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Titans/Jets thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week Three game between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Jets won 24-17 at the Meadowlands.

On-field
*The Jets’ defense has at least four premium, blue-chip players in CB Darrelle Revis, LBs Bart Scott and David Harris, and NT Kris Jenkins. Harris was the biggest impact guy late in this game with a fourth-quarter interception and a sack. Rex Ryan’s approach and scheme makes a big difference, but he has a lot of horses who can make his defense shine.
*Mark Sanchez makes his share of rookie mistakes, but he doesn’t self-distruct to the point that his team can’t overcome it. Sanchez had two turnovers in the game, but he also moved the ball well and threw two TDs and ran for another score.
*This is the most electric I’ve seen Jerricho Cotchery play. He seemed to have quality speed into and out of his breaks and he made some big plays en route to a 108-yard game. I still wouldn’t label Cotchery a legitimate No. 1, go-to receiver, but he’s a quality starter and by far the best guy the Jets have.
*The Titans have all the pieces, so what’s missing that’s led them to an 0-3 start? Chris Johnson is an elite running back, and LenDale White is a good compliment. The offensive line did a pretty good job too opening holes for Johnson and protecting QB Kerry Collins (just two sacks allowed). The biggest problem on offense is the receiving corps, which isn’t dependable catching the job. The Titans really missed intermediate threat Bo Scaife in this game.
*Defensively, the Titans have good players but not much impact. The secondary is also susceptible to intermediate-level plays, which is what drives are built on.  That doesn’t make sense, because safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin are both good players, as is CB Cortland Finnegan, but the combination in the secondary isn’t working right now.
*I love Jeff Fisher as a coach, but I don’t know what he can do to get his team out of this 0-3 hole. The intangible that’s missing won’t be easy to recover, and so it’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee can find a way to dig out of this significant hole.
*The Jets, meanwhile, are off to a solid start and are starting to establish themselves as one of the better teams in the league. But they must avoid the specter of their ’08 second-half collapse before we become full believers.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*I have Thomas Jones in two fantasy leagues, and I’m officially worried. After a top-notch game in Week 1 against Houston, Jones has struggled in the two succeeding weeks. This was a tough matchup, but Jones didn’t look very good. In one league, I backed Jones up with Leon Washington, but I’m having a hard time justifying either of them as starters right now. Watch the matchups, but you need to be willing to bench Jones right now if the matchup looks unfavorable.
*Cotchery is a top-30 wideout. Before the season, he was in the 30s in my rankings, but with the success that Sanchez has had and Cotchery’s role in the offense, he has upgraded. He’s still not an every-week starter, but most weeks he’ll be a good option.
*Chris Johnson is for real. Putting up 97 yards rushing against this defense shows just how effective Johnson can be. He’s always a threat to bust a long run, and that makes him extremely valuable in yardage leagues. LenDale White will still take away some TD chances, but Johnson is a secure top-10 back in most leagues. White, meanwhile, did in this game what he does usually. He’ll score a touchdown about every other week and be a solid flex play, but he’s not starting caliber unless Johnson goes out.
*None of the Titans’ receivers is a great fantasy option right now. Justin Gage is the best receiver they have, but Nate Washington is starting to take away some chances, and Kenny Britt is beginning to emerge as well. All three are pretty equal as threats, which means you can’t count on one to get the lion’s share of the targets in any particular game. These guys are all decent depth for fantasy teams, but none is a great starting option unless you’re stuck in a bye-week or injury pickle.

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Titans/Steelers thoughts

A few thoughts on last night’s season opener between the Titans and the Steelers, both from an on-field perspective and from a fantasy football perspective.

On-field
*I feel better than ever about including Tennessee among the top four teams in the league in our first Football Relativity comparison. Even without DT Albert Haynesworth, the Titans have a lot of pass-rush ability in their front four, with Jason Jones and Tony Brown providing it inside. This is a team that’s rock-solid on both lines and that has enough pieces elsewhere to be a tough team. Even though they lost, I’m even more convinced that this will be the best team in the AFC South.

