For National Football Authority, we look at the rumors that the Indianapolis Colts are looking at Byron Leftwich as the backup to Andrew Luck. We look at what Leftwich could add to the Colts, and what problems he could cause if given too significant a role. Click here to read all about it.
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Each year, the preseason is full of injuries big and small. In this post, we seek to compare the importance of injuries that will sideline players for the entire season. We’re focusing only on injuries that happened in the preseason and in training camps. We will update this post through the fourth preseason game, both with new injuries and with official news that hurt players will miss the season.
10 – CB Terrell Thomas, Giants – Thomas had a breakout season last year, his second as a starter. He had five interceptions, a whopping 21 passes defensed, and four forced fumbles. He had emerged as a top-tier starting cornerback, and was preparing to cash in on the free agent market after the season. But then he suffered a torn ACL in the second preseason game against the Bears. Losing Thomas is a huge blow to the Giants – especially since rookie corner Prince Amakamura has missed most of camp because of injury. The Giants are now thin at a key position, and they’ll be playing without the best playmaker in their defensive back seven.
10 (con’t) – Browns OLG Eric Steinbach – Steinbach, a long-time starter for both Ohio teams, suffered a back injury that he couldn’t come back from. That’s a blow for the Browns, who don’t have a ton of veteran leadership anywhere – or a solid option to replace Steinbach.
10 (con’t) – TE Tony Moeaki, Chiefs -Moeaki, who had a strong rookie season for the Chiefs, suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale and landed on injured reserve. It’s a huge loss for the Chiefs, who relied on Moeaki as a consistent receiving threat last season. There’s no one on the roster with anywhere near the level of skill Moeaki had.
9 – Redskins DE Jarvis Jenkins – Jenkins, a second-round pick this year, had earned a starting job on Washington’s rebuilt defensive line at left end. But his strong rookie push ended in the third preseason game against the Ravens when he tore his ACL. Jenkins will miss the season. It’s a huge blow to Washington, which doesn’t have a ton of depth at defensive end and certainly doesn’t have a player to step in and make the impact Jenkins was starting to make.
9 (con’t) – TE John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson is a solid starter at tight end, but a shoulder injury will shelve him for the season. It’s a blow for the Seahawks, but they signed Zach Miller in the offseason, who is an upgrade over Carlson. Still, it’s a blow for a productive youngster approaching free agency to miss an entire season.
9 (con’t) – MLB Jonathan Goff, Giants – Goff emerged as a starter at middle linebacker in his third season in 2010 and had a solid year. That led some observers to expect a breakout contract year in 2011. Instead, like fellow free-agent-to-be Terrell Thomas, Goff will miss the entire season after an ACL injury suffered in practice leading up to Week 1. It’s a another body blow to a Giants defense that has sustained too many this offseason.
8 – Cardinals RB Ryan Williams – Williams, the Cardinals’ second-round pick, looked to be a challenger to Beanie Wells’ starting job. But in the second preseason game against the Packers, Williams ruptured his patella tendon. He will miss the season.
8 (con’t) – Lions RB Mikel Leshoure – Leshoure, the Lions’ second-round pick, was expected to be the inside threat to pair with Jahvid Best. But Leshoure tore his Achilles in training camp and will miss the season. That’s a huge blow for the Lions, who have playoff aspirations after years of struggles but who don’t have a ton of depth – especially at running back.
7 – Panthers DT Ron Edwards – A couple of days after we discussed how important Edwards was to the Panthers, he suffered a torn triceps that will cost him the season. It’s a big blow to the Panthers, who were counting on Edwards to upgrade a thin position.
7 (con’t) – Panthers OG Geoff Schwartz – Schwartz, expected to be a starter this year at right guard, has a hip problem that will cost him the season. That’s a blow for a Panthers team that looked to have some offensive line continuity this year after missing Jeff Otah all last season.
7 (con’t) – Chiefs ILB Brandon Siler – Siler tore his Achilles in practice after the second preseason game, and will miss the season. He was signed from San Diego to be a starter and key player against the run, so his injury is a big blow to the Chiefs.
6 – Panthers WR David Gettis – Gettis, a second-year player who was on pace to start across from Steve Smith for the Panthers, tore his ACL and will miss the season. Gettis had a surprising rookie season with 37 catches for 508 yards and three TDs, so he will be missed. Now the Panthers need signee Legedu Naanee to emerge as a starter.
6 (con’t) – Cardinals CB Greg Toler – Toler, a third-year player, started 13 games for Arizona last year and was holding off Patrick Peterson for a starting job this year. But a torn left ACL suffered in the third preseason game will take Toler off the field this season. Now Peterson must be ready to start from Day 1, and the Cardinals also need to find some cornerback depth.
6 (con’t) – Jaguars RB Rashad Jennings – Jennings has proven to be a solid backup for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and Jones-Drew’s injury problems last year gave Jennings more of a role. But a knee injury will sideline Jennings for the year, leaving Deji Karim as the backup in Jacksonville.
5- Browns P Reggie Hodges – Hodges, who finally seized a full-time job in Cleveland last year (anda former Crazy Kicker of the Week), suffered a torn Achilles during camp and will miss the season. The Browns brought in Richard McGee to fill in, but they’ll undoubtedly be checking the waiver wire to see if a veteran punter they like shakes free.
5 (con’t) – Giants DT Marvin Austin – Austin, a first-round level talent whom the Giants took in the second round after he missed the 2010 season due to NCAA rule violations, suffered a torn left pec and will miss the season. It’s a blow to the Giants, and now Austin will try to return from two years off the field – which won’t be an easy task.
5 (con’t) – Bills ILB Reggie Torbor – Torbor, who started seven games for the Bills last year, suffered a shoulder injury that will cost him the season. As a result, he’ll miss the season. The Bills signed Kirk Morrison to replace Torbor, which should be an upgrade, at least on running downs.
5 (con’t) – Browns RB Brandon Jackson – Jackson was one of Cleveland’s few free-agent signings this offseason. He was going to be a third-down back with receiving skills to supplement Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty. But a toe injury will cost the former Packer the season.
4 – Titans CB Ryan Mouton – Mouton, who has played cornerback and been a key special teams player, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will be out for the year. The 2009 third-round pick lost his returner job after several fumbles in 2009, but he was growing into a solid extra corner.
4 (con’t) – Steelers QB Byron Leftwich – Leftwich was in the running for the Steelers’ backup QB job, but he broke his left arm against the Falcons in the third preseason game and will miss the season. It’s not a huge blow for the Steelers, who still have Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch in reserve.
4 (con’t) – Panthers OG Garry Williams – Williams had a chance to emerge as a starter at right guard for the Panthers after Geoff Schwartz’s injury, but he suffered a broken leg against the Steelers in the preseason finale and will miss the season. Williams was on the way to a roster spot, and losing him at a position of need was a big blow for the Panthers.
4 (con’t) – Giants OLB Clint Sintim – Sintim, a former second-round pick, was trying to come back from an ACL injury last season. But he tore the patella tendon in the same right knee he injured last year in the preseason finale, and will miss the year. Sintim was Mathias Kiwanuka’s backup and a versatile player, so losing him is certainly a blow to Big Blue.
4 (con’t) – Bengals TE Bo Scaife – Scaife, a free-agent signee this year, was supposed to be a versatile companion to Jermaine Gresham at tight end. Scaife’s a better blocker than Gresham while still being an effective receiver, but the Bengals’ WR depth should allow them to work around Scaife’s season-ending shoulder injury.
4 (con’t) – Seahawks DT Jimmy Wilkerson – Wilkerson, who has bounced around the league, suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game. He will miss the season. Seattle claimed Landon Cohen (fellow Spartanburg High School alum!) to replace Wilkerson.
