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Pre-camp cuts

Marion the Barbarian

Marion Barber was among the Cowboys cuts. Image via Wikipedia

As we approach the beginning of the new NFL league year (finally), teams are clearing overpaid and/or unwanted players from their rosters. In this post, we discuss the major players released on the eve of training camp. This post is updated through Saturday, July 30. We’ll begin a new post with camp cuts next week.

Dallas (cut WR Roy Williams, OG Leonard Davis, RB Marion Barber, OT Marc Colombo and PK Kris Brown) – The Cowboys faced the worst salary-cap situation of any NFL team entering the offseason, and in an effort to clear not just the $16.6 million they were over but also enough room to re-sign Doug Free, they cleared the decks. Williams, whom the Cowboys paid a first-round pick to trade for a couple of years ago, never lived up to expectations. The emergence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant left Williams behind, and saving $5 million by cutting Williams became the only way to go. Davis, a massive left guard, was slated to make $6 million, so his release is far more about price tag than performance. He’s still playing well enough to be a productive starter somewhere. Barber, who was slated to make $4.75 million, had fallen behind Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber may have taken enough as a pounding that his best days are behind him. Colombo had been starting at right tackle, but injuries have kept him from being the player he was earlier in his career. The Cowboys can find an equivalent replacement at a much lower cost. Brown, who came in when David Buehler was struggling last year, was cut because his veteran salary was a luxury the Cowboys couldn’t afford given their cap situation.

Baltimore (cut WR Derrick Mason, TE Todd Heap, RB Willis McGahee, and NT Kelly Gregg) – We discussed the Ravens’ moves in this post.

N.Y. Giants (cut C Shaun O’Hara, OG Rich Seubert, OT Shawn Andrews and DT Rocky Bernard) – The Giants have had one of the most stable offensive lines in the league over the past five years, but that all ended when they cut stalwarts O’Hara and Seubert to save $5-plus million. The Giants, who were a little more than $6 million over the cap, then saved $7.5 million by axing Andrews. Andrews, whom the team brought in last year, never really returned to his top form from Philadelphia, so that move makes sense. The O’Hara and Seubert cuts are more puzzling. O’Hara was a Pro Bowl player in 2009 and 2010 before missing 10 games last season. Seubert played guard and filled in at center over the years. The puzzling thing about the move is that the Giants don’t really appear to have a succession plan inside to fortify what has been a strength for years. Bernard didn’t provide the inside push the Giants were hoping, and so when they couldn’t re-do his deal, they let him go.

Tennessee (cut QB Vince Young and DT Tony Brown) – It was no surprise that the Titans cut the cord on Young, who has great talent and decent results, but a personality that the franchise tired of. With Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker in place, Tennessee has started a new era at quarterback. Young will likely have to rebuild his career as a backup elsewhere. Brown, who failed a physical, has been a starter at defensive tackle for the last four years. If he can get healthy, he can still help a team as a rotation player.

Kansas City (cut OG Brian Waters, WR Chris Chambers and TE Brad Cottam) – Waters has been a stalwart of the Chiefs’ line for more than a decade, and has played at a Pro Bowl level. But his play started to slip last year, and the Chiefs made the dispassionate decision to move on. Waters could become a fill-in elsewhere if injuries strike, and one day he’ll be in the Chiefs franchise Hall of Fame for his on-field contributions and his off-field impact, which was huge as well. Chambers was a revelation when the Chiefs acquired him in the middle of the 2009 season, but that was an outlier in his recent play. That meant the contract he got last offseason was way out of line. Cottam, a former third-round pick, got passed in line by Tony Moeaki, and that made him expendable.

Green Bay (cut LBs Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar, DT Justin Harrell and OT Mark Tauscher) – Barnett, who had missed two of the last three years with injury, had fallen behind some of the Packers’ youngsters at linebacker. The former first-round pick wasn’t going to provide $6 million worth of production this year, and so he was a luxury for a team that’s nearly $10 million over the salary cap. He may land with another team, but he won’t make anything near what he did last year. Like Barnett, Poppinga is a former starter who missed a lot of last season due to injuries. Chillar is plagued by a hamstring injury. The Packers have found a ton of young linebackers lately, and they’ll be cheaper than Barnett, Poppinga and Chillar. Harrell, a former first-round draft pick, has struggled with injuries that have kept him from becoming a contributor. The Pack has depth up front, which makes paying Harrell for a limited role unwise. Tauscher, the team’s long-time right tackle, re-signed at midseason last year and played OK. But his high price tag, plus the Pack’s investment in first-round tackles Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod made it impossible for the Pack, up against the cap, to pay Tauscher.

