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

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

NFC East

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

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

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

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

NFC North

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

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

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

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

NFC South

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

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

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

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

NFC West

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

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

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

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

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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

As the free-agent market opens (midnight eastern Friday morning), I thought I’d list the cream of the crop (as I see it) at every position. I’m not a scout, so I probably am leaving some people out, but here’s a pretty good list by position. I’ve only included players that are unrestricted on the market, so that eliminates all the restricted free agents as well as the franchise players.

Quarterback – Chad Pennington (Mia.), Jake Delhomme (Car.) – Pennington is the only quarterback in the market I’d consider as an option for a training-camp competition, because he’s consistent and accurate, but Delhomme could find a similiar role.

Running back – Thomas Jones (NYJ), Chester Taylor (Minn.), Ladell Betts (Wash.) – At age 32, Jones shouldn’t get a long-term deal, but he’s a fine option for 2010. Taylor is a good fit in two-RB sets because he’s a good blocker and receiver who can also carry the load when necessary. Both are better at this point than recent releases and fellow over-30 running backs LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Jamal Lewis. Betts becomes an under-the-radar choice as a No. 2 back after being released by the Redskins.

Wide receiver – Antonio Bryant (TB), Derrick Mason (Balt.), Kevin Walter (Hou.), Nate Burleson (Sea.), Terrell Owens (Buff.), Torry Holt (Jax.), Kassim Osgood (S.D.) – Bryant is wildly inconsistent, but he’s the only guy in this group with the potential of being a No. 1 receiver. Mason is still a dependable guy who fits as a No. 2 receiver, and Walter can make some plays in that kind of role as well. Burleson is a little too up-and-down to be a No. 2, but he is a nice option. Owens’ skills are declining to the point that he’s barely a No. 2., and the same is true for Holt. Osgood, a special-teams ace, never got much run at receiver for the Chargers, but he’s big and fast, which may lead someone to give him a chance he hasn’t yet had in the NFL.

Tight end – Ben Watson (NE), Brandon Manumaleuna (SD) – Watson is inconsistent, but he can be a passing-game threat. Manumaleuna is a big, sturdy blocking tight end who would fit as a nice piece with Mike Martz’s new Chicago system or perhaps a Wildcat team.

Center – Kevin Mawae (Tenn.), Casey Rabach (Wash.) – Mawae and Rabach are both veterans who still perform acceptably but won’t get long-term deals. Still, a team with a short-term need has options.

Guard – Bobbie Williams (Cin.), Rex Hadnot (Cle.), Stephen Neal (NE), Keydrick Vincent (Car.) – Williams is a big guard who’s good in the run game and OK in pass protection. At age 33, he’s not in his prime, but he’s got a few good years left. Vincent, who started the last two years in Carolina, is a similar player whose performance is a tick below that of Williams. Hadnot isn’t great, but he’s still a good player who is an acceptable NFL starter. Neal is undersized compared to the other massive guards in this group, but he’s still an above-average player as well. None of these guys will get overpaid, but a couple of them at least should get multi-year deals.

Offensive tackle – Mike Gandy (Ariz.), Chad Clifton (GB), Barry Sims (SF), Tra Thomas (Jax.) – There’s little to no tackle help to be found, as Clifton and Thomas are on their last legs and Sims is a fill-in at best. Gandy is probably the best option. He’s started at left tackle for the Cardinals the last three years, and while he’s better in the run game than in pass protection, he gets by. And at age 31, he’s still an acceptable starting option going forward.

