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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.

10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run. 

10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.

9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.

9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.

8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.

8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.

7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.

7 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.

7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.

7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.

6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.

6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.

5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.

5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.

4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.

4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.

4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.

4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.

3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack.  Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.

3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.

3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.

2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.

1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the  Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.

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Fantasy Football: Quarterback fallout

Five quarterbacks are getting their first big chances to start in the NFL this year. In this post, we’re going to analyze how  Matt Moore, Kevin Kolb, Matt Leinart, Josh Freeman, and Chad Henne will affect the stock of the players around them in fantasy football terms.

For more fantasy football coverage and analysis, visit the Football Relativity fantasy football category.

Buccaneers (Josh Freeman starting) – Freeman started the second half of last season and had a pretty typical rookie season with 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. If we assume the typical second-year bump, Freeman should move into the 16-18 touchdown range in 2010 while trimming his interception total. Since the Buccaneers have completely overhauled their wide-receiver corps with rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, the one guy most set up to gain from Freeman’s development is TE Kellen Winslow. That means that Winslow’s solid 2009 numbers – 77 catches for 884 yards and five touchdowns – are repeatable as long as Winslow stays healthy. Freeman’s solid play could help running back Cadillac Williams, but Williams is still not more than a No. 4 fantasy back.

Cardinals (Matt Leinart starting) – We’ve discussed at length how Leinart’s addition slightly dings Larry Fitzgerald’s stock, while Steve Breaston and Early Doucet are in line for improved numbers not because of Leinart but because of Anquan Boldin’s departure. The other main fantasy impact of Leinart’s ascension to the starting role is that the Cards will likely move toward more running plays, and that helps Beanie Wells become a more attractive fantasy starter. For the same reasons, Tim Hightower will maintain his stock as a dependable backup running back.

Dolphins (Chad Henne starting) – We’re bullish on Henne’s fantasy stock as a top-15 fantasy quarterback, and his presence will help Brandon Marshall maintain elite fantasy receiver status. Behind Marshall, we believe that Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, and Patrick Turner will have some fantasy value, but their numbers may be split so much that those guys become little more than fantasy fill-ins. If Henne can improve on his interception numbers, it could lead to a small increase in the numbers of running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, although again multiple options leads to fantasy ambiguity.

Eagles (Kevin Kolb starting) – Like Henne, we believe Kolb is a good fantasy prospect this year and a borderline starter in 12-team leagues. That means that DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant should maintain their fantasy stock. Brent Celek could slip just a bit, based on the inevitable inconsistency a first-year starter will have, but that doesn’t knock Celek’s stock out of starter status. At running back, LeSean McCoy is more of a flex play than a starting back, but that’s because of his adjustment and the presence of Leonard Weaver and Mike Bell than because of Kolb.

Panthers (Matt Moore starting) – We haven’t discussed the Panthers much this season other than affirming DeAngelo Williams as a No. 1 fantasy back and Jonathan Stewart as a legitimate fantasy starter as well. Moore’s presence will help these runners as long as he can decrease the massive spate of turnovers that plagued the Panthers will Jake Delhomme last year. Moore’s presence probably limits Steve Smith’s stock a little (and Smith’s offseason injury doesn’t help matters), and because the Panthers have so few proven other receivers or tight ends besides Smith, we don’t expect much other fantasy impact (unless you want to take a shot on rookies Armanti Edwards or Brandon LaFell).

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FR: 2009 Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 16

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.

This week we’re going to focus purely on players who should be starting for your team in the fantasy playoffs. That’s a higher standard than we’ve traditionally had in this post, but at this point in the season it’s the info you need to know.

