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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Playmakers

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, as we begin to preview the Super Bowl, we try to anticipate which players will become the big-play makers of the big game. (You can see last year’s post here, and the Super Bowl 43 edition here.) As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

If you think we missed someone, add a comment and where you think that Packer or Steeler fits in.

10 – QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – This is Rodgers’ chance at the spotlight, and we believe he’s up to the challenge. Given the state of the Packers’ running game, the Packers’ chances rest on their quarterback, which means that he’s the man on the spot. He can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he has done just that in his playoff drive this season. Does he have one more game left?

9 – QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace, Steelers – Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings, but no MVP trophies, which is a little odd for a quarterback. You can’t say he’s played poorly, because he led a game-winning drive two years ago and hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. But Roethlisberger has set up Holmes and Hines Ward for Super Bowl MVP honors. So while Big Ben will play a huge role, the pattern indicates that if the Steelers win, it will be a receiver who gets the award. Our money is on Wallace, who has perhaps the best deep speed in the game. Wallace has been the focus of defenses in the playoffs thus far, but the Packers let Johnny Knox and Devin Hester break free deep in the NFC championship game, and if they can do it, Wallace can too. If the Steelers win, it’ll be correlated to a big game from Wallace.

8 – OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, Steelers – Harrison made a huge play in the last Super Bowl with an epic 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. And Harrison remains a huge force getting to the quarterback. But Woodley, who has compiled a sack in each and every postseason game in his career, will get to Rodgers at least once, and so he’s just as high on the list as Harrison. These two outside ‘backers will need to force at least one turnover for the Steelers to win.

7 – CB Charles Woodson, Packers – Really, we could have said pick a Packer corner, because both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have been game MVPs for the Pack in the playoffs this year. But Woodson is a big-time player who can emerge on the biggest stage, and as one of the few Packers with Super Bowl experience, he won’t be afraid of the stage.

6 – RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall may have had the best game of his career against the Jets in the AFC championship game, and if he plays that way again, he can carry the Steelers to a win. Running against the Packers will be tough, but Mendenhall showed against the Jets that he might just be up to the challenge.

5 – OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – Matthews is the Packers’ star on defense, but after a ridiculous start to the season his playmaking has been a bit more sporadic this season. The matchup seems to favor Matthews against subpar Steelers tackles, but if the Steelers gear up their protection to stop Matthews, someone else will need to step up and pressure Big Ben. And even if Matthews can get to Roethlisberger, can he bring him down? Roethlisberger is basically as big as Matthews, and he’s perhaps the league’s toughest QB to bring down.

4 – WR Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings may be the most overlooked No. 1 receiver in the league, but he certainly deserves the accolade. He’s good enough to carry the team, but he has so much help at receiver that defenses can’t focus on him. Jennings could have a breakout game a la Larry Fitzgerald two years ago that turns him from very good player to national star.

4 (con’t) – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers – Polamalu is one of the most popular and well-known Steelers, and he claimed defensive player of the year honors (over Matthews) this week. But his play of late hasn’t been dominant, and the fact that the Packers can spread the field with four receivers could force Polamalu into coverage instead of letting him freelance as he usually does. That will limit Polamalu’s impact in this game.

3 – TE Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a supersolid tight end who can help out blocking Matthews and company but also serve as a possession receiver or even a threat to get down the seam for a big play. The Packers have struggled against tight ends this year, and that could set Miller up for success on Sunday.

2 – WR Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson is the Packers’ fourth receiver, but he has been a popular target for Rodgers in the postseason, and we think he’s behind only Jennings in terms of the Packer wideouts we see making big plays this weekend. Of course, Rodgers will look for vet Donald Driver and the inconsistent but talented James Jones as well, but we can see Nelson piling up 70-80 yards or more on multiple receptions.

2 (con’t) – DLs B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins, Packers – The Packers’ defensive line doesn’t get a ton of publicity – or at least it didn’t until Raji broke free with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears. But while Raji has been a dominator inside, Jenkins stepped up in the playoffs, and he’s just as likely to make the big play as Raji against the Steelers.

1 – ILBs Desmond Bishop, Packers, and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers – Bishop and Timmons have both had terrific seasons for their respective teams, but they don’t make the flashy plays that their defensive teammates do. But both guys are tackling machines, and if they can strip the ball on a tackle or pick up a fumble and return it for a score, they could find themselves joining unlikely Super Bowl MVPs like Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson.

1 (con’t) – DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – We’ve been pounding the drum on how well Hood has been playing throughout the postseason, and if he does that again he’ll have a shot at raising his profile and making a splash on the biggest stage. In fact, we believe it’s more likely that Hood will make a big play than his D-linemates Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel doing so.

