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FR: The 2011 NFL draft

Each year, we break down the NFL draft using our Football Relativity tool. Instead of giving grades, we compare teams to each other, with the teams that we feel did best in the draft landing on the 10 level and the teams we feel did poorly landing on the 1 level.

Remember that you can review the first round in our draft first thoughts, review our mock draft here, and see who won the Football Relativity draft contest here.

10  – Cleveland Browns – Two years ago, we pounded the Browns for trading down from the fifth overall pick and not getting good value. This year, the Browns tried a similar move, but they maximized their return by adding four picks – second- and fourth-rounders this year, plus first- and fourth-rounders in 2012. Those picks are a boon to a rebuilding team. Cleveland gave back one extra pick to trade up to get NT Phil Taylor, which might have been a bit of a reach but was at least an aggressive move to get a player who’s a rare commodity. It’s incredibly hard to find young nose tackles, so you can’t blame the Browns for paying to get one. Second-round DE Jabaal Sheard adds pass-rush punch to a defense that sorely needs it, while WR Greg Little becomes the most talented receiver on the roster and a guy capable of developing into a No. 1 wideout if his head is screwed on straight. Fourth-round TE Jordan Cameron is another high-potential player who comes with some risk. Cleveland added both depth and impact in this draft, and they are primed to do so in the 2012 draft as well. That’s a win-win that Browns fans should appreciate.

10 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts knew what they needed going into the draft — offensive linemen — and they met that need with good players. In the first round, polished OT Anthony Castonzo fell in their laps, and they took him. Castonzo may never be an otherworldly left tackle, but he fits the mold of a solid, dependable guy at the position for the next decade. That’s precisely what the Colts needed. Then in the second round, the Colts drafted Villanova’s Ben Ijalana, who is a little more physical and could fit at right tackle or at guard. Adding these two players will help the Colts right away. Third-round DT Drake Nevis also addresses a need if he can contribute to a rotation right away, while fourth-round RB Delonte Carter may replace the injury-prone Joseph Addai, who’s a free agent. The Colts didn’t try to get as fancy as they have in recent drafts, and the results should help them prolong their window as contenders. What else can you ask for?

9 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons made the big move of the draft, giving up five picks – including their first-rounder next year – to trade up from 27 to 6 to pick WR Julio Jones. Jones certainly fills a big-time need, as the Falcons have never had a strong complement to Pro Bowl WR Roddy White. If Jones can provide that, he will be a huge boon who’s probably worth the steep price. The move gutted the Falcons’ draft, so they didn’t get a ton of help elsewhere. ILB Akeem Dent could step in as a contributor, and fourth-round Jacquizz Rodgers could become a Darren Sproles type of contributor. And we’ve seen enough of seventh-round DE Cliff Matthews to know he has ability. Sometimes, teams need to be bold to get over the hump, and we admire the Falcons’ willingness to take that risk, even though it cost an arm and a leg.

9 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs traded down in the first round and made the most of it. Moving down from 21 to 27 (which turned into 26 when the Ravens let the clock expire) allowed the Chiefs to add WR Jonathan Baldwin, an ubertalented prospect who had a dented reputation. Maybe Baldwin is a bit of a diva, but if the Chiefs can help Baldwin mature, they’ll get a terrific complement to Dwayne Bowe. And with the extra third-rounder they got from the Browns, the Chiefs added OLB Justin Houston, a first-round talent whose failed drug test at the combine knocked down his stock. Both players are risk, but they are high-end talents that can help the Chiefs continue moving upward. Second-round C Rodney Hudson is a safe player who adds depth to the inside of the line, while fifth-round QB Ricky Stanzi was a good value who could develop into a solid backup for Matt Cassel. The Chiefs got great value with their picks, and even though that took some risk, it’s worth it because the roster already had a lot of good players but not enough great ones.

9 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – The Bills’ draft class isn’t eye-popping, but a team in dire need of talent added some. First-rounder Marcell Dareus will be a difference maker up front, and since Pete Borini approves of the move, we do too. Dareus immediately upgrades the roster. So does second-rounder Aaron Williams, a big corner who teams with third-round S Da’Norris Searcy to add depth and talent to a secondary that hasn’t performed well in recent years. ILBs Kelvin Sheppard (second-round) and Chris White (sixth round) could plug in as starters soon too. Buffalo didn’t spend a lot of picks on their massive offensive tackle need, but fourth-rounder Chris Hairston could emerge as a swing tackle right away, and seventh-rounder Michael Jasper is a small-school prospect who is quite raw but could turn into a home run. Buffalo didn’t get fancy in this draft, and as a result the roster is several measures better now than it was before the draft.

9 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans are moving to a 3-4 defense, and so they spent much of their draft equity on improving the defense and especially their front seven. First-round DE J.J. Watt was probably the best 3-4 defensive end available, and he should step in as an immediate starter. Watt will be a solid if unspectacular player, and if he can become a Justin Smith/Aaron Smith type, the Texans will be thrilled. In the second round, the Texans added an outside linebacker in pass rusher Brooks Reed. Those two players join with Mario Williams and the rest of the Texans’ talent to give new coordinator Wade Phillips some tools. The Texans also addressed their major secondary needs by trading up to take CB Brandon Harris in the second round and then taking CB Rashard Carmichael and S Shiloh Keo down the line. Harris could combine with 2010 first-rounder Kareem Jackson to provide a young CB duo. The Texans also took a shot at developmental QB T.J. Yates in the fifth round, which could pay dividends via trade or as a backup down the line. The Texans drafted for need, but did so while still getting good value and some impact. Now it’s time for their defense to emerge as a dangerous unit a la the offense.

8 – Detroit Lions – Pundits are raving about the Lions’ draft, and there is certainly plenty to like. DT Nick Fairley was a top-10 talent who slipped to No. 13, and the Lions nabbed him to create chaos alongside 2010 first-rounder Ndamukong Suh. Two second-round picks, RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young, add explosiveness and depth to a burgeoning skill-position set. But the Lions didn’t get any help for their beleaguered secondary – passing on Prince Amukamara to get Fairley – and a dearth of picks (in part due to a trade up to get Leshoure) won’t help a team still building depth. The Lions got big impact, but this is a young team that needs depth just as much as it needs impact at this point.

8 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – In 2010, the Buccaneers spent their first two picks on defensive tackles, stabilizing their line. This year, they used the same strategy at defensive end, adding Adrian Clayborn in the first round and then DaQuan Bowers when he fell in their laps in round two. Both players had physical questions – with Bowers’ knee being the most significant issue – but you simply can’t argue with the production Tampa Bay added. If one becomes a star, the Bucs will be happy, and they have the upside to have two terrific players. Third-round ILB Mason Foster and fifth-round S Ahmad Black could become contributors at areas of need, and fourth-round TE Luke Stocker has the ability to emerge as a starter in a couple of years. The Bucs used a good strategy early and got solid value late, and so while there’s a little risk injury-wise, they got quite a nice influx of talent.

8 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals’ draft class looks safe, but they actually took perhaps the biggest risk of any team in the league by staying put at No. 35 overall in the second round and waiting on QB Andy Dalton to fall to them. Somehow, Dalton – the best quarterback on the board from No. 12 on – did fall in their laps, which is either extraorindary luck for or unbelievably good information gathering by the Bengals. Someday, I’d love to learn whether the Bengals were incredibly savvy or just extremely fortunate. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is apparently in love with Dalton, and with Dalton and WR A.J. Green, the Bengals are ready to start a new era. Dalton isn’t the most talented quarterback, but he’s smart as a whip and a fine leader, which are traits a QB needs. If he turns out to be Drew Brees-like, as the Bengals hope and as many analysts suggest, the Bengals got a steal. Green is an elite receiver a la Calvin Johnson, and he can be a game changer for the Bengals offense. Cincinnati also added a solid offensive lineman in Clint Boling, a fourth-rounder who could plug right in as a starter at guard. Cincinnati didn’t get much defensive help, but third-round OLB Dontay Moch was a good value who projects as a starter sometime soon. The Bengals weren’t aggressive in moving to get their guys, but they got them and therefore deserve props.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens had egg on their face after a botched first-round trade with the Bears, but while Baltimore didn’t pick up an extra fourth-rounder, they got their guy in CB Jimmy Smith. Smith is an elite talent with questionable character, but the Ravens locker room gives him a great chance to succeed. If he does, he’ll answer one of the biggest questions the Ravens have add over the years. Fifth-rounder Chykie Brown can also help at corner. The Ravens’ other big question over the years has been at receiver, and WRs Torrey Smith (second round) and Tandon Doss (fourth rounder) should help. Smith is a speedy outside guy who should improve on what Donte Stallworth offered last year, while Doss becomes more of a possession guy. If both hit, the Ravens’ passing game under Joe Flacco adds lots of punch. In the third round, the Ravens took OT Jah Reid, who could allow the Ravens to move Michael Oher back to right tackle and should allow the team to move on from Jared Gaither, which the team appears inclined to do. As usual, the Ravens come out of the draft with quite a nice haul.

