good guy in the locker room, I don’t think I want him on my fantasy team. Verdict: A fraud

RB Kevin Smith, Lions – As a fourth-round NFL draft pick last year, Smith emerged as Detroit’s top running back. He started 12 games and rushed for 976 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those aren’t great fantasy numbers, but given how pathetic the Lions were around him, they’re an acceptable rookie showing. The question is whether Smith can take a step forward this year. The Lions might not be completely sold on him, but given the other running back options around Detroit this year, Smith is still the one Lions back you should consider. Plus, the offensive line got a lot of veteran help in the offseason, which should bode well for Smith’s numbers. Smith should end up as a top-25 back, and we’ll give him a bit of a clap for that. Verdict: Applaud

RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart had a strong rookie year, rushing for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns even though he was clearly the No. 2 option behind DeAngelo Williams. It’s hard to see the Panthers ending up with 30-plus rushing touchdowns again in ’09, but Stewart should still be a productive fantasy back. He’s not going to pile up a lot of yardage numbers – that’s more of Williams’ forte – but he is the better short-yardage option, and that should pad his touchdown total. We can see him accumulating 800 rushing yards and 8 TDs again, and that makes him a legitimate fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas, an undrafted free agent a few years back, has slowly estabished himself as a legitimate NFL back. In 2007, he beat out draft pick Antonio Pittman to make the Saints, and in 2008 he surpassed long-time Saint Deuce McAllister to become the Saints’ primary back. Now Thomas pairs with Reggie Bush to form the Saints backfield. Thomas finished the year with 625 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns, and he’s being listed as a top-20 fantasy running back going into 2009. But it would be a mistake to take Thomas that high. His yardage total should tick upward, perhaps to 800 yards or so, but his touchdown number looks suspicious. I think he’s much more likely to score 6 times than he is to score 10-12 times. I don’t see Thomas as a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

RB Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – Ward was part of the Giants’ Earth, Wind, and Fire backfield last year, and thanks to a late-season injury to Brandon Jacobs, he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards. But he only had two touchdowns, and in the offseason he moved to Tampa Bay to team with Earnest Graham. It seems to me that Ward and Graham are basically equal partners in the RB tandem in Tampa, and if Cadillac Williams can get healthy – and that’s a monstrous if – Ward’s carries will decline a bit more. Ward may be the best fantasy back in Tampa this year, but he’s not a fantasy starter. I smell a 700-yard, 4-TD season. So from a fantasy perspective, we have a verdict. Verdict: A fraud

WR Steve Breaston, Cardinals – Breaston, Arizona’s third receiver, exploded last year with 77 catches for 1,006 yards. He also had three touchdowns. But those numbers were padded during the 2 1/2 games when Anquan Boldin was out last year. So we can expect a step back from Breaston to more of the 700-yard range. So while he’s draftable in fantasy leagues, he’s not even a strong backup option in most leagues. He will not match his ’08 numbers in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

WR Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant had gone through a star-crossed career and had missed the entire 2007 season before Tampa gave him a chance last season. That gamble paid off big time, as Bryant totaled 83 catches for 1,248 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Bucs then slapped the franchise tag, paying more than $8 million on Bryant to keep him for 2009. Bryant enters the season as Tampa’s No. 1 receiver option. However, it would be crazy to expect another monster season from him. Bryant has talent, but his reliability is still a question. Plus, the Bucs have a new quarterback situation, and so Bryant will be catching balls from Byron Leftwich or perhaps rookie Josh Freeman. And there’s a new coaching staff too. All that makes a repeat of Bryant’s breakout especially unlikely. Verdict: A fraud

WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson broke through the usual rookie receiver wall, catching 65 passes for 912 yards and scoring four total touchdowns. Now he is Philly’s No. 1 receiving option, with rookies Jeremy Maclin and TE Cornelius Ingram likely to support. That means Jackson will get his chances, and when he gets his hands on the ball, he’ll take advantage. Don’t rate Jackson too highly, but he’s between 20 and 25 on the fantasy WR list. That makes him a starter in most leagues and causes us to give him a hand. Verdict: Applaud

WR Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Jackson didn’t get a lot of pub last year, but he had a terrific season, emerging as Rivers’ No. 1 option and totalling almost 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. He only had 59 catches, which is a little low for a No. 1 wideout, especially on a pass-happy team like the Chargers. I expect that catch number to increase to 65-70 this year, and if that happens, Jackson’s numbers could actually go up. He’s a top-20 receiver for fantasy owners this fall. Verdict: Applaud