*Pittsburgh is not a perfect team, but it’s a really tough team. This team went through the schedule gauntlet last year and found ways to win even when they’re not at their best. They did it again last night, and it goes to show that they’re never going to go down without a fight. Ben Roethlisberger is the microcosm of his team – always better at the end of the game than at the beginning.

*The injury to Troy Polamalu makes Pittsburgh’s defense less scary while he’s out. While Ryan Clark is a big hitter at safety, he’s not nearly the playmaker that Polamalu is. Without Polamalu, the Steelers will give up more big plays and make fewer, and that will hurt. The defense will still be good, but it won’t reach the special level that it can with Polamalu running around like a man possessed.

*Bo Scaie is really good. He’s the X-factor for the Titans offense. If Scaife can do every week what he did last night, the Titans offense will be a lot scarier. He’s not just a dependable third-down receiver; he’s also a threat to grab a 20-yard chunk at any time. Rookie Jared Cook isn’t going to replace Scaife this year (maybe in 2010 if Scaife leaves as a free agent), but the combo of Cook and Scaife on the field at the same time could be very interesting. Given how well-done Alge Crumpler is at this point, that has to be an option the Titans will explore.

Fantasy Football
*We saw the downside of both Titans running backs last night. Chris Johnson should get at least 50 yards each week, even against the toughest defenses, because he’ll bust at least one big play each week. (Last night it was a 32-yard run.) LenDale White, on the other hand, has very limited fantasy value unless he scores a touchdown. He’ll score his share of touchdowns this year, but against tough defenses he should be benched in most leagues because he’s not going to be a big yardage guy.

*Santonio Holmes has arrived. (This is a real football thought too.) Holmes is a legitimate No. 1 receiver from a real football sense, and he’s starting to take over for Hines Ward in that capacity for the Steelers. On my draft board, I had Holmes in the 20s among receivers, but this performance reminds me of his playoff run enough to say that Santonio is going to be a top-20 fantasy receiver this year. If you drafted him, you got a good deal. I thought Ward’s numbers, on the other hand, were a little higher than they will usually be. He’s more of a fantasy backup in most 10-12 team leagues this year. 

*Scaife is probably going to end up being between 10 and 15 on the tight end chart this year. I don’t count on him scoring a lot of touchdowns, but if you’re in a yardage-heavy leage or even a point-per-reception league, Scaife has more value. He’s not an elite guy, but he’s going to be productive.

*We saw last night what Kerry Collins is as a fantasy quarterback – 200-250 yards and a touchdown most weeks. Those are backup numbers. Roethlisberger’s numbers (363 yards and one TD) will probably fluctuate from week to week, but he does have some fantasy upside this year because he has better targets than he’s had in past years.

*I have two guys in my office who executed the strategy of drafting both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall for their fantasy teams this year. That’s a dangerous strategy with this team. Although both will play, you can’t start both because you could end up 25 total rushing yards, as they did last year. Parker is the starter, but he’s not going to have a ton of 100-yard games this year, I don’t believe. He’s a borderline fantasy starter. I’m falling off the Mendenhall bandwagon. At one point, I had him as a top-75 player, but I don’t like his running style, and he just hasn’t looked special to me either in this game or in the preseason game I watched this year. He was playing a terrific defense last night, so I don’t want to overreact, but it is time to sound the bust alarm on him.

*I don’t buy Kenny Britt yet, but if he continues to play as a starter, he could end up being worth a spot on your bench. Justin Gage, on the other hand, is probably worth a pick-up in 12-team leagues and bigger. Gage is the No. 1 wideout, and he’s healthy (which he wasn’t last year). He probably ends up as a top-40 wide receiver, which makes him ownable.