8 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – The Rams played the value game in the first round, picking DE Robert Quinn when he slipped to No. 14. At his best, Quinn can bring a pass-rushing presence that the Rams lack. That’s a worthy goal, and worth the first-round investment. The Rams then turned to added targets for QB Sam Bradford. TE Lance Kendricks, a second-rounder, is more of a Chris Cooley type of H-back, but he could team with 2010 rookie Michael Hoomanawanui to give the Rams a 1-2 punch there. Then the Rams took two wideouts, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, who will compete with another 2010 rookie, Mardy Gilyard, to join Mark Clayton (expected to be re-signed) and Danny Amendola in the team’s top 3. Many of the draft analysts prefer Salas, who is more polished now, but Pettis could emerge as the kind of outside receiver the Rams currently lack. The skill-position investment will make or break this draft class, but there looks to be enough on board that the Rams will end up in the plus column.

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers had the No. 1 overall pick, and they did what they had to do with it, picking QB Cam Newton to take a chance on greatness. Yes, it’s a risk, and Newton isn’t the kind of “clean” prospect that so many pundits endorse, but he has the chance to be incredibly good. The Panthers weren’t going to get this kind of quarterback anywhere else, so taking the risk on Newton was what they needed to do. Without a second-round pick, the rest of the Panthers’ draft looks thin. Third-round DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua need to step into the rotation immediately, while fourth-round CB Brandon Hogan could emerge as well. The Panthers did what they could after the Newton pick, but their boldness in being willing to take the quarterback buoys their draft grade.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants took the value approach to the draft, picking CB Prince Amukamara and DT Marvin Austin because they were the best players on the board, not because they fit needs. That approach can work, because it’s the best way to add talent, and both Amukamara and Austin have the potential to become top-flight starters, if not all-pros. But neither of those players – nor third-round WR Jerrel Jernigan – addressed the Giants’ big need on the offensive line. Maybe fourth-round OT James Brewer emerges as a starter, and if so this draft can be great. But if not, you have to wonder if the Giants will regret not taking the Colts’ approach and draft for value within their needs.

6 – Green Bay Packers – As the Super Bowl champs, the Packers didn’t have high picks, but they added nice players throughout the draft. First-round OT Derek Sherrod joins ’10 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga as the tackles of the future, soon replacing aging stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Second-round WR Randal Cobb is a versatile player who will help replace likely departing free agent James Jones and keep the WR corps deep for Aaron Rodgers. RB Alex Green and TE D.J. Williams could also be nice offensive producers, while D.J. Smith and Rick Elmore will get a shot to emerge as under-the-radar pass rushers a la Desmond Bishop and Frank Zombo. The Packers didn’t get a ton of impact, but they got guys who fit the system well and who should see playing time within two years. That makes their draft a win.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers did their typical solid job at the end of the draft, adding players who will help at key positions. DE Cameron Heyward, the first-round pick, looms along with a former first-rounder, Ziggy Hood, as the eventual successors to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Heyward will get time to develop, which is a good thing, but he may not make an immediate impact. Second-round pick OT Marcus Gilbert has a clearer shot to playing time if he can hold up on either side. Then the Steelers upgraded their secondary by taking CBs Curtis Marsh and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth rounds. Both need to move into the rotation to help a need area. And fifth-round OLB Chris Carter has potential as a pass rusher at a position where Pittsburgh often turns later-round picks into stars. The Steelers’ draft wasn’t sexy, but they addressed their needs with players who will get time to develop in a system that does a good job maximizing players.

6 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots entered the draft with double picks in the first three rounds, which gave them the opportunity to do something great in this draft. But the results were not great but good. Yes, the Patriots came out of the draft with extra first- and second-rounders in 2012, but the players they picked lacked great impact. First-round OT Nate Solder met a need, and he and Sebastian Vollmer will be the bookend tackles for the Pats for years to come. And second-round CB Ras-I Dowling joins a group of young, talented corners. But RBs Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) look more like role players than bell cows, and QB Ryan Mallett (third round) is at best a backup quarterback who plays well enough in preseason chances to get traded in two years. Fifth-round OT Marcus Cannon is a big-time talent who’s a medical risk, but the Pats have enough picks to take such a risk. While this class will help, the Pats would have been better served in our opinion to take Atlanta’s approach and trade up for an impact guy or two. Instead, we’re left with a good class that fell short of what it could have been.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Unlike the Patriots, the Jaguars took chances in this draft by trading up to try to find elite talent. We’re not in love with Blaine Gabbert, but he has a far better chance of being a top-flight NFL quarterback than Jaguars incumbent David Garrard. Garrard isn’t terrible, but he’s basically an average NFL starter – about the 16th best in the league – and the Jaguars aren’t going to win big with him. So giving up a second-rounder to trade up and take Gabbert makes sense. If Gabbert can be a top-8 quarterback, which is possible, the Jaguars made the right move. The Jaguars also traded up in the third round to take OG Will Rackley, a small-school player who projects as a early starter. Jacksonville also added badly needed secondary help in S Chris Prosinski and CB Roderick Isaac and a developmental receiver in Cecil Shorts. So the Jaguars met some needs, but Gabbert is the headline of this draft. While he’s not a sure thing, he gives the Jaguars upside they didn’t have before. For that reason, we admire the risk they took.

5 – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles make a habit of stockpiling draft picks, and they used those picks in this draft to address specific needs. First-rounder Danny Watkins and late-rounders Julian Vandevelde and Jason Kelce add depth and talent to the offensive line, while second-round S Jaiquawn Jarrett and third-round CB Curtis Marsh will help in the secondary. The one luxury pick was fourth-round PK Alex Henery, but having a lot of picks allows the Eagles to replace David Akers with an elite prospect. It’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles can develop LB Casey Matthews into an impact player and whether the failure to pick a defensive lineman comes back to bite them.

5 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys made no secret of their affinity for OT Tyron Smith, a young prospect from USC who has immense potential. If Smith becomes a lockdown left tackle, this draft class will be an unqualified success, but even if Smith struggles to adjust to the NFL, he can plug in at right tackle and be an upgrade over Marc Colombo. OG David Arkin could also emerge as a starter, which woudl further address the Cowboys’ biggest need area. Second-round LB Bruce Carter is recovering from injury but has high upside as an impact inside linebacker. Dallas also added skill-position talent in RB DeMarco Murray, FB Shaun Chapas, and WR Dwayne Harris, but only fifth-round CB Josh Thomas addresses secondary concerns. Still, the Cowboys invested heavily in helping the offensive line, and if those picks pan out, the draft will be a win. 

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers went with a boom or bust approach to the draft, taking talented but unpolished pass rusher Aldon Smith in the first round (earlier than many expected) and then trading up in the second round to get QB Colin Kaepernick. Both Smith and Kaepernick are physical freaks who aren’t ready for the NFL grind yet but who have enough intrinsic talent to become superstars. If both hit, this draft class becomes the building block for a 49ers renaissance. The Kaepernick trade limited the 49ers’ picks down the line, but that’s worth it for a QB of the future. Third-round CB Chris Culliver addresses a need area, and fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter adds needed depth behind stalwart Frank Gore. The 49ers may not see many dividends from this class in 2011, but it’ll be fascinating to see just how close Smith and Kaepernick can come to living up to their potential promise.

5 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – Denver had strong defensive needs and addressed them in this draft. However, picking OLB Von Miller over DT Marcell Dareus was a quizzical move. Miller is the better pass rusher, but Miller doesn’t dovetail with the 4-3 system new head coach John Fox wants to run. Of course, the Broncos can cater their system to feature Miller, and Miller may be worth such an investment. But that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie. S Rahim Moore, a second-rounder, should step right in, while fellow second-rounder Orlando Franklin will join a line that’s mismatched because the Broncos have switched systems three times in the last four years. Denver has big-time needs, and the players they got should help. But we’d feel much better about the future had the Broncos chosen Dareus over Miller.

5 (con’t) – Arizona Cardinals – The Cards made the strategic decision that they wanted to add a veteran quarterback to 2010 rookies John Skelton and Max Hall, which set them up to pass on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and the like and instead take CB Patrick Peterson with the fifth pick. Peterson is a fine player who’s not unlike ex-Card Antrell Rolle, although Peterson has better coverage skills and could stick at corner. He’ll help the Cardinals, even though he’s not at a position of glaring need. But after Peterson, the Cardinals’ draft was uninspiring. Second-round RB Ryan Williams can play, but he doesn’t have a clear path to contribution. Third-round TE Robert Housler is talented but raw. If those guys find their way into the lineup, or if later-round guys like OLB Sam Acho and ILB Quan Sturdivant exceed their draft position, the Cardinals will look great. But our sense is that this draft class is not great but just OK.