3 – Giants CB Brian Witherspoon – Witherspoon, a backup corner, was the third Giants corner (after Terrell Thomas and Bruce Johnson) to be lost for the season. The ex-Jaguar and Lion, who played one game last season, was having a good camp and had a good chance to not only make the team but contribute until he, like Thomas, tore his ACL against the Bears. It’s another loss at a position getting deeper and deeper each day.
3 (con’t) – Broncos TE Richard Quinn – Quinn, a second-round pick in Josh McDaniels’ first draft in Denver, suffered an MCL injury early in the season, and Denver decided to put him on injured reserve. Quinn is a blocking tight end, but he looks to be getting caught up in the transition from McDaniels’ regime to the John Elway/John Fox group. Still, he once was a prospect, and losing his talent hurts.
3 (con’t) – Cardinals QB Max Hall – Hall, whom the Cardinals viewed as a potential future starter last year when he was an undrafted rookie, was waived injured after suffering a second injury to his non-throwing shoulder. After adding Kevin Kolb, the Cards only want to develop one young backup, and John Skelton is going to be the guy. Hall landed on injured reserve.
3 (con’t) – Broncos CB Syd’Quan Thompson – Thompson, a reserve cornerback for the Broncos, suffered a torn Achilles in the final preseason game. He will miss the season, taking away some of the Broncos’ secondary depth.
3 (con’t) Jets QB Greg McElroy – McElroy, a rookie, had played well as a No. 3 developmental quarterback until a thumb injury in the preseason finale shelved him. He’ll miss the season and more importantly the development he could have had as a rookie.
2 – Eagles DE Victor Abiamiri – Abiamiri suffered a ruptured Achilles and will miss the season. It’s the second straight season he’ll miss, after microfracture surgery on his knee sidelined him in 2010. Abiamiri, a 2007 second-round pick, had grown into a solid defensive end backup before his 2010 injury, but now his career has to be in question.
2 (con’t) – Steelers RB Baron Batch – Batch, a seventh-round rookie out of Texas Tech, was making a strong case for a roster spot before he tore his ACL in training camp. Now, he will miss the season.
2 (con’t) – Giants CB Bruce Johnson – Johnson, a third-year pro, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will miss the season. A knee injury cost him most of the 2010 season, but he had shown in 2009 that he’s a decent rotation cornerback. So it’s a loss for the Giants.
2 (con’t) – Vikings OG Scott Kooistra – Kooistra, a journeyman vet who was trying to win a job with Minnesota, suffered a serious neck injury in the second preseason game against the Seahawks. The injury could be career-ending.
1- 49ers TE Nate Byham – Byham, who developed immediately into a solid blocking tight end as a rookie last year, suffered a torn ACL early in camp and will miss the season. Byham was a sixth-round pick in 2010.
1 (con’t) – Saints OT Alex Barron – Barron, a first-round bust who was trying to win a job with the Saints, injured his knee in the preseason and will miss the season.
1 (con’t) – Bengals LB Roddrick Muckleroy – Muckelroy suffered a torn Achilles in the first week of Bengals camp and will miss the season. The 2010 fourth-round pick played 14 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams.
1 (con’t) – Panthers OG Zack Williams – Williams, a sixth-round pick, suffered a torn ACL and will miss his rookie season.
1 (con’t) – 49ers CB Curtis Holcomb – Holcomb, a seventh-round pick, suffered a torn Achilles early in training camp and will miss the season.
1 (con’t) – 49ers WR Dontavia Bogan – Bogan, an undrafted rookie, tore his ACL early in training camp.
In the midst of the NFL lockout, one rumor that won’t go away is that the Eagles are looking to deal backup QB Kevin Kolb to a team that wants to make him a starter. Kolb, who is signed to a reasonable contract and who sits behind Michael Vick on the depth chart, says he’s ready to start, and his performance in fill-in performances supports that belief. And Eagles head coach Andy Reid seems open to granting Kolb’s trade wish if the price is right.
But is this wise for the Eagles? And is trading for Kolb a good move for a quarterback needy team? Let’s do a research project to see the results other trades in which teams dealt for someone else’s backup quarterback and made him a starter.
*If you can think of an example we forgot, leave a comment and we’ll add it in below.
2010 – Chargers trade Charlie Whitehurst and 2010 second-round pick (60th overall) to Seahawks for 2010 second-round pick (40th overall) and 2011 third-round pick – Whitehurst, a former third-round pick, was never going to surpass Philip Rivers in San Diego, but he had also fallen behind vet Billy Volek on the depth chart. So when the Seahawks wanted Whitehurst to compete for their starting job, the Bolts made the deal. The Seahawks didn’t give up as much as other teams had for QBs they knew would start for them, but it was a fairly hefty price for an unproven backup. In his first year in Seattle, Whitehurst couldn’t beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck, and he started just two games. While his numbers weren’t great, he did lead the Hawks to a Week 17 victory over St. Louis to clinch a playoff spot. Hasselbeck is now a free agent, and the Seahawks want to keep him, which speaks to Whitehurst’s current value. But the jury is still out on whether Seattle got what it paid for in this deal.
2009 – Patriots trade Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to Chiefs for second-round pick (34th overall) – Cassel, who had been a backup at USC and with the Patriots, got his chance to play in 2008 when Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Cassel acquited himself well, to the point that the Patriots put the franchise tag on him after the season. That was really a move to protect his value, and New England soon traded Cassel to Kansas City for an early second-round pick. That was a pretty nice return on investement for the Pats, who were obviously going to turn back to Brady as their starter. Cassel struggled a bit in his first year as a starter, but he really came on in 2010 to show he can be at least an above-average NFL starting QB. At this point, K.C. has to be thrilled to have Cassel, even after paying a hefty price.
2007 – Falcons trade Matt Schaub and 2007 10th overall pick to Texans for 2007 8th overall pick, 2007 second-round pick, and 2008 second-round pick – This is the one example that worked out far better for the team acquiring the backup quarterback. Schaub had started two games behind Michael Vick in Atlanta before the Falcons were able to get a pretty nice ransom for the former fourth-round pick. Schaub went on to the Texans, where he supplaned disappointing No. 1 overal pick David Carr. Schaub has developed into a prolific passer and has started every game when healthy over the past four seasons. The Falcons, meanwhile, didn’t know that their first season without Schaub would also be their first season without Vick, whose legal troubles began that year. So under first-year head coach Bobby Petrino, Atlanta started a poo-poo platter of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich that season. Petrino bailed and went to Arkansas, and the Falcons ended up drafting Matt Ryan as their new franchise QB. Atlanta bounced back from this trade, but it was as disastrous at first for the Falcons as it was shrewd for the Texans.
2004 – Eagles trade A.J. Feeley to Dolphins for 2005 second-round pick – Andy Reid learned from Ron Wolf, the GM of the team he had been an assistant coach for, when it came to trading quarterbacks. So once Donovan McNabb was an established starter, Reid dealt third-stringer Feeley to the Dolphins for a pretty high price – a second-rounder. Feeley had been a fifth-round pick, but when McNabb and backup Koy Detmer were injured in 2002, Feeley went 4-1 as a starter, helping the Eagles land a playoff berth. He was stuck on the bench another year before the Dolphins anted up to get him. But Feeley started just eight games in Miami and played poorly, losing the starting job to Jay Fiedler as coach Dave Wannstedt got forced out. Within two years, Feeley was gone. The Eagles, meanwhile, got WR Reggie Brown out of the deal as a draft pick, and actually got Feeley back as a backup a few years later. Philly won in this deal, and Miami definitely lost.
2001 – Packers trade Matt Hasselbeck plus 2001 17th overall pick and seventh-round pick to Seahawks for 2001 10th overall pick and third-round pick – Hasselbeck was the third Packers backup under Brett Favre who was traded to become a starter elsewhere, and he was the most valuable. For one, GM Wolf had built up the value of his backups enough to show that they were worthwhile investments for trading partners. Plus, the Seahawks made the trade under GM/coach Mike Holmgren, who had been in Green Bay when Hasselbeck was drafted in 1998. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick who developed into a preseason star in Green Bay, but he was never going to get a chance to start with Favre in place. So he moved on to Seattle. It took a while for Hasselbeck to beat out Trent Dilfer for the starting job in Seattle, but Hasselbeck eventually developed into a three-time Pro Bowler who led the Seahawks to several playoff berths and one Super Bowl. The fact that Seattle lost just one draft pick (a third-rounder) while giving up a few spots in the first round was a solid investment. Both teams came out of this deal as winners.
