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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s rebuilding, who’s reloading? NFC edition

As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the NFC edition; click here for the AFC edition.

NFC East

Dallas is reloading – After their first playoff win in nearly 15 years, the Cowboys kept the band together for the most part. They cut OT Flozell Adams and S Ken Hamlin, but both players had hit steep declines. The draft class starred Dez Bryant, who will add a receiving weapon for an offense that emerged last year, and ILB Sean Lee, who could plug in if Keith Brooking starts to struggle. The Cowboys believe their time is now, and last year’s results were good enough that such a strategy is sound. Verdict: Right approach

New York Giants are reloading – The Giants started to fall off the table last year, both on defense and on the offensive line. But instead of starting a major overhaul, the Giants are trying a patchwork approach. The biggest changes are at safety, where C.C. Brown is out, and Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant are in. First-round DE Jason Pierre-Paul is a developmental prospect who should spice up a pass rush that struggled last year, and second-round DT Linval Joseph shores up the interior. It seems like the Giants’ team that won the Super Bowl is getting old, though, and we have to wonder if more aggressive changes were in order. Verdict: Wrong approach

Philadelphia is rebuilding – The Eagles, despite making the playoffs again last year, went on a major rebuilding effort in the offseason in an effort to set themselves up not just for 2010 but for the first half of the new decade. So Kevin Kolb replaces Donovan McNabb, LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell replace Brian Westbrook, and LB Ernie Sims and DE Darryl Tapp add to a defense that gave up CB Sheldon Brown and LB Will Witherspoon. Then the draft added a ton of players like DE Brandon Graham and S Nate Allen who could develop into building blocks. This is rebuidling on the fly, and the Eagles seem to be doing it well. While it may lead to a slight step back this season, it sets them up to continue being a model franchise. Verdict: Right approach

Washington is rebuilding – Now that the Mike Shanahan era has begun, the Redskins are doing a full overhaul on the roster. QB Donovan McNabb is the marquee signing, but guys like DT Maake Kemeoatu and OG Artis Hicks are significant as well. Washington didn’t have a ton of draft picks, but OT Trent Williams should become a building block. The Redskins added a bunch of veterans to try to speed the rebuilding process, especially on offense, and time will tell if that’s the right approach, but Washington needed change on offense badly. Verdict: Right approach 

NFC North

Chicago is reloading – The Bears were hamstrung into their reloading strategy by a couple of factors. First, Lovie Smith is on the hot seat, and so he needs to win now. Also, last year’s Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades took Chicago’s first two draft picks and forced them into the free-agent market for most of their help. Drafted S Major Wright could help immediately, but the big help will come from imports DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor. Given the situation the Bears had entering the season, they took the only tack they could. Verdict: Right approach

Detroit is rebuilding – The Lions continued to tinker with the back end of the roster and strategically add key pieces. In free agency, they brought in Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson to help Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford thrive. That strategy is no coincidence. Jahvid Best and Tony Scheffler also become offensive weapons who should make life easier for Stafford. Detroit has really upgraded its roster over the past few years, and while they’re still behind, respectability is on the horizon. Verdict: Right approach

Green Bay is reloading – The Packers continued their build-through-the-draft strategy, which means that they’re always adding players around the edges and keeping the core intact. The Packers again this year don’t have any significant free-agent additions, so it’s up to draftees Bryan Bulaga, Mike Neal, and Morgan Burnett to provide a talent infusion. But because the Packers have built so well through the draft for so long, this strategy can now sustain itself. Verdict: Right approach

Minnesota is reloading – The Vikings haven’t gotten much help through free agency, aside from CB Lito Sheppard, but this final-four team was close enough that a few tweaks could be enough. The Vikes had better hope this is true, because a draft class headlined by Chris Cook isn’t exciting, although Toby Gerhart and Everson Griffen could find roles. Verdict: Right approach

NFC South

Atlanta is reloading – The Falcons made one of the big strikes of free agency by adding CB Dunta Robinson, who addresses a position of need for a team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time. First-round LB Sean Witherspoon adds a jolt to the defense as well. Those additions, combined with the fact that Atlanta hasn’t lost any significant players, will keep the Falcons in the hunt. Verdict: Right approach

Carolina is rebuilding – While the Falcons haven’t lost that much, Carolina purged a ton of veterans – losing Julius Peppers in free agency, trading Chris Harris, and cutting longtime stalwarts Jake Delhomme, Maake Kemeoatu, Na’il Diggs, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover. Carolina is going young, which also means going cheap. So Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen will battle at quarterback, and the defensive line will look completely different. The Panthers played well after a slow start, and so this step back hurts fans, but it’s better to rebuild a year early than a year late. Verdict: Right approach