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Fantasy Football: Valuing Tight Ends

One of the most difficult things I face every year in putting together my fantasy football draft board is valuing tight ends properly. Part of this is because of the peculiarity of the leagues I play in. Two of the three leagues include tight ends with wide receivers, and so very few tight ends are worthing of starting in the WR/TE position. But the other league requires a tight end starter.

So I thought I’d go through the top tight ends and compare them as fantasy options using the football relativity scale. On this scale, 10 is a tight end who is an elite fantasy player, and 1 is a tight end who’s only worth owning in leagues of 12 teams or more that require a tight end starting every week. We’ll indicate on the scale the levels where the tight ends are also starters at WR/TE positions and where tight ends are worth owning as backups in WR/TE leagues.

One more note before we begin: you can follow all of our previous fantasy football articles by following the fantasy football category here on the blog.

10 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten is a catch machine. He had 81 catches for 952 yards following a 96-catch, 1,145-yard season in ’07. But he had just four touchdowns last year, which was a mid-pack figure for tight ends. But with Terrell Owens gone, Witten is by far the most dependable receiving option in Dallas, and you can reasonably expect that Witten gets some of the red-zone looks that Owens demanded in previous years. That means that last year’s numbers are on the low end of what you can expect from Witten in ’09, and his TD numbers should go up as well. He’s the surest thing among fantasy tight ends in 2009 and should be the first one off the board.

10 (con’t) – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark has long been one of the best touchdown producers among tight ends, crossing the goal line 30 times in the last five years. He had 77 catches for 848 yards and six scores last year, putting him near the top of the tight end category in terms of catches and yards. With Marvin Harrison gone, you have to figure that Clark will be a little more frequent target for Peyton Manning, and that should help to stabilize his production and make him more valuable as a fantasy option. The only negative on his profile is the fact that he’s been dinged enough to miss games each of the last three years, Still, Clark is one of the top 2 tight ends from a fantasy perspective for 2009.

9 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – Gonzalez is an all-time great who might end up being the all-time greatest tight end. He’s had at least 95 catches for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, which shows you that he’s not losing any steam. He also still has great leaping ability in the red zone, as his 10-touchdown ’08 campaign attests. The only question with Gonzalez is what kind of role he’ll find in his new home in Atlanta this year. The Falcons have a stud receiver in Roddy White and a big target in Michael Jenkins, and the two of them may take a play or two away that Gonzalez had gotten in the red zone in his K.C. days. Gonzalez is still a tight end stud and a legitimate starter in WR/TE leagues as well. He just doesn’t quite have the sure-thing quality that Witten and Clark appear to have going into the ’09 season. But if you are the third to take a tight end, you’re still going to be set up for big success.

8 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates has been a fantasy stud for years, but even though he played all 16 games in ’08, he finished with a lower-than-usual 60 catches for 704 yards. He still scored eight touchdowns, which was second among tight ends, but even that was his lowest TD total in five years. His fantasy value is as much from touchdowns as from receiving yards, and with Vincent Jackson emerging, there’s not a need for the Chargers to target Gates every time in the red zone any more. So it seems like Gates’ fantasy impact is starting to wane just a bit. Still, while there are some questions, Gates is still the fourth-best tight end on fantasy draft boards, and he’s still a No. 3 starter at WR/TE in a 12-team league.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a starter in 10-12 team leagues with a combined WR/TE position.*

7 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels is the newest guy to break into the ranks of fantasy starters. Did you know that he’s averaged 66 catches and 815 yards in each of the last two seasons? Those are elite numbers. The only negative is his touchdown totals – he had five in his rookie season but just five combined in his last two seasons. Daniels should put up big numbers again in ’08, and if his touchdown numbers inch up, he could truly join the elite receivers. Of course, for that to happen, QB Matt Schaub must stay healthy, which is a question. So for now, Daniels is a supersolid starter as a tight end in fantasy leagues, and he’s a quality backup and spot starter in WR/TE leagues. And if his TD rate starts gaining speed, his value will shoot up.

