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FR: Pre-camp additions

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

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

9 – none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Receivers update

A few name receivers have landed with new teams this week, and so we thought we’d give some fantasy analysis on them. For other fantasy players who have moved this offseason, check out this post. And you can of course find all of our fantasy football articles through the fantasy football category on our blog.

Chiefs add WR Amani Toomer – Toomer, the long-time Giant, no longer has any kind of breakaway speed, but he catches the ball when it’s thrown to him. It seems a little strange to have both Toomer and Bobby Engram on the same roster, which could even lead to one of them being released down the line. But if Mark Bradley doesn’t continue to emerge, then Toomer is a solid insurance policy. Probably the best-case scenario for the Chiefs is to have Toomer as their No. 4 receiver who can fill in outside if Bradley or Dwayne Bowe has to miss time. Relying on Toomer in fantasy football could prove to be a mistake, but he should be on your radar if Bradley or Bowe gets hurt. Toomer’s presence also limits Engram’s sleeper potential.

Redskins add WR D.J. Hackett – Hackett, who showed potential in Seattle but busted out as a big free-agent addition in Carolina last year, hooked on with the Redskins after offseason import Roydell Williams was released. Hackett is big and has shown the ability to get downfield regularly, but his lack of consistency hampers him from being a regular rotation player. Hackett is the kind of veteran who can make an NFL roster, but he’s not a fantasy option this year. You’d be much better off casting your lot with one of the Redskins’ younger receivers, Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas, instead of selecting Hackett in your draft, because even if Hackett makes the Redskins, he’ll probably be a game-day inactive until an injury or demotion opens the door for him.

Jets add WR Aundrae Allison – Allison, a former fifth-round pick, had just 18 catches in two seasons, and he was passed by youngsters Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. So the Vikings cut Allison, and then the Jets quickly grabbed him off waivers. He has average size but above-average speed, and that’s the reason he’s work a look. Allison could also figure in as a return specialist at a cheap price, but he doesn’t look to be a fantasy option, despite the Jets’ lack of receiver depth.

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Fantasy Football: Players on the Move

This post is dedicated to assessing the fantasy value of players who have moved to new teams in the offseason. With these players, we’ll decide whether their numbers will rise, sink, or float (stay the same). If I forgot anyone, let me know and we’ll include them in comments.

We’ve already delved into the fantasy futures of several moving players at the top of the draft board. Here’s some linkage you can use to read about…

WRs Terrell Owens and T.J. Houshmandzedah are discussed here
TEs Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow are discussed here
QB Matt Cassel and RB Derrick Ward is discussed here
And every pertinent fantasy rookie is discussed here
Outside of Football Relativity, this site is a good list of all fantasy-relevant free-agent movement

For all of our fantasy football coverage, click on the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler finally came into his own, at least from a fantasy perspective last year. He posted 4,256 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, with 2 rushing touchdowns thrown in as a bonus. Now that he’s in Chicago, those numbers can’t stay the same. He simply doesn’t have the same weapons in Chicago that he had in Denver. While Chicago’s tight ends, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, are above average, the receiving corps is not. Maybe Cutler’s old college teammate Earl Bennett will emerge, and maybe return guru Devin Hester continues to develop as a receiver and becomes a true No. 1. But there aren’t enough targets there for Cutler to throw for 4,000 yards again. So Cutler’s fantasy numbers will sink to the point that he looks much, much better as a backup with upside than he would as a guy you’re depending on to start in your lineup. Verdict: Sink

QB Byron Leftwich, Buccaneers – Leftwich rebuilt his reputation, which had been tarnished as he lost starting jobs in Jacksonville and then Atlanta, by serving as a backup in Pittsburgh and filling in well in spot duty a couple of times. He looks to be the opening day starter in Tampa, but don’t bank too much on that. The Bucs like Luke McCown and gave him a decent offseason contract, and at some point rookie Josh Freeman will get a look – the question is how long that look will be. Leftwich is a marginal fantasy backup who likely won’t surpass 20 touchdown passes. So take this rise with three grains of salt. Verdict: Rise