Kicker – Neil Rackers (Ariz.), Shayne Graham (Cin.) – Neither Rackers nor Graham had his best year, but both have been solid in recent campaigns. They could provide an upgrade for teams with inconsistent young kickers. Cundiff

Defensive ends (4-3) – Julius Peppers (Car.), Aaron Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tenn.), Charles Grant (NO), Adewale Ogunleye (Chi.), Leonard Little (STL), Tyler Brayton (Car.), Ryan Denney (Buff.)  – This is perhaps the most stacked position in free agency, and Peppers of course is the class of the group. Although he’s 30, he’s still a premium pass rusher, and as a player who has been known for so-so effort, he could be reinvigorated by a change of venue. He’ll get the biggest deal in this free agent market. For teams that miss out on Peppers, Kampman and Vanden Bosch are nice options. Both still have a little pass rushing juice and are sturdy vs. the run. Grant never lived up to his potential as a first-rounder, but he has talent and could get a look as a fresh-start candidate. Ogunleye is a formerly productive pass rusher who has moved into the solid but unspectacular part of his career, while Little is probably just a situational pass rusher at this point. Brayton is a solid run-stopper but not much of a sack man. Denney is like Brayton but even older.

Defensive ends (3-4) – Dwan Edwards (Balt.), Justin Bannan (Balt.), Jarvis Green (NE), Vonnie Holliday (Den.) – The Ravens reportedly want to keep both Edwards and Bannan, who are key rotation players on their front 3, but it’s likely that at least one of those guys will get a big deal elsewhere. Edwards could be one of the big winners in this free-agent market. Green and Holliday are veterans who are solid 3-4 ends and great options for teams looking to fill a rotation spot.

Defensive tackles (4-3) – Tank Johnson (Cin.), Damione Lewis (Car.), Jimmy Kennedy (Minn.), Fred Robbins (NYG) – Johnson is well known for his legal problems, but he was on his best behavior last year in Cincinnati, and he played well too. He’s the best 4-3 tackle on the market by far. Kennedy, a former bust with the Rams, showed some flashes as a backup tackle who can slash into the backfield on occasion. Robbins is more of a fill-in who could fit as a fourth tackle at a veteran minimum salary. Lewis, a late cut, is a pretty productive slashing tackle but is more effective as a backup than a full-time starter.

Nose tackles (3-4) – Jason Ferguson (Mia.), Hollis Thomas (Car.), Maake Kemeoatu (Car.), Jamal Williams (SD) – All of these guys are long in the tooth, but they can plug the nose. With so many nose tackles franchised this year, this is a scarce position, and that may help their marketability. Kemeoatu is the youngest of the group, but he’s coming back from a major Achilles injury. Williams and Ferguson are more accomplished, but health and age are big concerns.

Outside linebackers (3-4) – Joey Porter (Mia.), Jason Taylor (Mia.), Tully Banta-Cain (NE), Derrick Burgess (NE) – The outside pass rushers are all veterans. Porter had 26.5 sacks over the past two years and is still a quality pass rusher. Taylor has slipped a little below that level, but he’s still a quality situational rusher. Banta-Cain had just 12.5 sacks in his first six seasons, but he had 10 for the Patriots last year in what was either a breakout season or a fluke. Some team may outbid the Patriots hoping for the former. Burgess is the consolation prize in this group.

Linebackers – Karlos Dansby (Ariz.), Gary Brackett (Ind.), Keith Bulluck (Tenn.), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Scott Fujita (NO) – Dansby is another prize in this market. He’s a 3-4 inside backer who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the 4-3, and he’s a playmaker with great range at both spots. He’ll get a huge deal somewhere. Brackett is more of a system player, but he’s an impactful 4-3 middle linebacker despite being undersized. Bulluck has been a terrific weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 for many years, but at his age he’s starting to slip. Still, he’s a good starting option who would also be a great leader. Fujita isn’t the athlete Bulluck is, but he’s also a starting-quality player. Pierce has been a top 4-3 middle ‘backer, but injuries are a huge concern. But if he can pass a physical, he can help a team.