5 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets entered the draft short-handed because they had dealt their second-rounder for CB Antonio Cromartie. But they still did a good job addressing needs at two positions, the defensive line and wide receiver. Defensive line was the more pressing need, and first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson is a terrific prospect to succeed Shaun Ellis as a two-way threat at defensive end. Third-rounder Kenrick Ellis is versatile enough to play on the nose or the end, which will let the Jets shape their rotation the way they want. Both should help immediately. At wide receiver, where the Jets’ top three options are all free agents, the team added depth in fifth-rounder Jeremy Kerley and seventh-rounder Scotty McKnight. And as they always do, whether they need to or not, the Jets picked a running back, fourth-rounder Bilal Powell. This is a solid class that’s held back only by the lack of early-round picks.

4 – Washington Redskins – The Redskins didn’t like any of the quarterbacks in this draft, so instead of being aggressive to draft one, they went in with a strategy to stockpile picks. That philosophy is fine, and it will help a roster that needs depth, but it doesn’t appear that the Redskins added much impact in the draft. First-round OLB Ryan Kerrigan should be a solid player, but does he have enough pass-rush skill to take pressure off of Brian Orakpo? That’s the difference between a solid starter, which is what Kerrigan looks like to us, and a big-time player. Second-round DE Jarvis Jenkins is a nice player at a need area, so that pick makes sense. The Redskins also addressed their anemic WR corps with third-rounder Leonard Hankerson (a fine value), fifth-rounder Niles Paul, and sixth-rounder Aldrick Robinson. Hankerson has starting ability, and Paul adds size to a smurfish unit, while Robinson is an Anthony Armstrong clone who could find playing time. The Redskins also added RBs Roy Helu and Evan Royster, productive big-college players who could jump right in for a coach in Mike Shanahan who knows how to find mid-round runners. So even if the depth approach works as the Redskins planned, it didn’t cover all of the Redskins needs, which makes us wonder whether adding extra late-round picks was really worth it.

4 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers addressed one of their biggest needs in the first round with DE Corey Liuget, who may not be a prototypical 3-4 defensive end but who should provide a little more impact at that position than the typical plugger. Second-round CB Marcus Gilchrist is a big player with pretty good coverage skills who could play outside or at safety. He and third-round CB Shareece Wright provide depth at an area that has thinned ou in recent years. Many analysts panned the second-round selection of LB Jonas Mouton, who wasn’t rated nearly that highly, but he fits a need area at inside linebacker. Third-round WR Vincent Brown, a local product, and sixth-round RB Jordan Todman add some punch. The Chargers also tried to draft players who succeeded on special teams, which was the team’s downfall last year. Maybe there’s not great upside in this draft class, but there’s pretty good depth thanks to five picks in the first three rounds. That depth is something that had leaked away from the Chargers in recent years, so the approach will help.

4 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders never get good draft grades because they don’t try to play the draft game. They take the players they want and make sure they get them, regardless of what the perceived draft value of the players are. And while that’s not a popular strategy, it has worked for the Raiders, who actually have a pretty deep roster of talent on board. The Raiders love speed, and third-round CB Demarcus Van Dyke and fifth-round RB Taiwan Jones have it in spades. Second-round C Stefen Wisniewski (nephew of Raiders legend Steve) and third-round OT Joe Barksdale address a need area, and while they aren’t physical freaks like 2010 picks Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell, Veldheer’s emergence (in particular) allowed the Raiders to add solid if not spectacular guys at that position. Cornerback was another need, so Van Dyke and fourth-rounder Chimdi Chekwa are need picks too. For a team without a first-round pick (it was traded for Richard Seymour), the Raiders hit on their needs. Regardless of the perceived value, they did just fine.

4 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans took a big swing in the first round, taking QB Jake Locker. Locker is a physical freak who never fully played up to his talent in college, but he has a ton of talent and a strong desire to succeed. His performance will make or break this draft. In the second round, the Titans added OLB Akeem Ayers, who could become a playmaking guy a la Keith Bulluck. He and fourth-rounder MLB Colin McCarthy upgrade what used to be a strength for the Titans. Tennessee also spent picks up front in third-round DT Jurrell Casey and late-rounders Karl Klug and Zach Clayton. Now they must show they can develop linemen as well as they did when DL coach Jim Washburn was in Music City. The Titans added talented guys in Locker and Ayers, but they must coach them up for this draft to end up looking good.

3 – Chicago Bears – Strangely, the Bears’ draft is defined more by the snafu of their aborted first-round trade with Baltimore than by the fact that Chicago got its man in OT Gabe Carimi. GM Jerry Angelo hasn’t done well at all with his first-round offensive line picks in Chicago, but the fact that OL coach Mike Tice fell in love with Carimi speaks well of him. The Bears also traded up to add DT Stephen Paea, a strong player who will provide stability against the run. The question on Paea is how much pass rush he can provide as the Bears seek to replace the injury-plagued Tommie Harris. Because they traded up for Paea, the Bears had few other picks. Third-round safety Christopher Conte could step in and play. The Bears probably need all three picks to emerge as solid starters for this draft to keep their positive 2010 momentum going.

3 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins, who traded their second-rounder as part of the Brandon Marshall deal, were chasing picks throughout the draft, and the result is a thin class that doesn’t address all that many needs. First-rounder Mike Pouncey will step in and start on the interior of the offensive line, which was a big problem last year, so even if he was a minor reach in terms of value, he’s a good player and a great fit. After picking Pouncey, Miami dealt away its third- and fifth-round picks to take RB Daniel Thomas at the end of the second round. Thomas is a good enough runner, but unless he is significantly better than the rest of the rookie class, the trade-up was a poor use of resources.

2 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints were set up to have a great draft after DE Cameron Jordan fell into their laps at No. 24 in the first round. But instead of being content with that serendipity, the Saints decided they had to have RB Ingram, and so they gave up their first-rounder next year to get him. Making such an investment – especially when solid runners Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are in place – seems impetuous. After that, the Saints did OK, especially with third-round OLB Martez Wilson, who should become a starter. But the Ingram move was far too expensive for our tastes and especially for the player.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – It’s easy to pan the Seahawks’ draft class because it didn’t fit the value charts. But Seattle obviously came into the draft to address a specific offensive line need. First-round James Carpenter likely fits at  right tackle, while third-rounder John Moffitt projects as a guard. While those aren’t always high-round positions, since the Seahawks have OLT Russell Okung and C Max Unger in place, the plan does make some sense. Seattle had to trade out of the second round to replace the pick they gave up for QB Charlie Whitehurst, and that limited the ability to add top-flight talent in the draft. OLB K.J. Wright doesn’t fit a need area, but fellow fourth-rounder WR Kris Durham could. The Seahawks seemed to draft more for need than for talent, and it doesn’t appear their roster is strong enough to merit that approach. But if the needs are filled capably, the Hawks will be justified.

1 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings went boom or bust from the beginning of the draft by taking QB Christian Ponder with the 12th pick. Ponder has lots of talent, but he had trouble staying healthy, and some analysts don’t like the way he reacts to pressure in the pocket. If Ponder turns into a good starter, the Vikings will have the last laugh, but we don’t see that happening. Second-round pick TE Kyle Rudolph is a talented player who struggled with injuries last year, and he doesn’t fill a specific need. But the Vikings are an aging team that needs a talent infusion, so we’ll give the pick a thumbs-up just on that basis. DT Christian Ballard, a fourth-round pick, could be a steal who can help replace Pat and Kevin Williams, but Ballard’s positive drug test at the combine is a question mark. Still, in the fourth round there wasn’t a more talented player available. If Ponder and Ballard are both hits, this will be a great draft class, but that combo seems like a long shot to us.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2011 Mock Draft

Since the lockout has made a mockery of the NFL offseason, posts have been sporadic this month. But now it’s time to make up for all that with our 2011 mock draft.

Don’t forget to enter the Football Relativity draft contest to match wits with all of our readers. As we break down the 32 first-round picks, remember that we’ve written extensively on many top the draft prospects in our draft category.

1. Carolina Panthers – QB Cam Newton, Auburn
No matter whom the draft experts have slotted first – DaQuan Bowers, Marcell Dareus, or Blaine Gabbert – we’ve always believed that Newton is the guy for the Panthers to take as long as they held onto this pick. Of course, there are many non-complimentary rumors about Newton’s personality and genuineness, but those rumors can’t disguise the fact that Newton has been a big-time winner in college. He is, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “plutonium-grade raw material.” And because of that, the Panthers have to take a shot on him. Yes, that means throwing off 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen, and yes, it means developing a guy who hasn’t played a pro style offense. But if Newton hits, he can be the next Ben Roethlisberger/Josh Freeman type of quarterback. That’s major upside that the Panthers have frankly never had at quarterback in franchise history.