6 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley had a strange fantasy season last year. He had career highs with 83 catches for 849 yards, but he had just one touchdown after scoring at least six in each of his first four seasons. Cooley has surpassed 700 receiving yards in each of his last four seasons, so he’s a safe starting tight end, and if his touchdown total moves back up to five or more, he could pass Daniels and even come close to the four elite tight ends. But I’m a little skeptical about that given Jason Campbell’s uneven performance thus far in his career. The reason Cooley lands below Daniels is that I trust Matt Schaub more than I trust Campbell. Still, Cooley is a starting tight end in all leagues and a worthy backup in leagues with a WR/TE position.

5 – Greg Olsen, Bears – Olsen, a former first-round pick, continued to take steps forward in his career in ’08. He went from his rookie totals of 39 catches for 391 yards and two scores to improved sophomore stats of 54 catches for 574 yards and five scores. A similar gain in ’09 would make Olsen a top-five tight end. A gain is possible, because new Bears QB Jay Cutler is much better than the Bears’ former starter Kyle Orton. But remember that Olsen is sharing TE duties with Desmond Clark, another quality pass catcher, and even though the Bears run a lot of two-TE sets, that still should hold Olsen’s numbers down. We can project enough of a gain for Olsen to make him a sure fantasy starter and a backup in WR/TE leagues. But projecting more right now would be getting your head out over your skis.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as the equivalent of a fourth or fifth option at WR/TE in leagues without a tight end position. Therefore, they should not be backups in 10-12 team WR/TE leagues.*

4 – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow may be the most physically gifted tight end in the league, and he has been really productive in the last two years. He had 171 catches for nearly 2,000 yards and eight TDs in ’06 and ’07 combined, and in just half a season last year he still had a whopping 43 catches for 428 yards and three TDs. He moves from a pass-first Cleveland system to Tampa Bay, which would seem to be more of a run-first scheme with lesser quarterbacks. So that could cause a dip in his numbers. We still expect at least 500 yards and four touchdowns, which makes Winslow a tight end starter. He also has upside to do more than that. If you’re picking a fantasy TE starter late and Winslow is there, take a shot and hope for the best. But don’t reach for this talent in such an uncertain situation.

4 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a strong rookie season in Seattle with 55 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. And he did that with Matt Hasselbeck missing much of the season. Hasselbeck’s returns will help Carlson’s numbers, but the arrival of T.J. Houshmandzedah could hurt a little. So pencil Carlson in for 500 yards and four touchdowns, make him one of the last TE starters picked in your draft, and hope that Carlson exceeds expectations in ’09 like he did in ’08. Carlson is a safe pick with some upside, which is what you want with a late-round pick.

4 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – There are actually two Zach Millers playing tight end in the league this year, so if you want this Miller, make sure to draft correctly on your computer system. Oakland’s Zach Miller took a step forward in his second season, increasing his catch total from 44 to 56 and his yardage total from 444 to 778. He only had one touchdown, which limits his fantasy value. But Miller probably will pass 700 receiving yards again in ’09, and if he can move his touchdown total up, he’ll move from being a marginal fantasy starter to a solid one. Given the Raiders’ problematic offense, it’s hard to project that TD jump, which is why Miller ranks down here. But he’s the best weapon Oakland has aside from Darren McFadden, and that fact should help Miller’s numbers remain solid.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a tight end starter in 10-team leagues. The players below should be seen as backups except in larger leagues.*

3 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe was one of the breakout fantasy players of 2008, as his seven touchdowns and nearly 600 yards made him an elite fantasy tight end. That touchdown total, though, seems a bit out of whack given the fact that Shiancoe had just 42 catches, and so prudency demands we expect that TD total to take a bit of a dive. The Vikings’ unsettled QB situation (obligatory Brett Favre mention) is troubling as well. I can see Shiancoe amassing 400 yards and three touchdowns without a lot of trouble, and he does have the capability to do more. But he’s not good enough to put him in the top 10 at the position in fantasy terms. He misses that plateau, although not by much.

