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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 8

Each week, we pore through the box scores to analyze fantasy football performances and tell you whether to applaud them or whether to consider them a fraud. With each verdict, we’ll make sure you know exactly what it means.

Quarterbacks 

Troy Smith of the 49ers. Via espn.com

Sam Bradford, Rams – We praised Bradford’s play but not his fantasy football prospects in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: A fraud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Garrard, who missed last week’s game with a concussion, came back with a vengeance, throwing for four touchdowns and running for one while completing an impressive 17-of-23 passes against the Cowboys. Garrard is a capable quarterback who will have big games from time to time, but he and his team show enough inconsistency that you can’t really count on him to do so. He’s a fantasy backup with upside, but not a guy we can count on as anything more than a spot starter. Verdict: A fraud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – Kitna threw four picks against the Jaguars, but if your league doesn’t penalize for turnovers he ended up with good counting stats – 379 yards and a touchdown. He can pile up some numbers, and he has good targets, so if you’re looking for a fantasy backup, he’s decent. From this point on, Kitna will be a top-20 fantasy quarterback, and that makes him ownable in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Troy Smith, 49ers – Smith, a former Heisman Trophy winner, got his first start for San Francisco and got a win across the pond, ralling the 49ers from a 10-3 deficit with three fourth-quarter scoring drives. And his numbers ended up being  good from a fantasy perspective – 12-for-19 for 196 yards with a passing TD and a rushing TD. It looks like Troy will outpace Alex Smith for the 49ers starting job going forward, and that makes him an interesting fantasy prospect the rest of the year. We’d feel good about claiming Troy Smith and seeing what happens in his next 2-3 games. Verdict: Applaud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford returned from his shoulder injury with a huge game, throwing for 212 yards and a touchdown. He isn’t an every-week fantasy starter, but as long as he’s healthy he’ s a quality spot starter who should definitely be owned in leagues with more than 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

LeGarrette Blount runs against the Cardinals

LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers – A week after we touted Blount as a pick-up, he broke free for 120 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. He should be owned in every league, and he deserves consideration now as a starter. He’s the man in Tampa Bay, and the RB job is his. Verdict: Applaud

Toby Gerhart, Vikings – The Vikes’ rookie had no yards on his two carries, but he did amass five catches for 67 yards. If he gains a third-down role, he becomes an interesting guy to watch down the stretch. For now, Gerhart is a must-own for Adrian Peterson owners, but if you don’t have Peterson and want to speculate with a waiver claim, go ahead. Verdict: Applaud

Marcel Reece, Raiders – Reece, the Raiders’ fullback, had a ridiculous game against the Seahawks with three catches for 90 yards and a touchdown and two rushes for 32 yards. But fullbacks aren’t reliable yardage producers, which means you should leave Reece on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – We told you it’s now time to cut Stewart in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, Rams – We told you that Amendola’s a borderline starter and that Gibson is worth a claim in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: Applaud

Anthony Armstrong, Redskins – Armstrong has emerged as the Redskins’ breakaway threat, and he had a 50-yard grab against the Lions en route to a three-catch, 92-yard performance. Armstrong is now the clear No. 2 receiver in Washington behind Santana Moss, and Armstrong is worth a look in large leagues as a claim if he’s still on the waiver wire. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Breaston, Cardinals – After missing three games due to injury, Breaston returned with eight catches for 147 yards. That shows he’s healthy and that he can contribute despite Arizona’s sorry quarterback situation. If Breaston hit your league’s waiver wire, claim him, and consider starting him in leagues that use three receivers. He’s back to being a top-30 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – HeyBey broke free for one huge play, a 69-yard touchdown, and finished the game against the Seahawks with five catches for 105 yards and a score. He also added 30 rushing yards, which is a nice fantasy bonus. He’s a big-play guy, but consistency has been lacking to this point in his two-year NFL career. Still, the former first-round pick has rare speed. For now, we have him on watch lists, not on a roster, but in massive leagues he’s worth a claim just in case he’s starting to get it. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker had a huge day with eight catches for 153 yards and a score. He now has four touchdowns on the season, but just two 100-yard games. This was also only his second game this season with more than four catches. In other words, MSW is incredibly inconsistent, and that means he isn’t someone you can start with confidence. He’s the ultimate third wideout who can put up big numbers but is far from a sure bet to do so. Don’t be fooled by this game. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Tate, Patriots – Tate, the big-play threat outside for the Patriots now that Randy Moss is gone, broke free for a 65-yard touchdown against the Vikings and finished with 101 receiving yards. His production is incredibly inconsistent, though, and that means he is difficult to start even in larger leagues. So while Tate should be owned in case he develops consistency down the stretch, this game doesn’t mean he’s a weekly starter. Verdict: A fraud

