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Fantasy Football: Regime change survivors

One of the biggest factors of a player’s fantasy football success is the offensive system he plays in. So as a service, we thought we’d go through the teams that are changing regimes this season and analyze how these changes should affect the relevant fantasy performers on each team. Where we’ve discussed players in more detail, we’ll include a link to our previous discussion. These offensive regime changes include teams with new head coaches as well as some teams with new offensive coordinators.

As always, you can read all sorts of other fantasy football analysis in our fantasy football category tag. And we have to give thanks to this site for a current list of offensive coordinators.

In this post, we’ve made some intentional omissions:
*With the Jets, Brian Schottenheimer survived the coaching change, and so that offense will look quite similar
*The Saints replaced Doug Marrone (now the Syracuse head coach) with Pete Carmichael Jr. but should run the same system
*The Patriots didn’t replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, but Bill Belichick and his lieutenants will keep the same offensive system in place
*The Seahawks, moving from Mike Holmgren’s regime to Jim Mora’s, will still run a similiar West Coast style of offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Arizona (from Todd Haley to Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm/Mike Miller) – Now that Haley has gone to become the head man in Kansas City, Whisenhunt will probably look to become a little more proficient running the ball in Arizona. Grimm, like Whisenhunt an ex-Steelers assistant, will be the run-game coordinator, and Miller is the passing game coordinator. This shouldn’t affect the numbers of QB Kurt Warner or WRs Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin much – call them floats– but WR Steve Breaston’s numbers will likely sink a little, while rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who will surpass Tim Hightower as a fantasy option, looks like the main beneficiary of this regime change.
*More on Fitzgerald here
*More on Boldin here
*More on Breaston and Hightower here
*More on Wells here

Cleveland (from Rob Chudinski to Brian Draboll) – This change is hard to quantify, but it probably pushes the Browns just a bit more conservative. It’s hard to know what to think of the Browns anyway, because QBs Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are fighting for a job. But this should cause WR Braylon Edwards’ numbers to sink a bit, and could help RB Jamal Lewis’ numbers rise if he’s not in too much physical decline.

Denver (from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy) – This is a pretty significant change from Shanahan’s more wide open West Coast style offense to a more mixed New England-style offense. McCoy comes from Carolina, where he was QB coach in a run-run-run offense. This (plus the change from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at QB) will cause the numbers of WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to sink just a bit. TE Tony Scheffler will see an even bigger sink in his numbers. The beneficiary is rookie RB Knowshon Moreno and, to a lesser degree, ex-Eagle Correll Buckhalter.
*More on Orton and Buckhalter here
*More on Marshall here
*More on Royal here
*More on Moreno here
*More on Scheffler here

Detroit (from Jim Coletto to Scott Linehan) – The Lions’ offense was pretty much a train wreck last year, as was everything else in an 0-16 season. In comes Linehan, who bombed out as a head coach in St. Louis but who has a good record as a coordinator in Minnesota and Miami. He’s more prone to pass than Coletto was, and that should help the numbers across the offense work well. At quarterback, neither Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper is a great prospect, because neither will likely play all 16 games. But Calvin Johnson remains a stud whose numbers will float, and one of the receiver additions, Dennis Northcutt or Bryant Johnson, could see his numbers rise if he can seize a starting job. Plus, Kevin Smith’s numbers, which weren’t terrible fantasy-wise in ’08, could rise at least a little.
*More on Smith here
*More on Calvin Johnson here
*More on Bryant Johnson and Northcutt here
*More on Stafford here

Indianapolis (from Tom Moore to Clyde Christensen) – The Colts should run the same system – Christensen has been on the staff for years, and Moore did a runaround on the NFL’s new pension system for coaches by becoming a consultant. So the changes here will be minor. You can expect the numbers of QB Peyton Manning, WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark to basically float. RB Joseph Addai’s numbers will sink because of the addition of Donald Brown, while WR Anthony Gonzalez’s numbers will rise because of the departure of Marvin Harrison.
*More on Manning here
*More on Wayne here
*More on Clark here
*More on Addai here
*More on Brown and WR Austin Collie here