3 (con’t) – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller, a Jets’ first-round pick in ’08, had a strong rookie season, totaling 48 catches for 535 yards and three touchdowns. If he makes the kind of second-year jump that Greg Olsen and Zach Miller did, Keller would be a fantasy starter. But the fact that the Jets are breaking in a rookie quarterback could hold Keller back just a little. Keller is a talent, and Mark Sanchez has a better arm than Brett Favre had at the end of the ’08 season. But for safety’s sake, we’ll project Keller to match his ’08 numbers and hope for some upside instead of expecting more and getting less.

2 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a quality tight end who is remarkably consistent. He’s had at least 34 catches but not more than 48 in each of his four seasons; had at least 393 yards but not more than 566 in all four seasons; and had at least three touchdowns every year as well. Miller has shown some touchdown productivity in the past, but he had just three last year, which I think is a sign of things to come because Santonio Holmes has finally emerged as a proven No. 2 receiver for the Steelers. So Miller is a safe backup tight end, but he doesn’t have the fantasy upside that a guy like Keller has. In a huge league, Miller’s an OK starter if you’re among the last to take a tight end, and he’s a perfectly good fill-in if your starting tight end has a bye or gets hurt. But at this point, we know what Miller is – and that’s not an elite fantasy tight end.

2 (con’t) – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey is a huge talent at tight end, and he has had monster numbers in past year. Last year, despite missing four games, he still had 50 catches for nearly 500 yards. But there are strikes against him. First, he didn’t score a touchdown last year in his first season as a Saint. Second, he is no Saint, as off-the-field problems are frequent enough to make fantasy owners nervous. Third, he is injured often enough – he’s never played all 16 games in a season – that you can’t rely on him. If he played all 16 games in New Orleans, he could be a top-5 tight end. But the chances of that happening are slim enough to downgrade Shockey. He’s a classic boom or bust pick, which means he’s worth taking late but not worth taking early. I wouldn’t rely on Shockey as a starter, but he’s the kind of guy worth having as a backup tight end if your team requires you to carry one. Just be prepared for a roller-coaster if you take him.

2 (con’t) – Brent Celek, Eagles – If there is one tight end who’s going to take a leap out of obscurity in ’09, it’s Celek. He played in every game and started seven for the Eagles last year, totaling 27 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown in part-time duty. Now, with L.J. Smith gone, we can expect Celek to have the kind of season Smith used to have in Philly – something like 300-500 yards and three TDs. But there’s upside for even more production than that here, and that makes Celek an intriguing fantasy backup.

2 (con’t) – Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss replaced Shockey with the Giants last year and had a solid season, catching 33 balls for 383 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a good season for a fantasy tight end, but it’s not enough to pencil Boss in as a fantasy starter this season. His touchdown total is out of whack compared to his catches, which means it’s wiser to expect him to have more like three scores in ’09. He’s a solid backup, but there is more upside with up-and-coming players like Carlson and Keller and Zach Miller that you should opt for before considering Boss.

1 – Tony Scheffler, Broncos – Scheffler has been a fantasy sleeper in his first two seasons, with at least 40 catches and at least 549 yards in each season. He’s also averaged 4 touchdowns a year through his three-year career. But while Scheffler has talent, he is going to be hurt by his situation as much as any fantasy player this year. The departure of Jay Cutler takes away Scheffler’s best friend on and off the field. Moreover, Scheffler’s down-the-field style doesn’t seem to fit the Josh McDaniels offensive system we saw in New England in recent years. Scheffler’s good enough to get 300 yards regardless of system, but he’s a backup until we see him prove that he can thrive without Cutler in McDaniels’ new system.

