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Rise/Sink/Float – WRs in new places

As we continue our fantasy football preparation for 2010, we’re going to analyze players with new teams and predict whether their 2010 numbers will rise above, sink below, or float alongside their 2009 production. In this post, we cover running backs. We covered quarterbacks and running backs, and we’ll cover tight ends in a subsequent post.

WR Brandon Marshall, Dolphins – Marshall has been a 100-catch receiver in each of the last three seasons, and despite his problems with Broncos despot Josh McDaniels Marshall notched 1,120 yards and a career-best 10 touchdowns. Now he moves to Miami to become the Dolphins’ unquestioned No. 1 receiver. While Miami isn’t the pass-happy offense that Denver has had over the past few years, Marshall will get enough chances to notch at least 80 catches, and his yards-per-catch average should go up in Miami’s offense. Plus, emerging QB Chad Henne is more talented than Denver’s Kyle Orton, which bodes well for Marshall’s future. We continue to view Marshall as a top-10 fantasy wideout whose stock won’t suffer in his new home. Verdict: Float

WR Anquan Boldin, Ravens – Boldin has won fans for his toughness (especially after playing with a broken face) and also for his production. He’s averaged a whopping 6.17 catches per game over his career, so even in seasons when he’s missed a handful of games he’s been productive. Boldin’s never been a huge yards-per-catch guy, nor has he been a consistent touchdown machine, but the fact that Larry Fitzgerald was the bigger big-play threat of the former Cardinals duo may play a role in that. In Baltimore, Boldin pairs with Derrick Mason, a solid receiver who isn’t nearly the threat that Fitzgerald is. That may mean Boldin gets more attention, but it should also mean that the Ravens look to Boldin for more big plays and more in the end zone. Our guess is that Boldin’s fantasy stock makes him only a borderline No. 1 fantasy receiver somewhere between 12 and 15 at the position, which is where he has been in recent years. But now there’s upside that Boldin could move into the top 6 at the position. For that reason, we sense an ever-so-slight rise. Verdict: Rise

WR Antonio Bryant, Bengals – Bryant came out of nowhere as a No. 1 receiver in Tampa Bay in 2008, but last year as a franchise player he missed three games, fell out of favor, and finished with just 600 receiving yards and four touchdowns. After the season, he moved as a free agent to Cincinnati, where the Bengals hope he will do better than Laveranues Coles did last year in replaced T.J. Houshmandzadeh as Chad Ochocinco’s running mate. Bryant, who averaged 15 yards a catch last year, could also replace some of the vertical plays that the Bengals missed after the late Chris Henry’s injury last season. That’s traditionally been a pretty productive spot, and even though the Bengals have focused more on the running game, we see Bryant’s stock ticking upward this year. He should be a borderline No. 3 receiver in normal-sized leagues, which makes him a better buy than he ended up being last year. Verdict: Rise

WR Nate Burleson, Lions – Burleson didn’t get a ton of pub in Seattle, but he had a nice season last year. Despite missing three games, he totaled 63 catches for 812 yards with three scores. Now Burleson moves to Detroit on a big-time contract to provide a second option behind Calvin Johnson for young QB Matthew Stafford. But before you get too high on Burleson, note a couple of things. First, Burleson’s only surpassed 50 catches twice in his career, and he’s not traditionally a big-play receiver. So Burleson becomes a nice fill-in who’s a decent No. 4 fantasy wideout, but his stock isn’t much more than that. Our sense is that’s about what Burleson was at the end of last season, which means his stock is merely floating. Verdict: Float

WR Santonio Holmes, Jets – First things first: Holmes will have to serve a four-game suspension to start the season. That depresses his stock for fantasy owners. But on the field, Holmes emerged as a legitimate No. 2 fantasy receiver over the past two years, as his 79-catch, 1,248-yard 2009 campaign demonstrates. By moving to New York, Holmes moves to a more inexperienced quarterback in Mark Sanchez, and that could limit his per-game numbers to some degree. But in a contract year, we believe Holmes will perform at a similar level to his ’09 numbers once the second half of the season dawns. We put far more fantasy stock in Holmes than in fellow contract-year wideout Braylon Edwards among Jets wideouts. Holmes’ value falls from last year’s levels because of the suspension, but keep him on your draft board in search of midseason value. (FYI: We’ll have a post later this summer on how to deal with suspended players on your draft board.) Verdict: Sink

WR Ted Ginn, 49ers – Ginn never emerged as the big-play threat the Dolphins hoped he would after he was a first-round pick in the ’07 draft, and so now he looks for a fresh start in San Francisco. The 49ers aren’t known for their passing game, but with Alex Smith returning and Michael Crabtree emerging, that could be changing. If so, Ginn fits in as a big-play threat who can fill in as a No. 5 fantasy receiver. His stock isn’t what it was last year, but he’s worth leaving on your draft board as a late-round upside play. Verdict: Sink

WR Donte Stallworth, Ravens – Stallworth, who missed the entire ’09 season as result of a deadly traffic accident, returns to play for his fifth team. Stallworth has talent and speed, but he’s never put all his skills together. That has led to him being consistently overrated by fantasy owners. This year, Stallworth is fighting for the Ravens’ No. 3 receiver job, which would put him behind Boldin and Mason. That’s actually a role he can thrive in, because Stallworth has deep-ball skills. His upside is probably a stat line like he had in Philly in 2006 (38 catches, 725 yards, 19.1 yards per catch average, five touchdowns). That’s enough to make him worth a flier as a No. 5 fantasy receiver. Since he has fantasy value once again, we’re categorizing him as a riser. Verdict: Rise

WRs Mike Furrey and Bobby Wade, Redskins – Furrey hasn’t had much offensive production since his Mike Martz Detroit days in ’06 and ’07, but in Washington he at least has a chance of becoming a possessions receiver. Wade, who’s had at least 33 catches in each of the last four seasons despite playing for three teams, has that chance as well. Our guess is that one of them becomes a secondary option for the Redskins and gains some value. That means they both float as waiver-wire pickups in fantasy leagues. Verdict: Float

WR Kassim Osgood, Jaguars – Osgood was a special-teams dynamo in San Diego who always longed for an offensive role. But he had just five catches over the past five years with the Bolts. Now in Jacksonville, Osgood structured a contract with incentives if he emerges as a receiver. Chances are he won’t, but the Jaguars’ receiving corps is soft enough that there’s room for Osgood to emerge. He’s nothing more than a late-round supersleeper, but that’s at least worth mentioning. Verdict: Rise

Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle of the Steelers, Matt Jones of the Bengals, and David Patten of the Patriots are veterans with little to no fantasy value this year who had equivalent value last year.

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Filed under Fantasy Football, Football Relativity, Rise/Sink/Float

Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Wide Receivers

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. You can check out the running backs here and the quarterbacks in an upcoming post.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a receiver, that means someone projected get at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, or the equivalent in fantasy points. The A-Team at receiver includes players on Tier 1A, 1B, and 1C of our draft board.

No-brainers

Andre Johnson, Texans – Johnson put up his second straight 1,500 yard season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns in ’09. He’s a catch monster who has triple-digit receptions in three of the past four seasons, and last season he hit the century mark yet still averaged 15.5 yards per catch. The touchdown total is perhaps a tad lower than ideal, but it’s still a no-brainer to make Johnson the top-rated wideout and a member of the A-Team as a Tier 1B entrant.

Close calls

Randy Moss, Patriots – For all of his accomplishments, Moss isn’t the yardage producer that Johnson is. Moss has only broken the 1,500-yard mark once in his career, and that was back in 2003 with the Vikings. But Moss is the best receiver in the league at finding the end zone. He’s had an eye-popping nine double-digit touchdown seasons in his 12-year career, including all three of his campaigns in New England. At age 33, Moss could start slowing down a bit, and if his touchdown rate slows he can quickly plummet down draft boards, but given his sterling performance in New England and his contract-year motivation, we’ll include Moss as a Tier 1C receiver and part of the position’s A-Team.