2. Denver Broncos – DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama
This is a tricky spot in the draft. New Broncos team president John Elway doesn’t seem sold on Tim Tebow, and so Blaine Gabbert is in play. Plus, we bet the Broncos would be happy to trade down a spot or two or three if the Bills, Bengals, or Cards covets Gabbert. But our hunch is that eventually the Broncos will settle into taking the best defensive front-seven player in the draft, and that’s Dareus. Perhaps Patrick Peterson is a better overall player, but Dareus is the top defensive lineman in the draft, and he can play either tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. At his best, he can be a destructive interior force a la Kevin Williams, and the Broncos desperately need that kind of up-front player. The fact that Dareus can help speed their transition to a 4-3 defense only makes things better. This isn’t the sexiest pick, but Dareus will be an impact player at a position of dire need. That’s enough for the Broncos to pull the trigger.

3. Buffalo Bills – DE Von Miller, Texas A&M
Miller isn’t a perfect fit for the Bills’ 4-3 system, but he’s so good that it’s worth tweaking the system to feature his talents. Buffalo hasn’t had an elite pass rusher in ages – since the Bruce Smith years – so Miller certainly will fit in well there. The question is whether the Bills will pass on Blaine Gabbert to pick Miller. With Ryan Fitzpatrick around, the Bills have the flexibility to wait if they’re not head over heels in love with Gabbert, and our sense is that they’d far prefer Newton to the Missouri product. So instead of trying to make it work with a quarterback they don’t lust after, picking the best pass rusher in the draft (and one of the draft’s sure things) is more appealing option.

4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green, Georgia
The Bengals are another team in the quarterback hunt, although Mike Brown may be too stubborn to admit to himself that Carson Palmer really is going to sit out rather than play another year in Cincinnati. So Gabbert would be in play here, at least for a team that has a good grasp on reality. But given the fact that Brown refuses to even consider trading Palmer, the self-delusion seems to indicate that the Bengals may try to appease him by drafting Green. The motivation behind that move would be wrong, but the pick itself will work. Green is a phenomenal receiver with good size and speed and ridiculously great hands. With Chad Ochocinco likely headed out of town (for nothing, two years after the Bengals could have had two first-rounders for him) and Terrell Owens as a free agent, Green also fits a need area. Teaming Green with young receivers Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson would give the Bengals a true No. 1 wideout with the complimentary pieces already in place. Picking the sure-thing Green will work well for the Bengals, regardless of how they come to the decision.

5. Arizona Cardinals – QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Gabbert was the trendy top pick a few weeks ago, but his stock has slipped in recent weeks, to the point that there are even rumors that the Cards would pass on him. Gabbert seems to fit the cookie-cutter mold for a franchise quarterback, which is great until you realize there is no mold. But Gabbert has nice tools, and he was generally productive in college. Maybe he doesn’t have the upside to be great, but he could be good, and that would be a major upgrade for the Cardinals. Arizona fell apart last year in large part because of horrific quarterback play. So we just can’t imagine Arizona not taking Gabbert if the opportunity presents itself.

6. Cleveland Browns – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
The Browns are in a weird position in this draft. Because there are seven elite players, picking sixth guarantees a good result. But the natural pick at this point – Patrick Peterson – duplicates Cleveland’s first-rounder from last year, Joe Haden. Of course, a team can never have too many corners, but for a team as bereft of game-breaking talent as the Browns, picking Peterson would be a misallocation of resources. So for Cleveland, the decision comes down to taking Julio Jones, who’s not among the top 7 players; reaching for a pass-rusher with injury questions in DaQuan Bowers or Robert Quinn, or taking Fairley. Most people have dropped Fairley lower than this, but there aren’t many impact defensive tackles on earth, and Fairley can be one. He had a Warren Sapp type of impact for Auburn last year, and so he brings the kind of disruption to a defense that we normally associate with defensive ends. Fairley has some character questions, but those questions aren’t any more damaging than what Bowers or Quinn faces. If the Browns go with the best player available here, Fairley should be the selection.

7. San Francisco 49ers – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
We’ve dubbed Peterson as the third sure-thing player in this draft, and he fits a need area for the Niners. San Fran has been looking for cornerbacks for a while, but the high-dollar Nate Clements isn’t living up to the price. So the chance to add Peterson and lock down one side of the defensive backfield will be too tempting to pass up. Peterson has unusual size for a corner, yet he still has good speed and cover skills. And if he ever gets the ball in his hands, look out. The Niners will be thrilled if the draft falls this way.

8. Tennessee Titans – QB Jake Locker, Washington
This is where things get crazy. I’m not a huge fan of Locker (as detailed here), but he is a major physical talent and a great kid. So you can see a team throwing its weight behind Locker as a potential franchise quarterback. And with Fairley off the board, a defensive end like Robert Quinn or DaQuan Bowers would be just as much of a risk as Locker at this point. Yes, taking Locker would be a reach, but our sense is that with so many QB-needy teams, Tennessee won’t have the option to take Locker in the second round, and it may actually cost less (in draft pick cost) to take him here than it would to trade back into the end of the first round to get him. Reports say that Tennessee has gotten comfortable with Locker as a future starting quarterback, and if that’s the case this is where they would have to get him. So while it’s a reach, we’re putting Locker here as the successor to the disappointing Vince Young era.

9. Dallas Cowboys – OT Tyron Smith, USC
It seems like every mock draft out there has the Cowboys taking Smith, the most talented of the offensive line group. It makes sense. Other than CB Prince Amukamara, none of the top players left on the board really fits a need, and it seems like the second-round DB options will be a little better than the O-line choices. Smith should be able to immediately step into the starting right tackle role, and he has a chance to develop into a top-flight left tackle if the Cowboys lose Doug Free via free agency.

10. Washington Redskins – OLB Robert Quinn, North Carolina
The Redskins are really in a dilemma in this year’s draft. The trades for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown last year cost them third- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft, which will really make it difficult for Washington to address all of its needs. Washington has so few playmakers that they need an impact guy with their first pick. That points to two guys among the available options – WR Julio Jones and OLB Robert Quinn. Given the fact that Mike Shanahan’s best receivers in Denver – Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and even Brandon Marshall – were all mid-to-late draft picks or scrap-heap pickups, we’ll go the defensive route and give them Quinn as a counterpart to Brian Orakpo.

11. Houston Texans – DE Cameron Jordan, California
Once again, the Texans simply have to spend their first-round pick on defense. While they reportedly covet Patrick Peterson, he won’t be around without a trade-up. Prince Amukamara would make sense, but after spending a first-rounder on CB Kareem Jackson last year, picking a cornerback isn’t the best move unless it’s an exceptional prospect like Peterson. So the Texans need to turn their attention to the front seven and especially to the front line of their reworked 3-4 defense. With Mario Williams already in place as a pass-rushing fiend, the Texans need a two-way defensive end who can provide some push but also hold up well against the run. Two available players – Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt and Cal’s Cameron Jordan. We like Jordan’s upside better, so he’s the pick here.

12. Minnesota Vikings – OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
The Vikings have a glaring quarterback need, but unless they’re head over heels in love with Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder or Ryan Mallett, pulling the trigger on a QB here would be foolhardy. It seems like Colin Kaepernick in the second round might be a nice fit as a long-term answer at the position. So if not a quarterback, who should they draft? Our sense is that this is a line pick. Maybe an offensive tackle like Anthony Castonzo to replace Bryant McKinnie, or maybe a defensive end like DaQuan Bowers to replace departing free agent Ray Edwards. Bowers has more upside, but Castonzo could be a Steve Hutchinson-type of player for the Vikings, which would be a welcome change from McKinnie, who has been less than an ideal effort guy in recent years. That’s more of a need for the Vikes than defensive end, so we’ll point this pick toward Castonzo.

13. Detroit Lions – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The Lions’ rebuilding process is going well, and last year’s first-rounder Ndamukong Suh is an elite talent. Now they try to build onto their defense with another prime player. The secondary was a big-time weak spot last year, and so having Amukamara fall into their laps would be serendipitous. Amukamara is a quality cover man who will immediately become a No. 1 cover man, and his presence would help guys like Alphonso Smith slide down the ladder to spots better befitting their talents. He would be another nice piece for a team that should be making a playoff push soon.

14. St. Louis Rams – WR Julio Jones, Alabama
The Rams would be doing backflips if Jones slipped this far. He will be in play as early as pick 6 in Cleveland, and preeminent wideouts are hard to find. The position certainly has been troublesome for the Rams since the departures of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and Jones would immediately become Sam Bradford’s top target. And getting Jones would let Mark Clayton (who’s expected to return) and Danny Amendola slip into better roles. The Rams could also spend a pick on a defensive linemen, and Mike Pouncey would also fit nicely, but Jones would be simply too appealing to pass up.