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AFC Conference Championship Thoughts

Rashard Mendenhall breaks through the Jets for his first-quarter TD

We’re looking back at the two conference championship games individually. In this post, we focus on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets. (For the NFC thoughts, click here.)

*Ben Roethlisberger did not have a pretty game, but he did a few things that make him such a dangerous quarterback in the postseason. First, he ran the ball well – running for 21 yards and a touchdown, and notching a couple of key first downs in the process. Secondly, even though he was not sharp throwing the ball on the whole, he completed key passes to Heath Miller and Antonio Brown that allowed the Steelers to run the clock out when they got the ball back with three minutes remaining. So even though he was 10-for-19 for 133 yards with two interceptions (one of which came on a deflection) and a couple of other dicey throws, Roethlisberger gets a gold star for this game.
*Mark Sanchez didn’t win, but he showed an immense amount of toughness for the Jets. He was absolutely battered in the first half, culminating with a sack that led to a Pittsburgh defensive touchdown that extended the Steelers’ lead to 24-0. But Sanchez rallied and played well in the second half, throwing touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery and nearly leading the Jets back from a huge deficit. Sanchez is a winner, and as he develops as a passer his gifts as a leader will continue to really emerge.
*The Steelers completely controlled the game in the first half, starting with a nine-minute drive on their opening possession. And the defense held the Jets to a single net yard over the first 29 minutes of the game. While Pittsburgh didn’t keep that pace up throughout the game, the first half was where they won the game.
*We’ve never been huge Rashard Mendenhall fans, but he had perhaps his finest game Sunday. He ran for 127 yards, and he did it with a style that was both physical and shifty. We’ve never though Mendenhall had the ability to make things happen on his own, but he did just that against the Jets, especially early on. He would give ground and then successfully retake it, and that is something that we haven’t seen from him. Good for him for stepping up at a key time.
*The Steelers have hit on a lot of first-round picks in recent years on defense, even if it took those players time to develop. Ziggy Hood, who’s done a fine job filling in for Aaron Smith at defensive end, had two early stuffs to help to set the tone for the defense, and Lawrence Timmons led the team with 10 tackles from his inside linebacker spot. Adding those guys to dynamic players like S Troy Polamalu, NT Casey Hampton, and OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley makes the defense even scaries. That defense dominated the first half and stepped up in the second half with a goal-line stop in the middle of the fourth quarter.
*The other Jet who we have high praise for is WR Santonio Holmes, who had a 35-yard touchdown catch to continue his trend of strong postseason play. Holmes also ran a beautiful route to create a pick play that Cotchery exploited for the Jets’ final touchdown. Holmes doesn’t have huge numbers, but he plays as a No. 1 receiver every year in the playoffs. The Jets must re-sign him.
*The Maurkice Pouncey injury is a big one for the Steelers. They really need their rookie Pro Bowl center to recover from his high ankle sprain and return against the Packers, who have incredible athletes up front in their 3-4.

Santonio Holmes another big playoff play – always steps up at key times

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FR: February signings

Here’s a compendium of the major NFL re-signings and additions of street free agents during February, before the official free-agent market opens. Since there weren’t many major moves, we’re simply commenting instead of comparing. We’ll compare signings using Football Relativity once the free agent market opens.

Steelers (kept NT Casey Hampton) – Hampton has long been a stalwart of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense as the nose tackle, as he has started every game he has played since his second season in 2002. At age 32, he has moved from being a penetrating player to being more of a Pat Williams-style stopper in the middle, but he still has significant value in that role. The Steelers were going to follow the trend and franchise-tag Hampton, like so many other teams did with their nose tackles, but instead they signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal with $11 million in guaranteed money. This way, Hampton gets a little more guaranteed dough, while the Steelers get Hampton at a reasonable per-year rate.

Raiders (kept PK Sebastian Janikowski) –  Janikowski, the only kicker in two generations to be a first-round draft pick, signed the biggest contract ever given to a kicker. He’ll get $9 million guaranteed in a four-year deal scheduled to pay him $16 million total. That’s the same amount the Raiders gave All-Pro punter Shane Lechler last offseason. Janikowski isn’t the clear best at his position like Lechler is, but the kicker known as Sea-Bass had a career year in 2009, making 26-of-29 field goals, including a 61-yarder that’s one of the longest in league history. He has one of the strongest legs in the league and is one of a dying breed of placekickers who thrive on kickoffs as well. So he’s clearly a top-5 kicker, if not the very best in the league. While you can argue the wisdom of committing so many resources to one area of the team, the Raiders have ensured continued excellence in the kicking game. At least they’re paying for quality.