2000 – Packers trade Aaron Brooks and TE Lamont Hall to Saints for 2001 third-round pick and LB K.D. Williams – Brooks was the Packers’ third-string quarterback as a fourth-round pick out of Virginia, but after a year Ron Wolf was able to deal him to New Orleans for a third-rounder. The move was worthwhile for the Saints, as Brooks became a starter his first year and ended up starting 82 games for the team. Meanwhile, the Pack once again took advantage of Favre’s durability and turned a backup quarterback into a better pick than the one it had spent on him. So this deal was another win-win.
1999 – Broncos trade Jeff Lewis to Panthers for 1999 third-round pick and 2000 fourth-round pick – The Panthers, looking for a franchise quarterback, dealt for Lewis, who was a former fourth-round draft pick who was backing up John Elway in Denver. But Lewis couldn’t beat out veteran Steve Beuerlein in Carolina. Lewis was a backup for two years, in part because of a severe knee injury, getting only nominal playing time after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoff chase in 2000. And after George Seifert cut Beuerlein following the 2000 season to clear the way for Lewis, he fell flat on his face and was released at the end of training camp. The Panthers, led by rookie Chris Weinke, fell to 1-15 in 2001. The Broncos, meanwhile, dealt Lewis at the top of his value, because they already knew that Brian Griese had surpassed Lewis on the depth chart. After Elway’s retirement in 1999, Griese surpassed Bubby Brister and became a four-year starter for Denver. Denver fared fine in this trade, but it was a disaster for the Panthers.
(The short-lived Lewis era was when I covered the Panthers. Two funny stories: First, Lewis referred to himself as No. 8, leading reporters to joke that he was the first athlete to talk about himself not in the third person but the fourth person. Secondly, when Lewis saw a group of out-of-shape reporters going to play basketball during training camp, he looked at them and said, “Don’t blow a knee,” pointing back to the basketball injury that had derailed his career. It was the only time we saw a sense of humor from Lewis.)
1995 – Packers trade Mark Brunell to Jaguars for 1995 third-round pick and 1995 fifth-round pick – Brunell, who had spent two years backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay, was Jacksonville’s choice as their franchise quarterback for their first season, despite the fact that he had thrown just 27 NFL passes. It was a great move for the Jags, who got a three-time Pro Bowler for a very reasonable price. The Packers, meanwhile, had figured out that starter Favre was not just a Pro Bowl player but also an iron man who wouldn’t miss any time. So Wolf turned Brunell, a former fifth-round pick, into third- and fifth-round picks. The deal ended up as a win-win for both sides.
The NFL transaction wire got interesting Thursday when the Jets swooped in and signed DT Trevor Pryce, who had been released by Baltimore early in the week. The Ravens assumed they could bring Pryce back later this season, and he didn’t even bother to pack up his locker anticipating a return. The Ravens actually cut Pryce to bring back S Ken Hamlin in a similar role, and the Steelers (Baltimore’s Week 4 opponent) executed the same strategy with Byron Leftwich earlier this year. But Pryce’s $2 million 2010 contract with Baltimore was guaranteed because he’s a vested veteran, so when the Jets swooped in with an offer, he had the chance to make double money for the rest of the season, and that proved too juicy a proposition to pass up.
It’s a blow to the Ravens, who lost backup DEs Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards via free agency in the offseason. Pryce didn’t start any of the first three games of the season, as Cory Redding came to town and started, but Pryce is still a solid 3-4 defensive end who can hold up against the run and provide some pass-rush punch. Losing him as depth hurts the Ravens, and losing him to the AFC-rival Jets hurts even more. Thet Jets can use Pryce at end so that Sione Pouha can move inside to team with Mike DeVito on the nose to replace the injured Kris Jenkins.
While the Ravens may be irate at what Pryce for choosing to leave (and Michael Lombardi thinks they should be), they’re the ones that took the risk. They’re the ones who put Pryce on the open market. To put it bluntly, they’re the ones that fired him, whether or not they intended to bring him back. You can’t blame Pryce for pursuing double payment for the year, especially when he’s 35 and in the twilight of his career. And the Jets are a natural landing spot for Pryce since he played under Rex Ryan in Baltimore and knows new teammates like Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard. It’s a coup for the Jets, and they deserve credit for swooping in when Pryce hit the market.
As it ends up, the price of the Pryce roster gamble ended up being much higher than the Ravens expected.
After a training-camp season full of quarterback stability (only Arizona made an in-camp change), a whopping eight teams ran into quarterback issues by Week Two. Below, we compare the significance of these quarterback issues, given how close teams are to contending and how good the quarterback options are. We’ll do this using Football Relativity, with the 10 level noting the most pressing QB quandary and the 1 level marking one that doesn’t change a team’s fortunes at all.
10 – Philadelphia Eagles (Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick) – Kolb missed Week 2 due to the after-effects of a concussion, and Vick had a big game against the Lions. Vick has completed 64 percent of his passes and thrown for three TDs without an interception, and he has run for 140 yards. He looks revitalized after a disappointing return to the NFL in 2009. At first, the Eagles said they’re sticking with Kolb, who became the franchise quarterback when Philly traded Donovan McNabb. But then the Eagles reversed field (a Vick-ian maneuver) and named Vick the starter not just for Week 3 but going forward. It’s shocking that the Eagles pulled the plug on Kolb after just one half on the field, but Vick’s solid performance won the day. The question is what happens if Vick’s two good games turn into inconsistent play. Philly is a talented team, but unless Vick really is back, the way they’ve handled their QB situation could end up scuttling the season.
9 – none
8 – Tennessee Titans (Vince Young vs. Kerry Collins) – After three turnovers, Vince Young was yanked out of the Titans’ loss to the Steelers, and Collins came in to lead Tennessee’s only TD-scoring drive. Of course, Collins also had two turnovers as well. Jeff Fisher has said there’s no question that Young is the starter, but Collins is a capable quarterback who proved in 2008 he can step in for Young and lead the Titans to the playoffs. (Of course, in 2009 Young replaced Collins and led the Titans from an 0-6 start to an 8-8 finish.) So Young needs to perform well in the next couple of games, or else the clamor for Collins will really pick up.
7 – none
6 – Carolina Panthers (Matt Moore vs. Jimmy Clausen) – The Panthers are making the switch from Moore, the December superstar in ’07 and ’09, to the rookie Clausen after Moore turned the ball over six times and failed to generate much offense in his first two starts. Clausen is polished for a rookie, but he’s still just a rookie who will make mistakes. Given the talent Carolina has elsewhere on the field, quarterback play that rises from putrid to mediocre could help, but the question is whether Clausen is wily enough at this point to be even that small of an upgrade over Moore.
5 – Arizona Cardinals (Derek Anderson vs. Max Hall) – The Cardinals opted for Anderson, a scattershot quarterback with a big arm, over the cautious check-down man Matt Leinart in training camp, but Anderson’s inconsistency has outweighed his potential thus far. Hall, a rookie out of BYU, lurks as a potential replacement. Hall is more of a quick-hitting trigger man who doesn’t have the big arm but might be better equipped to get the ball to Arizona’s strong stable of receiving targets. So if Anderson struggles and the Cards start to fall behind in the lowly NFC West, Hall will get a shot.