Kansas City (from Chan Gailey to Todd Haley/Gailey) – Gailey survived the coaching change in K.C., but with Haley now serving as head coach we should see a little different offensive system for the Chiefs. By the end of the year, Gailey was basically running a spread-type system that used the running talents of QB Tyler Thigpen and also let him fling the ball around. If the Chiefs are better this year, you have to think they’ll play it a little more conservatively, which would bode well for RB Larry Johnson. If Johnson plays the full year, his numbers should rise from his 874-yard, 5-touchdown campaign in 2008. WR Dwayne Bowe’s numbers should continue to rise just a bit, if for no other reason than the fact that import Matt Cassel is better than Thigpen. Look for Mark Bradley’s numbers to rise a little bit as well, and we’ve already predicted that free-agent addition Bobby Engram’s stats will float. Engram actually could fill the reliable role that Tony Gonzalez held for so many years in K.C. Cassel’s numbers should float in Haley’s pass-friendly system as well. All in all, the Chiefs should be a fantasy-friendly team this year.
*More on Cassel here
*More on Engram here 
*More on Bowe here

Oakland (from Lane Kiffin/Greg Knapp to Ted Tollner) – Good luck trying to describe the Raiders’ offense last year – best I can tell, it was more or less a West Coast offense approach, given Knapp’s history. And good luck trying to even identify the offensive leader this year – Tollner is passing game coordinator, Paul Hackett is quarterback coach, and there is no run game coordinator. But given the fact that head coach Tom Cable is an offensive line coach, and given Al Davis’ history, we can expect a run-friendly offense with deep passing. That means Darren McFadden is ready for his numbers to rise, especially if he stays healthy. McFadden’s just too good not to get a bunch of carries. If he does, as we expect, then Michael Bush and Justin Fargas will see their numbers sink. Passing wise, don’t expect too much out of JaMarcus Russell, who could lose snaps to Jeff Garcia. That could cause Russell’s modest numbers to sink even a bit more. Meanwhile, TE Zach Miller’s numbers should rise a little bit – he won’t have just one touchdown again – and Darrius Heyward-Bey actually has good fantasy potential for a rookie receiver.
*More on Miller here
*More on Heyward-Bey here

St. Louis (from Scott Linehan to Pat Shurmur) – Linehan is a quality offensive coordinator, but his head-coaching tenure was a disaster. Now the rams are under the system installed by Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ QB coach. His pedigree (his uncle Fritz was a longtime Mike Holmgren aide) indicates a pedigree in the West Coast offense. The Rams have completely reworked their offense, letting stalwarts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce go. It should center around RB Steven Jackson, whose numbers should at least float. QB Marc Bulger is coming off a horrendous season, and if he can stay healthy his numbers will rise, but not enough to make him a fantasy starter. He’s not even really a feasible backup in most fantasy leagues. The only other Ram who is draftable is WR Donnie Avery, who had a decent first season and could see his numbers rise if he can up his touchdown total from the three he tallied in ’08.
*More on Jackson here

San Francisco (from Mike Martz to Jimmy Raye) – The 49ers had a pass-happy system under Martz last year, at least until Mike Singletary took over. Now Singletary will revert to a more old-school, pro-style offense that will feature lots of running and short passing. That means that RB Frank Gore’s numbers should float and that rookie Glen Coffee is worth a look late in the draft. The quarterback situation is still a battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, so watch to see who wins the war before investing in one of them as a sleeper. At receiver, Michael Crabtree is a draftable prospect (as long as he doesn’t hold out too long) and either Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones could emerge as a quality fantasy backup. And while TE Vernon Davis isn’t draftable at this point, he’s a fantasy sleeper to watch if he finds more of a role in the 49ers’ new system.
*More on Gore here
*More on Crabtree and Coffee here

Tampa Bay (from Jon Gruden to Jeff Jagodinski) – Gruden fancied himself an offensive guru who used a high-flying offense, but new coordinator Jeff Jagodinski will likely be a bit more conservative. That means that breakout WR Antonio Bryant’s numbers will likely sink, and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow’s numbers will rise only because he missed time with injury last year. At running back, both Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are draftable, but the fact that they’re splitting carries is nettlesome for fantasy owners. We expect Ward’s numbers to sink and Graham’s to sink as well given the new split, which should be almost 50-50. QB Byron Leftwich’s numbers will rise because he should start some games, but don’t rely on him too heavily because rookie Josh Freeman is in the wings and could see time in the second half of the season.
*More on Bryant and Ward here
*More on Leftwich and Mike Nugent here
*More on Graham here
*More on Winslow here

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Fantasy Football: The elite receivers

We’re in the process of building our draft board here on Football Relativity. We’ve already identified the Fantastic Four atop Tier 1A on the draft board, decided whether Larry Fitzgerald can join those four, identified the top quarterback on the board, and sorted through the second group of running backs to create Tier 1B.

Now we’re building Tier 1C. We have 13 players on the board in Tiers 1A and 1B thus far, so in general we’re looking at the second round and beginning of the third round in most leagues. We know from our previous posts that Tom Brady and Drew Brees are on this tier, and we also know that running backs Brian Westbrook, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Knowshon Moreno will appear on this tier. We’re also going to include Ronnie Brown on the chart here.