New Orleans is reloading – The Super Bowl champs are trying to get back, and so they added Alex Brown to replace the disappointing Charles Grant and re-signed Darren Sharper to another one-year deal. They lose some important players like Mike Bell, Jamar Nesbit, and Scott Fujita, but none of those were core players, and that means the Saints should be in the mix yet again. Verdict: Right approach

Tampa Bay is rebuilding – The Buccaneers need a ton of help, and they’re aware of those needs. The draft brought DT help in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price and WR help in Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. That’s not all the help the Bucs needed, but those two positions are now in development, as is quarterback with ’09 first-rounder Josh Freeman. The Bucs still have several more trouble spots to address, but at least they’re checking a few spots off the to-do-list. Verdict: Right approach

NFC West

Arizona is rebuilding – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but they’ve undergone a pretty significant roster change this offseason. Gone are stars Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle. In are QB Derek Anderson, who will compete with Matt Leinart, and OGs Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot, who will help the Cards move toward more of a run-first approach. On defense, rookies Dan Williams and Daryl Washington provide reinforcements. Arizona is trying to remake its image further, and it’s necessary with Warner’s quick release now in retirement. Verdict: Right approach

St. Louis is rebuilding – The Rams are in the midst of serious roster overhaul, and first overall pick Sam Bradford is at the center of it. To help Bradford, fellow rookies Rodger Saffold and Mardy Gilyard come aboard as well. In free agency, the Rams mainly played around the margins with guys like Na’il Diggs, Hank Fraley, and Fred Robbins, hoping these vets can keep them competitive as they develop younger talent. As bad as the roster was in St. Louis, rebuilding wasn’t a choice – it was a necessity. Verdict: Right approach

San Francisco is reloading – Mike Singletary has kept the Niners on the fringe of contention lately, and now the Niners are going for the jugular. First-round OTs Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati add the kind of physical nastiness that Singletary wants from his line, while Taylor Mays and Navarro Bowman add speed to the defense. Free-agent signee Travis LaBoy and trade acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. are the kinds of role players a team on the verge likes to add to keep moving forward. Alex Smith will have to come through for this to be the right approach for San Francisco, but we can understand why the Niners are making their bets this way. Verdict: Right approach

Seattle is rebuilding The Seahawks seemed to get old suddenly over the past two years, and new head coach Pete Carroll has been incredibly proactive in trying to reverse that trend. Rookies Golden Tate, Earl Thomas, and Russell Okung could all start immediately, as the Seahawks try to replace the departed Nate Burleson, Deon Grant, and the retired Walter Jones. Most of all, the Seahawks tried to set up their future at quarterback by paying handsomely for Chargers third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst. It remains to be seen whether the Seahawks have picked the right guys in their rebuilding project, but for now we can at least give them credit for having a clear picture of just how bad the roster was. Verdict: Right approach

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Carolina cutbacks

We’re still reeling from the flurry of moves, which we’ll sum up in the blog as the weekend goes along. But for now, we wanted to focus on the major cutbacks in Carolina, which include QB Jake Delhomme, FB Brad Hoover DTs Maake Kemeoatu and Damione Lewis, and LBs Na’il Diggs and Landon Johnson. You can see how the Panthers compare to other cost-cutting teams in this post.

The Panthers went into severe cost-cutting mode, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But cutting Delhomme doesn’t save them any money. Instead, the Panthers will still foot the bill for $12.7 million in guaranteed money for Delhomme. Delhomme had a terrible year turning the ball over, and the Panthers couldn’t wait to see if he gets his form back. But he is a great locker-room presence and could be a good mentor for whoever drafts Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen. Still, Delhomme must cut down on turnovers to get many more starts in the league. The Panthers now cast their lot with Matt Moore, who has shown quite a bit of promise in two late-season stints but has never played in games that all mattered. Plus, the Panthers trimmed Hoover, their long-time fullback who is a fan favorite. Hoover isn’t the running threat he was once upon a time, but he never was a big blocker, and as he gets older his effectiveness leaked. Tony Fiammetta will get the first shot to replace him.