Miles Austin, Cowboys – In one of the most shocking breakouts we’ve ever seen, Austin went from being a fourth receiver for the Cowboys to being an undeniable No. 1 receiver. It started with a 10-catch, 250-yard day against Kansas City in Dallas’ fifth game, but Austin kept it up over the rest of the season and finished with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but even more eye-popping is what Austin did over the last 12 games, which projects to a 101-catch, 1,652-yard, 13-touchdown pace over a full 16-game season. Nothing else in Austin’s background or career suggested this kind of fantasy dominance, so the call on him for 2010 comes down to whether he can maintain this top-level production despite the presence of Roy Williams and rookie Dez Bryant, among others. And our take is that Austin will do just that. We’re including Austin on the A-Team and making him our No. 3 receiver overall as a guy who ekes above Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne on his way to Tier 1.

Just missed

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – After two 1,400-yard seasons, Fitzgerald came back to earth a little in ’09 with 1,092 yards. But he did have a career high in touchdowns with 13, leaving him with A-Team quality numbers once again. The questions about Fitzgerald are not about his talent but about his quarterback, with Matt Leinart replacing Kurt Warner. That figures to put a bit of a drag on Fitz’s numbers, which is just enough to knock him off the A-Team. We’d rather draft Fitzgerald as a Tier 2 receiver with upside than overdraft him by including him on the top tier.

Reggie Wayne, Colts – We’ve long included Wayne as a Tier 1 receiver, but the numbers don’t consistently back that up. Last year was only the fourth of his career with 1,200 yards and at least nine touchdowns, and he’s never had more than 12 touchdowns while only passing 1,310 yards once. That keeps him from having the upside potential that Moss has because of touchdowns or Johnson has because of yards. Plus, the emergence of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon last year meant that the Colts aren’t looking at Wayne as often. So Wayne falls to Tier 2 instead joining the A-Team.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles – After a solid rookie season, Jackson blew up last year in a big way, with nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns (9 receiving, 1 rushing, and 2 on punt returns). There may not be a player in the league more prone to bust a big play than Jackson, who averaged an amazing 18.6 yards per catch last season. Jackson’s catch total won’t blow your mind, but he should be in the 1,200-yard-from-scrimmage neighborhood again this season, and if he can score 10 touchdowns or more he’ll be a Tier 1 producer. But with the Eagles changing from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, we can’t quite project Jackson to fully reach his upside, even though we’re tempted to do so. For now, we’ll keep Jackson near the top of Tier 2, and we’ll reserve the right to move him onto the A Team at a later date.

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson has perhaps the best physical gifts of any receiver in the league, and so fantasy owners drool over his potential year after year. That potential hasn’t changed, and Megatron’s 2008 campaign with 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns points to it. But last year, Johnson had just 1,057 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. He missed two games, which plays into things, and rookie Matthew Stafford struggled with injuries and interceptions as a rookie. So it wasn’t all Johnson’s fault. But while Johnson has the upside to join Tier 1, there are enough minor hiccups around him that he falls just below that mark. Maybe Megatron will transform into a no-doubt A-Teamer in 2010, but we can’t project him there right now.

Brandon Marshall, Dolphins – Marshall has passed the century mark in catches the last three years, and last year he scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time. But while his Denver numbers were just enough to match Tier 1 performance, it’s hard to project him reaching the same heights in his new home in Miami. The Dolphins’ more conservative offense should leave Marshall closer to 80 catches than 100, and that puts him on Tier 2. While there’s no player more fitting of being BA on our A-Team, the numbers don’t justify casting Marshall in that role.

Roddy White, Falcons – Since his breakout 2007 season, White has been a consistent fantasy producer, piling up at least 1,151 yards in each season and topping out with 11 touchdowns last season. But even with the development of QB Matt Ryan, White’s upside seems to be right around the borderline for Tier 1. And inclusion in the A-Team can’t rely solely on the best-case scenario. White is a quality fantasy receiver who fits well on Tier 2, but he’s not among the elite.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2010 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Tim Tebow and the value of intangibles, the Jimmy Clausen conundrum, how killer C.J. Spiller is, whether it was worth it for the teams that traded out of the first round this year, the guys we like (Jermaine Gresham on offense and Sergio Kindle and Eric Norwood on defense), and our research on what offensive positions and defensive positions are most likely to produce a superstar at the top of the draft.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Rams – QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
The Rams have passed on quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan the past two years, and so it’s no surprise that St. Louis has one of the most desperate quarterback situations in the league. With Marc Bulger now gone, St. Louis needs a quarterback to build around. Plus, with new ownership coming in this offseason, having a franchise quarterback that will sell tickets and, more importantly, hope is a good business strategy. So for all the off-the-field reasons, Bradford makes sense. But does he make sense on the field? We say yes. Bradford is tall (6-foot-4), and he’s put on enough wait in the offseason to make you believe he can stand up to a pounding. He can really throw the ball well despite his ’09 injuries, and he can pair in St. Louis with OLT Jason Smith (last season’s No. 2 overall pick) to begin to build a core on offense. And while the rest of the offensive line and the receiving corps is still painfully thin, Bradford can lean on Steven Jackson in 2010 to keep from being completely shell-shocked. The Rams have to take a quarterback soon to begin the building process, and Bradford checks all the boxes for a franchise-type guy. Taking a quarterback in the top 3 is always a risk, but Bradford is a risk the Rams simply must take.

2. Lions – DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Suh is quite possibly the best player in this year’s draft, and the Lions can afford to take him because they already have taken their shot at a quarterback by picking Matthew Stafford last year. With Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions have the makings of promise on offense, and now it’s time to start building on defense. Last year’s draft yielded two above-average defensive starters in OLB DeAndre Levy and S Louis Delmas, and Suh will become a playmaker on the interior of the defensive line. Suh can stuff the run, but even more he can penetrate into the backfield and create havoc as well. That combination is rare, and it’s what makes Suh such a great prospect for the Lions. He’ll roar in Detroit.

3. Buccaneers – DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
McCoy is above Suh on some draft boards, and the Oklahoma product has a more flash-forward style than Suh. That makes many scouts imagine McCoy as a new-era Warren Sapp, a three-technique defensive tackle that puts the teeth in the Tampa-2. Not nearly as many teams run that 4-3 zone-coverage scheme anymore, but the Buccaneers still do, and McCoy can make that scheme work. That, plus the fact that the Bucs drafted QB Josh Freeman in the first round last year, and plus the fact that the Bucs’ offensive line is at least average with a young player in Donald Penn at left tackle, makes whoever’s left between Suh and McCoy the logical and smart choice for Tampa Bay. McCoy could make an instant impact for the Bucs, and this franchise needs impact at any position in the worst way.

4. Redskins – OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma
After trading for Donovan McNabb, it’s obvious that the Redskins’ biggest need is now at left tackle. Chris Samuels is gone, and if Washington doesn’t get some help there, McNabb won’t make it through the season. So the question isn’t position but player for the Redskins. Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung is solid, but his upside is perhaps capped a bit. Other linemen like Williams and Anthony Davis of Rutgers are more talented and promising but far less consistent. Ultimately, the choice will come down to Okung and Williams, and we’ll break from the pack and pencil in Williams at this spot. Shanahan’s best offenses in Denver were stout at left tackle with Gary Zimmerman and Ryan Clady, and we should see the new Redskins boss take the same approach in Washington now. And since he trusts his coaching staff to get the most out of linemen, he’ll peg the third Oklahoma Sooner in the top four of this year’s draft.

5. Chiefs – S Eric Berry, Tennessee
Last year, the Chiefs reached to take a top-15 prospect in DE Tyson Jackson at No. 3 overall, and that leads some prognosticators to suppose that they’ll reach again to take Bryan Bulaga of Iowa at No. 5 this year. But since the Chiefs have a young left tackle in Branden Albert, we’re going to project that they’ll look for help at another position. That approach would lead the Chiefs to grab the best available player, and that’s Berry. Berry didn’t pop off the screen in Monte Kiffin’s cover-2 defense last year, but he was a standout the year before in a more traditional scheme. In Berry, Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel would get a Rodney Harrison-type of impact player in the defensive backfield. K.C. needs playmakers on defense, and Berry can be that splashy player who makes workmanlike guys like Jackson more effective.