The question is which receivers join these players on this tier. Larry Fitzgerald (who we addressed in detail in this earlier post) is the sole receiver on Tier 1B, so we have a group of receivers that are vying to be among the fantasy elite. Let’s see who makes the cut here.

(One more link: We ranked receivers for 2009 and beyond from a pure football sense in this post.)

Andre Johnson, Texans – Johnson is a no-brainer to include among the elite. He may be the most talented receiver in the league, and despite Matt Schaub’s injury problems last year he still tallied 1,575 yards and 8 touchdowns. The only red flag on Johnson is that he missed 7 games two years ago, but he’s actually played all 16 games in 4 of his 6 seasons. He’s the second-best receiver available from a fantasy perspective and a no-brainer inclusion among Tier 1C.

Randy Moss, Patriots – I was shocked when I looked at the stats and saw that Moss had just 1,008 receiving yards last year. That number should go back up with Tom Brady returning, but it would be foolhardy to expect Moss to mirror his 1,500-yard, 23-touchdown season of 2007. Still, Moss has always been a big touchdown producers, which means that you can rate him above his yardage numbers a bit. And with his history, there’s no doubt that Moss deserves to be included among the elite receivers in Tier 1C.

Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith is so quick and so competitive that he can put up huge numbers even when QB Jake Delhomme is sputtering. Despite missing the first two games of the season on a team suspension, Smith put up 1,400 receiving yards. He only had six touchdowns, but that number was artificially low because Smith was tackled inside the five several times. With a full season, we can count on 1,200-plus yards, and we can expect him to bounce up to 8 touchdowns at least. With those numbers, Smith deserves to be included among the elite receivers in Tier 1C.

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Calvin Johnson can compete with Andre Johnson for the title of most talented receiver, and he has a kick-butt nickname as well. And he’s coming off a big year with 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. The only thing holding Johnson back is the fact that Detroit’s quarterbacks and offensive line were horrific last year. The addition of Matthew Stafford should elevate Calvin to the No. 1 overall fantasy wideout in the future, but for this year it’s enough to list Calvin among the elite fantasy wideouts. He’s a yes for Tier 1C.

Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has played every game since his second year in the league (2002), and he’s been a dependable yardage producer with at least 1,000 yards five years in a row. But last year was the second time in four years he had 6 touchdowns or less, and there’s such flux on the Colts offense that it’s hard for me to project Wayne to jump way up from that yardage number. Wayne feels more like a second-group fantasy receiver this year to me, and so I’m leaving him out of Tier 1C.

Greg Jennings, Packers – I’ve never been a Jennings believer, but last year he had a legitimate fantasy year with nearly 1,300 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has emerged as Green Bay’s No. 1 receiver, and he has a good rapport with starter Aaron Rodgers. Given that, and given his performance last year, it’s time to include Jennings among the fantasy elite. I’m surprising myself by including Jennings in Tier 1C and making him one of the elite fantasy wideouts going into the year.

Roddy White, Falcons – White has put up huge numbers two years in a row, including nearly 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns last year. As Matt Ryan develops, White should become even more of a fantasy force. The only strike against White from a fantasy perspective is the fact that he has only 13 total touchdowns in his two seasons. This is a really close call, and if we were talking running backs I would lean toward including White. But because there are more quality receivers around, we’re going to knock White out of the elite class and make him one of the top receivers in the second group. Just barely, White misses out on Tier 1C.

Anquan Boldin, Cardinals – Boldin is a supertough guy, and despite his persistent contract squabbles, he’s produced big numbers in Arizona. Even though he played in just 12 games last year, he still surpassed 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns. In fact, he has 20 touchdowns in just 24 games in the last two seasons. That low game total is a reason for pause, though, and the fact that Larry Fitzgerald has stepped up into the stratosphere is as well. I think Boldin is a legit No. 1 receiver on a fantasy team, but that’s for someone who takes him at the top of Tier 2 instead of at the end of Tier 1.

Terrell Owens, Bills – Whatever his faults, both personality wise and in terms of drops, Owens remains a big-time producer. The only time this decade he scored less than 9 touchdowns was when he was exiled by the Eagles in 2003, and last year’s total of 1,052 yards was his lowest full-season total this decade as well. If he can get those numbers in his new home with the Bills, he’s a Tier 1C guy. That’s a question, but when it comes down to it, Owens seems to be a half a hair better for fantasy owners than other borderline elite receivers like Wayne, White, and Boldin. That makes Owens a yes for inclusion on Tier 1C.

Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall has put up monstrous yardage numbers the past two years, and so he merits consideration here despite the questions about his remaining in Denver. But here’s what holds Marshall back from a fantasy perspective. First, like Roddy White, he doesn’t score a ton of touchdowns. (He has 13 over the past 2 seasons combined.) Second, you have to figure his numbers will take a hit now that Jay Cutler is gone and Kyle Orton has come. With all that, we can’t include Marshall in Tier 1C despite his talent, and he actually might even end up slipping out of the top of Tier 2.

Wes Welker, Patriots – We’ve talked about receivers who pile up yards but don’t find the end zone, and Welker was probably the ultimate example of that last year, as he neared 1,200 receiving yards but had just three touchdowns. That TD total was probably artificially low (he had 8 with Tom Brady at QB in ’07), but it’s enough of a warning sign to knock him out of Tier 1C. Even if we figure Welker to score six or seven TDs, he’s a Tier 2 guy, not a Tier 1C guy.

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Bowe followed up his strong rookie season by taking a step forward last year with 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers might actually pick up this season for a couple of reasons – the presence of QB Matt Cassel and head coach Todd Haley. Plus, Tony Gonzalez is gone, which could lead to more targets for Bowe in the red zone. His yardage total and all the new stuff make Bowe a reach in Tier 1C, but he’s a solid fantasy option at the top of Tier 2.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks – Houshmanzadeh had 904 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and that was with Ryan Fitzpatrick trying to get him the ball most of the year. With Matt Hasselbeck as his quarterback, it’s fair to project T.J. to have stats more like his ’06 and ’07 numbers, which averaged 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Given all the changes, Houshmandzadeh is a better fit on Tier 2 than among the elite on Tier 1C, but he’s a wideout you won’t want to forget.

So after all this, Tier 1C includes these players, who are listed alphabetically:

Tom Brady
Drew Brees
Ronnie Brown
Frank Gore
Greg Jennings
Andre Johnson
Calvin Johnson
Marshawn Lynch
Randy Moss
Knowshon Moreno
Terrell Owens
Steve Smith (CAR)
Brian Westbrook

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FR: Best Nicknames

With the unfortunate demise of Smash ‘n Dash – aka LenDale White and Chris Johnson – as a nicknamed dynamic duo, we thought it would be fun to play football relativity with the league’s best nicknames. This is not an exhaustive list, so leave your favorite nicknames in the comments and we’ll integrate them into the list. 10 is the nickname that’s the most fun; 1 is a nickname that’s kind of dumb. Again, we’re rating just the nickname here, not the player or the coach.

Before we begin, a historical note. It seems like there are countless great nicknames for groups in the NFL in the past – Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters; the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome and, later, Greatest Show on Turf; Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh; Washington’s Hogs; and Atlanta’s 1970s Grits Blitz. We also have team-wide nicknames like Carolina’s Cardiac Cats, Atlanta’s Dirty Birds, the Bungles and the Aints. Unfortunately, there aren’t those kind of nicknames anymore. We will definitely take ideas for such nicknames here – who knows, maybe we can start one.

10 – Ochocinco (aka Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco) – This started as a nickname and now it’s a legal name. Yes, it’s bad Spanish, but it’s a heck of a lot catchier than ochenta y cinco, and we have to give Chad props for that. We also have to praise his commitment to the nickname. In the end, this has all the elements a good nickname needs – it’s fun, catchy, and memorable. That’s why it’s atop this list.

9 – Megatron (aka Lions WR Calvin Johnson) – I love this nickname. It’s current – Transformers is a hit movie (if a terrible one, according to Roger Ebert). Megatron is bigger, badder, stronger, and better than all the other transformers, and those same attributes describe Johnson as well. The only hangup I have with this nickname is that Megatron is a bad guy and Johnson isn’t. Oh well – guess we can’t have it all.

8 – none yet

7 – Lights Out (aka Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman) – One of the few defensive players on this list, Merriman gave himself this nickname. It’s in reference to his ability to knock players out – put their lights out, so to speak. This isn’t an all-time classic nickname, but it is one of the better ones out there right now. Give Shawne two points for creativity on the name – even though the Lights Out dance stinks.

6 – Matty Ice (aka Falcons QB Matt Ryan) – This nickname hasn’t completely stuck yet, but if it does, it would be a good thing. It’s catchy, and it describes Ryan’s calm under pressure. Let’s hope Ryan continues to play well so that we get another good nickname into the hopper.

5 – Fast Willie (aka Steelers RB Willie Parker) – This nickname isn’t complicated, but its simplicity is its virtue. Fast Willie is in fact fast, and it’s fun to say. Sometimes we gravitate toward nicknames that are more clever or more complex, but this is an old-school name that works.