On defense, the Panthers cut Kemeoatu, a clogging defensive tackle who is recovering from an Achilles injury and was owed $4.3 million in bonuses and salary. Kemeoatu is a nose tackle option for 3-4 teams if he’s healthy. Lewis is more of a slashing tackle in a 4-3, and he played well in his Carolina tenure, but his $5 million 2010 price tag motivated his release. He might be the best defensive tackle on the open market at this point. The Panthers are left to look to reclamation projects Ed Johnson and Tank Tyler and youngsters Louis Leonard, Corvey Ivy, and Nick Hayden at tackle – which will be cheap but probably not good. At linebacker, Diggs started for Carolina but isn’t special. He’s a nice minimum signing for someone. Johnson got a nice deal two seasons ago to come over to Carolina from Cincinnati, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup and deserved to be cut. With youngsters Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Dan Connor, and James Anderson around, Carolina could afford to trim the payroll at linebacker.

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FR: Most impactful cutbacks

Each year, before free agency opens, we compare the impact of the cuts NFL teams have made using our relativity comparison. The 10 level is reserved for teams that lost the most; the 1 level is for teams that won’t feel the cuts at all. This post compares cuts made before the 2010 league year begins in March as well as cuts made during the first week of free agency, when many roster bonuses were due.

10 – Cardinals (cut FS Antrel Rolle) – Rolle, a former top-10 draft pick, didn’t really hit his stride with the Cardinals until he moved from cornerback to free safety a couple of seasons ago. But at that position, Rolle’s physical skills started to emerge, and he became a quality player. Rolle made his first Pro Bowl this year and seems to just be hitting his stride. But Rolle’s rookie contract, signed five years ago, calls for a $4 million roster bonus as the league year starts and $12 million in total compensation in 2010. That’s too big a bill for the Cardinals, and so they plan to cut him. That will be a loss unless Arizona finds a way to re-sign Rolle, which is still a possibility. Otherwise, Rolle will become one of the few players in his prime to hit the open market, which means he should be able to cash in for a safety-poor team.

9 – Jets (cut RB Thomas Jones and CB Donald Strickland) – Jones became the fourth starting running back from the over-30 crowd to get cut as the Jets decided to save a $3 million signing bonus and a $2.8 million 2010 salary by jettisoning him. A look at the roster shows why the Jets did this, because Shonn Greene shone as a rookie, and Leon Washington is a great complementary back with outstanding speed. But Jones still has a lot more in the tank than most runners his age. He ran for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009, marking his fifth straight season with at least 1,100 yards. That’s an impressive streak for a back who failed to break 700 yards in his first four NFL seasons. Even entering his 11th season, Jones has a lot of tread on his tires, and he can be productive for a team (especially one with a solid offensive line). He won’t make $6 million in 2010 on the open market at age 32, but he should get a decent contract as a No. 1 or a split-carries back somewhere. If he doesn’t, it’s a crime. Strickland played OK as a Jet next season, but with Antonio Cromartie coming in he became expendable. Still, Strickland wouldn’t be a bad nickel corner for someone.

9 (con’t) – Panthers (cut QB Jake Delhomme, FB Brad Hoover, LBs Landon Johnson and Na’il Diggs, and DTs Maake Kemeoatu and Damione Lewis) – The Panthers went into severe cost-cutting mode, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But cutting Delhomme doesn’t save them any money. Instead, the Panthers will still foot the bill for $12.7 million in guaranteed money for Delhomme. Delhomme had a terrible year turning the ball over, and the Panthers couldn’t wait to see if he gets his form back. But he is a great locker-room presence and could be a good mentor for whoever drafts Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen. Still, Delhomme must cut down on turnovers to get many more starts in the league. The Panthers now cast their lot with Matt Moore, who has shown quite a bit of promise in two late-season stints but has never played in games that all mattered. Plus, the Panthers trimmed Hoover, their long-time fullback who is a fan favorite. Hoover isn’t the running threat he was once upon a time, but he never was a big blocker, and as he gets older his effectiveness leaked. Tony Fiammetta will get the first shot to replace him. On defense, the Panthers cut Kemeoatu, a clogging defensive tackle who is recovering from an Achilles injury and was owed $4.3 million in bonuses and salary. Kemeoatu is a nose tackle option for 3-4 teams if he’s healthy. Lewis is more of a slashing tackle in a 4-3, and he played well in his Carolina tenure, but his $5 million 2010 price tag motivated his release. He might be the best defensive tackle on the open market at this point. The Panthers are left to look to reclamation projects Ed Johnson and Tank Tyler and youngsters Louis Leonard, Corvey Ivy, and Nick Hayden at tackle – which will be cheap but probably not good. At linebacker, Diggs started for Carolina but isn’t special. He’s a nice minimum signing for someone. Johnson got a nice deal two seasons ago to come over to Carolina from Cincinnati, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup and deserved to be cut. With youngsters Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Dan Connor, and James Anderson around, Carolina could afford to trim the payroll at linebacker.