15. Miami Dolphins – C/OG Mike Pouncey, Florida
The Dolphins are in an interesting position in this draft. They need a quarterback of the future, but unless they fall in love with Ryan Mallett or another prospect, it would be a reach to take one here. They need a running back, but spending their only pick in the first two rounds on Mark Ingram wouldn’t really address needs long term. There are tons of defensive linemen and pass rushers on the board here, but with guys like Paul Soliai, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, and Jared Odrick, the Dolphins have lots of good young players in the front seven. Ultimately, a trade down is probably in their best interest. But if they stay in place, Pouncey would be a nice addition. Miami has solid terrific tackles in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, so they’re more likely to pull the trigger not on a tackle like Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi but on Pouncey, who is versatile enough to play any of the three interior positions and talented enough to step right in and make a difference.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE DaQuan Bowers, Clemson
Bowers was once considered a potential first overall pick, and with good reason. But questions about his knee’s long-term health have dropped him down the board. But at some point, a contender who falls in love with Bowers’ massive potential will take the risk. Jacksonville seems like a good spot for that risk. The Jaguars have been building their lines in the last two drafts successfully, with OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britten two years ago and DTs Tyson Alualu and D’Anthony Smith last year. But while those moves have worked, defensive end has been a trouble spot, as former first-rounder Derrick Harvey hasn’t panned out, and free-agent Aaron Kampman didn’t make a huge splash either. Bowers would add elite talent and would ratchet up the scare factor for the Jags D several notches.

17. New England Patriots (via Oakland Raiders) – OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
The Patriots rarely make the trendy pick, but the fact that they’ve had to rely on Tully Banta-Cain for outside pass rush in recent years highlights the fact that an impact pass rusher is a big-time need. Smith played as a smallish defensive end in college, but he could move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 to be a bigger, Willie McGinest-sized rusher for the Pats. The Pats could also take a five-technique defensive end like J.J. Watt or Ryan Kerrigan, but they have other options at those positions. Smith would add a unique element that’s not currently on the roster, and that’s why he’s the pick here.

18. San Diego Chargers – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
It’s hard for a fan base to get excited about their favorite team picking a five-technique defensive end, but it’s imperative that teams pick them when they get a chance because they’re so hard to find. Watt fits the profile of that position to a T. He can provide the kind of stability up front that helps pass-rushers like Shaun Phillips and Larry English create havoc. That’s why Watt, more than outside players like Ryan Kerrigan or Adrian Clayborn, makes sense here. Note that the Chargers have been very aggressive about moving up to get their guy recently – with English, Ryan Mathews, and Eric Weddle, to name a few – so a trade up makes sense if A.J. Smith falls in love with a certain guy.

19. New York Giants – OT Nate Solder, Colorado
The Giants have long been strong in the trenches under head coach Tom Coughlin, but the offensive line is starting to show the cracks that come with age. Young OT William Beatty hasn’t really emerged as a difference-maker, so adding one of this year’s top tackles makes sense here. Solder is a big, physical specimen who has the potential to play either side, and his physical style makes him a better fit for Big Blue than Gabe Carimi.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn’s stock has slipped because of a injury that occurred at birth that still impacts the strength in his right arm. As a result, Clayborn will have to lock in on one side of the defense. That lack of versatility is a drawback, but Clayborn can still provide a ton of pass-rush pop. After investing in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price last year, the Bucs need to step up their outside threats on defense, and Clayborn is the best option at this point to do that. Tampa Bay could also use a cornerback, but given the legal problems Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson are facing, the Bucs can’t afford to gamble on Jimmy Smith at this point.

21. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
This is a popular pick, since it’s clear to see the Chiefs’ gaping hole at right tackle, and Carimi seems to be around at this spot on just about every mock draft you see. But the pick makes a ton of sense. Branden Albert is a decent starting left tackle, but not dominant, and Carimi could either fill in the RT hole or take Albert’s job and force him to jump over there. Either move should help to stabilize the Chiefs’ front line.

22. Indianapolis Colts – DT Corey Liuget, Illinois
The Colts usually spend their top pick on offense. That strategy worked well as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark became stars playing with Peyton Manning, but more recent picks like Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown haven’t panned out. Last year, the Colts picked DE Jerry Hughes, who didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie. We see them going defense this year, in part because the top group of offensive linemen has been picked through in our mock draft, and in part because there’s such value along the defensive line, which is another huge need area. Liuget would be a three-technique, penetrating tackle; a widebody like Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson would also be an option.

23. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles always, always, always spend their first-round pick on a lineman. Given how the offensive line crew has been picked through a bit at this point, instead of taking guard Danny Watkins or OT Danny Sherrod, we’ll point the Eagles toward defense. Kerrigan is a nice player with a high motor who makes some plays but may not have the punch of some other prospects. Still, he seems like he could develop into a Kyle Vanden Bosch type of end, and that would be a terrific addition at this point. The fact that the Eagles hired Jim Washburn, the league’s best D-line coach, in the offseason makes picking a guy like Kerrigan even more attractive – because they can trust Washburn will get the best out of him.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Andy Dalton, TCU
Dalton is the flavor-of-the-month West Coast offense quarterback, and there have been enough rumors linking him to the Seahawks at 25 that some team will trade back into the first round to pick him. The Saints should get a premium to trade out of this spot so that Cincinnati or San Francisco – or another team that has kept its Dalton love quiet – can beat Seattle to the punch. We’ve already discussed how Dalton is our choice as the No. 3 QB in the draft.

25. Seattle Seahawks – QB Christian Ponder, Florida State
The Seahawks still need a quarterback, given the fact that Matt Hasselbeck is hitting the open market. Ponder is also a West Coast style quarterback, but he has a little more elusiveness and a stronger arm than Dalton. Ponder’s big question (as we detailed before) will be durability. But with OL cornerstones center Max Unger and OT Russell Okung in place, the Seahawks are better positioned to protect Ponder than many other teams.

26. Baltimore Ravens – CB Jimmy Smith, Colorado
It seems like the Ravens have a strong roster with two continually glaring holes in recent years – wide receiver and cornerback. Given the way the draft board breaks down, receiver isn’t going to be an option this year. So while the cornerback play was a bit better last year, Josh Wilson’s free agency leaves it as a need. Smith would really help in that area. Smith is an ubertalented cover man with a rough reputation, but Baltimore seems to have the veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in place to help Smith grow up more quickly. But he could end up being a home run pick, which would be a coup this late in the first round.

27. Atlanta Falcons – OG Danny Watkins, Baylor
The Falcons are solid across the board, and so they can afford to spend a first-rounder on a less premium position like guard to get a premium player. That’s what Watkins, an ex-firefighter, can be. With OGs Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and OT Tyson Clabo all facing free agency, adding depth up front is crucial for the Dirty Birds. Watkins could step in and start at a guard spot, which would give the Falcons some financial flexibility without losing performance.

28. New England Patriots – NT Phil Taylor, Baylor
The Pats are, as always, prime targets to trade out of the first round, especially if a team is gaga over Ryan Mallett (bad idea) or Colin Kaepernick. But if they stay put, they can add to their defensive line once again either with Muhammad Wilkerson, who would play defensive end in their system, or with Taylor, who would apprentice under Vince Wilfork on the nose. Given the fact that the Pats had success with Wilfork playing end last year, Taylor would be a better fit. Adding a sturdy defensive lineman and a pass rusher would make for a terrific first-round haul for the Pats – especially with the first pick in the second round in their pocket.

29. Chicago Bears – OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
The Bears could use an offensive lineman, but they don’t seem too high on Derek Sherrod, the one first-round-level prospect left on the board. So we have them turning to Ayers, a versatile outside linebacker who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme. Ayers would add youth to a linebacking corps held down by linchpins Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and Ayers seems to have the skills to play on the strong side instead of sitting behind one of the stars. Ayers is a physical freak whose performance on the field wasn’t always consistent, but his ability could be too much to ignore at this point.

30. New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
The Jets need to add some depth in their front line on defense, given the departure of Kris Jenkins and the age of Shaun Ellis. Wilkerson, who has the skills to play as a defensive end in the 3-4 and also play inside in 4-3 sets, would add a nice piece for Rex Ryan’s attacking defense. The Jets could also look at Cameron Heyward in a similiar role, but Wilkerson’s a higher rated prospect.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
The Steelers have been beset by offensive line injuries in recent years, and it would be wise to add a first-round talent like Sherrod instead of having to depend on a fill-in like Flozell Adams again. The other spot they could address is at cornerback, where big, physical Aaron Williams of Texas may be tempting as well.

32. Green Bay Packers – DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
The Packers are loaded on the defensive line because they have invested so heavily there in the draft. But with Johnny Jolly’s career likely over and Cullen Jenkins looking to hit the jackpot via free agency, adding a player at the position would be wise. Heyward can play as a defensive end and add a little bit of pass rush push at the position. He’s a better fit than Marvin Austin, more of a 4-3 defensive tackle.