1 (con’t) – Bo Scaife, Titans – The Titans used their franchise tag on Scaife this offseason to make sure they kept him after his 58-catch, 561-yard season. But it’s hard to see Sciafe matching those numbers in ’09. The Titans drafted rookie Jared Cook, a pass-catching tight end who will take at least a few opportunities away from Scaife. And even with all of Sciafe’s catches, he has never had more than two touchdowns in a season. For fantasy owners, Scaife is just a fill-in. He’s a guy who’s better on the NFL field than he is in fantasy scoresheets.

1 (con’t) – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was once an elite fantasy tight end, but injuries and changes in Baltimore’s offense have limited his impact. Even though he started every game last year, he had just 35 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Ravens have added L.J. Smith to the roster, which could limit Heap’s numbers even more. It’s hard to see Heap as a fantasy factor this year; we’re including his name here just so you know we didn’t forget.

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Franchise players summary

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

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

Of the 14 franchise players:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Franchise players: Atogwe, Hill, Scaife & Starks

A final-day flurry resulted in a total of 14 franchise players in the NFL this offseason. That’s a record, topping the 11 tagged players last year and in 2005.

In this post we’ll cover four remaining franchise players who we haven’t yet covered on the blog. You can see how they compare relative to the full class of 14 in the finally finalized franchise player post.

S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams – Atogwe isn’t a big name, but he’s built a nice reputation in league circles. In fact, he probably would have been the top safety on the open market had he not been tagged. Atogwe, who has 13 interceptions over the last 2 seasons, is one of the few defensive building blocks the Rams have, so it was smart of them to make sure and keep him despite the $6.3 million investment.

LB Leroy Hill, Seattle – I first watched Hill when he was a redshift freshman at Clemson making more plays than a backup usually does. He continued exceeding expectations and became an immediate starter in Seattle despite being only a third-round pick. Hill hasn’t gotten the pub of fellow ‘backer Lofa Tatupu, but he has been a defensive stalwart nonetheless. But the $8.3 million guarantee the Seahawks are making to keep Hill is quite steep for a player who is only solid and not spectacular. This tag will only make sense for Seattle if they can reach a long-term deal with Hill.

TE Bo Scaife, Titans – Tennessee might have tagged PK Rob Bironas for the second straight year, but the Titans got a contract done just under the wire. So instead, they tagged Sciafe, who was their leading receiver last year with 58 catches. The cost isn’t severe – $4.46 million – so it’s a good move. Sciafe isn’t a game-changer, but he’s dependable. And because he’s depended on, he’s worth a tag.

OT Max Starks, Pittsburgh – Starks was a backup entering last offseason, but the Steelers gave him a tag worth almost $7 million. He ended up starting 11 games at left tackle when Marvel Smith got hurt. This year’s tag guarantees Starks $8.45 million. But here’s the thing – Starks isn’t starter quality. As a stopgap, he’s at least above putrid, but not much more than that. The Steelers have a ton of free agents on their line this offseason, so it makes sense to keep someone. But I get the feeling that Starks isn’t a solution now, nor will he ever be. He’s simply not worth the cost.

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FR: Franchise players

I thought that, as the franchise player window opens, we should play relativity with this year’s class of franchise players. We’ll rate them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP (think Albert Haynesworth for Tennessee last year) and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy. As we are doing with the head-coaching post, we’ll update this post with franchise players until the Feb. 19 deadline to name them passes.

(I’ve also begun including links to PFW’s free agent scouting reports, which are interesting reads and a great resource.)

10 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers – The next evolution of man, as Peppers was called by teammates, is an athletic freak. He’s 6-7, a lean 290 pounds, and as quick as most wide receivers. He wants out of Carolina, which runs a 4-3 defense, so that he can play in a 3-4 system as an outside rush linebacker. Peppers could be absolutely devastating in that role because of his athleticism, even though he’s almost too big to stand up and rush. The question is whether he could learn a new system quickly. His instincts aren’t always top-notch. Peppers wants out of Carolina, but the Panthers committed $16.683 million of cap room to him. (Insted of getting the $9 million tag that most defensive ends would, Peppers is guaranteed 20 percent more than his massive 2008 salary-cap figure.) Peppers has been a very good, productive player in Carolina, but for some reason he has stayed half a rung below elite level. Still, Peppers should fetch a trade bounty at least equal to what Jared Allen elicited last year (a first-rounder and two third-rounders). He is the biggest free agent tagged on the market this year, and his impending trade will be one of the biggest moves of the offseason whenever it happens.
(A note, just for the record: If the Raiders hadn’t been able to re-sign Nnamdi Asomugha and had franchised him again, Asomugha would have rated as a 10, and Peppers would have been a 9 with Suggs. Asomugha is the best player in the NFL at his position, and  you just can’t say the same about Peppers.)