8- Eagles (cut RB Brian Westbrook and LB Will Witherspoon) – Westbrook had a terrific eight-year career that was stymied this year by multiple concussions. When he was healthy, Westbrook was a dynamo running and catching the ball, breaking 2,100 yards from scrimmage in 2007, his best season. But injuries often sidelined or at the least slowed Westbrook even before concussion problems popped up this year. Those concussions make Westbrook a dubious gamble for any other team this year, although in a third-down back role he probably has more ability to break free than LaDanian Tomlinson does at this point. But one more concussion should lead to retirement for Westbrook, which will limit his marketability. The Eagles, meanwhile, save $7.25 million in 2010 and hand the reins over to LeSean McCoy, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season, and fullback/big back Leonard Weaver (a restricted free agent). That’s a pretty good duo to go into 2010 with if the Eagles can get Weaver signed. Witherspoon was brought over in a midseason trade from St. Louis to help a depleted LB corp, but the Eagles need to do better in the offseason if they are to maximize their upside. Witherspoon should hook on elsewhere, but probably not above the league minimum.

8 (con’t) – Dolphins (cut OLB Joey Porter, LB Akin Ayodele, and S Gibril Wilson) – Porter, who had nine sacks last season and 32 in three Miami seasons, asked for his release, hoping for one more payday before his career ends. The mouthy 11-year veteran can still get around the corner on the pass rush, as he showed with 9 sacks in ’09, and that gives him value to 3-4 teams. But Porter’s opinion of himself now outrates his actual performance, and that may deter some teams. Still, for a 3-4 team on the edge of contention like San Francisco or Denver, or a contender like Green Bay, Porter could become a nice third-down option at a medium-range price. Twitter was abuzz with league people like SI’s Ross Tucker and National Football Post’s Andrew Brandt marveling at how Wilson made $24 million in guaranteed money over the last two seasons with the Raiders and Dolphins without playing all that well. It goes to show that Wilson is a decent safety but not much more, and he’s got to be running out of chances to cash in on the open market. Doesn’t he? Ayodele was a system ringer brought in by Bill Parcells two years ago, and Ayodele played OK. He could end up in another Parcells-ish system elsewhere.

7 – Chargers (cut RB LaDanian Tomlinson) – Tomlinson had a great career for the Chargers, but like most running backs in the NFL, he is hitting the wall hard now that he’s 30. LDT hasn’t been the same back the last two seasons, and he’s no longer an elite player as a rusher or receiver. The Chargers redid his contract last year to give him a chance to prove he was back, but Tomlinson was unable to do so, and that made this decision the right move professionally. Now the Chargers will rely more on Darren Sproles as their backfield sparkplug while they look for a back who can carry enough of the load to keep the diminutive Sproles healthy. Tomlinson leaves San Diego as one of the greatest Chargers of all time – the kind of player whose number should be retired by the franchise. Unfortunately, he also leaves as a washed-up running back whose next stop will remind us not of his salad days but of Emmitt Smith in Arizona, Tony Dorsett in Denver, or Franco Harris in Seattle.

6 – Giants (cut MLB Antonio Pierce) – Pierce came over to the Giants as a high-dollar free agent five years ago, and he delivered on that contract by serving as a team leader and a big-time tackler during his tenure, which included a Super Bowl title. But Pierce missed the second half of the ’09 season with a bulging disc in his neck, and with a contract calling for him to make $4.75 million in cash this year, the Giants decided there were cheaper and healthier options. While the Giants don’t have a successor in place, they’ll likely look for a cheaper alternative or perhaps even draft a middle linebacker. Pierce, meanwhile, will look to latch on somewhere as a veteran hand and a locker-room leader, but he won’t come close to his scheduled salary. Instead, he’ll be a veteran minimum guy who becomes a stopgap option for a team looking for MLB or ILB help but not part of the long-term plan.

6 (con’t) – Redskins (cut WR Antwaan Randle El, OG Randy Thomas, CB Fred Smoot, DT Cornelius Griffin, QB Todd Collins, and RBs Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright) – The Redskins completely overhauled their roster with 10 cuts on the eve of free agency. Some, notably Randle El, Smoot, and Griffin, were former high-dollar signees. The Redskins overpaid Randle El, a good third receiver for the Steelers, after he starred in Super Bowl 40. But Randle El never lived up to that big-money deal, topping out at 53 catches in his four seasons in Washington. He’s not more than a third receiver at this point, or maybe a fourth, and the Redskins need to see if youngsters Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas are ready to roll. Griffin didn’t make a ton of impact after coming over from the Giants, and he might be at the end of the road. Smoot never lived up to his early promise in the league, but he’s a decent performer who could land as a nickel back elsewhere. Collins played OK as a backup with the Redskins and could latch on elsewhere in that role. Betts was a long-time Redskin who certainly had his moments, but his inability to stay healthy doomed him. He also is bigger than the normal Mike Shanahan runner. Thomas spent seven years with the Redskins, many of them solid, but he played only two games in ’09 before suffering a triceps injury. Cartwright spent eight years in Washington, mostly as a special-teams player and backup.