QB Kyle Orton, Broncos – Amidst all the attention paid to Cutler’s move to Chicago, we tend to overlook Orton’s new home in Denver. Orton actually had a decent year in Chicago last year when he finally established himself as a starter for the first time since his extended rookie-year fill-in performance. He threw for almost 2,900 yards and 18 touchdowns (with three rushing TDs thrown in) despite having an extremely laughable cast of receivers. He’ll have better targets in Denver, from Brandon Marshall to Eddie Royal to Tony Scheffler. If Marshall leaves, this recommendation loses its punch, but for now Orton could near a top-15 quarterback status and could actually outperform Cutler from a fantasy standpoint. Verdict: Rise

RB Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter had been a backup in Philly since 2001, and despite some repeated injuries that halted his career, he emerged as a solid backup and fill-in for Brian Westbrook. Last year, he had almost 700 yards from scrimmage and a total of four touchdowns. In Denver, he looks to be the main backup to rookie Knowshon Moreno. Watching the system that new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels used in New England, you would guess that he would use more than one back, which could open the door to Buckhalter. Moreno’s far and away better, and he’s likely going to be a fantasy stud, but it’s still going to be possible for Buckhalter to repeat his ’08 performance in his new home. Verdict: Float

RB Maurice Morris, Lions – Like Buckhalter, Morris was a long-time backup (he had been in Seattle since 2002) who used free agency to break free. Morris looks to be the main backup to Kevin Smith now in Detroit. While Morris never had a great season, he had at least 500 rushing yards in each of the last three seasons. He scored two touchdowns last year as well, both as a receiver not a rusher. Morris is no starter, as he proved when he couldn’t usurp Julius Jones in Seattle, but he’s not a terrible backup. Still, behind a rebuilding Detroit offensive line, it’s hard to see Morris reaching 500 yards for a fourth straight season. Verdict: Sink

RB Dominic Rhodes, Bills – The Bills added Rhodes, who had a renaissance in Indy last year, after they found out that Marshawn Lynch was going to be suspended for three games to open the season. But don’t overvalue Rhodes because of that. Fred Jackson, not Rhodes, still looks to be Lynch’s No. 1 backup and early-season replacement. And remember too that Rhodes was not productive in his only other season away from Indy, a forgettable ’07 campaign in Oakland. There’s no way Rhodes nears his totals of 840 combined yards and 9 touchdowns from ’08. Verdict: Sink

RB Fred Taylor, Patriots – Taylor spent 11 years in Jacksonville and is probably the Jaguar franchise’s greatest player ever. He has more than 11,000 career yards, and has had seven 1,000 yard seasons. But last year, as Maurice Jones-Drew emerged as a true star, Taylor lost carries, and he ended up with 556 rushing yards and just one touchdown. In New England, Taylor will share carries again, but he certainly should get more chances than he had last year in Jacksonville. Don’t expect too much, but closer to 700 yards and 3-4 touchdowns is a reasonable projection for Taylor. Verdict: Rise

RB Leonard Weaver, Eagles – Weaver is kind of an unsung guy, but he had carved out a role as a fullback and short-yardage guy with the Seahawks. He moves to a similar offense in Philly, where Weaver should share the backfield often with Brian Westbrook. Weaver’s numbers – 250 total yards with two touchdowns – aren’t a fantasy factor, but if you’re looking for a emergency fill-in (and it has to be a major emergency), Weaver will be on the field enough that he could grab a cheap touchdown. Verdict: Float

RB Jason Wright, Cardinals – With Cleveland, Wright was a fantasy sleeper last year after a sneakily productive 2007 season, but he never got many chances behind Jamal Lewis last year. Wright ended up with less than 250 total yards from scrimmage and just one touchdown. In Arizona, his role will be the third-down role that J.J. Arrington held last season. Rookie Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower won’t give Wright many carries, but the fact that Wright has 20 catches in each of the last two years shows that he has at least a little value. Don’t expect too much, but in mega-sized leagues Wright belongs on your draft board. Verdict: Float