Quarterbacks

Matt Moore, Panthers – Moore has thrown three touchdown passes in each of the last two weeks, and against a Saints pass defense that is banged up and could be resting key players like Darren Sharper next week, he could be in line for another big week in the season finale. If you’re looking for an emergency starter, look no further. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – After missing two games, Ryan was back for the second game, and for the first time he was a fantasy factor with 250 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a good sign in terms of Ryan’s health, and with a game in Tampa Bay slated for the season finale, Ryan becomes a starting option for fantasy owners in leagues of 12 teams or more once again. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Arian Foster, Texans – Foster was supposed to get his shot as the Texans’ top running back last week, but an early fumble left him in the doghouse with just three touches. Against the Dolphins, though, Foster delivered a 97-yard performance that included a touchdown. Foster has talent, and if he gets the bulk of the carries this week against the Patriots more production could be in the offing. But Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is so wishy-washy in terms of which running back plays when that you simply can’t count on Foster to get enough touches. He’s not more than a flex option, and that’s the case only in leagues of 12 or more. Don’t rely too heavily on Foster; there’s simply too much risk of a nothing game. Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Harrison, Browns  – Maybe, finally, the Browns are sticking to something with Harrison, who followed his epic Week 15 performance with 148 yards and a score against the Raiders. The competition level gets harder against the Jaguars in Week 17, but Harrison looks like a hot hand that you’ll want to stick with. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jackson, Packers – Jackson scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Seahawks, but two of those came in garbage time of a blowout win against the Seahawks. Given that Ryan Grant is still the bellweather back, Jackson isn’t a guy fantasy owners should turn to in the final week of the regular season. Verdict: A fraud

Chris Johnson, Titans – Week 17 is usually marked by star players getting rest before the playoffs. But now that Tennessee’s playoff hopes are flatlining, the goal in Tennessee will be getting Johnson to 2,000 yards rushing and beyond. The fact that he’s just 233 yards from the all-time single-season rushing record held by Eric Dickerson should encourage the Titans to feed Johnson early and often. He’s one fantasy football star who will play like one in the season’s final week. Verdict: Applaud

Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert, Chargers – Sproles had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) in the Chargers’ 42-17 victory over the Titans on Christmas night, and he’s an interesting play in Week 17. You have to figure that San Diego, now that it has locked down a first-round bye, will sit LaDanian Tomlinson for most if not all of the game. The question is whether Sproles is so valuable that he too sits. It’s worth a shot to start Sproles and see, but Tolbert (who had 11 carries for 60 yards in Tennnessee) may end up being the most used fantasy back in the final week of the season. That makes both backs worth a flier as flex plays in 10- to 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud for both Sproles and Tolbert

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart exploded for 206 rushing yards and a score against the Giants, and if DeAngelo Williams sits out the final week of the season, Stewart will be a top-15 fantasy back once again. Even if Williams plays, you can still count on Stewart as a passable flex option. Verdict: Applaud

Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – Williams has been one of the feel-good stories both from a human-interest perspective and from a fantasy football viewpoint. After Sunday’s 129-yard performance against the Saints, he’s now run for 781 yards and scored seven total touchdowns. Don’t overlook him as a potential starter this week against the Falcons, because he should be productive one more time. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie had six catches for 94 yards against the Jets, and with the Colts in shut-down mode at the end of the season, he’s the youngster who stands to benefit. Don’t put too much on Collie, but if you’re looking for a third receiver he remains an option. Verdict: Applaud

Jabar Gaffney, Broncos – Gaffney has been under the fantasy radar most of the season, but he popped his head up with two touchdowns among seven catches vs. the Eagles. But this performance had a lot to do with Eddie Royal’s absence, and that means Gaffney isn’t becoming a true fantasy threat. Verdict: A fraud

Roddy White, Falcons – This just in: White is good – really good – and he’s in a good offense for him. His eight-catch, 139-yard, two-touchdown day against Buffalo is just a reminder to leave him in your lineup for Week 17. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap had just two catches this week against the Steelers, but both went for touchdowns. The season finale against the Raiders is appealing, especially since the Ravens must win to get in the playoffs, but Heap is still outside the top 12 fantasy tight ends. Owners simply can’t afford to count on touchdowns this heavily. Verdict: A fraud

Zach Miller, Raiders – After missing the Week 15 game, Miller returned against the Browns and had nine catches for 110 yards. It’s a good sign that Miller continues to produce even with Charlie Frye in the lineup. In the last 10 games in which he’s played, Miller has had at least four catches and at least 43 yards in eight. Although he doesn’t find the end zone much, if you’re  in need of a tight end in a massive league (14 teams or more), Miller remains a nice option. Verdict: Applaud

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 6

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 if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well.