WR Lance Moore, Saints – Moore emerged as an all-world slot receiver last year, piling up 79 catches for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns in the Saints’ pass-happy offense. Some may look at those numbers and wonder if Marques Colston’s injury problems opened the door for Moore, but the fact that Moore plays inside and Colston plays outsider mitigates that concern. The bottom line is that Moore is in an incredibly potent offense, and he’s going to get his numbers. You can expect a minimum of 60 catches, 800 yards, and 8 touchdowns from him, and that’s reason to cheer. Verdict: Applaud

WR Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal was another rookie who had a huge rookie season, finishing with 91 catches for 980 yards and 5 scores. He’s a small, shifty guy who can play out of the slot or outside, and he is the perfect complement to Brandon Marshall. But expecting 90 catches or 1,000 yards this season is foolhardy, because the Broncos have downgraded at quarterback from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton. Marshall’s holdout talk and trade demand are troubling as well. So while Royal will be productive, he’ll end up looking like an imposter when compared to his ’08 numbers. Verdict: A fraud

TE John Carlson, Seahawks – As a rookie, Carlson finished ninth among all tight ends in terms of both catches (with 55) and yards (with 627). Combine those numbers with his 5 touchdowns, and you have a starting tight end for fantasy teams. Can he earn starter status again? The signs are good. QB Matt Hasselbeck should return to provide a more reliable passing offense, and that will help Carlson’s numbers significantly. And while the arrival of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh may take a few receptions off Carlson’s plate, the fact that there’s no true second option should give Carlson plenty of room to perform well again. Fantasy starting lineups, here he comes. Verdict: Applaud

TE Anthony Fasano, Dolphins – Only four tight ends had at least seven receiving touchdowns last year. You’d guess the first two – Antonio Gates and Tony Gonazalez. But you’d be hard pressed to name Visanthe Shiancoe and Fasano as the other two. Fasano, who Bill Parcells brought over from Dallas when he arrived in Miami, isn’t a great pass catcher – he had just 34 total catches. That kind of catch-to-TD ratio always makes me nervous, because it generally indicates that the TD total is out of whack. So while it’s safe to expect 30 catches and 400 yards from Fasano again, my guess is that the touchdown total will be 3 or 4, not seven. That makes Fasano a fraudulent fantasy starter in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had 56 catches for 778 yards in ’08, piling up an impressive 14 yards per catch. He scored just one touchdown, but he still announced himself as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league. That emergence should continue in ’08 as Miller and his quarterback JaMarcus Russell both emerge. While Miller isn’t a top-5 fantasy tight end, he’s good enough to earn a spot in the top 10 – and to earn a round of applause. Verdict: Applaud

TE Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – No veteran tight end had a bigger breakout in 2008 than Shiancoe, who had 42 catches for 596 yards and 7 TDs. That doubled the yardage total he had in his first five seasons, nearly doubled his catch total, and took his career TD tally from four to 11. So is Shiancoe a legitimate fantasy threat? It’s hard to say right now, given the Vikings’ unstable quarterback situation. But the fact that the Vikings only have one real starting-quality receiver (Bernard Berrian), and given the fact that struggling quarterbacks tend to look at the tight end more often, we’ll pencil Shiancoe in as a top-12 fantasy tight end. That’s enough for us to give a very light round of applause. Verdict: Applaud

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Franchise players summary

Earlier this offseason, we analyzed the 14 NFL franchise players using a Football Relativity comparison. Yesterday was a deadline for those guys to sign long-term deals, and I thought we’d do a summary of what happened with them.

(Credit to Mike Sando of ESPN.com for compiling all this info.)

Of the 14 franchise players:

One was traded – Matt Cassel. He was dealt from the Patriots to the Chiefs, along with Mike Vrabel, for a second-round draft pick. Cassel signed a six-yera, $63 million deal with $28 million guaranteed just before the deadline, replacing his $14 million franchise tender.

One had the tag removed – Leroy Hill. After drafting Aaron Curry, the Seahawks took the $8 million tag off of Hill. They then signed Hill to a more cost-effective deal, six years and $38 million with $15 million guaranteed.

Three franchise players signed long-term deals – Max Starks, Brandon Jacobs, and Terrell Suggs. Suggs (whose T-Sizzle nickname we should have included in this post) signed just before the deadline, inking a 6-year, $63 million deal with $38 million guaranteed. Starks, who wasn’t a full-time starter in ’08 but should be in ’09, got a four-year, $26 million deal with $10 million guaranteed. And Jacobs got a four-year, $25 million contract with $13 million guaranteed. All of these players, plus Cassel and even Hill, ended up with more guaranteed money than they would have had if they had played under the franchise tender in ’09.