Nate Washington, Titans – Washington caught his fourth touchdown pass of the season against the Chargers and finished with 117 receiving yards on four catches. That production, plus the fact that Kenny Britt is expected to miss “an extended period of time” with a hamstring injury, means Washington must be picked up this week and could emerge as a fantasy starter while Britt is out. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Marcedes Lewis celebrates a TD catch with David Garrard. From espn.com

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars  – Lewis had another huge fantasy game, grabbing two touchdown passes (his only two catches) for 51 yards against the Cowboys. He now has seven touchdowns this season, and even though his reception numbers have been a little inconsistent, he is without question an every-week fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Delanie Walker, 49ers – Vernon Davis of the 49ers entered the team’s game in London with an ankle injury, and in the first quarter he had to leave the game once again. Walker, the backup tight end who has rare speed for the position, stepped in and had a big game with five catches for 85 yards. If Davis misses any time, Walker becomes a major sleeper at the tight end position. Watch the news during San Francisco’s bye this week to see Davis’ status, and in large leagues go ahead and grab Walker and stash him if you have a roster spot. Verdict: Appalud

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Panthers/Rams Thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Given the paucity of top-level matchups this week, we turned our attention to St. Louis, because we wanted to see with our own eyes how the Rams’ rebuilding project is going. The Rams continued their strong home play in their 20-10 victory over the Panthers. St. Louis is now 4-4, including a 4-1 record at the Edward Jones Dome. We’ll focus our on-field thoughts on the Rams, since the Panthers are completely out of any sort of contention, but we will include some Panthers thoughts for fantasy football owners.

Rams LB James Laurinaitis returns an interception. Photo via espn.com

On-field perspective
*Sam Bradford is obviously the keystone of the Rams’ reclamation project, and he looked good in this game. He completed a high percentage of passes (25-of-32), and he avoided throwing an interception for the third straight game, although most of his throws were short passes or checkdowns. Part of the reason for that is that the Rams lack real breakaway receiving threats after injuries sidelined WRs Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton, while part of it is to protect Bradford and keep his confidence high. But Bradford did flash a big arm on a 33-yard out pattern to Brandon Gibson, and as he gets more comfortable at the NFL level we should see more intermediate and long passes from him. For now, though, the Rams have to be happy with Bradford’s development over the first half of his first season.
*The Rams’ defense is also developing impressively. Second-year MLB James Laurinaitis (pictured) had both an interception and a sack while also doing his normal yeoman work as a tackler.
*We were also impressed by fourth-year SS Craig Dahl, who forced a fumble and made his share of plays in coverage. Dahl, like fellow safety James Butler and DT Fred Robbins, played for Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo when he was a coordinator for the Giants, and they are helping Spagnuolo instill his kind of defense. With those vets and talented plays like DE Chris Long, CB Ron Bartell, and S O.J. Atogwe, the Rams have the building blocks for a solid defense.
*You have to love Steven Jackson’s willingness to play for the Rams despite a broken finger. Jackson is a tough runner and proved to be a tough player in this one. While Jackson only ran for 58 yards, his toughness and leadership are beyond question, and they left an impression on a young team that still has a chance in the mediocre NFC West.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Jackson is the only Ram who’s a consistent starter for fantasy purposes. If we had to choose a second option, we’d go with WR Danny Amendola, who had six catches and a touchdown. Amendola is an underneath option, which is why he averaged less than five yards a catch in this game, but he’s a decent bet to get in the end zone for the Rams, as he has two games in a row. Gibson, who had six catches for 67 yards, probably has the most potential of the current Rams’ wideouts, and he may be worth a speculative claim at this point.
*Bradford, meanwhile, is not a fantasy option despite throwing two touchdowns in this game. Because his yardage totals are so low, he’s very TD dependent, and the 20 points St. Louis scored in this game will likely be the normal output. In a keeper league, claim away, but for this year Bradford will find it hard to crack the top 20 among fantasy QBs.
*For the Panthers, Jonathan Stewart had a chance to prove his fantasy mettle with DeAngelo Williams sidelined, but Stewart struggled, averaging just over two yards per carry and finishing with just 38 yards from scrimmage. If Stewart can’t perform with Williams out, fantasy owners really don’t need to expect him to provide much if anything once Williams returns. After this game, we feel comfortable saying that Stewart is droppable in normal sized leagues of 12 teams or less. Given the Panthers’ struggles, WR Steve Smith is the only player worth being a fantasy starter, at least until Williams gets healthy.