Quarterbacks

Marc Bulger, Rams – Bulger returned from injury and threw for 213 yards and a touchdown. But those numbers came against one of the league’s worst secondaries. Bulger is still injury prone, and he still plays with a below-average offensive line and receiving corps. He’s not a top-20 fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – We discussed Flacco in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Flacco is worthy of starting in fantasy leagues that have 12 or more teams. Verdict: Applaud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Some fantasy analysts will try to convince you that Garrard is a fantasy starter, and this week’s 335-yard passing game (with 31 yards rushing) would seem to be evidence. But there are many other guys I’d rather start than Garrard. To me, he falls between 10 and 14 on the fantasy quarterback list, so if you have to start him, you’re at a disadvantage. Some are selling, but we’re not buying. Verdict: A fraud

JaMarcus Russell, Raiders – Russell has worlds of talent, but he’s been worlds of terrible so far this season. He finally had a decent fantasy game Sunday – 22-of-34 for 213 yards and a touchdown – but that could easily end up being his best game of the year. Stay far, far away from Russell on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Justin Fargas, Raiders – In the absence of Darren McFadden, Michael Bush had a representative fantasy game last week, and this week Fargas had 23 carries for 87 yards. Fargas isn’t a terrible back, but he’s running behind a terrible line, and the Bush factor makes it impossible to predict whether Fargas will actually deliver on any given week. Still, Fargas is worth a speculative pick-up if you’re desperate for RB help just in case McFadden ends up being put on injured reserve for some strange reason. Take that risk if you want, but don’t put Fargas in your lineup until the McFadden situation is clear. Verdict: A fraud

Larry Johnson, Chiefs – Johnson had his first decent fantasy game with 83 yards on 23 carries against the Redskins. But the Chiefs won’t be in most game as they were in this one, and Johnson is far from dependable in fantasy leagues. He’s ownable – barely – but you shouldn’t start him unless bye weeks and injuries leave you no choice. Verdict: A fraud

Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t the kind of back you feel wonderful about putting in your starting lineup, in large part because he often takes a while to get going. But he has generally been productive this year, with Sunday’s 220-yard effort against the Bills, highlighted by a 71-yard touchdown run, being his best of the year. Jones isn’t a No. 1 fantasy back, but he’s staved off the Leon Washington challenge (for now) and established himself as a solid No. 2 fantasy back. That means he should be starting for you. Verdict: Applaud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Where did that come from? In the snow and ice against the Titans, Maroney went wild, breaking a 69-yard touchdown run early and finishing with 123 yards. But we don’t believe. The Titans gave little to no real effort in this one, and Maroney hasn’t show he can run against anyone else this year. Note this performance, but don’t act on it by claiming Maroney until he has another good game. This smells too much like a fluke. Verdict: A fraud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – We haven’t been recommending Mendenhall, who had 62 yards and a touchdown against the Browns. But now that it appears that Mendenhall has taken over from Willie Parker as the Steelers’ No. 1 back, there’s far more reason to start him. As long as he keeps this role, Mendenhall is a borderline No. 2 fantasy back – and therefore a starter for most owners. Verdict: Applaud

Ray Rice, Ravens – We discussed Rice in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Rice has emerged into an every-week starting running back both in yardage and scoring-based leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart ran for 110 yards and scored for the second straight week against the Buccaneers. As the Panthers have won two straight, they have been able to rely once again on their running attack, and that has gotten Stewart more chances. That makes Stewart a No. 3 running back and a nice flex option against favorable matchups. Finally, his arrow is pointed up. Verdict: Applaud