San Francisco (cut CB Nate Clements, QB David Carr , OT Eric Heitmann, and PK Joe Nedney) – Clements was once the highest paid cornerback in football, but he never came close to playing up to that paycheck in San Francisco. He’s probably only a borderline starter at this point. Carr, who was slated to make $2.375 million this year, was a bust as a backup last year. Nedney has been a solid kicker for the 49ers after bouncing around earlier in his career, but the 49ers brought in ex-Eagle David Akers to replace him because Nedney has a knee injury. Heitmann has a neck injury and is no longer able to contribute. That’s a loss to the 49ers, who loved taking advantage of Heitmann’s versatility.

Atlanta (cut DE Jamaal Anderson and WR Michael Jenkins) – Anderson and Jenkins, both former first-round picks, found roles in Atlanta but never lived up to their draft position. Jenkins is a tall receiver with questionable hands. Anderson never provided much of a pass rush, but he’s pretty good against the run. He is still a starting-caliber player – just not at the price the Falcons were paying.

Cleveland (cut QB Jake Delhomme) – Delhomme is a prince of a guy, but his play the last two years hasn’t been up to NFL starting caliber. The Browns signed Delhomme as a placeholder for Colt McCoy, but between injuries and terrible play, McCoy was a better option right from the start. Delhomme will need to fall into a backup role somewhere, but he’s got the team-first personality that will allow him to succeed as one.

Pittsburgh (cut OTs Max Starks and Flozell Adams and WR Antwaan Randle El) – Starks got huge money last offseason to be the Steelers’ left tackle of the future, even though he’s more of a swing tackle. But the cost was too high after Starks got hurt last season and as the Steelers paid to keep Willie Colon in free agency. Starks will find a home elsewhere if he can prove he’s healthy. Adams, who was signed after injuries to Starks and Colon last year, wouldn’t take a pay cut for a  lesser role. He’s just an average tackle at this point, but his size and experience help. The Steelers brought Randle El back last year, but the emergence of youngsters Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders made him superfluous.

New England (cut OLB Tully Banta-Cain, NT Marcus Stroud, DE Ty Warren, TE Alge Crumpler, and OG Nick Kaczur) -Banta-Cain had a 10-sack season in 2009, but he fell back to 5 sacks last season. At age 31 entering the season, he’s probably more of a role player than featured guy at this point. The Patriots should be able to upgrade at pass rusher over what Banta-Cain gave them last year. He also recently had abdominal surgery, which will knock him out of training camp and could affect his ability to play as the season opens. Stroud, who was brought in last year to provide some heft in the middle, got run out of town after the Patriots landed Albert Haynesworth. At this point, the former Pro Bowler should be a two-down player at most. Warren suffered a major injury last year, and so despite his solid play earlier in his career, the Pats cut him so they can try to bring him back at a lower salary. Crumpler is a fine blocking tight end, but he’s not the receiver he once was. He’s a bit player at this point. Kaczur is a versatile backup offensive lineman but not much else.

Washington (cut C Casey Rabach, DE Philip Daniels, DT Ma’ake Kemeoatu, Ps Josh Bidwell and Sam Paulescu, OG Mike Williams, WR Roydell Williams, RBs Chad Simpson and Andre Brown) – Rabach has been the Redskins’ starting center for six years, but after its offseason spending spree, Washington decided to move on. Daniels has been a productive defensive end, but with Barry Cofield headed into town, he wouldn’t have been a starter. Kemeoatu couldn’t live up to his contract because of injuries. Mike Williams, a former top-5 pick in Buffalo, served as an average guard at times, but weight problems have kept him from living up to his potential. Roydell Williams, Simpson, Brown, and Paulescu were just bit players. Bidwell spent one year with the Redskins, but his performance wasn’t all that great. The Redskins are going to try to go cheaper at the position.

Cincinnati (cut OLB Antwan Odom) – The Bengals signed Odom to a big contract in 2009, and for six games he was perhaps the best pass rusher in the league. But then he blew out his knee, and his play in 2010 wasn’t anywhere close to his previous level. So the Bengals move on. Odom could end up as a low-cost roll of the dice for another 3-4 team.