4 – Earth, Wind, and Fire (aka Giants RBs Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Derrick Ward) – This nickname was a bit derivative, and it was dated as well. But it did a decent job of describing the running styles of each player. Unfortunately for the nickname game, Ward left for Tampa during the offseason, so Earth, Wind, and Fire is no more.

3 – T.O. (aka Bills WR Terrell Owens) – We won’t include all initials and abbreviations on this list, because those are generally too easy. But in Owens’ case, the initials qualify as a nickname because they tie back to an actual term in the game. It would be like someone whose initials spelled YAC (yards after the catch). Of course, YAC would be a much better nickname, but T.O. ain’t bad.

3 (con’t) – Big Ben (aka Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger) – Big Ben is tall. Big Ben is alliterative. Big Ben is not a unique nickname. If Roethlisberger didn’t have two rings, this nickname wouldn’t be memorable. But it’s sticky and not stupid, so it stays off the bottom of this list.

2 – Mangenius (aka Browns head coach Eric Mangini) – This New York tabloid nickname became Mangini’s moniker during his time with the Jets. It’s catchy, but the problem is that it’s not so much true, given the fact that Mangini made the playoffs in just one of his three Big Apple seasons. Mangini will need better success at his second coaching stop to prevent this nickname from being used derisively.

1 – The Tower (aka Bears LB Pisa Tinoisamoa) – We can’t rate this nickname all that high, since we’re the only ones using it at the moment. But we shall include it, because we’re on a campaign to spread the word on The Tower.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL coaches, NFL nicknames

RP: Draft boom and bust by position – Offense

As we approach the NFL draft and listen to coverage, I’ve heard constantly that drafting a quarterback at the top of the draft was a 50-50 proposition. But is that really true? And what about other positions — what are the chances of picking a lemon at those spots? As I wondered what positions have been the safest in the draft recently and what positions have been the riskiest, I decided to undertake  a research project to see exactly that.

Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 picks of every draft this decade. We categorized each player as a positive, a negative, or a neutral. We only allowed neutrals for the past three drafts so that we didn’t straddle the fence over and over. We ranked offensive linemen as a group because at this level in the draft, it’s mostly offensive tackles anyway.

We then counted the positives as completions and negatives as incompletions to create a percentage of sorts. Neutrals did not count as attempts so that they don’t skew the rankings.

So here are the results. Feel free to quibble with the positive/negative/neutral ratings, because that would obviously change percentages. I’ve tried to be fair, and if there is a debate, I leaned toward the positive. (That’s the kind of guy I am.) Even with that, there are some pretty clear distinctions by position. Hopefully you’ll find the results are pretty insightful.

And if you want to check out the defensive results, check out this post (online Friday).

Quarterbacks: 8 of 11 positives (73 percent)
Positives: Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Michael Vick
Negatives: Alex Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington
Neutrals: JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart
Thoughts: This percentage was higher than I expected, but that’s because I held the jury out on Young and Leinart. Were I forced to assign a mark, both would be misses. Russell likewise needs to have a good year to move up. Smith could still turn his rating around, but because I forced a mark on him, it has to be a minus because he compiled only one quality season. Leftwich had four pretty good years in Jacksonville, and could still start in the league, so he’s a positive. Vick had six mostly good years in Atlanta, so his on-field performance was a plus too. It’s remarkable to see Ryan in the plus category so soon, because most QBs take 2-3 years to really start to shine. The strong QB class of ’04 (Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger) pushes this completion percentage up, but the class of ’05 (Young and Leinart along with Cutler) could yank the percentage right back down.
This year’s candidates: Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez

Running backs: 9 of 12 positives (75 percent)
Positives: Jonathan Stewart, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, LaDanian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones
Neutrals: Darren McFadden
Negatives: Cedric Benson, William Green, Ron Dayne
Thoughts: This is a pretty safe position at the top of the draft. If a running back fits into the top 16, he’ll most likely have some good years as a pro. And most of the time, backs can make an instant impact, which is another plus. We saw that with Stewart this year and Peterson and Lynch the year before. Williams has been hurt a lot, but when he’s played he’s been really good. McFadden is a neutral because he was so banged up as a rookie, but he still averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Dayne had some decent years, but he never notched 800 yards in a season, and so he has to receive a minus. Benson’s in the same boat, but he has a chance (like Thomas Jones) to reinvigorate his career in his second stop this year as a Bengal.
This year’s candidates: Knoshown Moreno, Beanie Wells