Leon Washington, Jets – Washington got a lot of buzz as a sleeper this year because he made so much out of limited carries over the past couple of seasons. But this year, he hasn’t done much – avoiding the end zone entirely. So while he had 99 yards on 15 carries against the Bills Sunday, he’s still not worthy of starting or even of flex-spot consideration in most leagues right now. Verdict: A fraud

Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – The Bucs are epically bad, but Cadillac has been a nice story for them. He’s emerged as their best back, and he’s delivered fantasy production, such as his 77-yard, one-touchdown day against the Panthers. It’s now at the point where Cadillac becomes a nice flex option against bad defenses like the Panthers’ D was Sunday. If you picked him up, you got a nice little find. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Bernard Berrian, Vikings – We discussed Berrian in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that despite his touchdown Sunday, Berrian is a No. 4 fantasy wideout and not a regular starter for most fantasy leagues. Verdict: A fraud

Josh Cribbs, Browns – You’ll have to check where Cribbs is eligible in your league, but note that he had 45 rushing yards in addition to a kickoff return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh. If Cribbs keeps getting 8-10 offensive touches, he’s worth owning in larger fantasy leagues because he’s got such great ability to break big plays. He’s a fantasy sleeper you should notice. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Mason, Ravens – We discussed Mason in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so note that he’s the only Ravens’ receiver worth starting. He slips under the radar, but he’s a true No. 1 receiver for the Ravens and a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver now that Joe Flacco is flinging the ball around like crazy. Verdict: Applaud

Lance Moore, Saints – Moore is finally healthy from his hamstring injury, so it’s no surprise that he had his best game of the year with a six-catch, 78-yard day that included his first TD of the year. He fits in as New Orleans’ No. 2 receiving target, and even with the Saints’ sharing mentality he still is a No. 3 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks scored his third touchdown of the year and had 114 receiving yards against the Saints. His numbers were the epitome of garbage-time production, but the fact that he’s showing up on the scoresheet so frequently is worth noting. At this point, he’s worth a pickup as a No. 5 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – We discussed Rice in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, but suffice it to note here after his breakout game (six catches for 176 yards) that he’s now a No. 3 fantasy receiver who could grow into a No. 2 by the end of the season. Grab him now if he’s available, and if you have him consider putting him in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers – Stroughter had a kickoff return for a touchdown, and he also had 65 receiving yards against Carolina. The rookie is an interesting prospect, but he’s still only the Bucs’ No. 3 wideout. Pass for now, but keep an eye to see if Stroughter moves up the depth chart. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Todd Heap, Ravens – We discussed Heap in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Heap should not be starting for your fantasy team. Verdict: A fraud

Zach Miller, Raiders – Sunday’s game against the Eagles – six catches, 139 yards and a touchdown – reminds everyone that Miller is a really good player. Just don’t forget that JaMarcus Russell is a really bad quarterback. As talented as Miller is, his offensive situation keeps him from being a starting fantasy tight end. Sorry,  Zach. Verdict: A fraud

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – We discussed Shiancoe in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Shiancoe is worthy of being an every-week starter at tight end. Verdict: Applaud

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Applaud or a Fraud – Emerging Running Backs

Yesterday, we went back through our preseason top-35 running back rankings to determine whether fantasy owners should applaud these backs or consider them frauds going forward. You can read that post here.

In this post, we’re going to look at running backs outside of the preseason top-35 and determine whether we should applaud these backs or consider their numbers fraudulent. Read the individual reports to see whether the verdicts mean you should start a player, hold him on your bench, pick him up, or drop him. We’ve listed these players alphabetically.