WR Laveranues Coles, Bengals – Coles, who was a long-time contributor with the Jets and the Redskins, moves to Cincinnati this year to replace T.J. Houshmandzedah as Chad Ochocinco’s running mate. While Coles is a vet, he’s still pretty productive – he had 70 catches for 850 yards and 7 touchdowns last year. Those numbers will be hard to match in Cincinnati, given Ochocinco’s presence. But Houshmandzedah always had good fantasy numbers, and that means that Coles has an opening. His numbers will dip a little, but he’s still a borderline fantasy starter in all but the smallest leagues. Verdict: Sink

WR Ronald Curry, Rams – Curry has loads of talent and potential, and the former college quarterback (and point guard) had three 50-catch seasons in Oakland. Now he’s in St. Louis, after signing with Detroit and then being traded to the Gateway City. Curry had just 19 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns last year, and in St. Louis he looks to be a starter, which can’t help but increase his fantasy value. So while Curry isn’t going to go much past 40 catches in a moribund offense (or maybe even 30), his fantasy numbers were buoyed by his late-July trade. Verdict: Rise

WR Bobby Engram, Chiefs – Engram is an underappreciated receiver, but over his 13-year career he has 645 total catches and 79 touchdowns. After a huge ’07 campaign in Seattle, injuries limited in 2008 to 47 catches for 489 yards, and he didn’t score. Now he moves to Kansas City, where he looks to be a solid third-down option for Matt Cassel. Dwayne Bowe and the emerging Mark Bradley are still above Engram in K.C.’s pecking order, but Engram should find a nice role with the Chiefs. His catch numbers will decline, but he’ll get in the end zone a time or two to create equilibrium in his fantasy numbers. Verdict: Float

WR Jabar Gaffney, Broncos – Gaffney, who never realized his potential as a second-round draft pick in Houston, carved out a solid role as a third receiver in New England. He surpassed 35 catches and 400 yards in each of the last two seasons, combining for seven touchdowns in those two seasons. Now he moves with former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to Denver, and it appears that Gaffney will have a similar role in Denver to the one he had in New England. While Gaffney is good enough to carve out a role behind Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, his quarterback isn’t good enough to keep Gaffney’s numbers at the same level. Unless Marshall leaves Denver or holds out, Gaffney’s catch total is bound for the 20s, not the 30s. Verdict: Sink

WR Joey Galloway, Patriots – Galloway has played 14 years, but last season broke his string of three straight 1,000-yard campaigns. But last year, because of injuries, he had just 13 catches for 138 yards. Those numbers are bound to go up now that he’s in New England; the question is how much. Randy Moss and Wes Welker are still the top dogs among New England’s receiving corps, and Greg Lewis will make a few big plays, but Galloway should eventually establish himself in three-receiver sets and end up replicating what Jabar Gaffney brought to the Patriots over the past two years – 35 catches, 400-plus yards, and 3-4 touchdowns. Verdict: Rise

WR Torry Holt, Jaguars – After a Hall-of-Fame caliber career in St. Louis, Holt moves to Jacksonville to lead a young (check that; it’s a preemie) receiver corps in Jacksonville. With Mike Walker and three rookies as his competition, Holt is the unquestioned alpha dog in Jacksonville. So the question is whether Holt can match his ’08 numbers – 64 catches, 796 yards, and three TDs – in his new home. It’s hard to project more from Holt, but similar numbers are achievable. Holt is now a No. 3 receiver in most leagues, so don’t overrate him, but don’t be scared to consider him useful. Verdict: Float