6 (con’t) – Chargers (cut NT Jamal Williams and RB Michael Bennett) – Williams has been a terrific nose tackle for many years, but injuries have taken their toll to the point that he no longer makes an impact. He’ll get a job elsewhere, but won’t make much money unless he finds the fountain of youth. Bennett, a former first-round pick, is a bottom-of-the-roster back at this point.

6 (con’t) – Colts (cut DE Raheem Brock, OG Ryan Lilja and QB Jim Sorgi) – Brock played well as the Colts’ third defensive end, and he was versatile enough to play inside, but he never produced huge sack numbers. At age 32, he’s not going to be a big factor on the open market, but given his ability to play inside and out he might be worth a look as a 3-4 defensive end. Lilja, who wasn’t drafted, emerged into a starter at guard for the Colts, but he never was an above-average player there. Maybe he’s the scapegoat for the Colts’ O-line failings in the Super Bowl, or maybe that game showed the Colts that they needed to upgrade the size and talent at that position. Sorgi never did much of anything as Peyton Manning’s backup, and now one of the league’s freer rides is over for him. He wouldn’t be more than a No. 3 QB anywhere else.

6 (con’t) – Browns (cut QB Derek Anderson, WR Donte Stallworth, RB Jamal Lewis and C Hank Fraley) – Anderson had a huge 2007 season for the Browns, making the Pro Bowl, but other than that he hasn’t been able to harness his strong arm with accuracy. Still, Anderson’s resume is better than just about any other quarterback’s on the open market, and he’s at least good enough to compete for a starting spot somewhere. And his age is another asset. You can understand Cleveland cutting him to save $9.45 million in 2010, and Brady Quinn and the newly acquired Seneca Wallace fit the new West Coast system the Browns are using better. But Anderson’s talent will attract some suitors. Stallworth was a big-money acquisition by Cleveland before the 2008 season, but he had just 17 catches on the season. And then Stallworth sat out the 2009 season under league suspension. Those two combined to make cutting Stallworth after he was reinstated a quick decision for the Browns. Stallworth played four four teams between 2005 and 2008, which tells you that his talent tantalizes but doesn’t deliver. Now he has hooked on with Baltimore, a team desperate for receiver help, as a fourth receiver with upside. Lewis, who ran for 2,000 yards and won a Super Bowl in Baltimore, has slowed down significantly in recent years, but he was still able to run for 500 yards and cross the 10,000-yard career mark last season.Cleveland let Lewis go to hand the ball to Jerome Harrison, who finished the season very strongly. The Browns also have James Davis returning from injury after he showed some flashes as a rookie last year. Last season was Lewis’ first campaign out of 9 in his career in which he ran for less than 900 yards, but his yards per carry average has topped 3.6 only once in the last five years. Lewis isn’t committed to retiring, but as Edgerrin James learned last year, the league starts to retire running backs before they think they’re really done. Fraley, a 10-year vet, was a three-year starter in Cleveland, but he lost his starting job last year. He still could fit in as an emergency center somewhere, but he’s not going to be Option A.

5 – Jaguars (cut WR Torry Holt, OT Tra Thomas, and DT Rob Meier) – The Jaguars started another youth movement by sending Holt, Thomas, and Meier packing. Holt and Thomas were free-agent signees last year who were meant to bridge the gap to a group of youngsters. With the development of OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, Thomas became expendable, while Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker surpassed Holt by the end of the season. Both vets are probably still good enough to be backups in the NFL, but they’ll have to do so at prices even more reduced than what they played for last year. Meier, who has been a Jag since 2000, missed all of last season due to injury and might be at the end of the line.

5 (con’t) – Saints (cut DE Charles Grant, OG Jamar Nesbit, and LB Mark Simoneau) – Grant was a former first-round pick in New Orleans who has 47 career sacks with the team, but he never was a game-changer, and after 5.5 sacks last year he became expendable. Nesbit started for the Saints last year but isn’t more than serviceable. Still, he’ll land somewhere else. Simoneau has been too banged up in recent years to contribute.