Cornerbacks – Dunta Robinson (Hou.), Leigh Bodden (NE), Lito Sheppard (NYJ), William James (Det.) – Robinson has talent, but his production last year didn’t match his franchise-player salary. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he is a talent who will make good money. Bodden had a solid year with New England, repeating some of the success he had in Cleveland. His year in Detroit was a bust, but on the whole he’s proven his worth. James is a veteran who’s good enough to start, although he’ll need help over the top. Still, corner desperate teams could do worse than James. Sheppard is a talent who thinks more of himself than his play merits, but he’s still a top-3 cornerback for most teams if he’s willing to take a role instead of star.

Safeties – Antrell Rolle (Ariz.), Ryan Clark (Pitt.), Darren Sharper (NO), Mike Brown (KC), Jermaine Phillips (TB) – Rolle is a big-time play maker with great range and great size who is hitting the market because his contract is outsized. But he’s one of the few impact players on the market, and that should lead to a pay day. Clark is a big-hitting strong safety who has limited range but still has made big plays for the Steelers in recent years. Sharper had a big impact on the Saints in ’09, but his age makes a long-term contract unwise. Still, Sharper can help. If a team is looking for veteran wiles but can’t get Sharper, Brown and Phillips are options.

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FR: Most impactful cutbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Westbrook joins the RB unemployment line

The over-30 running back unemployment line grew a little longer Tuesday as the Eagles announced that Brian Westbrook would be released March 5, joining Jamal Lewis and LaDanian Tomlinson. Below are some thoughts on that cut, plus franchise players in Green Bay and Pittsburgh and a multiple Pro Bowler who was also released in Denver.

In Philadelphia, Westbrook had a terrific eight-year career that was stymied this year by multiple concussions. When he was healthy, Westbrook was a dynamo running and catching the ball, breaking 2,100 yards from scrimmage in 2007, his best season. But injuries often sidelined or at the least slowed Westbrook even before concussion problems popped up this year. Those concussions make Westbrook a dubious gamble for any other team this year, although in a third-down back role he probably has more ability to break free than LaDanian Tomlinson does at this point. But one more concussion should lead to retirement for Westbrook, which will limit his marketability. The Eagles, meanwhile, save $7.25 million in 2010 and hand the reins over to LeSean McCoy, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season, and fullback/big back Leonard Weaver (a restricted free agent). That’s a pretty good duo to go into 2010 with if the Eagles can get Weaver signed.

In Green Bay, the Packers joined the list of teams putting the $7 million franchise tag on a nose tackle by tagging Ryan Pickett. Pickett, once a first-round bust in St. Louis, has found himself in Green Bay, and his ability to move from defensive tackle to the nose was a key in Green Bay’s smooth transition into the 3-4. He’s 30 at this point, but Pickett is probably a better nose tackle than at least Casey Hampton and may be equal to Aubrayo Franklin among the franchise-tagged nose tackles this season.

In Pittsburgh, Casey Hampton has long been a stalwart of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense as the nose tackle, as he has started every game he has played since his second season in 2002. At age 32, he has moved from being a penetrating player to being more of a Pat Williams-style stopper in the middle, but he still has significant value in that role. He’s not the player that some of the other franchise-tag nose tackles are this season, but he’s still easily worth a one-year, $7 million contract. In fact, the Steelers are tagging him with the hope that they can agree to a long-term deal with him. Pittsburgh is also taking advantage of the uncapped year rules by using both a franchise tag and a transition tag. Jeff Reed has been the team’s placekicker since late in the 2002 season, and his ability to successfully kick in the tricky winds of Heinz Field is a big asset. He’s made at least 82 percent of his field goal tries in all but two of his seasons, and he continues to be a solid kickoff guy as well. In a year when so many teams had kicker problems in the playoffs, keeping a dependable guy like Reed is worth the one-year, $2.6 million price tag.