WR Bryant Johnson, Lions – The Lions added Johnson and Dennis Northcutt (and for a while, Ronald Curry) in an effort to find a running mate for Calvin Johnson. Bryant Johnson, who never really lived up to his billing as a first-round pick back in Arizona, still has had between 40 and 49 catches in each of the last five seasons. That seems about right for him in Detroit, but with a rookie quarterback looking to get most of the snaps this season, Johnson’s other numbers – 546 yards and three touchdowns – seem a little high. Something like 40-400-2 looks right, and that’s enough of a dip that we need to note it. Verdict: Sink

WR Greg Lewis, Patriots – Lewis is no better than the fourth receiver in New England, which is similar to the role he ended up with in Philly. Lewis is the kind of player who will break open deep every third game and catch two of those three bombs. That’s not going to be enough to give him fantasy relevance in ’09 unless Randy Moss gets hurt. Lewis had 19 catches for 247 yards and a touchdown last year, and he’ll be hard pressed to even match those catch and yardage totals this year. Verdict: Sink

WR Brandon Lloyd, Broncos – Lloyd is on his fourth team, moving on after an average season in Chicago in ’08. The Broncos signed him after Brandon Marshall began making noise about wanting a trade. Lloyd is only the third-best Brandon in the Broncos’ receiving corps (behind Marshall and Stokely), and he won’t come close to his 26-catch, 364-yard, two-touchdown season unless Marshall prompts a deal or holds out. Verdict: Sink

WR Dennis Northcutt, Lions – Northcutt went to Jacksonville in ’08 to be the leader of the Jaguars’ receiving corps, but he managed just 44 catches for 545 yards and two touchdowns as he saw Mike Walker and Matt Jones surpass him in the pecking order. Now Northcutt moves to Detroit via trade, where he will combine with Bryant Johnson to try to complement Calvin Johnson. Northcutt has never impressed me, and so I think Bryant Johnson will end up doing more than Northcutt. That spells sink to me. Verdict: Sink

WR Nate Washington, Titans – Washington was a big-dollar signing by the Titans, who see him as a starter across from Justin Gage. He emerged as a solid deep threat and third receiver in Pittsburgh last year, catching 40 passes for 631 yards and three touchdowns. Washington should be able to step up to a starting role in Tennessee, and even though the Titans’ offense isn’t pass happy, that would mean more catches – 50-to-60 – and a few more yards. He won’t be able to keep his yards-per-catch average above 15 as a starter, but he will be more productive. All that will make him a borderline fantasy starter in most leagues, with the possibility of upside that could make him even more of a fantasy factor. Verdict: Rise

TE Chris Baker, Patriots – Baker, a long-time Jet, saw his playing time taken away in the Meadowlands because of Dustin Keller, and so he has moved on to New England. He’ll be contending with Benjamin Watson and ex-Buc Alex Smith for catches in New England, and that means he definitely won’t be the threat he was in ’06 and ’07. We don’t even see Baker matching his ’08 numbers of 21 catches for 194 yards. Verdict: Sink

TE L.J. Smith, Ravens – After a long career in Philly, Smith moves to Baltimore, where he looks to serve as a backup and safety net for Todd Heap, who has been injury prone in recent years. That means that Smith, who has been a borderline fantasy starter at tight end for many years, is less than that this year. His numbers will fall from his 37-catch, 298-yard, three-TD level of last year, but he’s worth watching in his new home, especially if Heap gets hurt. Verdict: Sink

PK Mike Nugent, Buccaneers – Nugent lost his job to Jay Feely last year after a training-camp injury. Now he moves to Tampa, where he will try to beat out Matt Bryant for a starting job. The guess here is that Nugent takes that job, but even if he does we don’t see him as a 100-point kicker. That would make Nugent a bye-week fill-in, not an every-week option. Verdict: Rise

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FR: Receivers for 2009 and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: Free agency weekly review pt. 3

Another week, and a bunch more moves on the NFL landscape. Here’s a review of the moves from March 14-20 in comparison to each other. The 10 level is reserved for the team that made the most important signings of the week; the 1 level is reserved for a team that’s merely worth mentioning this week. Click on the following links for comparisons of the opening weekend, week 1, and week 2 moves.