5 (con’t) – Raiders (cut RB Justin Fargas, DE Greg Ellis, and WR Javon Walker) – Fargas has had his moments as a runner in Oakland, but he got lost in a crowded backfield last season. He’s never been the most durable runner either. The Raiders claimed Fargas flunked his physical when he was released, although Fargas’ rep disputes that. We’ll see if Fargas can get a job as a change-of-pace back elsewhere in the league. The Raiders brought in Ellis last offseason, but the former Cowboy wasn’t able to translate his performance to Oakland. He might be at the end of the line, and that makes saving $2.5 million as the Raiders did an attractive possiblity. Walker is one of the biggest free-agent busts of all time. Walker notched less than 200 yards during his two years in Oakland, but he earned $21 million during that time. As a parting gift, the Raiders will have to pay Walker $2.6 million in guaranteed money in 2010. And you wonder why the Raiders are stuck in the doldrums.

4 – Bengals (cut WR Laveranues Coles) – The Bengals brought in Coles one year ago to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but Coles wasn’t able to make a big impact with 43 catches for 514 yards and five scores. That wasn’t worth his four-year, $28 million contract, and so the Bengals let him go. Cincinnati will need to find someone like a Terrell Owens or Derrick Mason to put across from Chad Ochocinco, and they can probably ink one of those guys more inexpensively than keeping Coles would have been. Coles, meanwhile, will have to hook on somewhere as a veteran No. 3 wideout, and he’ll have to do so at a vastly reduced rate.

3 – Jets (cut CB Lito Sheppard) – Sheppard fell out of favor with the Jets in his first year there after a solid career in Philly, as evidenced by his lack of playoff playing time. But while the Jets won’t miss him, Sheppard is a decent option for teams that miss out on Dunta Robinson or Leigh Bodden in the open market — as long as he doesn’t ask for the moon in his new deal.

3 (con’t) – Bears (cut OLT Orlando Pace and RB Kevin Jones) – Pace was cut one year into a 3-year, $15 million deal because he showed that he’s at (or even past) the end of the line. At his best, Pace was a physical freak who was bigger than most left tackles but nearly as athletic as the best at the position, which shows by the fact that he was first-team all-pro five times during his 12 years in St. Louis. But Pace was abysmal with the Bears last year, and Chicago needs to see if former first-rounder Chris Williams can handle the left side. Pace was scheduled to make $4 million in 2010, but missing that paycheck is softened by the fact that he took home $6 million in 2009. Signing Pace was a worthwhile gamble for the Bears, but it just didn’t work out because Pace’s decline is so steep at this point. Jones, a former first-round pick in Detroit, never was healthy enough to contribute in Chicago. With Chester Taylor’s arrival, having another veteran backup runner became superfluous for the Bears.

3 (con’t) – Lions (cut DEs Jared DeVries and Dewayne White, DT Grady Jackson, and CB Phillip Buchanon) – DeVries has been a Lion since 1999, but he missed the entire 2009 season with an Achilles injury. And while this might look like a cut designed to save Detroit $1.3 million, DeVries actually asked for his release in order to hit the free agent market early. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but he can be solid against the run and may be big enough at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds to play end in a 3-4. The Lions also want DeVries back, but likely at a lower price. Hopefully for DeVries’ sake, getting released before the market opens will help him find a gig more easily. Buchanaon started 11 games for the Lions last year, and he’s had an up-and-down career with four teams after entering the league as a first-round pick. He’s a marginal NFL starter at this point. Jackson is a massive defensive tackle who isn’t always in shape but who usually plays at a decent level. He’ll end up elsewhere too. White once got a five-year, $29 million deal from the Lions, but after recording 13 sacks in his first two Detroit seasons he failed to get even one last year. The Lions save $5 million this year by moving on from White, whose spot was taken by free-agent Kyle Vanden Bosch anyway.

2 – Broncos (cut DE Kenny Peterson, C Casey Wiegmann and RB LaMont Jordan) – Peterson, a seven-year vet, became a starter for the first time in Denver last year, but when the Broncos added Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green Peterson was released. He’s probably more of a backup 3-4 end than someone who should be starting. Wiegmann had a solid career with Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, the Jets, and Indianapolis as a guard and center. Wiegmann, whom we tabbed as the best No. 62 in the league this year, made the Pro Bowl for the 2008 season, but as the Broncos change blocking schemes Wiegmann’s zone-blocking prowess no longer fits.But he still has enough veteran wile to fit in somewhere if he wants to keep playing. The Broncos also released RB LaMont Jordan, who has bounced around to several teams over the past few years.