Miami (cut LB Channing Crowder) – Crowder has made more headlines for being mouthy than for his play on the field in the NFL, but he has been an effective run-down player. Still, he’s not nearly as good as Kevin Burnett, who the Dolphins signed to replace him, and he was too pricy to be a backup.

Houston (cut DT Amobi Okoye, WR David Anderson, and QB Dan Orlovsky) – Okoye, a former first-round pick, never lived up to his potential in Houston. When the team moved to a 3-4 defense, he didn’t have a natural position, and so he was released. He’s still just 24, so another team may want to take a shot at him. Anderson had some nice moments but was never going to be more than a No. 4 receiver in Houston. Orlovsky was replaced by Matt Leinart and released; he landed immediately in Indianapolis.

Jacksonville (cut DE Derrick Harvey) – Harvey, a former top 10 pick, was a complete bust, and the Jaguars finally gave up on him. He has to hope that someone views him as a reclamation project so he can get a minor salary to play somewhere else.

Carolina (cut PK John Kasay, DEs Tyler Brayton and Hilee Taylor, and DT Ed Johnson) – Kasay, who joined the Panthers as a free agent in their inaugural season in 1995, has been not only a productive and reliable kicker but a fan and owner favorite. He in many ways has been the conscience of the team throughout his 16 years there, and he will likely be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. And even though he’s in his 40s, he’s maintained solid percentages and continued to hit plenty of 50-yard-plus field goals. But he can no longer kick off, and so the Panthers moved on by signing Olindo Mare. Kasay is good enough to hook on elsewhere, and he would be a terrific fill-in if a contender’s kicker gets hurt at some point this season. Brayton was a solid citizen and a decent but not great end against the run. But his pricetag is high, and given the Panthers’ spending spree it was out of line compared to production. Taylor was a draft pick project who never panned out. Johnson got a second chance in Carolina after off-field issues cost him his career with the Colts, but his play on the field wasn’t good enough to keep him around.

Seattle (cut LB Lofa Tatupu) – After failing to agree on a renegotiated contract, the Seahawks, cut Tatupu, a former Pro Bowler whose first three seasons were terrific but whose last three have been just so-so. Tatupu is a 4-3 middle linebacker, so his options on the market could be limited. The Seahawks, meanwhile, can turn to David Hawthorne, who played well in the middle when Tatupu was out in 2009.

Indianapolis (cut CB Kelvin Hayden) – Hayden, a former second-round pick, rose to prominence with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears, and he emerged as a quality starter in 2007. But injuries have cost him time the last three seasons, and the Colts’ young corners have stepped up to the point that Hayden became expendable.

Arizona (cut QB Derek Anderson and LB Gerald Hayes) – Anderson was a bust as a starter last year, and with Kevin Kolb likely headed to town, he’s no longer needed. John Skelton or Max Hall will need to emerge as Kolb’s backup, which is feasible. Hayes was slated to make $4.25 million, but he can’t provide the bang for that many bucks.

St. Louis (OG Jacob Bell) – The Rams added Bell from the Titans last offseason, but his play didn’t hold muster. So after the team inked Harvey Dahl, they let Bell go, after Bell refused to cut his salary from the $6 million he was slated to make in 2011. Bell is still good enough to be a marginal starter, and he wasn’t going to get that chance in St. Louis any longer. UPDATE: After reports of the cut, Bell was still in St. Louis. He agreed to a pay cut and kept a roster spot.

New Orleans (cut CB Randall Gay) – The Saints have added a ton of depth at cornerback in the draft the last three years, and so Gay became expendable. Gay was OK, but he didn’t play up to his contract, and New Orleans needed to make room for youngsters.

Philadelphia (cut FB Leonard Weaver) – Weaver had a fine 2009 season in Philadelphia after joining the Eagles as a free agent, but a major knee injury last year put his career in question. He failed his physical and was released.

Detroit (cut WR Bryant Johnson and LB Jordon Dizon) – Johnson, who was slated to make $3.2 million this year, has fallen down the depth chart in Detroit with the addition of Nate Burleson last year and the drafting of Titus Young this year. Johnson had just 18 catches last year, and despite his impressive size, he’s never been a top-flight receiver. Dizon, a former second-round pick, never lived up to his promise, in part because of injuries. He didn’t play at all last season.