6. Seahawks – OT Russell Okung, Oklahoma State
Like the Redskins, the Seahawks lost their long-time left tackle to retirement this offseason when Walter Jones came to the end of the road. So Seattle needs to fill that hole in this draft when it has two first-round picks. Perhaps the Seahawks chance it and wait till No. 14 to see if Davis or Bruce Campbell or even Bulaga is around, but the wisest course of action is to take the sure thing in Okung here and then find a playmaker like C.J. Spiller or Derrick Morgan at 14. Okung can be an anchor for Pete Carroll’s offense, and those guys simply don’t grow on trees. Seahawks fans should hope that Carroll, who’s calling the shots after being out of the NFL for more than a decade, realizes that and fills his massive OLT need ASAP.

7. Browns – RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
This is where the draft could get crazy quick. Berry is the guy who makes the most sense for the Browns, but if he goes off the board, then Cleveland will face some choices. Bryan Bulaga, the last of the three elite offensive tackles, doesn’t make sense, because Cleveland already has Joe Thomas. The Browns could look at a defensive playmaker, but neither Derrick Morgan nor Jason Pierre-Paul really fits the 3-4 system they run, and it’s too early for guys like Rolando McClain or Dan Williams who do fit. So we’ll give the Browns the best playmaker on the board in Spiller, who would add an element of explosiveness to Cleveland’s offense that isn’t there at this point. That explosiveness is the Browns’ biggest need, and Spiller’s the option most likely to provide it. Spiller is a safer bet than wideouts Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, but like those players he can bring a jolt into the passing game. Plus, Spiller would be a huge upgrade at running back over Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, and his former college teammate James Davis, and he will help journeymen quarterbacks Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace have a far better chance of success in 2010. The Browns may pick a quarterback, but they seem more likely to do at the top of the second round than at this spot. Holmgren has made this kind of pick before, taking Shaun Alexander in the first round in 2000 with Seattle, and so we’ll make the unconvential call that leaves Spiller wearing an orange helmet in the pros just as he did in college.

8. Raiders – DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
Everyone seems to think the Raiders are going to do something crazy at this pick, and that’s certainly possible after last year’s Darrius Heyward-Bey fiasco. But last year, we heard of the Raiders’ love for HeyBey well before the draft, and there’s not similar buzz this year. So we’ll give Oakland a more conventional guy in Morgan, who’s the most complete 4-3 defensive end in this draft class. Morgan isn’t superfast, but he can get into the backfield and also hold up against the run. In a lot of ways, he’s like Richard Seymour, whom the Raiders traded their 2011 first-rounder for and then used the franchise tag on. The Raiders have a need at offensive tackle, but Bryan Bulaga isn’t their cup of tea, and it doesn’t seem that Al Davis has fallen for inconsistent specimens Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis. And while the Raiders could use a quarterback, the Raiders’ maven has refused to give up the ghost with JaMarcus Russell yet. That leads us to defense, where Morgan is a great fit.

9. Bills – QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
We’ve already discussed how we’re not huge Clausen fans, but he’s clearly a notch above other quarterback prospects like Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow. And given that quarterback is the Bills’ glaring need, it will be hard for them to pass up on Clausen here. Buffalo could still use a tackle like Bryan Bulaga or a pass rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. But most of the time, when a team has a desperate quarterback need, and there’s a quarterback available in the first round, the team can’t stomach the idea of passing on the chance to get him. So Clausen is the pick.

10. Jaguars – CB Joe Haden, Florida
The Jaguars would probably prefer to trade out of this spot, in part because they want to replace their traded first-round pick and in part because they have a hard time cutting the check for a top-10 selection. But in this spot, they have a chance to address their pressing need for secondary help. While Earl Thomas fits a more glaring position need at safety, Haden’s the better prospect by a fair amount. Haden could team with Rashean Mathis to stabilize Jacksonville’s secondary and set the rest of the defense up for success. Haden’s stock dropped a bit after a slow 40 time at the combine, but he’s a really good player who will play up to this lofty draft position. He’d be a win for the Jags at this point.

11. Broncos (from Bears) – WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
The Broncos under Josh McDaniels have become a tricky team to predict, because McDaniels is so confident in his abilities as an evaluator and coach that he’ll do the unconventional. He traded Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and last year in the draft he took Knowshon Moreno in the first round even though he had added several running backs in free agency. With Marshall gone, the Broncos need a No. 1 receiver, and while Dez Bryant is the consensus No. 1 wideout Thomas might be the Broncos’ choice. Bryant is a more complete player than Thomas, and he was more accomplished at the collegiate level. Plus, Thomas suffered an offseason injury that limited his workout time. But Thomas is a physical freak with amazing speed, and while he’s raw he can develop into the kind of breakout receiver that Marshall was for Denver. We think the wiser pick would be for the Broncos to upgrade their 3-4 defense as they continue to build personnel for that defense, but while Dan Williams or Rolando McClain would fit, we believe McDaniels will get his way and get another exciting tool for his offense. So we’ll reach a bit with the Broncos and project Thomas here.

12. Dolphins – NT Dan Williams, Tennessee
After acquiring Marshall, the Dolphins can now go big by upgrading their defensive line. And that leads them to Williams, who is sturdy enough to play on the nose in the 3-4. That’s a rare trait, and we saw with B.J. Raji last year that nose tackles are premium players who shoot up the board in the draft. Williams could replace Jason Ferguson, an aging player who will miss the first eight games of the season under league suspension, and help to stabilize a Dolphins’ defense that slipped a bit last year after solid play in 2008. Bill Parcells loves big players, and they don’t come bigger than Williams in this year’s draft class.

13. 49ers – DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida
Pierre-Paul is a boom-or-bust type of prospect, but the upside is so huge that a team in the teens like the 49ers will feel compelled to pull the trigger and take him. Pierre-Paul has the size to play defensive end in the 4-3 and the speed to play from a two-point stance in the 3-4, and that versatility could allow him to become a Terrell Suggs type of player in the best-case scenario. The 49ers have a sturdy defense, but they lack the pass-rush pop that JPP could provide. With Mike Singletary at the helm, the 49ers also may figure they have the coaching to make the most of talented players, with Vernon Davis’ emergence last year as proof positive. This would be a risk, but with two first-round picks, the 49ers should take a shot this year to add a premium talent with at least one of them. And that points to JPP with one of their first two picks.

14. Seahawks (from Broncos) – WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
The Seahawks are bereft of playmakers, and so with one of their two picks they have to get some explosiveness. That could mean a pass rusher, but in this scenario the value is with Bryant, an elite talent who will need a little TLC to develop. Pete Carroll can provide that kind of atmosphere, and if he does Bryant could really thrive. He could become a No. 1 receiver who can make big plays down the field while also providing a dependable option on third downs. And while there are concerns about Bryant’s background and upbrining, he’s not a bad guy. Instead, like Michael Oher last year, he came from such a bad situation that his maturity process will naturally be slower. But a former college coach like Carroll can really help Bryant, and the payoff would be huge. This is probably about the best situation for Bryant off the field, and he would really fill a need for the Hawks on the field.

15. Giants – MLB Rolando McClain, Alabama
The Giants have gotten old quickly both on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. So there are a lot of ways that Big Blue can go at this spot. A lineman like Bryan Bulaga, Mike Iupati, or Maurkice Pouncey would make a ton of sense, but we’ll project them to look at the other side of the ball and add a defensive leader instead. McClain is not an elite athlete, but he’s an incredibly heady player who leans into a leadership role. He would immediately step into the MLB spot vacated in New York when Antonio Pierce was released in the offseason. This would be a need pick, but the Giants have a lot of needs if they want to keep their window of opportunity open in the next couple of years. McClain can contribute right away and help them do just that.

16. Titans – DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
After losing Kyle Vanden Bosch and bidding adieu to Jevon Kearse in the offseason, the Titans have a pressing need for a pass rusher. Thankfully for them, they also have one of the best defensive line coaches in Jim Washburn, who has helped guys like Kearse and Albert Haynesworth – both picked around this spot in the first round – emerge into prime-time players. Our hunch is that the Titans give Washburn another swing this year, and given the way the draft has gone Graham is the best prospect available to them. Graham is a DE-OLB tweener who might fit a 3-4 defense more quickly, but his pass rush skills are valuable in any system. If the Titans take Graham (or any other defensive lineman), the player should consider himself lucky to be able to work under such good coaching. We trust the Titans to make the most of this pick.