In Denver, the Broncos announced they were releasing Casey Wiegmann, who had a solid career with Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, the Jets, and Indianapolis as a guard and center. Wiegmann, whom we tabbed as the best No. 62 in the league this year, made the Pro Bowl for the 2008 season, but as the Broncos change blocking schemes Wiegmann’s zone-blocking prowess no longer fits.But he still has enough veteran wile to fit in somewhere if he wants to keep playing. The Broncos also released RB LaMont Jordan, who has bounced around to several teams over the past few years.

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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: Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Running Backs

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top running backs who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Michael Turner, Falcons – Turner’s yards per carry average isn’t great at 3.5, but he has scored in his last two games and has had at least 50 yards in all three games. This is a bit of a slow start, but it’s still fair to consider Turner a legitimate No. 1 fantasy running back. He hasn’t been the dominant player that most owners who drafted him in the top 2 would hope, but his performance has been good enough for applause. Verdict: Applaud

2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson is averaging 103 yards per game, is second in the league in rushing yards, and has five touchdowns already. While much of that production came in a huge Week One, Peterson’s performance is what you expect from a top-tier fantasy running back. Clap it up. Verdict: Applaud

3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo’s yardage total of 296 rushing doesn’t look great, but he also has 97 receiving yards, and his five rushing touchdowns is tied for the league lead through Week 4. He’ll end up with 1,200 rushing yards, another 400 receiving yards, and 15 TDs or more. That’s exactly what owners at the top of fantasy drafts were hoping for when they called his name. Verdict: Applaud

4. Matt Forte, Bears – Forte started really slow before putting up 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 4. If we had done this post last week, Forte would have been a fraud. But now his yardage totals (271 rushing and 92 receiving) are close enough to Jones-Drew’s, and if he starts scoring he’ll be just fine. He’s been a little disappointing thus far, but he’s still a No. 1 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – When I was putting together my rankings, it took a long time for me to settle on who the No. 5 and No. 6 backs were. But Williams, who I eventually moved up into this spot, has delivered despite terrible performances by his quarterback and receivers this year. He has 180 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards, and two TDs in three games, which is solid production. Owners can be confident that Williams will end up with 12 touchdowns and 1,200 total yards at least, and those are No. 1 back numbers. He’s the only Panther worth clapping for, but he’s earned it. Verdict: Applaud

6. Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson was the player I moved into the 6th position, and he has delivered big-time. Even though the Titans are 0-4, Johnson leads the league in rushing yards with 434 rushing yards, and he has another 117 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. If you got Johnson in the first half of the first round of your draft, it’s paying off big time. Verdict: Applaud

7. Steve Slaton, Texans – Like Forte, Slaton started out incredibly slowly before breaking out in Week 4. He has just 192 rushing yards, but he also has 121 receiving yards and the two touchdowns he scored this past Sunday. Slaton looks to be a yardage machine, and if he starts getting into the end zone regularly, he’ll be worth the first-round pick he cost in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

8. Clinton Portis, Redskins – At one point this offseason, I was staring at Portis’ impressive record and pencilling him in as a top-5 back. I drifted off that a bit, thankfully, as the season neared, but I still considered Portis great value at the end of the first round of my drafts. But Portis hasn’t really delivered, running for 281 yards in four games – three against soft defenses in Detroit, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. The schedule says that Portis should have had a hot start, but he hasn’t done so, and he hasn’t even reached the end zone yet. At this point, I wouldn’t consider Portis an every-week starter, and that makes this preseason ranking just flat wrong. Verdict: A fraud

9. Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Jacobs hasn’t started frequenting the end zone yet, but he has 288 rushing yards in the first four games. He’s not really a top-10 fantasy back yet, but once he starts finding pay dirt more often he will be. For now, he’s a solid fantasy starter, and that’s enough reason to clap. Verdict: Applaud

10. Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson is tied for fourth in the league in rushing yards with 367, and he also has 67 receiving yards. The problem for fantasy owners is that he hasn’t yet scored. Jackson is a victim of the Rams’ sorry offense, but at this point he’s still worth starting for fantasy owners because of his yardage numbers. His worst game was a 67-yard performance in Week One, and that’s not abysmal. So we’ll give him a golf clap. Verdict: Applaud

11. LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – I was down on Tomlinson this year because of his age and injuries over the past years, and so far those concerns have been valid. Tomlinson has just 72 yards from scrimmage so far and just one touchdown, and he has missed two games. His performance could get better, but at the quarter pole his fantasy owners can’t be happy. Verdict: A fraud

12. Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook has missed one game with injury and had a bye, and he’s had one good fantasy game and one OK performance. So while he, like Tomlinson, hasn’t really shined yet, his numbers look a little better in context. His upside for ’09 still has yet to be seen, but he’s done just enough to get a soft clap at this point. Verdict: Applaud

13. Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore is another back who’s already missed a game and most of a second tilt. His injury history was a big reason I didn’t include him in my top 10. When he’s played, he’s been terrific, with 298 total yards and 4 TDs. That makes Gore a legit No. 1 back when he’s in the lineup, and that’s worth applause despite his injury. Verdict: Applaud

14. Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber is another back who’s missed a game already, but in the three games he’s played he has 302 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. That’s production well worth a top-15 draft spot, even including the fact that he missed a game. Verdict: Applaud

15. Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t a guy that gives you great assurance when you take him, but as the top back on my Tier 2, he has just barely delivered thus far with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s been lacking in some games, but as a No. 2 fantasy back he’s been OK. Given how that meets expectations, we’ll give him some reserved applause. Verdict: Applaud

16. Ryan Grant, Packers – Grant got off to an awful start last year, but he’s been better in the first quarter of the season this year. He’s run for 257 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 receiving yards, which helps. Those are solid No. 2 fantasy back numbers that are worth of this spot on the preseason draft board. Verdict: Applaud

17. Darren McFadden, Raiders – I was far higher on McFadden than most people, figuring that his natural talent would lead to a 1,000-yard, 8-TD season no matter how bad his situation was. But he has just 198 yards from scrimmage and one TD in the first four games, and now he’s hurt. He’s a No. 4 fantasy back, not a fantasy starter. This was a bad preseason ranking. Verdict: A fraud

18. Kevin Smith, Lions – I didn’t love Smith this year, but I liked him enough to rate him as a borderline fantasy starter. And with 335 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, Smith has been a little better than borderline. He’s been a pleasant surprise thus far. Verdict: Applaud

19. Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas missed the season opener and played very sparingly in Week 2, but since then he’s been a big-time back. In the preseason, had Thomas not gotten hurt, he would have been a top-15 back. With 258 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs in the last two games, Thomas is a legit fantasy starter. Those who had patience with Pierre are being rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

20. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno (who was also hurt in the preseason) has been a good but not great fantasy player so far with 249 rushing yards and two TDs. And after a slow start in Week One, he has at least 65 rushing yards in each game. Now that Correll Buckhalter is hurt for a few weeks, Moreno has a chance to really emerge as not just a fantasy starter but as a No. 1 fantasy back. That makes him well worth this kind of preseason ranking. Verdict: Applaud

21. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is a good back, but he’s not good enough to overcome the general malaise that has hit the Panthers thus far. So even though he’s averaging more than 4 yards per carry, he has just 162 yards from scrimmage in three games and no touchdowns. That’s not worth this draft position, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to being a fantasy starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

22. Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – This ranking was way, way off. I didn’t see Cadillac Williams as a serious contender for carries, but it’s been Williams who has been the lone fantasy-relevant back for Tampa. Ward has just 129 yards from scrimmage and one TD. That’s not worth this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

23. Larry Johnson, Chiefs – I was far from sold on Johnson, but it was hard for me to imagine him not being at least a decent No. 3 back. But he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, and his 237 yards from scrimmage without a touchdown makes him nothing more than a roster-filler for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