Denver (cut RB Correll Buckhalter and S Renaldo Hill) -Buckhalter’s first year in Denver was a strong one, but he tore his ACL last year, which makes his return to prominence at age 31 unlikely. Hill was one of the imports who was supposed to revitalize the defense under Josh McDaniels, but his performance in Denver didn’t live up to his contract. Still, he could be an effective veteran fill in for some team.

Minnesota (cut S Madieu Williams and DT Jimmy Kennedy) – Williams got a big contract a couple of years ago, but he was a below-average safety with an above-average price tag. The Vikings picked Kennedy, a former first-rounder in St. Louis, off the scrap heap three years ago, and they got a good season out of him in 2009. But he fell off last year, which meant he wasn’t worth his seven-figure cap price in 2011.

Chicago (cut TE Brandon Manumaleuna) – The Bears inked Manumaleuna to a big contract last offseason to be their blocking tight end, but his play was disappointing from the start.

N.Y. Jets (cut QBs Mark Brunell and Kevin O’Connell) – After drafting Greg McElroy, the Jets cleared the decks with their backup quarterbacks.

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Gored, plus other Week 13 transactions

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore wa...

Image via Wikipedia

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

It’s an IR-filled week, as many teams sought replacements for players who they had to put on injured reserve. Perhaps the most significant injury was to San Francisco RB Frank Gore, who suffered a broken hip Monday night against the Cardinals. Gore has largely been the 49ers’ offense not just this season but for the last several years, and San Francisco will sorely miss him. The question that must be asked at this point is whether Gore can return healthy. He’s had more than his share of injuries, and with more than 1,500 touches on his NFL resume, coming back next season at age 28 is no certainty. Brian Westbrook, who emerged from nowhere Monday night with a nice performance, can help fill in down the stretch as the 49ers keep their NFC West hopes alive, as can practice-squad promotee DeShawn Wynn. But San Francisco also needs to find out if rookie Anthony Dixon really has a future over the next five games.

In other moves…

Raiders (put QB Bruce Gradkowski on IR, add QB J.T. O’Sullivan) – Gradkowski has started four games for the Raiders this year, including the last two, and Tom Cable seems to favor him over Jason Campbell despite the fact that Oakland’s three-game winning streak came with Campbell at the helm. But Gradkowski suffered a throwing shoulder injury last week against Miami, and since he wasn’t going to be able to throw for a week or two, Oakland had no choice but to make a change. Now’s the time for Campbell to seize the starting job once and for all in Oakland.

Bengals (put DE Antwan Odom on IR) – Odom started out like a house afire in 2009, but the sack specialist never got going this year due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension and now a wrist injury. He had just four tackles in four games with no sacks after piling up eight sacks in six games last season.

Patriots (put OG Stephen Neal on IR) – Neal, who had missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, now will miss the rest of the season for the Patriots. Dan Connolly has been filling in at Neal’s right guard spot.

Bills (put DE Dwan Edwards on IR) – Edwards got a nice contract to move to Buffalo and become a starter as a 3-4 defensive end. He’s out now with a hamstring injury.

49ers (add PK Jeff Reed) – Reed, the longtime Steeler, takes over for the released Shane Andrus as Joe Nedney’s replacement in San Francisco. Reed has been inconsistent this year, but he has far more experience than Andrus.

Lions (put PK Jason Hanson on IR) – Hanson, the long-tenured Lion, landed on injured reserve with a right knee injury. Dave Rayner is already filling in.

Browns (claim S Sabby Piscitelli on waivers) – The Buccaneers lost starting S Cody Grimm, who was filling in for the suspended Tanard Jackson. But instead of promoting Piscitelli to the job, they released the four-year veteran who started 20 games in ’08 and ’09 combined. Piscitelli landed with the Browns via waivers, while the Buccaneers brought in Larry Asante for safety depth.

Dolphins (activate DE Phillip Merling from NFI list) – Merling was thought to be lost for the season due to an injury suffered in offseason workouts, but because he was on the non-football injury list instead of injured reserve, the Dolphins are able to bring him back this season. Merling played all 32 games in his first two seasons, and he should provide depth at defensive end in Miami’s 3-4.

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Odom out

Antwan Odom

The NFL suspended Bengals DE Antwan Odom for four games Friday for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Below are some thoughts on the suspension; you can see how it compares to other in-season suspensions in this post.