4 – Oakland Raiders (Bruce Gradkowski vs. Jason Campbell) – The Raiders brought in Campbell to bring stability to the QB position in place of JaMarcus Russell, but Campbell lasted six quarters until he was benched. Campbell has talent, but he makes enough mistakes to offset his ability to throw the ball downfield. Gradkowski is a Jeff Garcia-type of scrapper who doesn’t have a big arm but does find ways to move a team. The question is whether Gradkowski would be exposed if he played 3-4 games in a row. But for now, the Raiders should try to keep the spark Gradkowski lit last week aflame.
3 – Pittsburgh Steelers (Charlie Batch vs. Byron Leftwich) – Dennis Dixon won the Steelers’ September starting job in training camp, but he suffered a torn meniscus against Tennessee that will sideline him at least until Ben Roethlisberger returns. So now Pittsburgh must choose between Batch, the ultimate placeholder, and Leftwich, who had some good games for Pittsburgh back in 2008 but looked awful for the Bucs last year. Leftwich may have a little more upside, but he’s got such a slow delivery at this point that Batch might actually be less of a liability. But the bottom line is that the Steelers will win the next two games because of defense, not Batch or Leftwich, and so in the end it really doesn’t matter much which guy starts.
2 – Jacksonville Jaguars (David Garrard vs. Todd Bouman) – Garrard threw four picks against the Chargers and was replaced by Luke McCown, but McCown blew out his knee at the end of the game and will miss the rest of the season. Jacksonville brought back Bouman to be Garrard’s backup, but the injury means there’s no question that Garrard is the guy.
1 – Buffalo Bills (Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Trent Edwards) – The Bills made the switch from Edwards to Fitzpatrick, but both quarterbacks have frankly proved that they’re not good enough to be regulars on the NFL level. No matter who plays, the Bills are among the league’s worst teams in terms of QB play, and they have few hopes of winning.
- N.F.L. Week 2: A Primer on Quarterback Controversies (fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com)
- NFL Full of QB Quandaries Heading Into Week 3 (abcnews.go.com)
Each week, we watch a specific game and share what we learned. This week we tuned into the Steelers/Titans clash in Nashville, which the Steelers won 19-11. It was a huge win for the Steelers, who move to 2-0 and assure themselves of a solid start in the absence of QB Ben Roethlisberger. When Big Ben returns, the Steelers will add a passing dimension to their game that they’ve been without thus far, and that will take them from a good team to a true contender.
Here’s what else we saw from both an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective.
*The Steelers got off to a quick start with some shenanigans, using a reverse to spring Antonio Brown free for an 89-yard touchdown return of the game’s opening kickoff. Given the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t score a touchdown in regulation last week, and given the fact that the Dennis Dixon/Charlie Batch combo wasn’t going to score a ton, it was a calculated gamble that paid off big for Pittsburgh.
*Vince Young responded poorly to the intense pressure the Steelers put on him, turning the ball over three times (two picks and a fumble), and because of the turnovers the Titans yanked him from the game in favor of Kerry Collins. Collins’ lack of mobility made him a sitting duck for the Steelers, and he threw an interception and fumbled on his first two series, but you can’t blame Titans head coach Jeff Fisher for looking for a spark. Collins rewarded Fisher’s faith with some sharp passing in the last-ditch comeback effort the Titans mounted late in the fourth quarter.
*Batch, who entered the game when Dixon suffered a knee injury, is a caretaker but nothing more. Still, we prefer him to Byron Leftwich, who has a slower delivery and is more likely to make a crucial mistake. Leftwich was cut before the game but is expected to be re-signed after it.
*The Steelers’ defense is still a scary unit, and the presence of Troy Polamalu takes it to another dimension. Polamalu had an end-zone interception that snuffed out a Tennessee scoring chance. It was one of a whopping seven turnovers the Steelers caused. Pittsburgh also created a ton of pressure up front, as James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and company were all over Young and Collins. Even more impressively, they kept RB Chris Johnson from breaking out, snapping his string of 12 straight 100-yard games.
*The Titans’ defensive line doesn’t get the credit that the Steelers’ does, but it is a solid unit that created pressure and did a nice job bottling up Rashard Mendenhall. Despite the Steelers’ banged-up offensive line that struggles over and over again, that’s still a credit to the Titans.
*Rob Bironas’ crazy middle on-side kick in the fourth quarter put him in the lead for crazy kicker of the week honors – even if it looked like it was drawn up by the Little Rascals, as Eric Stangel tweeted.
*Kevin Harlan, the CBS play-by-play man, is more detailed than anyone else on the national scene. At the same time, he communicates big moments both clearly and with excitement. He’s perhaps our favorite play-by-play guy on the national scene, and it was good to hear him in this one.
Fantasy Football Perspective
*We’re believers in both Hines Ward and Mike Wallace of the Steelers, but Dixon’s injury killed their value this week. Batch simply isn’t good enough at this advanced age to get them the ball. Fantasy owners have just two more games before Ben Roethlisberger returns, which will help both wideouts, but for now Ward and Wallace aren’t guys you can rely on comfortably.
*We don’t love Mendenhall as a No. 1 fantasy back, and this game showed why. Against a solid defense, he doesn’t have the breakaway speed to enhance his numbers. He ended this game with just 69 yards and a 3.0-yard-per-carry average. Plus, if Isaac Redmond gets goal-line carries (as he did late in the fourth quarter), Mendenhall’s stock slips a bit more. Mendenhall is a good but not great back who is in a great situation, and that’s why he has solid fantasy value. But don’t expect the spectacular from him. He’s a No. 2 fantasy back, not a fantasy franchise player.
*Don’t freak out about Chris Johnson’s so-so game. The Steelers’ defense is death on fantasy running backs, and the seven-turnover performance around him really hurt Johnson’s prospects in this game. It hurts to get just 34 yards from your No. 1 overall pick, but it’s not reason for concern at this point.
*Titans WR Nate Washington scored a touchdown for the second straight week, but given Tennessee’s uncertain QB situation, he’s still not a great investment for fantasy owners. Washington isn’t ownable except in the largest leagues.
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.
As NFL teams start full-contact practices in training camp, the injuries start piling up quickly. This post compares the significance of major training-camp injuries. Because training camp injuries are so prevalent, we’re only including injuries that will or could cost players regular-season time. We’ll update this post throughout training camp as the injuries add up.
For comparison of injuries during minicamp season, check out this post.
10 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – Dumervil stayed away from offseason work in Denver until he got a new contract, but just after he signed his $60-million-plus extension with $43 million in guaranteed money, he tore a pectoral muscle in training camp. He’ll miss four months, which takes him into the final quarter of the season and could lead the Broncos to put him on injured reserve. That’s a huge blow, because Dumervil developed into a premium pass rusher in Denver’s 3-4 defense last year. His 17 sacks were nearly half of the team’s 39, which is a statement about how good Dumervil was and how little other pass-rush help the team has. Without Dumervil, Denver’s 3-4 will undoubtedly struggle to pressure the passer, which will lead to more gimmick pass rushes that put more pressure on the secondary. For a team whose defense collapsed down the stretch, that’s a recipe for disaster. Now that Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have been shipped out, Dumervil was one of the two best players Denver had, and losing him is a massive blow that changes the course of Denver’s season. The fact that another of Denver’s elite guys, OLT Ryan Clady, is still trying to get back from an offseason torn patella tendon only makes the Broncos’ prospects bleaker.
9 – DE Ty Warren, Patriots – Warren, a seven-year veteran, has started all but one game he has played since his second season, and the former first-round pick has proven to be a durable and dependable defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 defense. However, a hip injury that required surgery forced Warren onto injured reserve, which means he will miss the 2010 season. While Warren isn’t a flashy player making a big statistical splash, his reliable presence allows the Pats to be creative in the linebacking corps. With Warren gone, the Patriots could miss Richard Seymour even more in 2010 than they did in 2009, as well as Jarvis Green, another recent departee.