Wide receivers: 12 of 20 positives (60 percent)
Positives: Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn Jr., Braylon Edwards, Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Andre Johnson, Donte Stallworth, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
Negatives: Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor
Thoughts: There are some legitimate superstars (Calvin and Andre Johnson, Fitzgerald) in this category, but the overall batting average isn’t wonderful. Some of the busts – Williamson, Mike Williams, Rogers, Terrell – have been completely useless as pros. (They almost make me want to have a double-negative category.) Ginn has shown enough potential to be a positive, and while Clayton has only had one dynamic season, the fact that Tampa re-signed him moved him onto the plus side as well. Reggie Williams is another marginal plus. Roy Williams hasn’t lived up to his hype, but he had good years in Detroit. I remember covering Gardner’s Pro Day; he tore it up, especially on his vertical jump, and thus moved from a late first-round pick up to No. 15 overall. A similar workout-phenom jump happened to Williamson. Such overdrafting mistakes based on workouts can kill a team. All in all, this is a position that plays out as more of a risk than others.
This year’s candidates: Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Derrius Heyward-Bey

Tight ends: 3 of 3 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Kellen Winslow II, Jeremy Shockey, Bubba Franks
Neutrals: Vernon Davis
Negatives: None
Thoughts: It’s a little weird to look at this list, because none of the guys on the list has been lights-out dominant. But Winslow, Shockey, and Franks have all been productive (if a little tempermental, in the cases of Winslow and Shockey). Still, in our simple plus/minus grading, each of the three gets a plus. Davis would get a minus, but there’s still hope, and he actually started to come around at the end of the season after Mike Singletary went beyond benching and banished him off the sideline in a midseason game. Because there’s still hope for Davis, we’ll leave him neutral for now.
This year’s candidates: Brandon Pettigrew

Offensive line: 14 of 16 positives (88 percent)
Positives: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert, Joe Thomas, Levi Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jamaal Brown, Shawn Andrews, Jordan Gross, Bryant McKinnie, Levi Jones, Leonard Davis, Kenyatta Walker, Chris Samuels
Neutrals: Chris Williams
Negatives: Robert Gallery, Mike Williams
Thoughts: This position was one where the history is striking. If you want a safe pick at the top of the draft, take the offensive tackle. While there are a couple of notable busts, most of the time you get good value out of it. Some of these tackles are superstars, including recent top picks Long, Clady, and Thomas. But even the tackles who haven’t been started for a while, either at tackle or inside at guard. For example, Leonard Davis was not a great tackle, but he’s become a roadgrader at guard. Gallery moved to guard from tackle as well, but he’s a starter who hasn’t proven to be dominant. The numbers here surprised me in this research project, and they make me lean even more to this year’s crop of quality offensive tackles.
This year’s candidates: Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Eben Britton

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Draft OP: The Michael Crabtree conundrum

To me, the most interesting player at the top of the first round this year is Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree. He’s a physical freak who had ridiculous numbers in the two collegiate seasons he played. (231 catches, 3,127 yards, 41 TDs)

But Crabtree’s draft stock has slipped a bit since the season ended because he needs foot surgery that will knock him out of some offseason workouts both before the draft and after he is selected. That has caused his stock to fall out of the top three or four into the back half of the top 10. (This mock draft from PFW this week slotted Crabtree 10th.)

But should that happen? Will the team in the top 10 that takes Crabtree rue Draft Day ’09 because he doesn’t pan out? Or will the teams who pass on Crabtree live to regret it? An outlandish prediction is coming, but first some history…

This decade, there have been six receivers taken in the top 5. Four have lived up to the hype and become true No. 1 receivers who are in the league’s top echelon– Calvin Johnson, Braylon Edwards (see 2007 if you don’t believe me), Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson. Two busted out — Peter Warrick and Charles Rogers.

Nine more receivers were drafted between six and 10. Only one is an unqualified success — Plaxico Burress, who, despite his 2008 problems, has been very good for a long time now. Roy Williams had some success, and Ted Ginn Jr. showed some promise last year. Reggie Williams, Travis Taylor, and Koren Robinson each had at least a moment or two, while Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, and David Terrell just didn’t have any moments.

So history says that top five receivers are a good bet, but that often receivers who go between 6 and 10 were reaches who weren’t worth it. I beileve that Crabtree belongs in the former group, not the latter. He’s a top five talent, but his lingering postseason injury might knock him below the fifth pick. If that happens, he will be a steal.

The fact is that to get a truly elite receiver, you have to invest a top-5 pick. (Look at this relativity comparison; 3 of the top 4 receivers were top-5 picks, while the other – Steve Smith – was a third-round pick because of his diminutive size.) Crabtree can reach close to that level, and there is no one else in this draft – not speedsters like Percy Harvin or Jeremy Maclin or big guns Darrius Heyward-Bey or Hakeem Nicks – who come close in comparison.