Mike Bell, Saints – Bell burst onto the scene in Week One when Pierre Thomas was hurt, and over the first two weeks he had 229 rushing yards and a touchdown. But he has missed the last two games with injury, and Thomas has reestablished himself as the main back in New Orleans. Bell will be a role player when he returns to action, and that limits his fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw is now a solid No. 2 behind Brandon Jacobs in New York, and that will get him 12-15 carries a game. But Bradshaw’s not a touchdown threat unless he breaks a long run. So his current average of 66 yards per game is probably all you can expect from him. That’s OK No. 3 fantasy back production, but it’s not starter worthy. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter had a good start to the season with 363 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in the first four games of the season. But he will miss the next two games with injury, and that will give rookie Knowshon Moreno a chance to seize more carries in Denver. Despite his solid numbers thus far, Buckhalter isn’t more than a bye-week fill-in going forward for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Tashard Choice, Cowboys – Choice started the season as the Cowboys’ No. 3 back, but injuries first to Marion Barber and then to Felix Jones have given him chances. He has 215 yards from scrimmage thus far with one touchdown, showing that he’s good enough when he gets the ball in his hands. As long as Barber is healthy, Choice isn’t really a starter, but he’s worth hanging onto in most leagues because you never know if Barber and Jones will stay healthy. Verdict: Applaud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones has had solid numbers as a change-of-pace back and an injury fill-in thus far, but he missed the Week 4 game vs. Denver and will miss some more time with a knee injury. So despite his 232 yards from scrimmage, he’s droppable in fantasy leagues right now. Verdict: A fraud

Julius Jones, Seahawks – Jones is the best back Seattle has, which isn’t saying much. But he has been a decent fantasy performer thus far with 316 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns. That makes Jones a solid No. 3 fantasy back or flex option, which is a nice find, and we can assume that he’ll have similar fantasy value moving forward. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower has held off Beanie Wells for the Cardinals’ starting RB job, and he’s produced 279 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. He’s not a great fantasy back, but as long as he holds this role he’ll be a flex option or No. 3 back in most leagues. That’s decent value. Verdict: Applaud

Willis McGahee, Ravens – McGahee has been the biggest surprise for fantasy owners this year with seven touchdowns in the first four games. It will be hard for McGahee to continue this torrid TD pace, but you should be starting him until he starts to go through an extended scoring drought. Ray Rice is the better overall back, but McGahee’s production is impossible to ignore. Verdict: Applaud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – After doing next to nothing in the first three games of the year, Mendenhall went crazy in Week 4 against San Diego with 165 yards and two touchdowns. But he has just 210 rushing yards total, and when Willie Parker returns Mendenhall shouldn’t be in your fantasy lineup. He’s only valuable as a Parker handcuff, not as a part-time player on his own. Verdict: A fraud

Darren Sproles, Chargers – With LaDanian Tomlinson out for one week and hobbled for a couple others, Sproles has stepped up with 287 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. But now that Tomlinson is coming back, Sproles becomes a feature player. Sproles will probably end up with around 800 yards from scrimmage and six TDs, and that’s not enough to make him a starting-caliber player unless Tomlinson gets hurt again. So we’ll turn a thumbs-down on him continuing his current level of production. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Taylor, Patriots – Taylor has had one 100-yard game, but other than that he’s been a role player in the Pats’ RB-by-committee approach. The problem with Taylor for fantasy owners is that it will be all but impossible to figure out when his chances will come. That makes him hard to start despite his still-existent talent. Verdict: A fraud

Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – Coming back from an atrocious knee injury, Williams has burst back on the scene with 272 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in four games. Williams has established himself as the best back in Tampa Bay, and that role will allow him to be a fantasy contributor as a flex option or No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – I was surprised to see Williams end up on this list, but he’s legit with 310 yards from scrimmage and three TDs. The fact that both Williams and Ronnie Brown continue to produce shouldn’t surprise us, because that’s the Dolphins’ formula to win. That means Williams will be a decent No. 3 back in all fantasy leagues going forward. Verdict: Applaud

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