2 (con’t) – Patriots (cut TE Chris Baker) – Baker didn’t make much of an impact in his single season with the Pats, catching just 14 passes for 142 yards and two scores. He’s a tick above average as a receiver if he still has his speed, but he’s not going to be any more than a one-year option on the open market. It’ll be interesting to see what the Patriots do at tight end with Baker released and Ben Watson hitting the free agent market. Could Jermaine Greshman be in their sights?

1 – Chiefs (cut OG Mike Goff and WR Devard Darling) – Goff, a 12-year veteran, started seven times for the Chiefs in 2009, his first year with the team after a career in San Diego and Cincinnati. But in a rebuilding movement, Goff’s experience and higher price tag simply didn’t fit. Darling, a former third-round pick in Baltimore, didn’t pan out when the Chiefs gave him a second chance.

1 (con’t) – Buccaneers (cut Ps Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson and CB Torrie Cox) – Bidwell spent six years in Tampa, but he missed the ’09 season. Johnson filled in for Bidwell, but not particularly well. Cox spent seven seasons in Tampa but started just four games in that span.

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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 started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post. Now we move to running backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

20 – Thomas Jones, Jets – It was surprising to hear during this week’s Jets/Patriots game that Jones had moved into the top 30 of all-time NFL rushers. That’s an impressive accomplishment, especially for a guy who struggled as a top-10 overall pick in his first stop in Arizona. But in subsequent stops in Tampa Bay, Chicago, and now New York Jones has proven he can produce. He’s an easy choice here over young whippersnappers Steve Slaton of Houston and Darren McFadden of Oakland. Other notable 20: Justin Forsett, Seahawks

21 – LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – LDT is no longer the dominant force he was in his prime years, but if one of the top 10 backs of all time is playing in the league, we have to give him the number nod, even over a stud like Frank Gore of San Francisco or a long-time producer like Fred Taylor of the Patriots. Other notable 21s: Mike Bell, Saints; Ryan Moats, Texans; Javon Ringer, Titans; Melwede Moore, Steelers

22 – Matt Forte, Bears – Forte had an outstanding rookie year last year, but this year he’s been stymied by a subpar offensive line. Still, he gets the nod at this point over Julius Jones of the Seahawks and Fred Jackson of the Bills. Other notable 22s: Peyton Hillis, Broncos; Jacob Hester, Chargers; Chris Brown, Texans; Clifton Smith, Buccaneers

23 – Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – Before suffering a season-ending injury, Brown was continuing to prove himself as one of the league’s top-10 backs. Throw in the fact that he can throw it out of the Wildcat, and Brown gets the nod over Marshawn Lynch of the Bills and Pierre Thomas of the Saints. Other notable 23s: Willis McGahee, Ravens; Shonn Greene, Jets

24 – Marion Barber, Cowboys – Marion the Barbarian isn’t having a dominant year, but he’s still a really good back. We have no choice but to give him the nod over comeback story extraordinare Cadillac Williams of Tampa Bay.

25 – Ryan Grant, Packers – While Reggie Bush’s 25 is a best selling jersey not just in New Orleans but league wide, Grant has been the more consistently productive back over the past three years. So we’ll give Grant the nod over Bush. Other notable 25s: Justin Fargas, Raiders; LenDale White, Titans; Garrett Wolfe, Bears; Jamaal Charles, Chiefs

26 – Clinton Portis, Redskins – Although he’s sidelined by a concussion at the home, Portis’ long and productive career makes him an easy choice here over promising rookie Beanie Wells of Arizona.

27 – Ray Rice, Ravens – Brandon Jacobs of the Giants has a bigger profile, and Larry Johnson of the Bengals has a longer career, but Rice is the best back wearing this number right now. Rice is a threat running and receiving, and he can move the chains as well as bust the big play. So he gets the nod over Jacobs, Johnson, and rookie Knowshon Moreno of the Broncos.

28 – Adrian Peterson, Vikings – This is a close call, because Peterson and Chris Johnson of the Titans – probably the two best backs in the league – both wear the same number. We’ll stick to conventional wisdom and lean toward Peterson in this close call. Otehr notable 28s: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers, Correll Buckhalter, Broncos; Felix Jones, Cowboys; Derrick Ward, Buccaneers; Maurice Morris, Lions

29 – Joseph Addai, Colts – Addai isn’t a great back, but he’s good both as a runner and a receiver when he’s healthy. With Leon Washington of the Jets hurt, Addai is an easy choice at this number. Other notable 29s: LeSean McCoy, Eagles; Michael Bush, Raiders; Glen Coffee, 49ers, Chester Taylor, Vikings

30 – John Kuhn, Packers – Green Bay’s fullback is the only notable back currently wearing 30. Thankfully, he has gotten into the end zone often enough to make this selection look respectable.