Odom was the Bengals’ best pass rusher last season, piling up eight sacks in five games before suffering a season-ending injury in game six. This year, he’s off to a slower start, with just four tackles in four games, which is part of the reason the Bengals have just seven sacks in five games. At his best, Odom adds edge rush to Cincinnati’s defense, drawing coverage that allows LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers more freedom to blitz and roam. Without Odom producing, the Bengals offense loses fright factor – to the point that a safety, Chris Crocker, leads the team in sacks through Week 5. Now Odom is sidelined for games 6-9 with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, further weakening a defense that isn’t the same this year as it was last season. Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker must step up and provide pass rush now for the Bengals, or else the defense will have to blitz so much that it opens holes elsewhere.

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FR: 2010 season suspensions

Haynesworth_hires

Image by Tennessee Journalist via Flickr

Every year, teams’ fortunes fluctuate because players get suspended. Now that major preseason suspensions to Brian Cushing, Ben Roethlisberger, and Santonio Holmes have expired, it’s time to  compare the significance of suspensions issued during the 2010 NFL season. For a look at suspensions announced before the season began, check out this post.

10 – DT Albert Haynesworth, Redskins (conduct detrimental to team) – Haynesworth famously signed a contract potentially worth $100 million before the 2009 season and cashed a $21 million bonus check before this season before clashing with head coach Mike Shanahan over playing in a 3-4 defense instead of his preferred 4-3. The situation festered throughout the season, with Haynesworth’s conditioning, commitment, and preparation constantly questioned as he played in eight of the first 12 games with just 2.5 sacks. In moments, like the Chicago game, Haynesworth was dominant, but he was largely an afterthought. Finally, the Redskins had enough and suspended Haynesworth for the last four games of the season. We don’t absolve Shanahan in this situation, but Haynesworth’s petulence certainly led to an embarrassing end to his Redskins season, both for him and the team.

9 – FS Tanard Jackson, Buccaneers (indefinite suspension no less than a year for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Jackson is a promising young safety, but substance-abuse problems have now sidelined him for the second straight season. (He was also suspended four games last season for a substance-abuse violation last year.) This time, Jackson faces an indefinite suspension and is not eligible to even apply for reinstatement for one full year. The Syracuse project entered the league as a fourth-round pick but emerged as a play-making free safety. He started all 16 games in each of his first two years and all 12 games after returning from suspension last year, and he notched eight interceptions, five forced fumbles, and 24 passes defensed in his first three years. It’s a big loss for a Bucs defense that doesn’t have a lot of eye-popping players on defense. Rookie Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick, will fill in for Jackson, with vet Sabby Piscitelli in reserve. Neither guy has Jackson’s ability. For a Tampa Bay team with a lot of young talent, losing a young guy like Jackson who has proven he can play at the NFL level is a big blow. But Jackson apparently has bigger issues and demons to overcome.

8 – OLT Duane Brown, Texans (four games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Brown has started all 34 games in his career since joining the Texans as a first-round pick in 2008. While Brown isn’t a superstar left tackle, he does a solid job protecting Matt Schaub’s blind side. Losing such a key part of the offensive line for four games early in the season (after Week 2) is crucial. Rashad Butler, a former third-round pick of the Panthers, got his first career start in Brown’s place, and the Texans also brought back Ephriam Salaam for depth. But this loss, coupled with OLB Brian Cushing’s ongoing suspension for violating the same policy, is a big blow to a Texans team that has aspirations of a contender.

7 – DE Antwan Odom, Bengals (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Odom was the Bengals’ best pass rusher last season, piling up eight sacks in five games before suffering a season-ending injury in game six. This year, he’s off to a slower start, with just four tackles in four games, which is part of the reason the Bengals have just seven sacks in five games. At his best, Odom adds edge rush to Cincinnati’s defense, drawing coverage that allows LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers more freedom to blitz and roam. Without Odom producing, the Bengals offense loses fright factor – to the point that a safety, Chris Crocker, leads the team in sacks through Week 5. Now Odom is sidelined for games 6-9 with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, further weakening a defense that isn’t the same this year as it was last season. Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker must step up and provide pass rush now for the Bengals, or else the defense will have to blitz so much that it opens holes elsewhere.

6 – SS Steve Gregory, Chargers (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Gregory, the Chargers’ starting strong safety, was flagged for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. It’s a big blow, because the fifth-year player has established himself as a solid starter at strong safety this year for a defense that’s playing well. Gregory isn’t a big playmaker, but his dependable presence brings stability. Former corner Paul Oliver will try to step in for Gregory for games 5-8 in San Diego.