17. 49ers (from Panthers) – OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
After taking a pass rusher with their first pick, we have the 49ers flipping to the offensive line with their second pick. Bulaga, who some are pointing to as a potential top-5 pick, would be great value here. Bulaga isn’t a premier left tackle, but he can play there in a pinch, and he could settle in at right tackle and thrive. Bulaga plus Joe Staley would give the 49ers bookend tackles that will stabilize their line and help the offense grow. Another offensive lineman like Maurkice Pouncey or Mike Iupati would make sense too, but our hunch is that the Niners won’t pass on Bulaga twice.

18. Steelers – OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
The Steelers have a pressing offensive line need, especially on the inside, so taking Iupati would be a nice fix. Iupati is probably going to project more as a mauling guard than a nimble-footed tackle at the NFL level, but he has enough chance of playing outside that he’ll find himself a first-round pick. Some have compared Iupati to Steve Hutchinson, which is incredibly high praise, but if Iupati can be 75 percent of what Hutchinson is, he’ll be a great mid-first-round pick.

19. Falcons – S Earl Thomas, Texas
Thomas is a terrific safety, but the fact that he’s undersized could put a cap on his draft stock. Still, Thomas is likely to step in and be an immediate starter and asset at safety, even for a quality team like Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to upgrade their defense, and Thomas or his Texas teammate Sergio Kindle would do just that. A pass rusher would look good too, but it appears unlikely that one of the premium guys will slip this far. So we suggest that the Falcons will draft for value and happily grab Thomas.

20. Texans – RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State
The Texans are on the cusp of breaking into the playoffs, and the one piece they’re missing is a top-flight running back. Mathews is just that. He has size and speed and explosiveness, and scouts drool about all he can bring to a team. Maybe the Texans should be looking at a cornerback to replace Dunta Robinson, but our hunch is that Gary Kubiak and his staff will look for an over-the-top guy like Mathews instead of trying to fill in a gap somewhere.

21. Bengals – TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
The Bengals haven’t had a top-flight tight end in what seems like forever, but given their new run-first bent on offense, it makes sense for them to add a counter-punch option like Gresham. We’ve made our respect for Gresham known, and we think he can be a great mid-field option between Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant. If Gresham can step in and make an impact in the passing game, the Bengals’ good offense could get a little bit better and make Cincy a playoff contender once again.

22. Patriots – OLB Jerry Hughes, TCU
It’s always hard to predict what the Patriots will do, but with a first-rounder and three second-rounders this year, New England needs to add some pass-rush punch. Hughes can do just that. He’s more of a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defense end, but he can get to the quarterback, and Bill Belichick is certainly smart enough to maximize the skills of a player like Hughes who has strengths but is a fit in only certain schemes. New England could easily go in another direction, but a high-character guy like Hughes seems like the kind of guy that Belichick would invest a pick in.

23. Packers – OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
The Packers made a great transition to the 3-4 defense last year, thanks in large part to rookies B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and Brad Jones. Suddenly, the Packers look set on defense, and that means it’s now time to turn their attention to their offensive line. That unit was awful last year until Mark Tauscher returned from retirement and Chad Clifton recovered from injury, but those veteran tackles aren’t going to last forever. So picking a high-upside player like Davis makes sense. Green Bay won’t need Davis immediately, and they can wait and hope that Davis’ work ethic catches up to his talent as he interns under Clifton and Tauscher for a year.

24. Eagles – C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
There are myriad rumors about who the Eagles want and how they want to trade up, but here’s the bottom line – since Andy Reid came to town, the Eagles almost always go big with their first-round pick. And when you survey the offensive and defensive linemen available at this point, Pouncey is the best. Pouncey’s gotten a lot of pub in the weeks leading up to the draft, and some have speculated that he’s going to go in the teens, but it’s hard to see a center/guard who’s good but not great going that high. Instead, this spot seems about right. Our guess is that Philly would be happy to add Pouncey to stabilize the interior of a line that slipped a bit last year.

25. Ravens – DE Jared Odrick, Penn State
The Ravens rarely swing and miss in the draft, even when they draft for need. So even though we think they’ll address their defensive line depth with this pick, they won’t reach. Instead, they’ll stay put and grab Odrick, who’s probably the prototypical 3-4 end available this year. With Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards leaving via free agency, the Ravens need depth there, and Odrick can provide the kind of solid play that allows Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to get aggressive on the pass rush. Odrick would be a great fit in Baltimore.

26. Cardinals – OLB Sergio Kindle, Texas
The Cardinals have lost a ton of front-seven players over the last two seasons, and now it’s time to replenish the cupboard. Kindle is the kind of versatile player who can do the things Karlos Dansby did, plus provide a pass-rush punch. He’d be a great complement to Joey Porter and could emerge into a team leader in the vein of Dansby. We’ve made our affinity for Kindle known, and Arizona would be a place for his promise to shine.

27. Cowboys – DE Tyson Alualu, California
Alualu is a fast-rising prospect, in large part due to his ability to play defensive end in the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys are stocked across the board, so they can afford to look for the guy they like the best, and Alualu’s size and tenacity fits. He can plug in and play the five-technique to allow DeMarcus Ware and the emerging Anthony Spencer to continue to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

28. Chargers – CB Kyle Wilson, Boise State
It only makes sense for San Diego to spend its first-round pick to replace Antonio Cromartie, whom they traded in the offseason. Since none of this year’s cornerback class behind Joe Haden is great, our guess is that several of them will end up clumped at the end of the first round and beginning of the season. Wilson is a solid player who had a good Senior Bowl week and also a solid college career. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he’s good enough to thrive in a pressure defense like San Diego runs.

29. Jets – OLB Sean Witherspoon, Missouri
The Jets have been among the most aggressive teams in the offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to fill some of their biggest needs. That puts them in position to draft the best player left. A tackle like Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis may make sense to eventually replace Damien Woody on the right side, but our guess is that Rex Ryan tries to reinforce his defense. Witherspoon is a standout player who has enough pass-rush pop to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he’s also good in coverage. That kind of versatility will make Ryan drool in the war room and could land Witherspoon with Gang Green.

30. Vikings – CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama
The Vikings have a loaded roster, but the one place where they can use an upgrade is in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty from Rutgers would be one option, but we’ll point instead to Jackson, who is a proven player from a top-notch program who can step in and serve as a quality starter for the Vikes, and therefore help them continue to move forward in the NFC. While some prognosticators have the Vikings pulling the trigger on Tim Tebow here, we think more immediate help is in the offing.

31. Colts – OT Vladimir Ducasse, Massachusetts
Colts president Bill Polian made no secret about the fact that he was unhappy with the play of his team’s offensive line in the Super Bowl, and as proof of that conviction he cut starter Ryan Lilja soon after. So it makes sense that Indy will spend its first-rounder on a lineman. We’re projecting Ducasse over Roger Saffold or Charles Brown, but any of those players would make sense for Indy as it attempts to keep its Peyton-powered offense running smoothly.

32. Saints – TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
The defending Super Bowl champions could use help at safety from a guy like Taylor Mays or at cornerback from a guy like Patrick Robinson, but our hunch is that Sean Payton gets some more help for his high-powered offense. Gronkowski is a dynamic tight end who’s even more physical than Jeremy Shockey. The Saints used several different tight ends last year in Shockey, Darnell Dinkins, David Thomas, and Billy Miller, so we can see that it’s a big part of their offense. Gronkowksi could usurp one or even two portions of that role and make the Saints even more explosive. That sounds to us like the kind of approach Payton would want.

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RP: Drafting NFL superstars – offense

Which positions in the draft give a team the best percentage chance of drafting a superstar? Let’s find out in this post about offense. (For drafting defensive superstars, check out this post.)

Last year leading up to the draft, we took on the project of analyzing which positions in the draft had the greatest boom and bust percentages in two posts (offense and defense). But as we did that project, we realized that there is another level we need to analyze. In the top 16 of the draft (top half of the first round), teams aren’t merely looking for good players – they’re looking for great players. So we are looking at superstar percentages by position this year.