Guys who we considered for first-round spots:

QB Colin Kaepernick
QB Ryan Mallett
RB Mark Ingram
DT Marvin Austin
CB/S Aaron Williams

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, preja vu

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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OP: Put a Kindle on your wish list

As we approach the NFL draft later this month, we wanted to go on record about a couple of players we really like in this year’s class. This is always a risky business, but these are guys that we think are going to be terrific pros even if talent evaluators are finding some warts in their profiles. Here’s our defensive pick (along with a fallback option); we’ll focus on offense tomorrow.

FYI, you can click on the Draft category here on the blog to read previous draft coverage, which already features analyses of Jimmy Clausen and Tim Tebow.

It’s obvious that the defensive studs in this class like Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Eric Berry will be great additions to their teams. But if you forced me to pick one player from this year’s class who will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, I’d go with OLB Sergio Kindle of Texas.

Kindle played linebacker and defensive end in his Longhorns career, and he was a force at both positions. Kindle has great pass-rushing skills, but he can play from a standing stance and drop into coverage. And his performance in the national championship game against Alabama, which featured 2.5 sacks, shows that he’s a gamer as well. It’s unfair to compare Kindle to former Texas teammate Brian Orakpo, who vaulted his way into the Pro Bowl in his rookie year with the Redskins, but we get the sense that Kindle will be an impact player right away. He can play strong-side linebacker in a 4-3, dropping into a pass-rushing position at times, or he could be a terrific outside linebacker in a Steelers’ style 3-4. That kind of versatility makes Kindle a terrific prospect. We see Kindle as the best linebacker in this class – we’d rather have him than Rolando McClain of Alabama, who’s more of an inside backer, and he’s more versatile than Michigan OLB Brandon Graham, who’s more of a 3-4 player.

We can see Kindle having the kind of rookie impact that Orakpo or Brian Cushing did last year, with him ultimately becoming a Terrell Suggs type of player. And if a team can get that kind of impact from Kindle after pick 15, it will be a huge coup. Tennessee at 16, San Francisco at 17, or even Denver at 11, Miami at 12, and the Giants at 15 would all benefit from adding Kindle. The hunch here is that Kindle could last into the 20s, though, which will be a mistake for the teams that don’t put Kindle in their shopping cart. (That’s an Amazon joke. Fact: My cousin’s 2-year-old daughter once ordered a Kindle online. She didn’t get to keep it.)

And if you like Kindle but miss out, there’s another guy who’s kind of a Kindle in South Carolina’s Eric Norwood. Norwood played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Gamecocks, and he made a huge impact at both spots. Norwood had 54 tackles for loss and 29 sacks in his career, and he also showed a knack for knocking the ball out on fumbles and for recording interceptions. Norwood isn’t tall enough to be a prime prospect at outside linebacker, but he can be a terrific 3-4 outside linebacker, a la LaMarr Woodley of the Steelers or Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos. Norwood’s rated as a late second-round pick by Pro Football Weekly right now, and a contender that picks Norwood in that spot will be thrilled with what he does for them. He’d be a great fit for the Patriots with one of their three second-round picks.

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FR: 2009 Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2009 All-Jersey Number Team

Over the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed the best players in the league at each position by jersey number. Now we’re combining those lists to create our 2009 all jersey-number team. From 1 to 99, here are the best players at each jersey number.

To see how we selected our finalists, you can review the jersey number project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this postand quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this postand kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post and linebackers in this post and defensive backs in this post.

1 – PK Neil Rackers, Cardinals

2 – QB Matt Ryan, Falcons. Other position winner: P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs

3 – PK Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots. Other position winner: QB Derek Anderson, Browns

4 – QB Brett Favre, Vikings. Other position winner: P Andy Lee, 49ers

5 – QB Donovan McNabb, Eagles. Other position winner: P Mike Scifres, Chargers

6 – QB Jay Cutler, Bears. Other position winner: PK Joe Nedney, 49ers

7 – QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. Other position winner: P Jason Baker, Panthers

8 – QB Matt Schaub, Texans. We originally gave the position nod to Matt Hasselbeck, but as Hasselbeck continues a steep decline, we’re switching to an ascending player in Schaub. Other position winners: QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks; PK Ryan Longwell, Vikings

9 – QB Drew Brees, Saints. Other position winner: P Shane Lechler, Raiders

10 – QB Eli Manning, Giants. Other position winners: WR Santonio Holmes, Steelers; PK Nate Kaeding, Chargers

11 – WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals. Other position winners: PK Sebastian Janikowksi, Raiders; QB Daunte Culpepper, Lions

12 – QB Tom Brady, Patriots. Other position winner: WR Marques Colston, Saints

13- QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals. Other position winner: WR Johnny Knox, Bears

14 – WR Brandon Stokely, Broncos. Other position winner: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills

15 – WR Brandon Marshall, Broncos. Other position winners: QB Seneca Wallace, Seahawks; P Craig Hentrich, Titans

16 – WR/RS Josh Cribbs, Browns. Other position winner: QB Charlie Batch, Steelers

17 – QB Philip Rivers, Chargers. Other position winners: WR Braylon Edwards, Jets; PK Shayne Graham, Bengals

18 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts. Other position winners: WR Sidney Rice, Vikings; P Jeff Feagles, Giants

19 – WR Miles Austin, Cowboys

20 – S Ed Reed, Ravens. Other position winner: RB Thomas Jones, Jets

21 – CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders. Other position winner: RB LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers

22 – CB Asante Samuel, Eagles. Other position winner: RB Matt Forte, Bears

23 – RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins. Other position winners: CB DeAngelo Hall, Redskins; WR Devin Hester, Bears

24 – CB Darrelle Revis, Jets. Other position winner: RB Marion Barber, Cowboys

25 – RB Ryan Grant, Packers. Other position winner: S Ryan Clark, Steelers

26 – CB Antoine Winfield, Vikings. Other position winner: RB Clinton Portis, Redskins

27 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens. Other position winner: CB Rashean Mathis, Jaguars

28 – RB Chris Johnson, Titans. Originally, we opted for Adrian Peterson over Johnson, but as Johnson continues his historic season, and as Peterson continues to struggle, we’re going to make a switch. Other positional winners: RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings; S Gibril Wilson, Dolphins

29 – CB Leon Hall, Bengals. Other position winner: RB Joseph Addai, Colts

30 – S Mike Brown, Chiefs. Other position winner: FB John Kuhn, Packers

31 – CB Cortland Finnegan, Titans. Other position winner: RB Jamal Lewis, Browns

32 – RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars. Other position winner: S Eric Weddle, Chargers

33 – RB Michael Turner, Falcons. Other position winner: CB Charles Tillman, Bears

34 – RB Ricky Williams, Dolphins. Other position winner: S Dominique Barber, Texans

35 – CB Zack Bowman, Bears. Other position winner: RB Jerome Harrison, Browns

36 – S Nick Collins, Packers. Other position winner: RB Brian Westbrook, Eagles

37 – S Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins. Other position winner: FB Jason McKie, Bears

38 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers. Other position winner: RB Samkon Gado, Rams

39 – RB Steven Jackson, Rams. Other position winner: CB Brandon Carr, Chiefs

40 – TE Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings. Other position winners: RB Brian Leonard, Bengals; S Marquand Manuel, Lions

41 – S Antoine Bethea, Colts. Other position winners: FB Lorenzo Neal, Raiders; TE Spencer Havner, Packers

42 – S Darren Sharper, Saints. Other position winner: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

43 – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers. Other position winner: RB Darren Sproles, Chargers

44 – TE Dallas Clark, Colts. Other position winners: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants; S Jarrad Page, Chiefs

45 – FB Mike Sellers, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Leonard Pope, Chiefs; DB De’Von Hall, Colts

46 – RB Ladell Betts, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Daniel Fells, Rams; LB Vinny Ciurciu, Lions

47 – FB Lawrence Vickers, Browns. Other position winners: S Jon McGraw, Chiefs; LB Brit Miller, 49ers

48 – S Chris Horton, Redskins

49 – FB Tony Richardson, Jets. Other position winners: LB Zack Follett, Lions; DB Rashad Johnson, Cardinals

50 – LB Curtis Lofton, Falcons. Other position winner: OG Ben Hamilton, Broncos

51 – LB Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers. Other position winner: C Dominic Raiola, Lions

52 – LB Ray Lewis, Ravens

53 – LB Keith Bulluck, Titans

54 – OG Brian Waters, Chiefs. Other position winners: LB Andra Davis, Broncos; DE Quentin Groves, Jaguars

55 – OLB Terrell Suggs, Ravens. Other position winners: DE John Abraham, Falcons; C Alex Mack, Browns