Eight players signed their franchise tenders. They are guaranteed their tender amounts for the year no matter what, and they are not under contract for 2010. They are:

DE Julius Peppers, Carolina ($16.683 million)
LB Karlos Dansby, Arizona ($8.3 million)
WR Antonio Bryant, Tampa Bay ($9.844 million)
RB Darren Sproles, San Diego ($6.6 million)
S O.J. Atogwe, St. Louis ($6.3 million)
TE Bo Scaife, Tennessee ($4.46 million)
P Michael Koenen, Atlanta ($2.483 million)
PK Shayne Graham, Cincinnati ($2.483 million)

One player, Dunta Robinson, has not yet signed his tender. He can’t negotiate a long-term contract, so his only option to play in ’09 is to sign a one-year, $9.957 million deal and play for the Texans.

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FR: Receivers for 2009 and beyond

When I was writing the post about Terrell Owens going to Buffalo, I mentioned that there were at least 5 receivers I would take before Owens. So that got me to thinking… Exactly where does Owens rate among receivers in the NFL going into 2009? So I compiled a relativity post comparing NFL receivers to each other. (We already did this earlier this offseason with quarterbacks.)

Here are the qualifications I used: Since so many receivers start and/or play in the NFL, I used a statistical benchmark. We’ll rate the 33 receivers who had at least 800 yards receiving in 2008. In addition, we’re including nine of 10 receivers who had 800 yards in ’07 but not ’08 (omitting Shaun McDonald). We’re also including two of the 3 receivers who had 1,000 yards in ’06 but didn’t reach 800 in either of the last two years (omitting Mike Furrey). That leaves 44 receivers, who we’ve compared on 10 levels. 10 is the level for the ultimate receiver, and 1 is a guy who shouldn’t be starting anymore.

10 – Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson. Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and his play in the playoffs was at a level we haven’t seen much at all since Jerry Rice was in his prime. Andre Johnson is a physical specimen whose only negative is his inability to stay healthy. Smith is a gamebreaker who is just 5-foot-9, but the Panthers are still able to throw jump balls up and trust Smith to catch them, as if he were 6-foot-5. (The end of last year’s win at Green Bay was a prime example.) Calvin Johnson had terrible quarterbacks and still had an amazing year. If the Lions get a young quarterback who can grow with Johnson, watch out.

9 – Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Hines Ward. Wayne has developed into a true No. 1 receiver in an offense that remains one of the league’s most potent. Moss is a tremendous deep threat who has resurrected his great career in New England. Welker, Moss’ teammate, is the ultimate slot receiver who catches pass after pass and gets first down after first down. He’s impossible to cover inside. Ward isn’t a gamebreaker with the ball, but his ability to block downfield puts him on this level. He remains a great asset, especially on a running team.

8 – Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin, Roddy White, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings. So there are eight receivers definitely ahead of Owens on my list, and I’d take Boldin and maybe White on this list above him in ’09 as well. (Thinking long term, Bowe and Jennings would move ahead of him too.) Owens is still a gamebreaker, but his hands were spotty last year, and his age (35) says a slow-down is coming before too long. Boldin is a great receiver after the catch, and he could be a No. 1 on most teams. However, he’s not at Fitzgerald’s level. White emerged as a good receiver in ’07 and took another step forward last year. He and Matt Ryan will be a top-flight combo for a long time. Bowe is physically gifted, and he’s put up good numbers in bad offenses the last two years. It’ll be fun to see how he steps up with Matt Cassel at the Chiefs’ helm now. Marshall has the talent to be a 9, but his off the field issues have made him unreliable. He could easily miss some games on league suspension in ’09, and that has to be accounted for. I’m not sure I would gamble on him as a long-term answer at this point. Jennings has developed into a strong threat, and last year he finally passed Donald Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 threat. He and Aaron Rodgers make another good pitch-and-catch combo.

7 – Santana Moss, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, Donald Driver, Lee Evans , Braylon Edwards – Moss is a consistent playmaker for Washington, but his lack of size keeps him from being higher on this comparison. Houshmandzadeh has been a consistently good possession receiver, but he can be a bit more – and will have a chance to prove it in Seattle this year. Holmes emerged as a game-changing receiver in the playoffs, and I expect him to knock down the door and become an elite receiver in ’09. Driver is getting up in age but has been a productive guy under the radar for several years. Evans is a deep threat whose yards-per-catch average is always good and should be better with T.O. in Buffalo now. Edwards struggled with drops last year, which keeps him down on this list, but he has the talent to be on the 8 or 9 level if he improves his consistency.