10 – Saints (add S Darren Sharper, DE Paul Spicer and C Nick Leckey; kept WR-RS Courtney Roby) – The Saints still have major secondary needs, so Sharper’s leadership and veteran wiles are vital. He’s the NFL’s active leader in interceptions with 54. Spicer, who spent 10 years with the Jaguars, still can be a spot pass rusher and is worth a 1-year deal. Leckey started 10 games in Arizona last year and can fit in on the line. Roby fits in as a return option for New Orleans.

9 – Browns (add OT John St. Clair, LB Eric Barton, OG Floyd Womack, CB Corey Ivy, and RB Noah Herron) – St. Clair is a former first-round bust in St. Louis who emerged as a decent right tackle in Chicago. He got a deal worth $9 million over three years to be the bookend to stud OLT Joe Thomas. Barton has lost not just one but a few steps, but he knows Eric Mangini’s defense and may still be able to play at least on running downs. Womack, who has one of the league’s greatest nicknames — Pork Chop — played both guard and tackle in his nine years in Seattle. He’s an ideal 6th lineman who can also start and do OK. Ivy was Baltimore’s nickel back last year, and he played well in that role. He should fill a similar role in Cleveland.

8 – Ravens (add TE L.J. Smith and CB-RS Chris Carr) – Smith had a bad year in Philadelphia in ’08, largely because of injury, but he’s a dangerous pass catcher when healthy. The Ravens hope having either Todd Heap or Smith healthy will give them a middle-of-the-field threat. At $1.5 million for one year, Smith is kind of a pricy insurance policy. Carr is an underrated player who really emerged in Tennessee last year. He’s a dynamic returner, and he proved he could also contribute as a nickel back for the Titans. Given the overhaul the Ravens are doing at cornerback, Carr could be a very important player for them. He looks to fit in behind Dominique Foxworth (another addition) and Fabian Washington as Baltimore’s No. 3 corner.

7 – Patriots (add WR Joey Galloway and OL Al Johnson; kept DE Mike Wright, OT Wesley Britt and S Tank Williams) – Galloway was ineffective last year because of injury, but he was quietly dangerous in Tampa Bay in the two seasons before that. He’s a veteran who could fit in beautifully as an outside receiver opposite Randy Moss and beside Wes Welker, but Galloway will have to beat out Greg Lewis for that spot. In any case, the Patriots have improved their depth at receiver. Johnson is an interior lineman who was in Miami last year. Wright is a rotation defensive end who got a 4-year, $7.2 million deal to remain in New England.

6 – Raiders (add OT Khalif Barnes; kept C Chris Morris) – Barnes only got a one-year deal to move to the bay from Jacksonville, which is why this move isn’t higher. But he’s a talented player who is still trying to prove he can be an elite left tackle in the NFL. He’ll be a certain starter in Oakland.

5 – Cardinals (add RB Jason Wright, NT Rodney Leslie, TE Anthony Becht, and C Donovan Raiola; kept OLB Clark Haggans, DE Bertrand Berry and OG Elton Brown) – Wright, who got 2 years and $2 million on his new deal, replaces J.J. Arrington as Arizona’s third-down back. That’s the proper role for him. Leslie is a wide load who can play nose tackle as the Cards move to a 3-4 defense. He probably should be a backup and not a starter, but he’s a good option to have around. Becht is a block-first tight end who provides insurance in case Stephen Spach can’t return from his playoff knee injury. Haggans and Berry got one-year deals to stick around. Berry is a good citizen and team leader who can still get to the passer on occasion. Haggans played in Pittsburgh for eight years and should be an asset as the Cardinals seek to move to a 3-4 defense modeled after the Steelers’ D. Brown has started in the past but is more of a backup type.

5 (con’t) – Buccaneers (add LB Angelo Crowell) – Crowell missed the entire ’08 season with injury but was a productive linebacker in Buffalo before then. He’s vital in helping the Bucs replace ousted outside ‘backers Derrick Brooks and Cato June.