Crabtree is the prize. He’s going to be an elite receiver a la Calvin or Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. He’s a true No. 1 receiver. And recent history says that if you want a guy like that, you probably have to invest a top-five pick.

 So any team starting with the Rams at No. 2 should consider him strongly. The Rams can take an offensive tackle because there’s value and need there, and the Chiefs (Dwayne Bowe) and Lions (Calvin Johnson) have No. 1s. But if Seattle thinks adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh (turning 32 in September) means they don’t need Crabtree, they’re wrong. Crabtree would be great there. If the Browns at 5 trade Edwards (and that’s the chatter), Crabtree would be an ideal replacement. And I don’t believe the Bengals at 6 can afford to let Crabtree by, especially considering the limited career span Chad Ocho Cinco has left in Cincy.

The bottom line is that whichever team drafts Crabtree – even if he goes as high as 2nd overall – will get its money worth. Were I drafting, he would be the No. 1 player on my board. The injury conundrum may be confusing, but the conclusion should be this: Take Crabtree and reap the rewards.

Top 10 drafted receivers this decade:
2008 – none
2007 – Calvin Johnson (2nd to Detroit), Ted Ginn Jr. (9th to Miami)
2006 – none
2005 – Braylon Edwards (3rd to Cleveland), Troy Williamson (7th to Minnesota), Mike Williams (10th to Detroit)
2004 – Larry Fitzgerald (3rd to Arizona), Roy Williams (7th to Detroit), Reggie Williams (9th to Jacksonville)
2003 – Charles Rogers (2nd to Detroit), Andre Johnson (3rd to Houston)2002 – none
2001 – David Terrell (8th to Chicago), Koren Robinson (9th to Seattle)
2000 – Peter Warrick (4th to Cincinnati), Plaxico Burress (8th to Pittsburgh), Travis Taylor (10th to Baltimore)

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FR: Receivers for 2009 and beyond

When I was writing the post about Terrell Owens going to Buffalo, I mentioned that there were at least 5 receivers I would take before Owens. So that got me to thinking… Exactly where does Owens rate among receivers in the NFL going into 2009? So I compiled a relativity post comparing NFL receivers to each other. (We already did this earlier this offseason with quarterbacks.)

Here are the qualifications I used: Since so many receivers start and/or play in the NFL, I used a statistical benchmark. We’ll rate the 33 receivers who had at least 800 yards receiving in 2008. In addition, we’re including nine of 10 receivers who had 800 yards in ’07 but not ’08 (omitting Shaun McDonald). We’re also including two of the 3 receivers who had 1,000 yards in ’06 but didn’t reach 800 in either of the last two years (omitting Mike Furrey). That leaves 44 receivers, who we’ve compared on 10 levels. 10 is the level for the ultimate receiver, and 1 is a guy who shouldn’t be starting anymore.

10 – Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson. Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and his play in the playoffs was at a level we haven’t seen much at all since Jerry Rice was in his prime. Andre Johnson is a physical specimen whose only negative is his inability to stay healthy. Smith is a gamebreaker who is just 5-foot-9, but the Panthers are still able to throw jump balls up and trust Smith to catch them, as if he were 6-foot-5. (The end of last year’s win at Green Bay was a prime example.) Calvin Johnson had terrible quarterbacks and still had an amazing year. If the Lions get a young quarterback who can grow with Johnson, watch out.

9 – Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Hines Ward. Wayne has developed into a true No. 1 receiver in an offense that remains one of the league’s most potent. Moss is a tremendous deep threat who has resurrected his great career in New England. Welker, Moss’ teammate, is the ultimate slot receiver who catches pass after pass and gets first down after first down. He’s impossible to cover inside. Ward isn’t a gamebreaker with the ball, but his ability to block downfield puts him on this level. He remains a great asset, especially on a running team.

8 – Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin, Roddy White, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings. So there are eight receivers definitely ahead of Owens on my list, and I’d take Boldin and maybe White on this list above him in ’09 as well. (Thinking long term, Bowe and Jennings would move ahead of him too.) Owens is still a gamebreaker, but his hands were spotty last year, and his age (35) says a slow-down is coming before too long. Boldin is a great receiver after the catch, and he could be a No. 1 on most teams. However, he’s not at Fitzgerald’s level. White emerged as a good receiver in ’07 and took another step forward last year. He and Matt Ryan will be a top-flight combo for a long time. Bowe is physically gifted, and he’s put up good numbers in bad offenses the last two years. It’ll be fun to see how he steps up with Matt Cassel at the Chiefs’ helm now. Marshall has the talent to be a 9, but his off the field issues have made him unreliable. He could easily miss some games on league suspension in ’09, and that has to be accounted for. I’m not sure I would gamble on him as a long-term answer at this point. Jennings has developed into a strong threat, and last year he finally passed Donald Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 threat. He and Aaron Rodgers make another good pitch-and-catch combo.