5 – LB Brandon Spikes, Patriots (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Spikes, a rookie out of Florida, was suspended for the final four games of the regular season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. He opted not to appeal so that he could return for the playoffs. Over the first 12 games of the season, Spikes started eight games and had 61 tackles, three passes defensed, and one interception. He provided some physical play in the run game for a defense that needed some interior thump.

4 – none

3 – DT Tony McDaniel, Dolphins (1 game for violating league’s personal-conduct policy) – McDaniel was benched by the league for Miami’s Week Four game against the Patriots following a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. McDaniel is a reserve defensive lineman, so his role is replacable, but missing a key division game is never a good thing, and the results against the Patriots were not good at all.

2 – P Pat McAfee, Colts (1 game team suspension for conduct detrimental to the team) – After a bizarre drunken escapade that ended in a cold canal at 5 a.m., McAfee got a one-game suspension from the Colts. Indy has shown that it comes down hard on such infractions, and so the Colts’ latest drunken idiot kicker will sit in Week 8.

1 – LB Leroy Hill, Seahawks (1 game for violating league’s personal-conduct policy) – Hill, once a starting linebacker and a franchise-tagged free agent in Seattle, has fallen out of favor because of both performance and off-field issues. He’s on injured reserve and out for the year, but he still drew his second one-game suspension (that went with a two game-check fine) from the league stemming from a series of off-field issues. This suspension stems from a domestic-violence charge; his first suspension this season resulted from a drug arrest. This baggage will likely write Hill’s ticket out of Seattle and could make it hard for him to find a team willing to give him a second chance.

1 (con’t) – OG Duke Robinson, Panthers (4 games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy) – Robinson, a second-year guard out of Oklahoma, was on injured reserve when he was suspended for the final four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Robinson has yet to play in his two-year career, and he has missed the entire season with a torn knee ligament this year. This injury is just another strike against a former fifth-round pick who has to be running out of chances in Carolina.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2009 Awards

Most Valuable Player: QB Peyton Manning, Colts – This feels like such an unoriginal pick, but I’m convinced that if the Colts had just a good quarterback (even someone as good as Tony Romo) they would have been 9-7 instead of 14-2. Manning took an inexperienced receiving corps and made enough big plays for the Colts to go 8-0 in games decided by one score. That’s ridiculous. He’s a five-win player (at least), and no one else in the league provides that much of a bump to his team. If that ain’t valuable, I don’t know what is.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Chris Johnson, Titans – I’ve always thought it was weasely not to make your MVP your offensive player of the year, but since this is a different award, we’ll pick a different winner. And Johnson, who ran for 2,006 yards, was the most dynamic and dominant offensive player in the league this year. Two thousand yards is a magic number, and Johnson got there at a rate that made it seem a foregone conclusion. That’s a ridiculous level of dominance.

Defensive Player of the Year: CB Darrelle Revis, Jets – The Jets were the league’s best defensive statistically both in terms of yards allowed and points allowed, and that was in large part because Revis flat shut down opponents’ No. 1 receivers. Revis’ six interceptions and 31 passes defensed don’t even begin to show how dominant he was. No other player was as reliably dominant on defense than Revis, and that gives him the nod.

Special Teams Player of the Year: Josh Cribbs, Browns – Cribbs is the best kick returner in the game right now, as he showed with two kick return touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 15 and four total returns (kick and punt) on the season. Plus, Cribbs is a terrific cover guy. There’s no one who makes more impact on special teams than Cribbs.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: OT Michael Oher, Ravens – He didn’t play the blind side for the Ravens, at least most of the year, but he stepped right in as a starter for a playoff team and played without many hitches. Oher has great size that helps in the running game and also the feet to be a solid pass protector. He had a great rookie season and looks forward to an even better career. Oher is a narrow choice over Minnesota WR Percy Harvin for this award.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Cushing, Texans – We’ve already named Cushing the best No. 56 in the league, and now we’re giving him the nod as the best defensive rookie in the league this year, over S Jarius Byrd of Buffalo. Cushing was exactly what the Texans needed – a play-making outside linebacker to pair with tackling maching DeMeco Ryans in the middle. Cushing and Ryans will be the core of the Texans defense for the next few years, and that’s a big reason that Texans playoff talk is legit. Houston has never had linebackers of that impact before.