8 – CB Domonique Foxworth, Ravens – Foxworth was the Ravens’ big signing at cornerback in 2009, and he started all 16 games with four interceptions last year. But he won’t start any games this year after tearing his ACL in the first practice of training camp. Losing a starter is always a big deal, but the Ravens losing a solid player like Foxworth in their biggest area of weakness is especially painful. The five-year vet says he’ll try to contribute to the team by participating in meetings and watching practices in an attempt to mentor Baltimore’s young corners, but the bottom line is that not having Foxworth on the field dampens the Ravens’ high hopes for the 2010 season a bit.
8 (con’t) – WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery was set to become the Rams’ No. 1 receiver once again, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in the Rams’ third preseason game, which will land him on injured reserve and end his season. The injury is a big blow to the Rams, because Avery (who had 100 catches over the past two years) is the only proven receiver on the Rams’ roster. The injury not only stymies a St. Louis attack that’s bereft of playmakers; it also makes it harder for rookie QB Sam Bradford to succeed because he has so few quality targets to look for.
7 – OLB Sergio Kindle, Ravens – Kindle, a second-round pick by the Ravens in this year’s draft, injured his head in a fall in a home in late July, and as a result he was not able to report to training camp. His college head coach, Mack Brown, has said that Kindle suffers from narcolepsy, which could explain the fall. Kindle is not cleared to leave Austin, Texas, while the swelling on his brain lessens, and as a result he likely won’t make it to Baltimore until after the Ravens break camp. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Ravens either placed Kindle on injured reserve or simply didn’t sign him until he’s healthy later this season or after 2010. The injury is a big loss, because we’re big believers in Kindle’s talents.
7 (con’t) – DE Phillip Merling, Dolphins – Merling suffered a torn Achilles in late July, just before camp opened, and it will cost him the entire 2010 season. Although he started only four games over his first two seasons, Merling was a sturdy run-stopper who figured into the mix at defensive end. Miami now needs first-rounder Jared Odrick to be an immediate contributor and veteran Charles Grant to adjust quickly to the 3-4 defense after years in the 4-3. Veteran Marques Douglas, like Grant a pre-camp signee, also adds depth.
7 (con’t) – CB Leigh Bodden, Patriots – In a surprising move, Bodden was placed on injured reserve at the end of August with a rotator cuff injury. Bodden played well for the Patriots last year as a starter, and the team will miss his physical presence out on the corner. Now the Patriots must rely on youngsters like Darius Butler and Devin McCourty to hold down the fort on the corner.
6 – RB Ben Tate, Texans – The Texans’ offense took a big hit when second-round pick Ben Tate suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Tate was slated to compete with Arian Foster as the Texans’ featured back, and Houston head coach Gary Kubiak has shown he likes to have a deep stable of running backs. Now that Tate’s out for the year, Houston will need Foster to become an every-down back and Steve Slaton to regain consistency as a third-down back. Tate’s injury is a blow to Houston’s prolific offense, and that offense is the reason the Texans have playoff hopes.
6 (con’t) – RB Montario Hardesty, Browns – Hardesty, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, was a chic pick to become the Browns’ starting running back. But he suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game that will cost him the entire season. It’s a blow to a Browns offense that has a solid line but a lack of playmakers.
5 – TE John Phillips, Cowboys – Phillips, a backup tight end who was emerging as a complete threat for the Cowboys, tore his ACL in the Hall of Fame game and will miss the season. Now that Phillips is out, Dallas needs Martellus Bennett to convert his potential into performance on a far more consistent basis to balance all-star Jason Witten.
5 (con’t) – RBs Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill, Saints – With Mike Bell leaving via free agency, Hamilton was slated to step into the backup running back role for the Saints behind Pierre Thomas. That was an important spot last year, because it allowed Reggie Bush to be a versatile threat and not a heavy-use runner. Now, with Hamilton gone for the year with a torn ACL, the Saints will need to add a back or give Bush more carries and hope he stays healthy. Hill bounced around as a rookie last year, and after Hamilton’s injury he may have been able to fight his way into a roster spot, but a left leg injury cost him the 2010 season as well.
5 (con’t) – WR Torry Holt, Patriots – Holt, the long-time Ram who was trying to hook on with New England this year to continue his career, suffered a knee injury that caused the Patriots to put him on injured reserve and end his season. This may be the end of the line for the seven-time Pro Bowler who was on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s, and if it is, he unfortunately ended with a whimper.
5 (con’t) – S Gibril Wilson, Bengals – Wilson has been viewed as the answer in Oakland and Miami the last couple of years, but he hasn’t played up to the level he showed in his first four pro seasons with the Giants. The Bengals were ready to give Wilson a try this year, but he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the second preseason game and will spend the season on injured reserve instead.
5 (con’t) – RB LenDale White, Broncos – White, who landed with Denver just after training camp began, had a nice preseason and looked to have a job locked down. But White suffered a torn Achilles in the preseason finale and will miss the season. White would have sat out the first four games of the year on a league-mandated suspension, but his injury takes away an option that the Broncos would have liked to have had.
4 – CB Walt Harris, Ravens – Harris, 35, was trying to prolong his career in Baltimore after missing the ’09 season with an ACL injury. But he couldn’t get healthy enough to practice, and that landed him on injured reserve with an ankle injury. It’s a shame, because after Domonique Foxworth’s injury, the Ravens could use Harris’ veteran wiles on the corner.
4 (con’t) – DT D’Anthony Smith, Jaguars – Smith, a defensive tackle expected to be a big part of the Jaguars’ rebuilt defensive line this year, tore his Achilles tendon and will likely miss the season. Smith, a third-round pick out of Louisiana Tech in April’s draft, was along with Tyson Alualu to add depth to an area that has been a weak spot since the glory days of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Now the Jags need guys like Terrence Knighton to step up alongside Alualu, who needs to be a premium player for Jax.
4 (con’t) – C Eric Heitmann, 49ers – Heitman has started all but two games for the 49ers since 2004, but he will miss at least the first month of the 2010 season with a broken leg he suffered in training camp. That’s a blow for a Niners team that invested so heavily in upgrading its offensive line this offseason. With Heitmann out, David Baas, who has started for the Niners but hasn’t played center since college, gets the first shot to step in.
4 (con’t) – ILB Donald Butler, Chargers – Butler, a third-round pick out of Washington in April’s draft, was contending for a starting spot in San Diego’s 3-4, but he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in early April. That’s a loss for the Chargers, who need stability at inside linebacker and don’t have a ton of depth there. Veteran Kevin Burnett now needs to hold up for a bunch of snaps for the Bolts.
4 (con’t) – ILB Andre Frazier, Steelers – Frazier, a five-year vet, had carved out a role as a backup inside linebacker in the Steelers’ vaunted 3-4 defense. But a knee injury will sideline Frazier for the season.
4 (con’t) – S Jamie Silva, Colts – Silva, an undrafted player three years ago, carved out a niche as a special-teamer with Indianapolis, both on coverage and also as a punt returner last year. But a knee injury in the preseason opener will halt Silva’s 2010 season before it begins.
4 (con’t) – WR Mike Furrey, Redskins – Furrey, one of the veterans the Redskins added in the offseason to provide depth in a sorry receiving corps, battled concussion symptoms throughout training camp and decided not to play the season. The issue could end his career, which as Pro Football Talk spelled out, is a unique one. He played both wide receiver and safety in the league, including playing both last season with the Browns. Not bad for a guy who had to fight his way into the league by playing in the Arena League.
4 (con’t) – WR Kerry Meier, Falcons – Meier, a rookie out of Kansas, looked to be winning a spot on the Falcons’ roster as a tall possession receiver, perhaps replacing long-time Falcon Brian Finneran. But the fifth-round pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game and will miss the season.
4 (con’t) – WR Marcus Easley and LB Danny Batten, Bills – Buffalo placed two of its 2010 draft picks on injured reserve on the same day. Easley, a fourth-rounder, suffered a knee injury in early August that required surgery, while Batten, a sixth-rounder, needed surgery for a training-camp shoulder issue. Both will miss the season.