Here’s the methodology: We looked back over the drafts from 1997 to 2008, analyzing the first 16 picks in each draft. We charted how many players were drafted at each position, and then we picked the guys at each position that have become superstars. We left out the 2009 draft, since it’s too soon to indicate that any of those players are superstars. After we make our calls about who the superstars are and find a percentage, we’ll list guys who we left off the borderline of superstars. We did this so that you can change percentages on your own if you disagree with a call about who’s a superstar and who’s not.

We also refigured the bust percentages from last year’s post on offense and included them below, for the sake of analysis.

Quarterbacks
Superstar percentage: 19 percent
Updated bust percentage: 31 percent (4 of 13)
Total picks:
21
Superstars: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning
Not-quite-superstars: Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper
What we learned: Do you have to take a quarterback at the top of the draft to find a superstar? Maybe not. The relatively low superstar percentage is in large part caused by the high bust percentage at the position, but the emergence of later draft picks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, and the undrafted Tony Romo as upper-echeleon quarterbacks makes the risk of taking a quarterback at the top of the draft even starker. The risk is high, and these stats suggest the reward isn’t really worth it. That won’t stop the Rams from pulling the trigger on Sam Bradford with the first overall pick this year, of course, but it’s another reason that we feel like Jimmy Clausen fits better after pick 20 than in the top 16.

Running backs
Superstar percentage:
39 percent
Updated bust percentage: 17 percent (2 of 12)
Total picks: 18
Superstars: Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Warrick Dunn, Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor
Not-quite-superstars: Jonathan Stewart, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones
What we learned: Not many running backs make their way into the top 16 of the draft – usually 1 or 2 per year – but those who end up going in that portion of the draft actually have a pretty good chance of becoming superstars. In an NFL world where running backs now are more likely to split time, running backs are even less likely to move into the top 16 of the draft. But C.J. Spiller, who perhaps projects in that area this year, could become a terrific complementary back. But it’s hard to see that as a path to superstardom, unless Spiller is as killer as Chris Johnson, which means the superstar percentage at this position is likely headed downward.

Wide receivers
Superstar percentage: 15 percent
Updated bust percentage: 40 percent (8 of 20)
Total picks: 27
Superstars: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt
Not-quite-superstars: Lee Evans, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
What we learned: At another risky position, the number of high draft picks who actually turn into superstars is pretty low. Of course, when guys like Fitzgerald or the Johnsons become superstars, they are true game-changers, but the list is so short that teams rightfully are wary. The questions about Dez Bryant this year (or Michael Crabtree last year) demonstrate this wariness. We’ll see if Bryant can move into the top 16 in the draft or if he’ll find himself outside the top half of the first round.

Tight ends
Superstar percentage:
20 percent
Updated bust percentage: 0 percent (0 of 4)
Total picks: 5
Superstars: Tony Gonzalez
Not-quite-superstars: Vernon Davis, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow
What we learned: Most of the tight ends who find themselves in the first half of the first round have turned into at least good players, although only Gonzalez truly crossed the threshold into superstardom. Still, getting an athletic freak like these guys at the top of the draft seems to be a good bet. It appears unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will find his way into the top-16 this year because of his 2009 injury, but these numbers still indicate that Gresham could have a significant impact.

Offensive linemen
Superstar percentage:
26 percent
Updated bust percentage: 12.5 percent (2 of 16)
Total picks: 23
Superstars: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Joe Thomas, Chris Samuels, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones
Not-quite-superstars: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jammal Brown, Jordan Gross, Tra Thomas, Bryant McKinnie, John Tait, Kyle Turley
What we learned: We noted last year that the vast majority of the offensive linemen picked in the top 16 are tackles, and many of those guys have made a huge impact at the position. While not all of them are true superstars, the trend is for these guys to become above-average starters if not borderline Pro Bowlers. We could have easily put three or four of the not-quite-superstars at this position into the superstar category, which would have made the superstar percentage at this position jump up. The bottom line is that offensive linemen are good bets at the top of the first round. So the teams that invest in Russell Okung, Bryan Bulaga, and Trent Williams (or any other lineman who sneak into the top 16) are making a very safe bet.

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FR: Pro Bowl-less teams

Pro Bowl rosters were announced this week, and in this process six teams had no representatives. So instead of trying to assess snubs, which so many others do, I thought it might be more unique and productive to look at the six teams without a Pro Bowler and determine who might become a Pro Bowler in future years. We’re going to do this via a Football Relativity comparison, in which the team with the most Pro Bowl prospects is at the 10 level of the list and the team with the bleakest future is at the 1 level.

10 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are AFC North division winners, but they don’t have a Pro Bowl representative at this point. But Cincy has several players who can earn those honors in the future. Chad Ochocinco has reestablished himself as an elite wide reciever this year – he was just caught in a numbers logjam at the position. The same was true for Cedric Benson, who had a fine season running the ball but missed a game and ended up with numbers just a tick below others at the position. And while Carson Palmer isn’t a top-5 AFC quarterback this year, he has the talent to put up the kind of numbers in the future that will get him the nod. OT Andrew Whitworth could also emerge as a sleeper Pro Bowl candidate with another good year. On defense, MLB Dhani Jones got some pub as a snub this year, but at his age he will be hard pressed to break onto the roster. The better chance comes from CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, who have emerged as supersolid cover guys this year. Each has six interceptions, and if they do that again next year one will sneak onto the team. The other prime candidate in Cincinnati is DE Antwan Odom, who had eight sacks in six games before getting injured. With a full season, he would have made it this year.

9 – none

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons slipped out of the playoffs this year, although they still have a chance to notch a second consecutive winning season for the first time in franchise history. And while they have no Pro Bowl players this year, the Dirty Birds should in the future. TE Tony Gonzalez is a periennial Pro Bowler who was caught in a numbers game this year moving to the NFC, while WR Roddy White and RB Michael Turner both have put up Pro Bowl numbers in the past and should continue to do so in the future. Matt Ryan may be a little harder case, simply because he’ll be hard-pressed to put up the massive numbers that normally put a quarterback in the Pro Bowl. On defense, DE John Abraham has just 5.5 sacks after posting 16.5 last year, but another big sack season should put him back in the Pro Bowl. MLB Curtis Lofton, a tackling machine, could also emerge as a Pro Bowler with a few more impact plays.

7 – none

6 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bucs are rebuilding, but they do have a few good pieces. OG Davin Joseph made the Pro Bowl last year as an injury replacement, and he continues to play well. TE Kellen Winslow is also an impact player, although the number of top tight ends in the NFC is significant. On defense, Barrett Ruud is a productive middle linebacker who performs at a high level, and he could easily become a Pro Bowl guy in the future. CB Ronde Barber has played well this year, but his Pro Bowl seasons are probably behind him at this point in his career. However, S Tanard Jackson is a playmaker who could make enough of a splash to make the Pro Bowl in the future.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions have just two wins, but the future is looking far brighter than it did last year at this time. That’s because Detroit got big-time players with its first three draft picks this year. QB Matthew Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew could turn into Pro Bowlers, but second-round S Louis Delmas may be the surest bet of the three. Combine those three with uber-talented WR Calvin Johnson, and it looks like the Lions are starting to collect at least a few elite players.

4 – none

3 – none

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs simply don’t have many (if any) elite players. OG Brian Waters, a multiple-time Pro Bowler, is on the decline, and top offensive performers WR Dwayne Bowe and RB Jamaal Charles are closer to good than great. Top-5 picks on the defensive line, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, haven’t panned out yet. OLB Tamba Hali is a good pass rusher, but he too falls short of great. When P Dustin Colquitt is your best chance for a Pro Bowler both this year and looking at next year, your roster needs help and fast. That’s the situation the Chiefs are in.