6 – Antonio Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Derrick Mason, Eddie Royal, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Bernard Berrian, Roy Williams  – Bryant finally capitalized on his immense talent level last year in Tampa. If he can do it again and stay on the field, he’ll rocket up this list. Jackson is a big receiver who quietly had a monster year in ’08. He and Philip Rivers are a pretty good answer as a pitch-and-catch combo. Mason has lost a step from his Tennessee days, but he’s a solid veteran receiver who still makes more plays than you might expect. Royal had a great rookie season and is an ideal complement to Brandon Marshall because of his speed, shiftiness, and breakaway ability. Moore emerged last year as a big-time player in New Orleans’ offense. He’s the inside receiver who can make big plays, while Colston is the big outside receiver. Both are good, and if Colston gets healthy, that could be an elite tandem in ’09. Berrian has breakaway ability, and he delivered a fair amount of big plays last year after Minnesota brought him over to be their No. 1 wideout. Williams has all the ability in the world but didn’t produce last year after moving to Dallas. He has the ability to move up this ranking, but does he have the will?

5 – Steve Breaston, DeSean Jackson, Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, Muhsin Muhammad, Torry Holt – Breaston emerged as a legitimate starter in Arizona last year and is ready to step in and produce if Anquan Boldin moves on. Jackson was a big-play source as a rookie, but his size may prohibit him from being a true No. 1. He’s better as the big-play threat than the every-down target. Cotchery isn’t dynamic, but he’s solid and can put up numbers. Coles, who moved to Cincinnati, is not as good as he thinks he is but is still an above-average NFL starter. Johnson (or Ocho Cinco, if you prefer) had a down year last year, and he’s been banged up the last two years. Can he still be a true No. 1 guy? Muhammad had a suprisingly big year returning to Carolina in ’08 and is also a good downfield blocker. He is still a quality complement to Steve Smith. Holt was banged up much of last year, and injuries have slowed him down at least a little, but he can still be an effective starter as long as a team has a speed guy who can draw coverge his way on the opposite side.

4 – Kevin Walter, Kevin Curtis – Walter had a big year in Houston last year and seems to be a good complement to Andre Johnson. He’s good enough to be an above-average No. 2 target. Curtis battled injuries last year but had a big year in ’07. He probably fits better as a No. 3 than a No. 2, but he won’t kill a team if it has to start him.

3 – Plaxico Burress – Burress has worlds of talent, but his off-the-field issues drop him well down the list. The fact that the Giants are at least considering keeping him, though, shows he still has some value.

2- Joey Galloway, Bobby Engram  -Welcome to the has-been haven. Galloway is moving to New England to show he still has value, but he’s a No. 3 there at best. He probably still can succeed in that role. Engram moves to Kansas City, where his possession skills should help take some pressure off of Dwayne Bowe.

1 – Chris Chambers, Javon Walker, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce – Has-been haven continues Chambers went to San Diego in ’07 to be a No. 1, but he’s slipped while Vincent Jackson has stepped up. Now it’s a question whether Chambers can even be an average No. 2 target. Walker has been a major bust in Oakland, but 2 years ago in Denver (before a serious knee injury) he was dynamic. It’s unlikely he can near that form again, but he’s still the Raiders’ best option. Harrison had a decent year last year, but he’s falling off, and he needs to find the perfect situation to keep playing. Bruce wasn’t bad in San Francisco, but he’s in decline too. He’s considering retirement, and if he plays he might not even be starter quality anymore.

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Franchise players: Antonio Bryant

The latest franchise player tag goes is one of the most compelling. The Buccaneers have ensured that WR Antonio Bryant will be with them next year by franchising him and guaranteeing him nearly $10 million in 2009. What are the ramifcations? Read on, and then click on the franchise players mega-post to see how this franchise tag move compares to the others of the offseason.

WR Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers — The Bucs grabbed Bryant off the scrap heap, and he paid huge dividends in 2008 with 83 catches, 1,248 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Those are true No. 1 receiver numbers, and they reflect the way Bryant emerged last year. But that emergence was a long time coming for Bryant. Originally a Cowboy, he bombed out in Dallas after butting heads with Bill Parcells. He played for the Browns for 2 years, notching his first 1,000-yard season, and then played a year for the 49ers before being out of football in ’07. That background plays into this move. The Bucs need Bryant next year, because he’s by far the best receiver they have, and true No. 1 receivers just don’t hit the free-agent market very often. But it has to be a little scary to think about giving Bryant a long-term deal. So while the franchise tag probably represents an overpayment in ’09, it mitigates Tampa Bay’s long-term risk. For that reason, this move was necessary – even if it makes you grit your teeth just a smidge.

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