3 – DT Chris Hovan, Rams – Hovan, a former star, was trying to prolong his career with the Rams, but a back injury landed him on injured reserve. He will miss the season and may be done for his career as well.
3 (con’t) – RB Brian Leonard, Bengals – Leonard turned into a solid third-down back for the Bengals last year, but in the Hall of Fame game he suffered a Listfranc injury for his foot. That’s a blow to the Bengals, who don’t have another back who can block, catch, and run at Leonard’s level. Bernard Scott will have to step up behind Leonard as the complement to Cedric Benson until Leonard returns, which the Bengals hope will happen at midseason.
3 (con’t) – ILB Scott McKillop, 49ers – McKillop was a backup last year as a rookie out of Pittsburgh, recording 15 tackles. But his second year stopped before it started when he blew out his ACL in a training-camp practice. With McKillop out, veteran Matt Wilhelm or rookie NaVarro Bowman will have to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
3 (con’t) – OLB Marcus Howard, Titans – Howard, who played in nine games with 1.5 sacks as a rookie last year, suffered a triceps injury in training camp that will cost him the 2010 season in Tennessee.
3 (con’t) – LB Jordon Dizon, Lions – Dizon, a second-round pick in Matt Millen’s last Detroit draft, hadn’t established himself as a starter but did play in every game last year for the Lions. He was slated for a backup role until he tore his ACL in mid-August; now he will miss the season.
3 (con’t) – P Dave Zastudil, Browns – Zastudil, an eight-year vet who has done a good job in unkind weather conditions in Cleveland, will spend the 2010 season on injured reserve because of a patella tendon injury that cost him the second half of last season as well. He will be replaced by Reggie Hodges, who filled in last year as well.
3 (con’t) – QB Charlie Frye, Raiders – Frye, who got a cameo as a starter in Oakland last year because of injuries, will miss the 2010 season with a wrist injury. But the loss isn’t a huge blow to the Raiders, because they have Bruce Gradkowski set behind new starter Jason Campbell, and Kyle Boller may be an upgrade over Frye at No. 3.
3 (con’t) – LB Freddy Keiaho, Jaguars – Keiaho, who was a starter for the Colts in ’07 and ’08 but fell out of the regular lineup last year, was trying to regain relevance in Jacksonville. But a concussion in the preseason opener landed him on injured reserve.
3 (con’t) – WR Jaymar Johnson, Vikings – Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2008, played as a fifth receiver in ’09, but he had a chance at more playing time this year, especially early, given the health issues of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. But Tarvaris Jackson’s former college teammate suffered a broken thumb that will cost him the season, further depleting Minnesota’s receiving corps.
3 (con’t) – QB Byron Leftwich, Steelers – Leftwich, who was battling with Dennis Dixon to be the Steelers’ starter in the first four games of the season while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended, suffered an MCL injury in the preseason finale. It’s a two-to-four week injury that takes Leftwich out of consideration to start the season opener and may take away his starting shot entirely.
2 – ILB A.J. Edds, Dolphins – Edds, a fourth-round pick out of Iowa, suffered a torn ACL in an early-August camp practice and will miss the season. Edds was expected to find a role on passing downs at inside linebacker in Miami’s 3-4. The injury is a blow to Miami and a blow to a rookie trying to earn a gig in the NFL.
2 (con’t) – DT John Gill, Colts – Gill, a second-year player, had a shot to win a rotation spot at defensive tackle for the Colts, but he will be sidelined as he deals with an alcohol problem. The team has placed Gill on the non-football injury list.
2 (con’t) – RB Harvey Unga, Bears – Chicago spent a seventh-round pick in the summer supplemental draft on Unga, who had a nice career at BYU. But when he struggled in training camp, a roster spot appeared like a long shot, so the Bears took advantage of a hamstring injury to put Unga on injured reserve and get a full offseason with him in 2011.
2 (con’t) – RB Stafon Johnson, Titans – Johnson’s feel-good story took a nasty turn when the undrafted rookie suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Johnson, a starter at USC who suffered a catastrophic throat injury during a weighlifting session when the bar fell on his throat, was trying to return to the field, but this injury makes the NFL an impossibility this year and even more of an improbability going forward. Johnson deserves better luck.
1 – RB-KR Kory Sheets, Dolphins – Sheets tore his Achilles tendon in a non-contact drill and will miss the season. He was contending to be the Dolphins’ primary kickoff returner. The Purdue product played in two games in his rookie season in ’09.
1 (con’t) – CB Evan Oglesby, Dolphins – Oglesby, who played one game for Miami last year, will miss the season with a left leg injury that landed him on injured reserve.
1 (con’t) – LB Darnell Bing, Texans – Bing, who spent the last two years in Detroit, was trying to make the Texans, but instead he will spend the season on injured reserve.
Who do you trust? When it comes to fantasy football, trust is a huge issue. A dependable every-week starter is like gold, because he can limit lineup decisions, matchup questions, and heartburn.
In this post, we’re going to identify which wide receivers you can trust as starters on a weekly basis this year. This exercise will help us identify the top 15-20 players at the position. We’ve already identified three elite WRs and six more who are just below that level. Now we’re starting at WR 10 and seeing who’s dependable and who’s not. We’ll do this using our applaud or a fraud tool, and as we do, we’ll indicate whether receivers are a part of the bottom of Tier 2, Tier 3, or the top of Tier 4. Wideouts are listed alphabetically.
Anquan Boldin, Ravens – We assessed Boldin’s new situation in Baltimore in this post and said that his numbers will rise in ’09. Considering that he had 84 catches for 1,024 yards and five total touchdowns, that’s a big statement. But we expect Boldin to take over for Derrick Mason as the Ravens’ No. 1 option and to develop a nice rapport with maturing QB Joe Flacco. Boldin fits at the bottom of Tier 2 as a top-12 receiver in his new home in Baltimore. Verdict: Applaud
Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After two solid seasons, Bowe had a star-crossed season last year, drawing a four-game suspension from the league at one point and falling out of favor with his own team at other times. At this point, Chris Chambers, not Bowe, may be the No. 1 receiving option in Arrowhead. That doesn’t mean that Chambers has more fantasy value than Bowe, but it does mean that Bowe slips to No. 3 fantasy receiver status. There’s just too much risk to depend on him for more than that. He’s a nice upside play at the bottom of Tier 3, but investing more is just too risky. Verdict: A fraud
Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant is clearly the top rookie receiver, but is he a dependable starter for fantasy teams? With Miles Austin on board as an elite receiver, we see Bryant as more of a 60-catch, 800-yard receiver than a guy with huge numbers. Bryant’s explosive enough to score 8-10 touchdowns on that quantity of touches, but that’s a bit of a risky expectation. Bryant’s training camp ankle injury, which shouldn’t linger into the season, also adds to the risk because it could slow Bryant’s development. But we still like Dez’s upside. So slot Bryant in as a No. 3 fantasy receiver, not a starter, so that you can enjoy his upside instead of fretting about rookie inconsistency. Verdict: A fraud
Marques Colston, Saints – The only reason Colston doesn’t join the top-9 receivers is that he plays for an offense that spreads the ball around. Still, with 70 catches last year, Colston piled up 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite the presence of other threats like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, Colston is clearly the Saints’ best option, and that should translate to 70-75 catches again. With those numbers, he’ll once again produce plenty for fantasy owners to merit a top-12 spot among fantasy receivers and a comfortable spot on Tier 2. Verdict: Applaud
Michael Crabtree, 49ers – A lengthy holdout kept Crabtree off the field for the first five games of his rookie season, but he still finished up with 48 catches for 625 yards and two scores. That 70-catch, 900-yard pace is quite impressive for a rookie. With a full year of training camp and offseason work under his belt, Crabtree should take a step forward and become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the 49ers. While Vernon Davis will remain a red-zone threat, Crabtree should develop into a 1,000-yard receiver who is a No. 2 fantasy receiver who has the upside to be even more. He slides onto the bottom of Tier 2 because of that upside. Verdict: Applaud