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Week 6 moves

We do a weekly update on major NFL transactions. We include signings, releases, and also players who are put on injured reserve, because they are lost for the year. You can check out the Week 5 transactions here and work your way back through the season.

Additions

Redskins (add OT Levi Jones) – Jones, the long-time Bengal, comes in to try to stabilize an offensive line that has been ransacked by injuries. Washington is playing without regular OLT Chris Samuels, who suffered a season-ending and perhaps career-ending neck injury, and while Jones is not a great option at left tackle, he could be at least serviceable.

Eagles (trade for LB Will Witherspoon) – You can read more about Philadelphia’s acquisition of Witherspoon in this post. The fact that Philly had to put fill-in MLB starter Omar Gaither on injured reserve with a Listfranc injury in his foot later in the week only made the acquisition of Witherspoon more vital.

Panthers (trade for DT Tank Tyler) – You can read more about Carolina’s acquisition of Tyler in this post.

Packers (add RB Ahman Green) – Green Bay put third-down back DeShawn Wynn on injured reserve with a knee injury, and to replace him they brought back Ahman Green, who starred with the team from 2000 to 2006. Green, who most recently was a bit player with the Texans last season, fits in as a backup to Ryan Grant and should also fall behind Brandon Jackson on the depth chart, but he could provide a little bit of help if he plays in limited spot duty. This move doesn’t solve any major problems, but it does make Packers fans happy. So there’s that.

Rams (trade for WR Brandon Gibson) – You can read more about St. Louis’ acquisition of Gibson in this post.

Chargers (add CB Dante Hughes) – The Chargers haven’t gotten good play out of their secondary, so they are taking a look at Hughes, who was a third-round pick by the Colts in 2007. It’s a long shot, but Hughes showed potential at one time and thus could conceivably help.

Chiefs (add NT Kenny Smith) – After trading Tank Tyler to the Panthers, the Chiefs brought in Smith, who comes out of the Patriots’ system. Smith is more of a true nose tackle than Tyler, so he’ll at least fit the system better. But it remains to be seen if Smith can actually perform at the NFL level.

Subtractions

Bengals (put OLB Antwan Odom on injured reserve) – Odom, who has broken out this season as a pass rusher with 8 sacks, was hurt last week against Houston and now will miss the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. That’s a huge loss for the Bengals, who don’t have other great pass rushers. To fill Odom’s roster spot, the Bengals brought back Orien Harris, whom they traded in the offseason. Harris is a warm body, but not someone who’s going to make an impact.

Jets (put NT Kris Jenkins on injured reserve) – Jenkins (aka Jackpot) is a huge man who’s one of the biggest run-stuffers around. His absence, caused by a knee injury he suffered last week vs. Buffalo, will be hard for the Jets to overcome because they don’t have another player or combination of players who can wreak havoc inside. Now that opponents can single-team the Jets’ nose tackle, fewer blitzers will break free. The Jets brought back Howard Green to be in the NT rotation, but neither Green nor anyone else on the roster can come close to replacing Jenkins.