9- OLB/Rush DE Terrell Suggs, Ravens – The Ravens enter free agency this offseason in a pickle. Three of their starting linebackers – Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Bart Scott – are entering the market. But Suggs’ skill set is the most irreplaceable. He is a strong pass rusher who fits perfectly in the Ravens’ 3-4 system. Suggs doesn’t get the hype of Demarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman, but he is nonetheless in their class as a rush specialist. The Ravens couldn’t afford to let him go, no matter the franchise price tag.

8- LB Karlos Dansby, Arizona – Along with Adrian Wilson, Dansby has been the heart of the Cards’ defense. Dansby is big and fast, and while his instincts don’t always seem to click, he still makes his share of plays. While some other players on this defense are more talented (namely Darnell Dockett and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), you could argue that only Wilson could be considered more important. That’s why the Cardinals are tagging Dansby for the second straight year. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Cardinals can get a long-term deal done with Dansby, as both sides say they want to. They should, because Dansby is a core player for this aggressive defense. This was a move the Cards had to make.

7- RB Brandon Jacobs, N.Y. Giants – Jacobs played as part of a RB trio with Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, so at first blush it’s a little surprising that he’s franchised. But when you look behind the surface, you realize that Ward is a free agent as well and will most likely be too rich for the Giants’ given his role in Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jacobs is at his best as a 20-carry guy who has a speedy counterpart. The Giants are set up for exactly that scenario. Few backs have Jacobs’ size and power, and his style dovetails with the kind of team the Giants want to be. This is a good fit between player and team, and it’s good to see the Giants recognize it. Jacobs is in the best position he could be, and it seems he realizes it. He wants a long-term deal and is confident it will happen. He even is taking the franchise tag as a compliment, which doesn’t always happen. This is a marriage that should and will continue. The only reason this ranking doesn’t go higher is that a running back’s career is shorter, and Jacobs is part of a duo. He won’t determine his team’s success, but he’s a big contributor.

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

6 (con’t) – CB Dunta Robinson, Texans — Houston has focused its drafts, at least in the first round, on defense for years now. They’ve had some big hits with Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, and some misses with Travis Johnson and perhaps Amobi Okoye. Robinson has fought injuries, but when healthy he’s fit more in the hit category. That’s why the Texans have decided to pay nearly $10 million next year to keep Robinson, who has 13 interceptions in his 5-year career. Robinson isn’t an elite corner in the class of Nnamdi Asomugha, but he’s a legit starter. Ideally, the Texans would lock Robinson up long term and save some dollars this year. If Robinson could get a deal like the one Panthers CB Chris Gamble took (6 years, as much as $50 million), he should take it. And you could justify that from the Texans end as well. If this team is going to take the next step, they must keep core players, and Robinson is good enough to be considered part of that core.

5- RB Darren Sproles, San Diego – Sproles made a name for himself by starring for the Chargers in the playoffs this season. Although he’s tiny, he has superb speed that allows him to bust free as a return man or from the backfield. Sproles probably shouldn’t be a go-to back – I doubt he would hold up for the whole season – but in a Reggie Bush type of role, he can be a game changer more often than not. But is that worth $6.6 million a year? It is to the Chargers as long as they’re not expecting Sproles to replace LaDanian Tomlinson. But if they cut LDT, this move could easily blow up in their faces.