Most Improved Player: Miles Austin, Cowboys – Back at Pro Football Weekly, I wondered why the NFL didn’t have a Most Improved Player award, a la the NBA. That’s when PFW started offering that award. And were I to get a vote there, it would be for Austin, who exploded onto the scene with 81 catches, 1,230 yards and 11 touchdown catches. Austin is the prototypical guy who developed into a star – a former small-school player unearthed by Bill Parcells and signed as an undrafted free agent. Could Austin turn into the Rod Smith of this decade? So far, so good.

Comeback Player of the Year: Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – With all due respect to Ricky Williams, who had a career type of year after several years either out of the league or as a reserve, the Caddy had the most profound return this year. After tearing the patellar tendon in one knee in ’07 and the other knee in ’08, Williams got healthy in the offseason and started from Game One this year. He finished with 821 rushing yards and 219 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns in a system designed for him to split carries. It’s a great story, and Cadillac deserves props for bouncing back.

Head Coach of the Year: Marvin Lewis, Bengals – Lewis took a team that was 0-8 in the first half of the 2008 season and led it to a division sweep and an AFC North title. Over the past two years, he’s also remade the team as a run-first offense and lockdown defense. The Bengals were more physical than traditional bullies Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and it showed in the results. For changing a mindset, Lewis earns this award.

Executive of the Year: Bill Polian, Colts – In a year of change, Polian came up big for the Colts. Rookies Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, and Jacob Lacey all stepped right into the lineup and produced, and the head-coach succession from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell went seamlessly despite issues on the coaching staff throughout the offseason. All that can be attributed to Polian, who sets the tone for the franchise.

Offensive Coordinator of the Year: Darrell Bevell, Vikings – Bevell doesn’t call the plays in Minnesota – Brad Childress does – but Bevell served as an important buffer between Childress and Brett Favre. And regardless of what you think of the coziness of that arrangement, the fact that Minnesota was second in the league in points scored means that it worked during the regular season.

Defensive Coordinator of the Year: Wade Phillips, Cowboys – Dallas allowed the second-fewest points in the league without big additions on defense. Instead, Phillips had his team continuing to develop – especially OLB Anthony Spencer. Phillips has long been one of the best defensive coaches in the league, and since he served as coordinator along with his head-coaching duties this year, we’ll give him the nod.

Play of the Year: Brandon Stokely carom TD catch against Cincinnati, Week 1 – The play that we’ll all remember from this season is the bizarre way the Broncos won in Week 1 in Cincinnati. Ironically, while the play sparked the Broncos to a 6-0 start, Denver missed the playoffs, while Cincinnati rebounded to win the AFC North. But regardless of that, this is the play that highlight makers will feature from 2009.

Game of the Year: Colts 35, Patriots 34 – No game caused more discussion – just mention 4th-and-2 and you’ll still get an argument – and no game went further to determine the hierarchy in the AFC. This Sunday-nighter gets the nod.

Offensive Performance of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 503 yards and last-second TD pass to win against Green Bay in Week 15 – Pittsburgh desperately needed a win, and Roethlisberger delivered against a defense that entered ranked No. 1 against the pass. The performance included a perfect throw to Mike Wallace on the game’s final play to give Pittsburgh the win. It wasn’t enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs, but it was enough to give Roethlisberger the nod here over Brandon Marshall’s 21 catches against the Colts, Miles Austin’s 250-yard receiving game against the Chiefs, Jamaal Charles’ 256-yard rushing game against the Broncos, and Jerome Harrison’s 286 rushing yards against the Chiefs.

Defensive Performance of the Year: Charles Woodson Week 12 against Detroit – On Thanksgiving Day, Woodson had the ultimate stat-filler’s day – seven tackles, one sack, four passes defensed, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and one interception return for a touchdown. That dominant performance shone a light on the fine season Woodson had overall. So we give him the nod over four-sack days by Elvis Dumervil, Antwan Odom, and Brian Orakpo.

Crazy Kicker of the Year: Hunter Smith, Redskins – Smith had a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown, and an interception thrown on the ugliest play of the year. No kicker was involved in more crazy plays than Hunter the Punter.

Transaction Bingo player of the year: DT Orien Harris, Bengals – Harris, who played in 2008 with the Bengals, was traded from Cincy to St. Louis in exchange for RB Brian Leonard. He then went from St. Louis to Detroit in exchange for WR Ronald Curry, again before the season. But he was waived after Week 1 by Detroit without seeing action, and then the Bengals signed him in mid-October. He was released after playing one game, and then re-signed once more by Cincinnati so he could play two more games. Harris edges out Marcus McCauley, who spent time on four rosters – Detroit, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Washington.