7 – Santana Moss, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, Donald Driver, Lee Evans , Braylon Edwards – Moss is a consistent playmaker for Washington, but his lack of size keeps him from being higher on this comparison. Houshmandzadeh has been a consistently good possession receiver, but he can be a bit more – and will have a chance to prove it in Seattle this year. Holmes emerged as a game-changing receiver in the playoffs, and I expect him to knock down the door and become an elite receiver in ’09. Driver is getting up in age but has been a productive guy under the radar for several years. Evans is a deep threat whose yards-per-catch average is always good and should be better with T.O. in Buffalo now. Edwards struggled with drops last year, which keeps him down on this list, but he has the talent to be on the 8 or 9 level if he improves his consistency.

6 – Antonio Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Derrick Mason, Eddie Royal, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Bernard Berrian, Roy Williams  – Bryant finally capitalized on his immense talent level last year in Tampa. If he can do it again and stay on the field, he’ll rocket up this list. Jackson is a big receiver who quietly had a monster year in ’08. He and Philip Rivers are a pretty good answer as a pitch-and-catch combo. Mason has lost a step from his Tennessee days, but he’s a solid veteran receiver who still makes more plays than you might expect. Royal had a great rookie season and is an ideal complement to Brandon Marshall because of his speed, shiftiness, and breakaway ability. Moore emerged last year as a big-time player in New Orleans’ offense. He’s the inside receiver who can make big plays, while Colston is the big outside receiver. Both are good, and if Colston gets healthy, that could be an elite tandem in ’09. Berrian has breakaway ability, and he delivered a fair amount of big plays last year after Minnesota brought him over to be their No. 1 wideout. Williams has all the ability in the world but didn’t produce last year after moving to Dallas. He has the ability to move up this ranking, but does he have the will?

5 – Steve Breaston, DeSean Jackson, Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, Muhsin Muhammad, Torry Holt – Breaston emerged as a legitimate starter in Arizona last year and is ready to step in and produce if Anquan Boldin moves on. Jackson was a big-play source as a rookie, but his size may prohibit him from being a true No. 1. He’s better as the big-play threat than the every-down target. Cotchery isn’t dynamic, but he’s solid and can put up numbers. Coles, who moved to Cincinnati, is not as good as he thinks he is but is still an above-average NFL starter. Johnson (or Ocho Cinco, if you prefer) had a down year last year, and he’s been banged up the last two years. Can he still be a true No. 1 guy? Muhammad had a suprisingly big year returning to Carolina in ’08 and is also a good downfield blocker. He is still a quality complement to Steve Smith. Holt was banged up much of last year, and injuries have slowed him down at least a little, but he can still be an effective starter as long as a team has a speed guy who can draw coverge his way on the opposite side.

4 – Kevin Walter, Kevin Curtis – Walter had a big year in Houston last year and seems to be a good complement to Andre Johnson. He’s good enough to be an above-average No. 2 target. Curtis battled injuries last year but had a big year in ’07. He probably fits better as a No. 3 than a No. 2, but he won’t kill a team if it has to start him.

3 – Plaxico Burress – Burress has worlds of talent, but his off-the-field issues drop him well down the list. The fact that the Giants are at least considering keeping him, though, shows he still has some value.

2- Joey Galloway, Bobby Engram  -Welcome to the has-been haven. Galloway is moving to New England to show he still has value, but he’s a No. 3 there at best. He probably still can succeed in that role. Engram moves to Kansas City, where his possession skills should help take some pressure off of Dwayne Bowe.

1 – Chris Chambers, Javon Walker, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce – Has-been haven continues Chambers went to San Diego in ’07 to be a No. 1, but he’s slipped while Vincent Jackson has stepped up. Now it’s a question whether Chambers can even be an average No. 2 target. Walker has been a major bust in Oakland, but 2 years ago in Denver (before a serious knee injury) he was dynamic. It’s unlikely he can near that form again, but he’s still the Raiders’ best option. Harrison had a decent year last year, but he’s falling off, and he needs to find the perfect situation to keep playing. Bruce wasn’t bad in San Francisco, but he’s in decline too. He’s considering retirement, and if he plays he might not even be starter quality anymore.

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