24. Marshawn Lynch, Bills – It’s hard to judge Lynch because he missed the first three games due to his suspension. In his first game, he had just four yards on eight carries, although he did have 43 receiving yards. It’s far from certain that Lynch will be able to beat out Fred Jackson for the bulk of chances in Buffalo’s running game. So the signs aren’t yet good, but if you drafted Lynch you committed to be patient because you knew he would miss the first three games. For now, we’ll be patient with our verdict. Verdict: Incomplete

25. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – I was a lot further down on Brown than most, and he went as a No. 2 fantasy back in the drafts I was in. But Brown has delivered so far. He’s third in the league with 369 rushing yards, and he also has four touchdowns and 50 receiving yards. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now, which is what I was skeptical of. Another miss on my part. Verdict: Applaud

26. Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson gained steam as a sleeper during the preseason, and with good reason. He’s tied for fourth in the league with 367 rushing yards, and he has two touchdowns. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now and a nice surprise for owners who took a shot on him. Verdict: Applaud

27. Jamal Lewis, Browns – I was down on the Browns entering the year, but Lewis still made it into No. 3 running back range because he was one of few undisputed starting backs left. Lewis had 150 yards from scrimmage in the first two weeks, which is OK, before missing the last two games. You would never feel good about starting Lewis in a fantasy league, which means this ranking is about five spots too high. He should have been a No. 4 fantasy back at best, not a No. 3, and so we can’t clap for him at this level. Verdict: A fraud

28. Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is averaging 6 yards per carry, and he already has 429 yards from scrimmage. He just has one touchdown, which is the only thing keeping him from being a No. 1 fantasy back. But he’s a fantasy starter at this point, meaning that owners who got him at this point in fantasy drafts should be thrilled. Verdict: Applaud

29. Donald Brown, Colts – One of my big predictions in my preseason draft-boarding was that Brown would end up being a better fantasy back than Joseph Addai. That’s not yet the case – Brown has 257 yards from scrimmage and two TDs to 283 yards and three TDs for Addai – but I still get the sense that Brown will end up being better. In any case, Brown is already an OK No. 3 fantasy back who still has upside to move into being a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

30. Willie Parker, Steelers – Parker missed Week 4, and before that he put up 203 yards and one TD. Those aren’t quite No. 3 fantasy back numbers, but they’re close enough that this draft position for him is defensible. Verdict: Applaud

31. Reggie Bush, Saints – I kept moving Bush down my draft board in the preseason, but even this level wasn’t low enough. Mike Bell and Lyndell Hamilton have scored for the Saints, and yet Bush has just one touchdown. He does have 269 yards from scrimmage, and as a No. 3 fantasy back, he’s marginal. This is probably going to end up being about the right ranking for Bush, so we’ll clap – reluctantly. Verdict: Applaud

32. Beanie Wells, Cardinals – We projected that Wells would beat out Tim Hightower for the Cardinals’ No. 1 running back role, but that hasn’t yet happened. So Wells has just 71 rushing yards, and he doesn’t have a catch yet. If you drafted Wells, you probably have to stash him on your bench hoping that he’ll get it more and more as the year goes on. But even with that hope, this draft position looks too high. Verdict: A fraud

33. LenDale White, Titans – White became a fantasy starter last year by being a rushing-TD machine, but with the Titans falling apart White’s goal-line role has disappeared. He has just one touchdown and just 94 yards from scrimmage. He’s barely ownable at this point. Verdict: A fraud

34. Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson took advantage of his role as the Bills’ primary back in the first three games, and he has a whopping 493 yards from scrimmage in the first four games. He has just one touchdown, but if you took Jackson as a short-term answer, you have to feel good about how he did and about what he can do moving forward. Verdict: Applaud 

35. Joseph Addai, Colts – You can’t be secure about Addai’s role in the offense with Donald Brown emerging, but thus far Addai has been a solid No. 3 fantasy back. So given this ranking, we’ll applaud him. Verdict: Applaud

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