Donald Driver, Packers – Greg Jennings has surpassed Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver, but Driver has still been in the 70-catch area the last two seasons in that role, and he’s proven he can be a 1,000-yard receiver in this situation. So expecting 1,000 yards and six touchdowns is wise, even as Driver enters his 12th pro season. Those numbers will put Driver on Tier 3 and make Driver a potential fantasy starter in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud
Percy Harvin, Vikings – Harvin had a pretty remarkable rookie season. While we expected him to be a triple threat receiving, rushing, and returning (as he was), we didn’t expect him to be as polished a receiver as he proved to be. Brett Favre looked for Harvin in the red zone, leading to six touchdown catches (to go with two kickoff returns for scores). But the 60-catch, 790-yard receiving line was surprising, and it makes sense that Harvin will improve those numbers in his second season. Sidney Rice is still the best fantasy option in the Vikings’ receiving corps, but Harvin is a Tier 3 player with big upside. If you wanted to start Harvin in a 12-team league, we wouldn’t argue because of that potential. Verdict: Applaud
Santonio Holmes, Jets – We discussed Holmes’ new home in the Big Apple in this post, making the clear assertion that Holmes’ numbers will sink because of the four-game suspension he faces as the season opens. But it’s important for fantasy owners to remember that Holmes is coming off a terrific season with 79 catches for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns. He has come into his own as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for an NFL team, and he’ll have the chance to do that with the Jets. Once he gets on the field, he’ll put up fantasy starter numbers. That causes us to put him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud
Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Like Holmes, Jackson is also facing a suspension to begin the season, though his is just three games. But VJax is also threatening to hold out until the final six games of the season, which would obviously be a huge negative for fantasy owners. We’ll set the holdout issue aside for now as we evaluate him to show how clearly Jackson is a top-12 fantasy receiver. With 68 catches for 1,187 yards and nine touchdowns last season, Jackson proved he was a reliable fantasy starter who could anchor a fantasy receiving corps. Whenever Jackson returns to the field, he’ll be an automatic starter. He’s a Tier 2 receiver for now, but if the holdout issue isn’t rectified by the time you draft, move Jackson to the bottom of Tier 3 as a precaution. Still, he’s worth a draft pick no matter what his status is. Verdict: Applaud
Greg Jennings, Packers – After a phenomenal ’08 season, Jennings stepped back just a bit in ’09, going from 80 catches to 68 and from nine touchdowns to four. That limited Jennings’ fantasy impact, but he still was a valuable player with 1,113 yards. Despite that fall, we’re bullish on Jennings’ 2010 prospects, expecting him to put up starting-quality numbers on a weekly basis. We’re putting him on Tier 2 once again and expecting him to be a solid if not sure-fire fantasy starter in all leagues. Verdict: Applaud
Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Ochocinco had a renaissance year in his first year with his new game, scoring nine touchdowns on 72 catches with 1,047 yards. Those numbers are more reasonable expectations for 8-5 than the 90-catch level he had for five years between ’03 and ’07. Even with Terrell Owens and rookie Jermaine Gresham in town, Ochocinco is still the Bengals’ best target, and he should hit 70 catches and 1,000 yards once again. There is some downside because of age and the targets around him, but Ochocinco is still a good investment at the top of Tier 3 as a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud
Terrell Owens, Bengals – While Ochocinco is a good bet in Cincy, T.O. isn’t as good an option for fantasy owners. Owens is starting to slow, and although his 55-catch 2009 season was partly a product of the Bills’ terrible quarterbacks, Owens’ decline was an issue as well. We expect Owens to be in the 55-60 catch area this year as well, and that means he’s a Tier 4 receiver and a backup for fantasy owners. Get your popcorn ready, but don’t try to make a full meal out of what should be a snack. Verdict: A fraud
Sidney Rice, Vikings – Back in the old days when I worked at Pro Football Weekly (the late 90s), traditional wisdom held that most receivers broke out as fantasy performers in their third season. That’s what Rice did, going from 46 catches in his first two years combined to a terrific 83-catch, 1,312-yard, eight-touchdown season. Rice is a big receiver who isn’t superfast but who has enough speed to get downfield, and he and Brett Favre developed a great rapport. Rice is the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver, and he’s a legitimate fantasy starter on Tier 2. With Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings are more set at wide receiver than they’ve been since the Cris Carter/Randy Moss glory years. Verdict: Applaud
Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker emerged last year as Jacksonville’s top wideout, and his end-of-season numbers – 63 catches for 869 yards and seven scores – were great helps to fantasy owners. Aside from being made inactive on game day against Seattle, Sims-Walker was a dependable threat for the first two-thirds of the season. A warning sign, though, was the fact that he had two catches or fewer in four of his last five games. That inconsistency is enough for us to put Sims-Walker on Tier 3 instead of Tier 2, but we still believe he’s a good bet as a fantasy starter in leagues with 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud
Steve Smith, Giants – Like Sidney Rice, Smith was a third-year breakout player, putting up a whopping 107 catches for 1,220 yards with seven touchdowns. He emerged as the lead receiver in a talented Giants receiving corps that includes Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. Smith isn’t the biggest receiver, but his dependable hands make him a stalwart going forward, and that’s going to pay off for fantasy owners. While 100-plus catches is an outlier season, expecting 80 catches for 1,000 yards from Smith is safe, and that makes him a valuable fantasy starter atop Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud
Steve Smith, Panthers – The other Steve Smith had a down season in Carolina, although a lot of that was due to the horrendous quarterback play Jake Delhomme provided for most of the season. Still, Smith produced 65 catches for 982 yards and seven touchdowns. Now Smith must break in Matt Moore as his starting quarterback, and that could limit his numbers again. Plus, an offseason flag-football broken arm is hampering his offseason work. But despite all those issues, Smith is still a fantasy starter who should be in the 70-catch range with around 1,000 yards and 6-8 touchdowns. Draft him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud
Hines Ward, Steelers – We addressed how the changing situation around Ward affects him in this post. What we can’t neglect to mention is how good Ward’s numbers were last season – 95 catches, 1,167 yards, six touchdowns. And now that Santonio Holmes is a Jet, Ward is once again the Steelers’ clear No. 1 receiver. That means Ward is a dependable fantasy option once again, at least once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. The fact that Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will throw to Ward for the first month of the season keeps Ward off Tier 2, but we’ll include him on Tier 3 as an acceptable starter for fantasy owners. Figure on 80 catches for 1,000 yards and enjoy Ward’s production in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud
Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker has been a catch machine since joining the Patriots, and his 123-catch season last year was his third straight with more than 110. His 1,348 yards was a career high as well. Sure, Welker had only five touchdowns, but he was still a reliable point producer week after week for fantasy owners. Then came the injury, as Welker tore his ACL in the season finale. His recovery has been amazing, as Welker is already back at practice, and it appears Welker will be on the field to start the season. Of course, knee injuries often hinder production for the first year players are on the field, and so Welker still has question marks. But his quick recovery makes Welker a fantasy starter on Tier 3. It’s a remarkable comeback for a remarkable player. Verdict: Applaud
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 AFC edition; the NFC edition is available here.