5 (con’t) – Chiefs (add LB Monty Beisel and WRs Bobby Engram and Terrance Copper) – Engram fits in as a possession receiver across from Dwayne Bowe, who is emerging as a quality No. 1 receiver. Engram didn’t do much last year because of injury, but he had a great ’07 season. Copper, meanwhile, will probably fit in more on special teams than on offense. Beisel will help new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast install his new offense. Beisel was a Chief from ’01 to ’04 but spent last season in Arizona with Pendergast and new head coach Todd Haley. This is another offseason move dedicated to getting a veteran hand who can help install and teach a new system.

4 – Redskins (add DE Renaldo Wynn; kept PK Shaun Suisham) – Wynn, a Redskin from ’02 to ’06, returns from the Giants on a one-year deal to provide defensive line depth.

3 – Titans (add WR-RS Mark Jones) – Jones moves from Carolina to replace Chris Carr as Tennessee’s primary returner. Jones brought more juice to the Panthers’ return game last year than Carolina had seen since Steve Smith was in that role, so he’ll help in Tennessee.

3 (con’t) – Eagles (add FB Leonard Weaver) – Weaver is the prototypical West Coast offense fullback. He can block pretty well, catch the ball a little, and run short-yardage plays in a pinch. He was actually on the field for more than 50 percent of Seattle’s offensive snaps last year, but with Mike Holmgren retiring, the offense was going to change enough to limit Weaver’s touches. He’ll step in and be a solid complement to Brian Westbrook in Philly, and he’ll make a play or two along the way as well. Weaver is a role player well worth a 1-year, $1.75 million deal.

2- Vikings (add CB Karl Paymah and WR-RS Glenn Holt) – Paymah moves from Denver on a one-year, $1.55 million deal to contribute as a backup corner and a special-teams dynamo. Holt will help on special teams too; he’s a quality returner who will keep the Vikings from having to use Bernard Berrian in that position.

2 (con’t) – Jets (add Marques Douglas; kept S Abram Elam and CB Ahmad Carroll) – Douglas is another ex-Raven who can play defensive end in new head coach Rex Ryan’s system. He’ll be a backup who plays in a rotation. The Jets kept Elam by matching a 1-year, $1.5 million offer sheet he had signed with Cleveland. Elam can backup both safety spots, and he played well last year. Carroll is a former first-round pick who might have finally found a home after latching on with the Jets last year.

1 – Bills (add LB Pat Thomas) – With Angelo Crowell leaving, the Bills needed to add a veteran linebacker who could start. Thomas opened nine games last year in Kansas City, so he fits that bill.

1 (con’t) – Packers (kept CB Jarrett Bush and DE Mike Montgomery) – The Packers matched an offer sheet from the Titans to keep Bush, but it’s strange to picture them paying $4.5 million over three years for a backup corner. Bush will need to at least be a nickel back for this contract to make sense for Green Bay. Montgomery was a backup defensive tackle last year, but he’ll likely become an end in the Packers’ new 3-4 scheme.

1 (con’t) – Broncos (add OG Scott Young; kept TE Jeb Putzier) – Young was a backup with Philadelphia and should fill a similar role in Denver. Putzier could be an important retention because the Broncos are shopping pass-catching TE Tony Scheffler. Putzier can catch OK but is more of a blocker, which will be more important in the new offense that rookie head coach Josh McDaniels is installing.

1 (con’t) Lions (add TE Will Heller) – Heller’s a block-first tight end who will help the running game but won’t catch much at all. He comes from Seattle to replace John Owens, who went from Detroit to Seattle.

1 (con’t) – Steelers (kept OG Trai Essex, CB Fernando Bryant and LB Arnold Harrison) – Bryant is an established vet who didn’t play much after signing in Pittsburgh in the middle of last season. The hope is that, with training camp under his belt, he can serve as an effective backup. Essex signed a two-year deal, which is important because so many Steelers linemen are still free agents.

Seahawks (kept LB D.D. Lewis) – backup and special teamer

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