Browns (put LB D’Qwell Jackson on injured reserve) – The Browns don’t have many good players, but Jackson, who was one of the leading tacklers in the league last season, was one of them. But Jackson suffered a torn pectoral muscle that will cost him the rest of the season. That’s a big blow to a Browns defense that’s painfully bereft of playmakers.

Falcons (put CB Brian Williams on injured reserve) – Williams, a late signee in Atlanta, had established himself as a starting cornerback and had helped to stabilize a secondary that entered training camp with many questions. Now those questions return. Atlanta brought back DB Jamaal Fudge to replace Williams on the roster, while Chevis Jackson will get the first shot to replace Williams in the lineup.

Patriots (cut WR Joey Galloway) – The Patriots looked to the veteran Galloway as an outside receiving threat, but he never fit in with the Pats, even though he beat out Greg Lewis in the preseason. Now the Patriots turn to youngster Sam Aiken and rookie Brandon Tate to step into that spot in three-WR sets.

49ers (put LB Jeff Ulbrich on injured reserve) – Ulbrich will have to miss the rest of the season due to concussion-related problems. Matt Wilhelm, who starting at inside ‘backer in San Diego last year, comes in as a solid if unspectacular option.

Buccaners (put FB B.J. Askew on injured reserve) – Askew, the Buccaneers’ top fullback, will miss the rest of the season with a neck injury.

Bears (put LB Pisa Tinoisamoa on injured reserve) – Tinoisamoa (aka the Tower) will have to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. That’s a blow to the Bears, who planned on the Tower starting at outside ‘backer entering the season. This also makes for a disturbing week for the two guys that Football Relativity has nicknamed thus far – The Tower and Jackpot. My brother Chase believes it’s a curse. (See the comments on this post.) And there is a player that needs to be very, very nervous. He shall be called Spanx. You will find out who and why very soon.

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FR: In-season trades

This post compares the trades that happened between the start of the regular season and the trading deadline. As usual, we’re using a 10-point scale to compare, with the 10 level being the most important trades and the 1 level being the least important.

Check this post for trades from training campthis post for a look at trades from the draft until the beginning of training camp and this post for a look at trades from earlier in the offseason.

10 – Browns trade WR Braylon Edwards to Jets for WR Chansi Stuckey, LB Jason Trusnick, and third- and fifth-round draft picks – Edwards, a former top-3 draft pick, only had one season in which he fully lived up to his potential in Cleveland. In that season, 2007, he was a big-time receiving threat with 80 catches for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs. He has great size and speed, but his hands are sometimes questionable. That was certainly the case last year, when he fell to 55 catches for 873 yards and three scores. Edwards also was reportedly unhappy in Cleveland, and Chris Mortenson tweeted that Edwards was the source behind many of the “problems” and “grievances” that had been filed against head coach Eric Mangini. Because Edwards wasn’t on board, Mangini and the Browns dealt him away – just as they dealt away their other top offensive playmaker, Kellen Winslow, in the offseason. With Edwards gone, the Browns will have to rely on rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi to step up as receivers. Chansi Stuckey, the third or fourth receiver with the Jets who came over in the trade, could help, but he’s not a long-term answer. In addition to Stuckey, the Browns got special-teams stalwart Jason Trusnick and third- and fifth-round picks. That’s not great return for Edwards, who might have drawn a first-rounder from the Giants or Titans before the draft if Cleveland had traded him then. This is another example of Mangini assigning more value to guys he previously coached and getting inadequate value in a trade – just as he did in the Mark Sanchez draft-day deal. For the Jets, this deal could answer their biggest question – an outside receiving threat. Jerricho Cotchery has been good, but he’s more of a possession guy than a gamebreaker. Having Edwards and Cotchery, along with TE Dustin Keller, gives the Jets a chance to build a passing game around rookie QB Sanchez. Edwards longed for the spotlight of a big city like New York, but we’ll have to see if he can perform at a level to make that spotlight shine instead of glare. If he continues dropping passes frequently, he could get run out of the Meadowlands in an ugly scene. But at this price, the trade is a no-brainer for the Jets, who have a chance to build a special offense.