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FR: Pro Bowl-less teams

Pro Bowl rosters were announced this week, and in this process six teams had no representatives. So instead of trying to assess snubs, which so many others do, I thought it might be more unique and productive to look at the six teams without a Pro Bowler and determine who might become a Pro Bowler in future years. We’re going to do this via a Football Relativity comparison, in which the team with the most Pro Bowl prospects is at the 10 level of the list and the team with the bleakest future is at the 1 level.

10 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are AFC North division winners, but they don’t have a Pro Bowl representative at this point. But Cincy has several players who can earn those honors in the future. Chad Ochocinco has reestablished himself as an elite wide reciever this year – he was just caught in a numbers logjam at the position. The same was true for Cedric Benson, who had a fine season running the ball but missed a game and ended up with numbers just a tick below others at the position. And while Carson Palmer isn’t a top-5 AFC quarterback this year, he has the talent to put up the kind of numbers in the future that will get him the nod. OT Andrew Whitworth could also emerge as a sleeper Pro Bowl candidate with another good year. On defense, MLB Dhani Jones got some pub as a snub this year, but at his age he will be hard pressed to break onto the roster. The better chance comes from CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, who have emerged as supersolid cover guys this year. Each has six interceptions, and if they do that again next year one will sneak onto the team. The other prime candidate in Cincinnati is DE Antwan Odom, who had eight sacks in six games before getting injured. With a full season, he would have made it this year.

9 – none

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons slipped out of the playoffs this year, although they still have a chance to notch a second consecutive winning season for the first time in franchise history. And while they have no Pro Bowl players this year, the Dirty Birds should in the future. TE Tony Gonzalez is a periennial Pro Bowler who was caught in a numbers game this year moving to the NFC, while WR Roddy White and RB Michael Turner both have put up Pro Bowl numbers in the past and should continue to do so in the future. Matt Ryan may be a little harder case, simply because he’ll be hard-pressed to put up the massive numbers that normally put a quarterback in the Pro Bowl. On defense, DE John Abraham has just 5.5 sacks after posting 16.5 last year, but another big sack season should put him back in the Pro Bowl. MLB Curtis Lofton, a tackling machine, could also emerge as a Pro Bowler with a few more impact plays.

7 – none

6 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bucs are rebuilding, but they do have a few good pieces. OG Davin Joseph made the Pro Bowl last year as an injury replacement, and he continues to play well. TE Kellen Winslow is also an impact player, although the number of top tight ends in the NFC is significant. On defense, Barrett Ruud is a productive middle linebacker who performs at a high level, and he could easily become a Pro Bowl guy in the future. CB Ronde Barber has played well this year, but his Pro Bowl seasons are probably behind him at this point in his career. However, S Tanard Jackson is a playmaker who could make enough of a splash to make the Pro Bowl in the future.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions have just two wins, but the future is looking far brighter than it did last year at this time. That’s because Detroit got big-time players with its first three draft picks this year. QB Matthew Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew could turn into Pro Bowlers, but second-round S Louis Delmas may be the surest bet of the three. Combine those three with uber-talented WR Calvin Johnson, and it looks like the Lions are starting to collect at least a few elite players.

4 – none

3 – none

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs simply don’t have many (if any) elite players. OG Brian Waters, a multiple-time Pro Bowler, is on the decline, and top offensive performers WR Dwayne Bowe and RB Jamaal Charles are closer to good than great. Top-5 picks on the defensive line, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, haven’t panned out yet. OLB Tamba Hali is a good pass rusher, but he too falls short of great. When P Dustin Colquitt is your best chance for a Pro Bowler both this year and looking at next year, your roster needs help and fast. That’s the situation the Chiefs are in.

1 – Seattle Seahawks – The Hawks’ future looks pretty bleak when you see the absence of playmakers on the roster. Former stalwarts like OT Walter Jones, CB Marcus Trufant, QB Matt Hasselbeck, and MLB Lofa Tatupu have been slowed by injuries and age or both, and youngsters like OLB Aaron Curry have yet to emerge. Seattle’s most productive players this year have been S Jordan Babineaux and LB David Hawthorne, neither of whom has Pro Bowl chops. Given the state of this roster, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Seattle back on this list next year.

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