5 (con’t) – S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams – Atogwe isn’t a big name, but he’s built a nice reputation in league circles. In fact, he probably would have been the top safety on the open market had he not been tagged. Atogwe, who has 13 interceptions over the last 2 seasons, is one of the few defensive building blocks the Rams have, so it was smart of them to make sure and keep him despite the $6.3 million investment.

4- QB Matt Cassel, New England – This is a bit of a strange move because Cassel projects as a backup for New England in ’09. Cincinnati (Stacy Andrews) and Pittsburgh (Max Starks) made similiar moves last year with offensive linemen, but the stakes (and dollars) are bigger at QB. (Cassel has signed a contract guaranteeting him $14.65 million, while Andrews and Starks were in the $7 million range.) The Pats will be investing a huge sum in quarterbacks, and Cassel’s decision to sign the tender means a trade is now unlikely. (A team would have to be under the salary cap enough to take the full hit on that contract.) But Cassel does provide insurance in case Tom Brady suffers a setback, and the Patriots retain the option to trade Cassel after the season. (Thanks to Mike Lombardi, we know that Cassel is someone who will not be an unrestricted free agent next offseason unless there’s a new agreement between owners and players.) The wisdom of this move is more than a 4, but the impact during the 2009 season likely won’t be, which is why Cassel falls where he does on this relativity scale.

4 (con’t) – TE Bo Scaife, Titans – Tennessee might have tagged PK Rob Bironas for the second straight year, but the Titans got a contract done just under the wire. So instead, they tagged Scaife, who was their leading receiver last year with 58 catches. The cost isn’t severe – $4.46 million – so it’s a good move. Scaife isn’t a game-changer, but he’s dependable. And because he’s depended on, he’s worth a tag.

3- P Michael Koenen, Falcons – Koenen has developed into quite a weapon for the Falcons. He was the king of no-return punts this year, as the Falcons allowed just 49 punt return yards all season. (That’s a league record.) Koenen’s leg strength is also a boon on kickoffs (he had 16 touchbacks), which allows the Falcons to use veteran kicker Jason Elam’s reliability on field goals without wasting a roster spot on a kickoff-only specialist. Koenen’s net-yardage speciality makes him one of the top punters in the league, so it’s fair – and smart – for the Falcons to pay him as such.

3 (con’t) – LB Leroy Hill, Seattle – I first watched Hill when he was a redshift freshman at Clemson making more plays than a backup usually does. He continued exceeding expectations and became an immediate starter in Seattle despite being only a third-round pick. Hill hasn’t gotten the pub of fellow ‘backer Lofa Tatupu, but he has been a defensive stalwart nonetheless. But the $8.3 million guarantee the Seahawks are making to keep Hill is quite steep for a player who is only solid and not spectacular. This tag will only make sense for Seattle if they can reach a long-term deal with Hill.

2- PK Shayne Graham, Bengals – Graham is a consistent kicker (85.6 percent field goals in his career), and he has found a home in Cincinnati after bouncing around as kickers often do at the beginning of their careers. Graham is a good kicker, but he’s not a game-changer. But given the Bengals’ free-agency status – and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s vocal desire to leave – it makes at least a little sense to keep the guy who wants to stay. But Graham, while a good kicker, isn’t so much better than the rest of kickers that he deserves to be paid as a top-five guy. So this is a marginal move for a team that must make some serious upgrades in free agency to move forward.

1- OT Max Starks, Pittsburgh – Starks was a backup entering last offseason, but the Steelers gave him a tag worth almost $7 million. He ended up starting 11 games at left tackle when Marvel Smith got hurt. This year’s tag guarantees Starks $8.45 million. But here’s the thing – Starks isn’t starter quality. As a stopgap, he’s at least above putrid, but not much more than that. The Steelers have a ton of free agents on their line this offseason, so it makes sense to keep someone. But I get the feeling that Starks isn’t a solution now, nor will he ever be. He’s simply not worth the cost.

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