9 – none

8 – Buccaneers trade DE Gaines Adams to Bears for a 2010 2nd-round pick – Adams was once the fourth overall pick in the draft, but in two-plus seasons he has just 13.5 sacks, including just one this season. Now that the Buccaneers’ regime has changed, they decided to cut their losses and deal Adams. The salary cap hit that comes with giving up on a top-5 pick isn’t an issue because the Bucs have more cap room than anyone else in the league. They get a second-round pick that should be in the bottom half of the round, but that should still provide a starting-caliber player if the Bucs draft right. The Bears now take a shot at Adams. Two reasons they did this: one, new defensive line Rod Marinelli, while a bust as a head coach, is known as one of the best coaches at getting the most out of linemen. The Bears also face free-agency with DEs Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson after the season, and so Adams could provide a replacement or at least leverage in those negotiations. The Bears had already given up their first-rounder in 2010 in the Jay Cutler trade, so they’re now all but out of the draft. But Adams (and Cutler, for that matter) are both young, which makes trading draft picks make more sense.

7 – Rams trade LB Will Witherspoon to Eagles for WR Brandon Gibson and 2010 5th-round pick – The Eagles, who have never found a solid replacement for MLB Stewart Bradley, who was injured on the first day of training camp, pick up Witherspoon, the long-time Panther and Ram. Witherspoon is better as an outside ‘backer than in the middle, because outside he can use his speed to range sideline to sideline and make plays against the run and in pass coverage. But he has played inside and done a solid job in the past. He’s a good but not great player who is starting caliber if he can seize on the Eagles’ hyperagressive defensive scheme quickly. In exchange, the Rams (who of course weren’t going anywhere) pick up a fifth-round pick in 2010 as well as Gibson, a sixth-rounder in the ’09 draft who has yet to play in a regular-season game. The Rams have no answers at wide receiver aside from maybe Donnie Avery, so getting a prospect there is a big plus as well. If they get two growing players in exchange for Witherspoon, that’s a win in the rebuilding process.

6 – none

5 – Chiefs trade DT Tank Tyler to Panthers for 2010 5th-round pick – Tyler, the Chiefs’ 2006 third-round pick, never really fit into the Chiefs 3-4 system this year. He started every game in ’08 and had 41 tackles, so he has shown he’s not terrible, but he’s a 4-3 tackle and not a nose tackle. The Panthers have gone through ridiculous injuries at defensive tackle and need help. If Tyler can come in and start and provide some ballast against the run, he’ll help this year. And for a team that has clawed back to 2-3 and has the Bills next, this year still matters. Plus, Tyler is young, and so he could develop into a nice player going forward. The Panthers have now traded away at least four draft picks this year, so the calvary isn’t coming in the offseason, but they’re trying to stay in this season.

4 – none

3 – Chiefs trade QB Tyler Thigpen to Dolphins for undisclosed draft pick – With Chad Pennington out for the year, the Dolphins needed some QB help. They traded for Thigpen, who showed potential last season but fell to the No. 3 spot in Kansas City this year. Thigpen has been running a similar Bill Parcells-inspired system in K.C. that he’ll run in Miami, which will help his transition into the No. 2 QB role. He also provides insurance in case Chad Henne shows he’s not going to be able to start in the league. The trade was for an undisclosed draft pick that may depend on how Thigpen plays or how much he plays.

2 – none

1 – Ravens trade OLB Prescott Burgess to Patriots for 7th-round pick – The Patriots acquired Burgess, who has played in Baltimore the last two years, to bolster their depth at linebacker. Burgess has played primarily on special teams in his three-year career but could help fill in with a Patriots LB corps that’s thinner with the departures of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and the injury to Jerod Mayo. But then Burgess was cut one week later, which means this was more of a charitable donation of a draft pick than a impactful trade. Burgess ended up back with the Ravens within a month to replace the injured Brendan Ayanbadejo.

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