56 – LB Brian Cushing, Texans

57 – LB Bart Scott, Jets. Other position winners: C Olin Kreutz, Bears; DE James Wyche, Jaguars

58 – DE Trent Cole, Eagles. Other position winner: LB Karlos Dansby, Cardinals

59 – LB London Fletcher, Redskins. Other position winner: OG Nick Cole, Eagles

60 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins. Other position winner: DT Joe Cohen, Lions

61 – C Nick Hardwick, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Gerard Warren, Raiders

62 – C Casey Wiegmann, Broncos

63 – C Jeff Saturday, Colts

64 – C Jake Grove, Dolphins. Other position winner: DT Kedric Gholston, Redskins

65 – OG Andre Gurode, Cowboys

66 – OG Alan Faneca, Jets. Other position winner: DT DelJuan Robinson, Texans

67 – C Jamaal Jackson, Eagles

68 – C Kevin Mawae, Titans. Other position winner: DE Jonathan Fanene, Bengals

69 – DE Jared Allen, Vikings. Other position winner: OT Jordan Gross, Panthers

70 – OG Leonard Davis, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Kendall Langford, Dolphins

71 – OT Michael Roos, Titans. Other position winner: DE Kroy Biermann, Falcons

72 – DE Osi Umenyiora, Giants. Other position winner: OT Vernon Carey, Dolphins

73 – OG Jahri Evans, Saints. Other position winner: DT Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings

74 – C Nick Mangold, Jets. Other position winners: OLB Aaron Kampman, Packers; NT Jacques Cesaire, Chargers

75 – NT Vince Wilfork, Patriots. Other position winner: OG Davin Joseph, Buccaneers

76 – OG Steve Hutchinson, Vikings. Other position winner: NT Jamal Williams, Chargers

77 – OT Jake Long, Dolphins. Other position winner: NT Kris Jenkins, Jets

78 – OT Ryan Clady, Broncos. Other position winner: DE Jacob Ford, Titans

79 – NT Ryan Pickett, Packers. Other position winner: OT Jeff Otah, Panthers

80 – WR Andre Johnson, Texans. Other position winner: TE Bo Scaife, Titans

81 – WR Randy Moss, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Owen Daniels, Texans

82 – TE Jason Witten, Cowboys. Other position winner: WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs

83 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Heath Miller, Steelers

84 – WR Roddy White, Falcons. Other position winner: TE Benjamin Watson, Patriots

85 – TE Antonio Gates, Chargers. Other position winner: WR Chad Ochocinco, Bengals

86 – WR Hines Ward, Steelers. Other position winner: TE Todd Heap, Ravens

87 – WR Reggie Wayne, Colts. Other position winner: TE Brent Celek, Eagles

88 – TE Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Other position winner: WR Isaac Bruce

89 – WR Steve Smith, Panthers. Other position winner: TE Daniel Graham, Broncos

90 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers

91 – DE Will Smith, Saints. Other position winner: OLB Tamba Hali, Chiefs

92 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos. Other position winner: DT Albert Haynesworth, Redskins

93 – DT Kevin Williams, Vikings. Other position winner: OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys

94 – OLB DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Aaron Schobel, Bills

95 – OLB Shaun Phillips, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons

96 – OLB David Bowens, Browns. Other position winner: DE Tyler Brayton, Panthers

97 – NT Kelly Gregg, Ravens. Other position winner: OLB Calvin Pace, Jets

98 – DE Robert Mathis, Colts. Other position winner: LB Brian Orakpo, Redskins

99 – OLB Jason Taylor, Dolphins. Other position winner: DE Andre Carter, Redskins

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Jersey Numbers: Linebackers

This is our next to last post choosing the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, 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 and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post. Now we move to linebackers, who can wear numbers in the 50s and the 90s with a few exceptions. If a number is omitted, it’s because no linebacker who has played this season wears those digits.

46 – Vinny Ciurciu, Lions – Ciurciu is the only linebacker currently wearing 46. He has played in six games this year, seeing most of his action on special teams. Now with his fourth team, Ciurciu also has a good locker-room nickname (see the bottom of the linked post).

47 – Brit Miller, 49ers – Miller is the only linebacker currently wearing 47. The rookie out of Illinois has played in two games this season.

49 – Zack Follett, Lions – Follett is the only linebacker currently wearing 49. The rookie out of Cal has played in nine games this year, mostly on special teams.

50 – Curtis Lofton, Falcons – Lofton, a second-year middle linebacker, has emerged as a tackle machine for the Falcons. His growth allowed the Dirty Birds to let stalwart Keith Brooking leave via free agency, and now it’s Lofton who will lead Atlanta’s defense for years to come. Lofton is tied for second in the NFL with 118 tackles. We give him the nod over OLB Mike Vrabel, who had great years in New England and is now a veteran leader in Kansas City. Other notable 50s: Russell Allen, Jaguars; James Anderson, Panthers; K.C. Asiodu, Rams; Antwan Barnes, Ravens; Eric Barton, Browns; Monty Beisel, Cardinals; Rocky Boiman, Steelers; Diyral Briggs, 49ers; Isaiah Ekejiuba, Raiders; Vernon Gholston, Jets; A.J. Hawk, Packers; Erin Henderson, Vikings; Lance Laury, Seahawks; Matt McCoy, Buccaneers; Marvin Mitchell, Saints; Rob Ninkovich, Patriots; Ernie Sims, Lions; David Thornton, Titans; Erik Walden, Dolphins; Philip Wheeler, Colts; Will Witherspoon, Eagles

51 – Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ruud has emerged as a do-everything middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, and he’s one of the few bright spots on the team’s defense. He’s fifth in the league with 113 tackles and also has six passes defensed. He gets the nod over Jonathan Vilma of New Orleans, who may be better in pass coverage. Also worth mentioning are long-time veterans Keith Brooking of Dallas, James Farrior of Pittsburgh, and Takeo Spikes of the 49ers; youngsters Jerod Mayo of the Patriots and Paul Posluszny of Buffalo; and injured Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu. Other notable 51s: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens; Akin Ayodele, Dolphins; Tim Diles, Chargers; Ryan Fowler, Jets; Tony Gilbert, Falcons; Alex Hall, Browns; Clint Ingram, Colts; Ben Leber, Vikings; Corey Mays, Chiefs; Joe Mays, Eagles; Gerald McRath, Titans; Brady Poppinga, Packers; Dan Skuta, Bengals; Chaun Thompson, Texans

52 – Ray Lewis, Ravens – This is a loaded number that features Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers in Carolina MLB Jon Beason, San Francisco MLB Patrick Willis, and Jets ILB David Harris, but Lewis gets the nod for his long, productive career that continues at a very high level. Other notable youngsters include rookie Clay Matthews of Green Bay, Kirk Morrison of Oakland, Daryl Smith of Jacksonville, and injured Browns ILB D’Qwell Jackson. Other notable 52s: Xavier Adibi, Texans; Eric Alexander, Patriots;  Michael Boley, Giants; Cody Brown, Cardinals; Jonathan Casillas, Saints; Channing Crowder, Dolphins; Chris Draft, Bills; Larry English, Chargers; Cody Glenn, Colts; Chad Greenway, Vikings; David Herron, Chiefs; Abdul Hodge, Bengals; D.D. Lewis, Seahawks;  Rocky McIntosh, Redskins; Jamar Williams, Bears; Coy Wire, Falcons

53 – Keith Bulluck, Titans – Bulluck has long been the emotional leader of the Titans’ defense, and he remains a solid sideline-to-sideline player. His three interceptions tie him for the lead among linebackers, and his 10 passes defensed place him second at the position. He’s also among the top 10 in tackles for linebackers. That’s enough to give him the nod over Atlanta’s Mike Peterson, another long-time, solid performer. Other notable 53s: Marcus Buggs, Bills; Derrick Burgess, Patriots; Khary Campbell, Texans; Na’il Diggs, Panthers; Moise Fokou, Eagles; Clark Haggans, Cardinals; James Holt, Chargers; Thomas Howard, Raiders; Larry Izzo, Jets; Rashad Jeanty, Bengals; Bryan Kehl, Giants; Niko Koutouvides, Buccaneers; Paris Lenon, Rams; Jameel McClain, Ravens; Tyrone McKenzie, Patriots; Steve Octavien, Cowboys; Nick Roach, Bears; Matt Roth, Browns; Mark Simoneau, Saints; Bryan Smith, Jaguars; Reggie Torbor, Dolphins; Jeff Ulbrich, 49ers; Demorrio Williams, Chiefs