Buffalo is reloading – This isn’t the wisest approach, because the Bills didn’t have enough premium talent and haven’t been contenders. But instead of churning the roster in search of better players in the first year of Chan Gailey’s tenure as head coach, the Bills have largely stuck to the status quo this offseason. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm are still the quarterback options, and the Bills haven’t rebuilt an offensive line that struggled last year. The main additions – DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis – were designed to help the Bills move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. And the first round of the draft yielded a specialty player in C.J. Spiller whose best role is as a featured gamebreaker, not an every-down back. The Bills seem to be in denial about how lacking in talent they truly are, especially on offense. Verdict: Wrong approach
Miami is reloading – The Dolphins are closer to the surface than the Bills are, and so their decision to reload makes more sense. Trading for WR Brandon Marshall and signing OLB Karlos Dansby are the kinds of big strikes that teams close to the playoffs make to try to get over the top. The Marshall acquisition makes sense, since Chad Henne shows a ton of promise at quarterback and the offensive line is good enough to provide time for Henne-to-Marshall to become an elite combo. Dansby doesn’t make up for the loss of veteran pass rushers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but he is a playmaker who perfectly fits the Bill Parcells prototype. It’s hard to say whether these moves will put the Dolphins over the top, but we are comfortable asserting that the arrow is pointed in the right direction. Verdict: Right approach
New England is rebuilding – There’s a stigma to the word rebuilding, because often teams use it as a synonym for giving up. But it’s possible to rebuild without giving up, and that’s the Pats’ approach right now. While they’ve added veterans like Torry Holt, Gerard Warren, and Damione Lewis to fill bit roles, the larger picture shows that New England is trying to infuse youth into its defense with guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes, and into its offense with guys like Rob Gronkowski and Taylor Price. These are the players that will determine whether Bill Belichick’s second decade in New England gets off to a good start. But given the age of New England’s offensive and defensive fronts, rebuilding on the fly in the past two offseasons has been the right call. Verdict: Right approach
New York Jets are reloading – There’s not a team in the NFL headed in a win-now direction more than the Jets are right now. Their offseason additions are littered with veterans like Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor, all of whom are proven vets who should step in a lot quicker than draft picks would have. While draft picks Kyle Wilson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Joe McKnight should find roles quickly, it’s the veterans that will determine whether the Jets can get one step further and into the Super Bowl this season. Verdict: Right approach
Baltimore is reloading – The Ravens always do a good job in the draft, and that steady talent infusion over the years has put the franchise in position to keep things pointed in the right direction. But this year, the Ravens put the reloading into overdrive by trading for WR Anquan Boldin, who provides the No. 1 receiver the team has been missing since its move to Baltimore. While rookies Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones add depth on defense, the Boldin move is the one that sets the tone that this franchise is going for glory now. We can’t blame the Ravens for taking that tack. Verdict: Right approach
Cincinnati is reloading – Coming off the second division title of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals are looking to fill in holes and keep positive momentum. Antonio Bryant is supposed to be the complement to Chad Ochocinco that Cincy was missing without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and if he can’t perhaps Matt Jones or rookie Jordan Shipley or even first-round TE Jermaine Gresham can. In the draft, the Bengals continued to take talented guys with question marks in Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Ghee, and both are good enough to fill roles right away. And taking a shot on the talented but troubled Pacman Jones is the ultimate win-now move. The Bengals know they have something going, and so they’re going for it. Verdict: Right approach
Cleveland is rebuilding – The Browns know they’re in need of serious changes, as the hiring of Mike Holmgren in the offseason proved. So the team has made wholesale changes, not just at quarterback where Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy arrive, but across the roster. Veterans CB Sheldon Brown, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and OT Tony Pashos will help stabilize problem areas, but the team knows they’re not long-term solutions. Instead, the Browns are looking to build around youngsters like Joe Thomas and first-rounder Joe Haden as they try to start a new era in Cleveland. Verdict: Right approach
Pittsburgh is reloading – The Steelers have had a tumultous offseason, but the roster moves they’ve made are a sign that they still consider themselves contenders. Bringing back WR Antwaan Randle El, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, and QB Byron Leftwich shows that they don’t want much of a learning curve at work in training camp, and drafting C Maurkice Pouncey shows that they wanted immediate help in the first round. The approach is risky, but given how recently the Steelers won the Super Bowl, you can’t blame them for getting the band back together for one last hurrah. They can only hope that the Ben Roethlisberger issues don’t break up the band. Verdict: Right approach
Houston is reloading – The Texans are coming off their first winning season, and their offseason approach demonstrates that they think more is in the offing. Unhappy CB Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but first-rounder Kareem Jackson can step in and start. He used the same terminology in college that he will in Houston, and that will ease his transition. The Texans kept WR Kevin Walter and added rookie Ben Tate to a RB group that was problematic at times last year. These moves preserve the status quo and give the Texans a chance to build on their modest ’09 success. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the status quo scenario work. Verdict: Right approach
Indianapolis is reloading – The Colts made a few more changes than normal, letting DE Raheem Brock, CBs Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, and OG Ryan Lilja go, but in terms of additions they continued to do what they usually do and build through the draft. Sometimes Indy’s rookies contribute immediately, but more often it’s the second- and third-year players who start to flourish the longer they’re in the system. When a team gets that approach going, the smartest thing to do is to keep the train rolling. And since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian are such good conductors, the train continues to roll along. Verdict: Right approach
Jacksonville is reloading – The Jaguars have a long cut list this offseason, but aside from DT John Henderson none of them were core players. Meanwhile, the Jaguars signed veteran DE Aaron Kampman and traded for MLB Kirk Morrison to add veteran experience to the front seven. On offense, it’s status quo, as the Jags rely on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and a young corps of receivers and linemen. This team was barely on the cusp of contention last year, so reloading seems like a strange course, and the success depends on whether Garrard can be a top-10 NFL quarterback or just a league average starter. We’re skeptical, and so we disagree. Verdict: Wrong approach
Tennessee is rebuilding – The Titans embarked on a rebuilding project by saying goodbye to stalwarts like Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They also seem to be willing to let Kevin Mawae go. That means youngsters like Derrick Morgan and Rennie Curran will need to take on bigger roles. With Vince Young at the helm and Chris Johnson on the run, the Titans now have a young offensive corps, and they’re trying to move the same way on defense. That makes sense, even though holes in the secondary make it appear like the rebuilding project isn’t yet done. Verdict: Right approach
Denver is rebuilding – The Broncos continue to chase away the vestiges of Mike Shanahan’s era and move to Josh McDaniels’ desired future. So at wide receiver, Brandon Marshall is out and Demaryius Thomas is in. At quarterback, Jay Cutler is long gone, and Tim Tebow is on the horizon. On the offensive line, Ben Hamilton is gone and Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are in. Meanwhile, the defensive overhaul continues as the Broncos tried to supplement the new 3-4 defense that fell apart in the second half of last year with NT Jamal Williams, DE Jarvis Green, and ILB Akin Ayodele. At some point, Denver will have to spend its highest draft picks on defense to make the rebuilding project stick. But at this point, McDaniels has changed so much that there’s nothing the Broncos can do but go all out on their rebuild. Verdict: Right approach
Kansas City is rebuilding – The Chiefs still have a long way to go in the rebuilding project that began last offseason and that now continues this offseason. S Eric Berry is the prize of this year’s crew, with fellow SEC products Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas also slated to become key contributors. Most of the veteran additions, notably Ryan Lilja and Thomas Jones, are designed to keep the Chiefs from being abysmal as the talent infusion takes effect. There’s still a long way to go in Chiefs land, but at least they’re on the right path. Verdict: Right approach
Oakland is reloading – The Raiders never admit that they’re in the doldrums, but it actually makes some sense this offseason. The defense has a lot of good pieces, and adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston in the draft and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves via trades should help the front seven’s performance go up a level. But the biggest change is on offense, where Jason Campbell gives the Silver and Black a qualified pro quarterback who will prepare and take advantage of the talent outside. Campbell’s not great, but he’s better than average, and that should allow Oakland to make the most of its other talents. A run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question, and that makes just win, baby, the right approach – finally – for the Raiders. Verdict: Right approach
San Diego is reloading – The Chargers know that they have talent, and so they once again used the offseason to get pieces that will push them over the top. Paying a ransom for first-round RB Ryan Mathews demonstrates this approach, and the Chargers also added cornerback depth with Nathan Vasher, who knows coordinator Ron Rivera’s system. Is it enough for a team that’s been on the cusp a painfully long time? Reloading as the Chargers are is the only way they’re going to find out. Verdict: Right approach