1 – Seattle Seahawks – The Hawks’ future looks pretty bleak when you see the absence of playmakers on the roster. Former stalwarts like OT Walter Jones, CB Marcus Trufant, QB Matt Hasselbeck, and MLB Lofa Tatupu have been slowed by injuries and age or both, and youngsters like OLB Aaron Curry have yet to emerge. Seattle’s most productive players this year have been S Jordan Babineaux and LB David Hawthorne, neither of whom has Pro Bowl chops. Given the state of this roster, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Seattle back on this list next year.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 12

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Boller, Rams – As you look for fantasy fill-ins, Boller is a name that tends to get overlooked. But after throwing for 282 yards and a score against the Seahawks, you should at least notice. Boller is going to have the Rams’ job for at least a couple more weeks, so if you’re desperate, Boller is worth a claim to be a backup. He’s not going to produce as much as Vince Young, but he will surpass guys like Dennis Dixon and Matt Leinart. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – This is a bit of a strange call, but Fitzpatrick has provided a spark for the Bills since interim head coach Perry Fewell inserted him in the lineup two weeks ago. Fitzpatrick threw for a touchdown a ran for another this week, and he seems to be good for at least a score a week. That makes him definitely worth a claim and perhaps even worth a start in multi-QB leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Chris Redman, Falcons– Redman was pressed into action when Matt Ryan was hurt in the first quarter of Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay. He responded with 243 passing yards and two touchdowns. If Ryan is out, Redman has enough weapons to be a top-18 fantasy quarterback on a weekly basis. He’s the fill-in you want, not Matt Leinart or Dennis Dixon. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans– Young had a huge day with 387 passing yards, including a last-minute game-winning drive. But he only threw for one touchdown, which continues the pattern he’s established since he returned to the lineup. That lack of TD passes keeps Young from being a fantasy starter. He’s good depth, and if you’re missing a starter like Kurt Warner, Matt Ryan, or Ben Roethlisberger, Young can be an emergency option. But he’s not a guy you should be looking to start. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Fred Jackson, Bills – With Marshawn Lynch out, Jackson blew up with 73 rushing yards, 43 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. But Lynch should return soon, and that means that Jackson simply won’t get the opportunities to remain a significant or consistent fantasy producer. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – In a week where Ahmad Bradshaw was out, against a Denver defense that had been gashed on the ground in recent weeks, Jacobs put up just 27 yards on 11 carries. He’s not a reliable fantasy starter at this point. We figure he’s outside the top 20 fantasy backs, which is a disappointment for a guy who was a first- or second-round pick in most leagues. But it’s time to deal with reality and be willing to put Jacobs on the bench when the matchup dictates. Verdict: A fraud

Larry Johnson, Bengals – Johnson rewarded the Bengals for his second chance by running for 107 yards on 22 carries against Cleveland. But even during the performance, Move the Sticks (a Twitter-based scout) was commenting on how slow Johnson looked. That means that Johnson isn’t worth a run against a better defense. That scouting report, plus the imminent return of Cedric Benson, means that Johnson isn’t a top-40 back going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones broke a 46-yard touchdown this week against Oakland and finished with 68 rushing yards. That performance was a window into Jones for fantasy owners. While Jones is capable of busting a big play, he doesn’t do it often, and unless he does his fantasy value is extremely limited. He’s outside the top 35 at running back from a fantasy perspective and isn’t worth a roster spot in leagues of 10 teams or less. Verdict: A fraud

LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – If you were watching the ticker, you might have seen that Tomlinson scored twice against the Chiefs. But don’t miss the fact that he also averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on 13 totes. He also had just one five-yard catch. While LDT is starting to find the end zone more often, he’s far from the force he used to be. You should still beware. Verdict: A fraud

Wide Receivers

Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin had yet another huge game on Thanksgiving, posting seven catches for 145 yards and a score. Consider that star turn a reminder that Austin is now a top-10 fantasy receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt caught the game-winning touchdown for Tennessee against Arizona, and he also had his best game of his rookie season with seven catches for 128 yards. Britt has now scored two straight weeks, and he seems to have a pretty good rapport with Vince Young. Don’t get carried away, but if Britt is on your league’s waiver wire he’s now worth a claim. He seems to be emerging late in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver is almost 35 years old, but he continues to post monster numbers year after year. His 142-yard performance against Detroit, which included a touchdown, goes to show that he’s still a top-15 fantasy wideout after all these years. He should be in your starting lineup in ink. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – The star rookie had his first 100-yard game of the season against the Bears, notching 101 yards and a score on six catches. As Harvin becomes more a part of the offense, he becomes a starting-quality fantasy receiver. He’s moved within the top 30 of fantasy receivers, and his uphill climb might still have heights to attain. Verdict: Applaud

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Considering that most leagues saw Johnson drafted as a top-10 receiver (if not higher), it seems crazy to consider benching him. But with Matthew Stafford banged up and Johnson not at full strength either, right  now it’s foolish to consider Johnson as a legit top-10 fantasy wideout. His two-catch, 10-yard day against Green Bay was redeemed a bit by a touchdown grab, but it’s still a sign of trouble. Megatron is still in the top 20 of fantasy wideouts, but you have to at least look at your other options before starting him. So we can’t rate Johnson as a top-10 guy anymore. Verdict: A fraud

James Jones, Packers – Jones had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day. It was his fourth touchdown of the year, all of which have come after Green Bay’s Week 5 bye. In large leagues (16 teams or more), Jones is not a bad fifth receiver, but he still doesn’t have much relevance for fantasy owners other than that. Verdict: A fraud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Don’t look now, but T.O. is on a roll in Buffalo. He has scored in two straight weeks and has at least 78 yards from scrimmage in his last four games. He’s finally back to being an every-week starter in just about every fantasy league. If you kept him, your patience is being rewarded, and if you claimed him or traded for him, your gamble is paying off. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Fred Davis, Redskins – With Chris Cooley’s significant injury now looking to be a season-ender, Davis is worth a second look. He had four catches and a touchdown against the Eagles, and he’s had at least four catches in three of the past five games. If you’re scrambling for a tight end, Davis is a decent option at this point in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – The only redeemable thing about the Raiders’ offense from a fantasy perspective right now is Miller, who had five catches for 73 yards against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Miller has had at least 50 yards receiving in five of his last seven games, which makes him a startable option in leagues of 12 teams or more. He doesn’t score enough to be an elite fantasy tight end, but he’s raised himself up to option status. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten has seen his production lag this year, but he busted out with a 107-yard game against Oakland on Thanksgiving despite being a game-time decision to play. That’s a positive sign for owners who were wavering about whether to keep starting the former fantasy stalwart. The answer is that yes, you should leave Witten in your weekly lineup. Verdict: Applaud

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Wide Receivers

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

We’ve already done this with the top 35 running backs and emerging running backs, both of which we covered last week. Now we turn to the top 35 receivers from our preseason draft board.

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

1. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – It’s four games, four touchdowns for Fitzgerald, who had a two-score game in Week 5 to cement his status as a fantasy stud again this year. While Fitz hasn’t been the dominant force he was in the playoffs last year, he’s doing just fine as a No. 1 fantasy receiver. Expecting much more than this is just being greedy. Verdict: Applaud

2. Andre Johnson, Texans – Like Fitzgerald, Johnson had two TDs in Week 5, but his numbers actually look a bit better than Fitzgerald. Johnson is averaging 87 yards per game and has had two two-TD games. He’s also averaging a whopping 15.6 yards per catch. Aside from an average Week 1 performance, Johnson has been the fantasy bellweather that owners expected when they drafted him. Verdict: Applaud

3. Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson got off to a bit of slow start as rookie QB Matthew Stafford gained steam, and then a Week Five injury held him to just one two-yard catch against the Steelers. So Johnson’s numbers are not quite what fantasy owners expected, but he still has 325 receiving yards plus a bonus 37 yards rushing. Given his Week 5 injury, those numbers will do for a No. 1 fantasy wideout – just barely. We’ll clap, although if his current injury lingers we might have to reluctantly change our verdict. Verdict: Applaud

4. Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is averaging 73 yards a game, which is OK for a top receiver, but he has just one touchdown so far this season. The Tom Brady/Moss combo certainly isn’t what it was two years ago, which may be leaving some fantasy owners struggling. This is another marginal call for a top receiver, but we’ll clap based on Moss’ solid yardage total. Verdict: Applaud

5. Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith suffered through Jake Delhomme’s Week One meltdown, and the Panthers’ offensive woes have held him to 259 yards from scrimmage in four games. Even worse, his first and only score of the season was a two-point conversion in Week 5 against the Redskins. It’s certainly not his fault, but you just can’t praise what Smith has provided fantasy owners thus far. Even worse, you can’t project that much more going forward. Smith is not a No. 1 fantasy wideout this year. Verdict: A fraud

6. Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings has had a weird year. He had 106 yards in Week One, and then didn’t catch a pass in Week 2. He had 103 yards on just two catches in Week 3, and then had just 31 yards in Week Four. The overall yards-per-game total is OK for Jennings – 60 yards per game – but his wild inconsistency and lack of scoring (one TD plus a two-pointer) leaves him just short of applause. This year, he looks more like a good No. 2 fantasy receiver with upside than a true No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: A fraud

7. Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has been the most consistent fantasy wideout thus far this year, and his totals of 95 yards per game and four total touchdowns are nearly the best in the league. In only one game has Wayne had less than 60 receiving yards, which means you can rely on him for big numbers week after week. Clap it up for the No. 1 overall fantasy receiver thus far and going forward. Verdict: Applaud

8. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals – After a sorry Week One, in which he had just 19 yards receiving, Boldin has had at least 69 receiving yards in the last three games. He has just one touchdown, but his total of 252 yards is fine four games into the season. He’ll need to get in the end zone more often to draw season-long applause, but we’re clapping for now. Verdict: Applaud

9. Roddy White, Falcons – After a so-so start to the season, White had a huge Week 5 against the Seahawks with 210 yards and two touchdowns. Now his season totals of 329 yards and three TDs put him among the top fantasy receivers in the game. That’s his rightful place – as a solid No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

10. Terrell Owens, Bills – I kept moving Owens down my rankings in the preseason, to the point where I had him as a borderline No. 1 receiver, but I couldn’t imagine him bottoming out the way he has thus far. He was completely shut out in Week 3 and has just 12 catches in five games, and he’s averaging just 40 yards per game with a single touchdown in Week 2. Owens is barely startable in leagues that have three WR spots in the lineup. You can’t clap for that. Verdict: A fraud

11. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks – Houshmandzadeh is another wideout who started slow, but he has a 100-yard game and then a two-TD game in his last two outings. He’s averaging 65 yards per game, even though starting QB Matt Hasselbeck missed two games and much of a third. Plus, the arrow is pointing up at this point. Houshmandzadeh looks like he’s going to be a solid No. 2 fantasy wideout going forward. Given this draft position, that kind of production works just fine. Verdict: Applaud

12. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Bowe will give you heartburn because he seems to catch his TD passes late in games when it appears like he’ll be a fantasy bust. But the bottom line is that he has scored touchdowns in three of the four games he played, and in each of those games he had at least four catches. He missed Week 3 due to injury and had just one catch the following week when he still wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but when he’s been right he’s been an acceptable fantasy starter because of his touchdowns. So while it’s a little nerve-wracking to do so, we’ll clap for him as a No. 2 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

13. Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the de facto No. 1 receiver in New Orleans’ high-powered offense, but the Saints have so many threats that it’s hard to get consistent production out of any single player. Colston comes closest, with 228 yards and three touchdowns in four games thus far. But he’s also been held under 35 receiving yards in two of those four games. That keeps Colston from being a No. 1 fantasy receiver, but he’s a quality No. 2 fantasy wideout who can throw up big numbers any week. Verdict: Applaud

14. Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Jackson established himself as an every-week starter in fantasy leagues last year, and this year he’s taken the leap to being a No. 1 guy. His worst games are 56-yard efforts, and he’s totalled 373 yards in four games total. Plus, he has two touchdowns. He’s emerging as a No. 1 fantasy force, and that’s reason for a standing ovation. Verdict: Applaud

15. Braylon Edwards, Jets – Had we done this analysis last week, Edwards would have been judged a fraud with no hope for the rest of the season. But now that he’s been traded to the Jets, there’s reason for hope. Edwards had five catches for 64 yards and a score in his first game in green, and it looks like he’s immediately stepping in as a red-zone and down-field threat. And that’s even before he masters the offense. So while Edwards has had two awful fantasy games and has just 15 catches on the season and is averaging just 40 yards per game, we’ll applaud him based on what we expect going forward. He should at least be a regular fantasy starter now that he’s a Jet all the way. Verdict: Applaud

16. Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s litany of off-season transgressions impeded his fantasy value entering the season, and owners were right to have questions about his role even though his talent was undeniable. But the trend is undoubtedly pointing up at this point. In each of the last three games, Marshall has had at least 70 yards from scrimmage and at least one touchdown . Those are No. 1 fantasy receiver numbers. Now that Kyle Orton has proven he can put up some numbers in Josh McDaniels’ offense, Marshall is a No. 1 fantasy wideout as he has been the past couple of years. Verdict: Applaud

17. Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker had a huge game with 12 catches for 93 yards in Week One, and then he missed the next two games due to injury. But last week he appeared to be fully back with eight catches for 86 yards and a score against the Broncos. So while Welker has been a bust so far for fantasy owners because he missed so much time, he’s now back to being a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver. You can expect the same going forward. Verdict: Applaud

18. Roy Williams, Cowboys – Some penciled Williams in as a top No. 2 fantasy wideout, but I was skeptical entering the season. That skepticism was justified. He missed Week 5 with an injury, but before that he had two good games with at least 75 receiving yards and two games with 35 yards or less. Plus, he has just one touchdown on the season. Even though I was down on Williams, I wasn’t down enough. He’s no more than a No. 3 fantasy receiver going forward. Verdict: A fraud

19. DeSean Jackson, Eagles – I was high on Jackson before the year, ranking him as a borderline No. 2 wideout instead of as the No. 3 fantasy WR that most lists slated him to be. Thus far, that gamble has more or less paid off. He has just 13 catches in four games, but in two games he had more than 115 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and he added a return touchdown in Week One. He’s averaging 77 yards from scrimmage per game, which is quality production. While DJax isn’t a great player in a point-per-catch league, he’s been a solid fantasy stud. Last week’s one-catch, one-yard performance is a red flag, but we’ll consider that an anomaly until we see it again. Verdict: Applaud

20. Santana Moss, Redskins – Moss started really slow, with 5 catches for 41 yards in the first two games combined. But since then, he’s taken off with two really good games and a so-so game in Week 5. Moss’ unpredictability keeps him from being a sure-fire every week start, but if he’s a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver for your team, you’re in OK shape. That means we’ll clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

21. Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – I was down on ol’ 8-5 coming into the season, but Chad has rebounded to once again become a No. 1 fantasy receiver. He’s averaging 70 yards per game, and in his one paltry yardage game (24 yards vs. Cleveland), he scored two touchdowns. So he’s provided consistent production. So if you drafted Ochocinco here, or even as the No. 10 or No. 12 overall receiver, you’ve gotten all you wanted and then some. Give Chad some attention, because he deserves applause from fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

22. Eddie Royal, Broncos – While Brandon Marshall is emerging, Royal has yet to come close to matching his ’08 production. I moved Royal up in the preseason as I started moving Marshall down, so Royal probably should have ended up around No. 30 at receiver before the opener given the uncertainty about Kyle Orton. But even at that marginal No. 3 starter level, his production – 18 catches for 148 yards and just one touchdown in five games – is lacking. He’s a good player, but the production has yet to earn applause. He may turn it around, but we can’t clap yet. Verdict: A fraud

23. Bernard Berrian, Vikings – When Brett Favre signed, we figured that Berrian would follow up on his sneaky good ’08 fantasy season by becoming a starting-caliber receiver. But Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin seem to be getting as many looks as Berrian is, and Berrian hasn’t produced by numbers. He has just 19 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown. Those aren’t starting-caliber receiver numbers, and the way the Vikings’ passing game is spreading things out, it’s hard to see Berrian stepping things up big time. So we can’t clap for him here. Verdict: A fraud

24. Lance Moore, Saints – Moore had a great season last year, but injuries have limited him to just three catches so far in ’09. Even though he’s missed one full game and been limited in others, we can’t clap. Moore might be a sleeper pickup going forward, but projecting him anywhere near a starting lineup is farfetched right now. Verdict: A fraud

25. Santonio Holmes, Steelers – After the ’08 playoffs, it seemed as though Holmes was emerging as the Steelers’ top receiver. But Hines Ward is among the league leaders in receiving yards right now, and rookie Mike Wallace is filling the Nate Washington role to give Pittsburgh a legit No. 3 receiver. Those factors, plus a few drops, have held down Holmes’ value. He’s averging 67 receiving yards per game, which is OK, but he has just one touchdown. At this draft position, Holmes needed to be starting quality, and he’s just a hair below that level. So this is a close verdict. And since we’re being generous, close points to clapping – barely. Verdict: Applaud

26. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant had a ridiculously season coming out of nowhere last year, and we were skeptical he could repeat it and be a No. 1 fantasy receiver again. So we put Bryant as a No. 3 receiver. But he has not yet even been that. He missed Week Two and had just three catches through Week 3, but he is coming on at least a little bit with nine catches for 106 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. So that’s a sign of hope, but it’s not reason for applause, even at this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

27. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets – Cotchery ended up in this spot because he was an above-average receiver who was the default No. 1 option with the Jets. He delivered on that status early, with at least four catches for at least 71 yards in each of the first four games. He’s battling a hamstring now, which limited him to one catch for four yards, and now that Braylon Edwards is in town Cotchery’s role will slip, but we’ll clap for what he’s done so far. Cotchery was a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver for the first quarter of the season, and he’ll be a solid No. 3 fantasy wideout the rest of the way. Verdict: Applaud

28. Lee Evans, Bills – We figured Evans was so good that he would maintain at least decent fantasy production even with Terrell Owens coming to town. But as the Bills’ offense has bottomed out, Evans’ numbers have been awful. He’s averaging just 52 yards per game, and he has just one touchdown. Even worse, he has more than 32 yards in just one game. Evans is still a talent, but his bad situation keeps him from being anywhere close to a fantasy starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

29. Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter missed the first two games of the season due to injury, and since returning he has been up and down. He had a huge first game with seven catches for 96 yards and a score, but his next two weeks have averaged just 39 yards per game. Walter still should emerge as a No. 3 fantasy wideout given the Texans’ prolific offense, but he hasn’t yet, and so we can’t clap. Verdict: A fraud

30. Torry Holt, Jaguars – When he moved to Jacksonville, it appeared that Holt would be the Jags’ No. 1 receiver. But Mike Sims-Walker has assumed that role, keeping Holt’s value down. In the four games he’s played with Sims-Walker, Holt has had between 42 yards and 65 yards. He did break out in Week 5 with a 95-yard game, but that was because Sims-Walker was suspended. Holt hasn’t scored this year either. Holt’s worth owning, but he shouldn’t end up in your starting lineup unless the injury bug bites you multiple times in a single week. Verdict: A fraud

31. Hines Ward, Steelers – We downgraded Ward because we figured he had to slow down at some point, and we thought Santonio Holmes was ready to surpass him. But that hasn’t happened. Ward is fourth in the league with 440 receiving yards so far, and he scored his first touchdown last week. Ward is once again a solid fantasy starter and deserving of your applause. Verdict: Applaud

32. Laveranues Coles, Bengals – Coles has been a solid fantasy receiver for many years, and we figured that moving to the Bengals he would fall into the No. 2 role behind Chad Ochocinco. But Coles is behind Chris Henry and even Andre Caldwell in the Cincy WR pecking order, and his numbers have plummeted. He has just 10 catches for 78 yards through five games, and has just one touchdown. He’s not even ownable in fantasy leagues right now. It looks like the big contract the Bengals gave Coles isn’t going to pay off. Verdict: A fraud

33. Donald Driver, Packers – I’ve never been a Driver fan, even as he’s put up big fantasy numbers. This year, I projected him as just a marginal No. 3 fantasy wideout, but he once again has been better than I expected. He has at least four catches in every game and is averaging 72 yards per game. He also has two touchdowns. Those are No. 2 fantasy receiver numbers and good value for where he was drafted. Verdict: Applaud

34. Derrick Mason, Ravens – Mason was one of the hardest guys to rate before the season because he retired and then unretired. Still, we slated him as the Ravens’ best receiver and a marginal No. 3 fantasy guy. He has been the Ravens’ best receiver, and through five games he has 284 yards and two touchdowns. Even though he took a bagel in the catch column in Week 5, Mason has been a solid starting option given where he was drafted. And with Joe Flacco really emerging as a fantasy producer at quarterback, Mason should continue to have solid fantasy value. Verdict: Applaud

35. Devin Hester, Bears – We figured that with Jay Cutler in Chicago, someone had to emerge as a fantasy relevant receiver. We pegged Hester as the guy with the best opportunity for that, but the truth is that Cutler has spread the ball around using Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Greg Olsen, and even Kellen Davis. Hester has OK numbers through four games, with 189 yards and two touchdowns. But he’s had two great fantasy games and two horrible games. As a No. 3 fantasy receiver, he’s a boom or bust guy in your starting lineup, but this far down the draft order, that’s actually OK. Hester probably has 4-6 huge games left in him this season, and although it may be frustrating trying to find those games, that’s reason enough to clap for him at this draft position. Verdict: Applaud

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Steelers/Lions thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week 5 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Pittsburgh won the game 28-20.

On-field perspective
*The Lions have some nice pieces on offense. Even with Calvin Johnson getting hurt in this game and Matthew Stafford not playing, RB Kevin Smith and TE Brandon Pettigrew showed their value. Smith is not a great back, but he’s above-average as a runner and as a receiver. He can help the cause going forward. Pettigrew showed great hands on a third-quarter catch, and he is a decent blocker already even though he’s just a rookie. These two guys, plus Johnson and Stafford, can be the building blocks for an offensive attack.
*Daunte Culpepper has Byron Leftwich disease, and that’s what keeps him from being a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL at this point. Culpepper is slow in the pocket, and he’s not great under pressure in the pocket. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the game’s final drive, on which Culpepper was sacked on three straight downs. Even though Culpepper put up a few numbers in the game, you can see why the Lions went ahead and went with Stafford as their starter this season.
*While the Lions have decent skill-position options, their offensive line is subpar, as is their defense. The pass defense is especially atrocious. That’s where the Lions’ lack of depth really shows. Even with William James returning an interception for a touchdown, the Lions’ defense still was a major problem.
*The Steelers’ offense looked in rhythm. This is the best group of targets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had, with veteran Hines Ward, the dependable Heath Miller, the explosive Santonio Holmes, and speedy rookie Mike Wallace. That’s depth in a passing game, and it showed as Roethlisberger completed 13 passes in a row at one point.
*Wallace has surpassed ’08 second-round pick Limas Sweed as the Steeler’s third receiver. It seems like Wallace produces in every game I watch him, and he’s on the end of far more targets than Sweed.
*Rashard Mendenhall again had nice numbers in the run game, but I remain convinced that he’s not a short-yardage back. Once he gets up a head of steam, “Rocky” can make big plays. But before he gets started, he’s eminently tackle-able. That’s going to limit his value to the Steelers once Willie Parker returns. Mendenhall is a good backup, but he’s not a good rotation back. That’s why Melwede Moore is so vital to the Steelers.
*James Harrison (who had three sacks) and the injured Troy Polamalu usually get the props as the stars of the Steelers’ D, but two unsung guys are emerging CB William Gay and hard-hitting safety Ryan Clark. They don’t make huge plays all that often, but they make the plays they need to make over and over.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Smith doesn’t put up huge numbers, but he’s a solid No.2 fantasy back. He gets so many chances that he’s bound to pile up yards each and every week. He had a total of 95 yards from scrimmage in this game.
*Dennis Northcutt had a nice fantasy game in the absence of Calvin Johnson with 5 catches for 70 yards and a touchdown, but he doesn’t have any long-term fantasy value. He’s not worth a waiver claim this week despite his nice game.
*Ward had his best fantasy game with 7 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, and he scored his first TD of the season. He’s dependable, but he’s no more than a marginal No. 2 receiver in most fantasy leagues. That’s because he’s half a step slower and because the Steelers have so many options.
*Wallace, meanwhile, is a No. 4 receiver in most leagues. He’s worth a roster spot as an emergency play, and if Ward or Holmes gets hurt Wallace is starting-caliber in most leagues. He’s the real deal.
*Big Ben had a huge game, but that was in part because of the Lions’ porous secondary. He’s still outside the top 8 of fantasy quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis.
*Culpepper had a big game in relief of Matthew Stafford with 282 yards and a touchdown, but he’s not a fantasy factor going forward. Don’t pick him up this week.

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys– It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets – New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns – The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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