54 – Andra Davis, Broncos – This number lost its stalwart when Brian Urlacher of Chicago was knocked out for the season. So among a group of solid if unspectacular inside linebackers, we’ll give Davis the nod for his contributions (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) in reinvigorating the Denver defense. Other contenders were Chargers ILB Stephen Cooper and Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch. Other notable 54s: H.B. Blades, Redskins; Jasper Brinkley, Vikings; Prescott Burgess, Ravens; Bobby Carpenter, Cowboys; Brandon Chillar, Packers; Blake Costanzo, Browns; Kenwin Cummings, Jets; Zac Diles, Texans; Troy Evans, Saints; Andre Frazier, Steelers; Jonathan Goff, Giants; Nic Harris, Bills; Geno Hayes, Buccaneers; Gerald Hayes, Cardinals; Will Herring, Seahawks; Freddie Keiaho, Colts; DeAndre Levy, Lions; Stephen Nicholas, Falcons; Jeremiah Trotter, Eagles; Tracy White, Eagles; Sam Williams, Raiders

55 – Terrell Suggs, Ravens – This is a tough call, because Suggs has just 3.5 sacks this season and has missed three games. But on the whole, he’s the most complete linebacker at this position, because he can be a dynamite pass rusher and also do well against the run and in coverage. I’d rather have Suggs that Miami OLB Joey Porter, who has eight sacks thus far this season, or Chicago’s playmaking WLB Lance Briggs, who stars in the featured position in the old Tampa 2 defense the Bears run. Other solid vets wearing 55 include Detroit’s Larry Foote and Denver’s D.J. Williams, while youngsters Clint Session of Indianapolis and James Laurinaitis of St. Louis deserve mention as well. Other notable 55s: Jon Alston, Raiders; Patrick Bailey, Steelers; Desmond Bishop, Packers; Alvin Bowen, Redskins; Stewart Bradley, Eagles; Ahmad Brooks, 49ers; Danny Clark, Giants; Dan Connor, Panthers; Scott Fujita, Saints; Stephen Hodge, Cowboys; Kawika Mitchell, Bills; Kenny Onatolu, Vikings; Keith Rivers, Bengals; Justin Rogers, Chiefs; Junior Seau, Patriots; Reggie Walker, Cardinals; Jamaal Westerman, Jets

56 – Brian Cushing, Texans – It’s hard to imagine giving a rookie like Cushing the honor at a highly populated number like this one, but Cushing has earned it. He’s sixth among linebackers with 116 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a safety. That’s huge impact that earns him the nod over Shawne Merriman of San Diego, who isn’t the same after last season’s knee injury, pass-rushing stud LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh, and solid all-around players Nick Barnett of Green Bay and Bradie James of Dallas. Other notable 56s: Colin Allred, Titans; Charlie Anderson, Dolphins; Robert Ayers, Broncos; Quinton Culbertson, Panthers; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Saints; Justin Durant, Jaguars; Keith Ellison, Bills; Tavares Gooden, Ravens; Tyjuan Hagler, Colts; E.J. Henderson, Vikings; Leroy Hill, Seahawks; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs; Akeem Jordan, Eagles; Kaluka Maiava, Browns; Scott McKillop, 49ers; David Nixon, Raiders; Chike Okeafor, Cardinals; Rod Wilson, Buccaneers

57 – Bart Scott, Jets – New Jets head coach Rex Ryan brought Scott with him from Baltimore as a high-dollar free agent to be the emotional leader and scheme expert in the middle of Gang Green’s defense. Scott has played fine for the Jets, but over the year it’s been fellow ILB David Harris who has emerged as a top-tier player. Still, Scott gets the nod over veteran Dhani Jones of Cincinnati and David Hawthorne, who’s having a terrific season as a fill-in starter at middle linebacker for Seattle. Other notable 57s: Stanley Arnoux, Saints; Kevin Bentley, Texans; Chase Blackburn, Giants; Ricky Brown, Raiders; Victor Butler, Cowboys; Chris Chamberlain, Saints; Jon Corto, Bills; Jordon Dizon, Lions; Keyaron Fox, Steelers; Chris Gocong, Eagles; Mario Haggan, Broncos; Adam Hayward, Buccaneers; Jordan Senn, Panthers; David Veikune, Browns; Matt Wilhelm, 49ers

58 – Karlos Dansby, Cardinals – It’s hard to imagine a better physical specimen at outside linebacker than Dansby, who is a leader on a strong Cardinals defense. He gets the nod over Gary Brackett, an undersized middle linebacker at the heart of the Colts defense. Other notable 58s: Marcus Benard, Browns; Quincy Black, Buccaneers; Thomas Davis, Panthers; Marques Harris, Chargers; Robert Henson, Redskins; Rey Maualuga, Bengals; Slade Norris, Raiders; Antonio Pierce, Giants; Scott Shanle, Saints; Tim Shaw, Bears; David Vobora, Rams; Jason Williams, Cowboys; Pierre Woods, Patriots

59 – London Fletcher, Redskins – Fletcher doesn’t have ideal size, but year after year he is a leader, a reliable tackler, and a playmaker, no matter what team he’s playing for. He’s a great success story as an undrafted player. He gets the nod over Julian Peterson of Detroit and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Other notable 59s: Spencer Adkins, Falcons; Jovan Belcher, Chiefs; Angelo Crowell, Buccaneers; Aaron Curry, Seahawks; Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens; Heath Farwell, Vikings; Larry Grant, Rams; Gary Guyton, Patriots; Ramon Humber, Colts; Brian Iwuh, Jaguars; Brandon Johnson, Bengals; Landon Johnson, Panthers; Brad Jones, Packers; Cato June, Bears; Stanford Keglar, Titans; Ashlee Palmer, Bills; Brandon Siler, Chargers; Pisa Tinoisamoa, Bears; Gerris Wilkerson, Giants; Brandon Williams, Cowboys; Wesley Woodyard, Broncos

74 – Aaron Kampman, Packers – Kampman, who moved from defensive end to outside ‘backer this season as Green Bay implemented a 3-4 defense, kept his old D-lineman number. Kampman didn’t have a great transition season, with just 3.5 sacks in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. But he’s still a good player, and he’s the only linebacker wearing 74, so he merits a mention.

90 – No linebackers wearing 90 have played a game this season.

91 – Tamba Hali, Chiefs – Hali is emerging as a solid pass rusher in Kansas City, with 7.5 sacks thus far this season. He gets the nod at this number over Cameron Wake, Miami’s CFL import who has 5.5 sacks in his first NFL season.

92 – Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – In one of the toughest calls of this whole project, we’re going with Dumervil, the NFL leader with 15 sacks, over 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison of Pittsburgh. Both guys play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and both add the fright factor to their respective defenses. But while Harrison may be a better player in pass coverage, Dumervil is having a defensive player of the year caliber campaign in Denver, and so for 2009 we have to opt for him. Other notable 92s: Bertrand Berry, Cardinals; Hunter Hillenmeyer, Bears

93 – Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer has been a disappointment at outside ‘backer since the Cowboys made him a first-round pick three years ago, but as a full-time player he gets the nod over Jason Trusnik, who has moved into the starting lineup in Cleveland after a midseason trade from the Jets.

94 – DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys – Ware is a preeminent pass rusher with nine sacks this year and 62.5 in five seasons so far. Also deserving mention is Lawrence Timmons, an emerging inside ‘backer for the Steelers. Other notable 94s: Arnold Harrison, Browns; Marques Murrell, Jets; Jyles Tucker, Chargers

95 – Shaun Phillips, Chargers – In a close call, the nod here goes to Phillips, a pass-rushing outside ‘backer who has seven sacks for San Diego, over Cleveland OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has 6.5 sacks. The six fumbles Phillips has forced was the determining factor. We’ll also shout out to Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson, another emerging pass-rusher. Other notable 95s: Tully Banta-Cain, Patriots; Ali Highsmith, Cardinals

96 – David Bowens, Browns – Bowens came with Eric Mangini from the Jets to Cleveland. He has long been an above-average pass-rushing outside ‘backer, and he has five sacks in that role this season. He gets the nod over declining Patriot Adalius Thomas. Other notable 96s: Omar Gaither, Eagles; Andy Studebaker, Chiefs

97 – Calvin Pace, Jets – Pace missed the first four games of the season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension, but since returning he has continued to provide pass rush off the edge with six sacks. Other notable 97s: Clint Sintim, Giants; Pierre Walters, Chiefs

98 – Brian Orakpo, Redskins – Orakpo, Washington’s first-round pick, has 11 sacks in his rookie season, including four last week against Oakland. That’s the kind of defensive jolt Washington was hoping for when it drafted him. Other notable 98s: Shawn Crable, Patriots; Parys Haralson, 49ers; Darrell McClover, Bears

99 – Jason Taylor, Dolphins – Taylor spent most of his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has seamlessly made the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker over the last few years. After a slow season in his one campaign in Washington, Taylor has six sacks this year for Miami, giving him 126.5 in his 13-year career. Other notable 99s: Kevin Burnett, Chargers; Paul Kruger, Ravens; Manny Lawson, 49ers; Bryan Thomas, Jets; Jeremy Thompson, Packers

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