31 – Jamal Lewis, Browns – Lewis isn’t the back he once was, but the former 2,000-yard rusher has had a terrific career. He’s the clear choice at this number over rookie Donald Brown of the Colts. Other notable 31s: Rock Cartwright, Redskins; Jason Wright, Cardinals

32 – Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – Jones-Drew has moved seamlessly from being a part-time back to a full-time guy this year while still producing big numbers in terms of yardage and touchdowns. That gives him the nod over Cedric Benson, who is having a terrific season with the Bengals. Other notable 32: Jerious Norwood, Falcons

33 – Michael Turner, Falcons – The Burner has been incredibly productive since joining the Falcons in 2008, and that makes him the best back wearing 33 over pass-catching specialist Kevin Faulk of New England and short-yardage specialist LeRon McClain of Baltimore. Other notable 33: Justin Griffith, Seahawks

34 – Ricky Williams, Dolphins – Ricky wins the battle of the Williamses over DeAngelo Williams of Carolina based on Ricky’s longer career track record of production. Both are outstandingly talented backs. Other notable 34s: Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers; Kevin Smith, Lions; Tim Hightower, Cardinals; Ovie Mughelli, Falcons; Sammy Morris, Patriots

35 – Jerome Harrison, Browns – It’s slim pickings at this number, so we have to give the nod to Harrison, who has had a moment or two as Jamal Lewis’ backup. Other notable 35s: Owen Schmitt, Seahawks; Dan Kreider, Cardinals; Chad Simpson, Colts

36 – Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook, who has been a terrific multipurpose back for many years now, is the easy choice at this number. He’s a truly great player. Other notable 36: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals

37 – Jason McKie, Bears – McKie, the Bears’ fullback, gets the nod here over recent Bengals signee Fui Vakapuna, another fullback. Neither will make fans forget a great fullback wearing 37 – Larry Centers of the Cardinals.

38 – Samkon Gado, Rams – Gado has had a few moments in the league, so although he’s just a backup in St. Louis now, we opt for him over Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi and injured Dolphins back Patrick Cobbs.

39 – Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson plays for a terrible team, but he remains a terrific bellweather back for St. Louis. He gets the nod over the declining Willie Parker of Pittsburgh and the inconsistent Laurence Maroney of the Patriots. Other notable 39: Madison Hedgecock, Giants

40 – Brian Leonard, Bengals – As we get into the 40s, we’ll have a harder time finding backs wearing these numbers. Leonard, the Bengals’ do-everything back is the only notable runner wearing 40.

41 – Lorenzo Neal, Raiders – Neal has long been one of the league’s best blocking fullbacks, but his career is winding to a conclusion, which is why he’s bounced around in recent years.

42 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots – The law firm, as Green-Ellis is called, has done a good job when called on by the Patriots. Other notable 42s: Tony Fiametta, Panthers; Mike Cox, Chiefs; DeShawn Wynn, Packers

43 – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles, the mite-sized, dynamite-powered Chargers back, gets the nod here over underrated Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver.

44 – Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw, once the speedy portion of the Giants’ RB trio, has emerged as the team’s best runner this season. He gets the nod over a batch of fullbacks here. Other notable 44s: Heath Evans, Saints; Luke Lawton, Raiders; Vonta Leach, Texans; Moran Norris, 49ers, Jason Snelling, Falcons; Mike Karney, Rams

45 – Mike Sellers, Redskins – In a batch of fullbacks, Washginton’s Sellers gets the nod because of his short-yardage acumen and special-teams impact. Other notable 45s: Ahmard Hall, Titans; Brad Hoover, Panthers; Jerome Felton, Lions

46 – Ladell Betts, Redskins – Betts is the only notable back wearing 46. Thankfully, he’s a solid player who has produced when he has gotten the chance to fill in for Clinton Portis.

47 – Lawrence Vickers, Browns – Vickers, a fullback, is the only notable NFL back wearing 47 right now.

48 – None – Poor Stephen Davis. (We went to the same high school.) No current back is making his former number 48 proud.

49 – Tony Richardson, Jets – Richardson has long been one of the league’s better fullbacks, and he now plies his trade with the Jets after stints in K.C. and Minnesota. He’s the only back currently wearing 49.

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