Titans (kept OLG Eugene Amano and S Donnie Nickey) –  Amano was ready to become an unrestricted free agent whether or not 2010 was an uncapped year, and so the Titans were in danger of losing him. Instead, they inked him to a new five-year contract worth up to $26.5 million with $10.5 million in guaranteed money. Amano has emerged as a left guard starter over the last two seasons, and he also is able to play center, which is a key because Titans starter Kevin Mawae is a free agent who has already logged 16 seasons in the NFL. Amano’s versatility, and the paucity of starting-caliber offensive linemen who will hit the open market, made him a priority for the Titans (with good reason, according to Daniel Jeremiah of MovetheSticks.com). That’s why Amano got above-average starter money. Tennessee, which has terrific OTs David Stewart and Michael Roos locked up long term, now knows that they’ll have a good measure of continuity on the line with or without Mawae. Amano, meanwhile, gets some financial security and the chance to stay in the same city where he has played his whole career. It takes that kind of win-win to get a deal done this far before the free-agent market opens. Nickey, a key special-teams player as well as a backup safety, took a one-year deal to stay in Nashville as well.

Bengals (added WR Matt Jones and PK Dave Rayner) – Jones got a contract just above the league minimum to return to the NFL after missing the entire 2009 season due to suspension and being released by the Jaguars. Jones was largely disappointing in his time in Jacksonville, although his best season was his last one. But he can provide a big and fast option across from Chad Ochocinco, replacing what the Bengals lost when Chris Henry died. It’s a low-risk, high-reward gamble which makes sense from a football perspective. However, given the off-field problems the Bengals have had, if this blows up in their face it will cause much more scrutiny. So the Bengals are relying on Jones to behave even more than they are relying on his production. Rayner, who has kicked for five teams, looks to be the replacement for Shayne Graham, whom the Bengals don’t plan to re-sign after his playoff failings. Rayner’s no great shakes, but he’s at least worth a shot in a training-camp battle with someone.

Ravens (add WR Donte Stallworth) – Stallworth, who sat out the 2009 season under league suspension, will get his second chance in Baltimore on a one-year deal worth $900,000 and potentially $300,000 more in incentives. That’s not much to pay for a guy with speed and potential. But even before his suspension, Stallworth bounced around to four teams in four years because he never really lived up to his billing. He’s the ultimate workout warrior who hasn’t found a way to really translate his numbers onto the field. Still, Baltimore isn’t paying much to give him a chance, and the Ravens have such a dearth of offensive playmakers that gambling on Stallworth as a third or fourth receiver makes sense. It would be a mistake, though, to rely on Stallworth in a starting role. Meanwhile, from a character standpoint, Stallworth has shown maturity in making up for his mistake over the past year, and perhaps that will help him resurrect a career that is disappointing at this point.

Jaguars (kept WR Troy Williamson and TE Ernest Wilford) – Williamson was a bust as a first-round pick in Minnesota, but he’s shown a bit of promise in Jacksonville despite injuries. The Jags chose to bring Williamson back as a speedy complement to Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas. By signing Williamson now, the Jaguars also get him at less money than the restricted free agent tender, while Williamson gets a $100,000 signing bonus he wouldn’t have gotten by signing the tender. So that’s a small win-win for both sides for a guy who could be a backup but not much more. Wilford, a former wide receiver, played OK in his move to tight end last year, and he took a one-year contract at the veteran minimum to remain in Jacksonville again. He’s played five of his six career seasons in Jax.

Falcons (kept WR Brian Finneran) – Finneran has been around forever, and he’s been in Atlanta since 2000. He’s a special-teamer and possession receiver, and while he’s not a big part of the offense, he’s a nice safety net for Matt Ryan and the Dirty Birds. So keeping him makes sense, especially at a team-friendly price.

Panthers (add DT Ed Johnson) – Johnson started 20 games over the past three seasons in Indianapolis after joining the Colts as an undrafted free agent, but he was also cut twice for repeated off-the-field transgressions. He gets another chance in Carolina now with Ron Meeks, his former Colts defensive coordinator who’s now in Charlotte. Given how many injuries the Panthers sustained at defensive tackle last year (Maake Kemeoatu, Corvey Ivy, Louis Leonard), you can understand them looking under every possible rock for help, but Johnson’s off-the-field history doesn’t match the Panthers’ normal m.o. You have to wonder if Johnson signed knowing he’s on an incredibly short leash.

Vikings (kept WR Greg Lewis) – Lewis isn’t more than a fourth receiver, but he can make the occasional play – as he did on the final play of Minnesota’s miraculous win over San Francisco this year. The Vikings keep him around as a nice insurance policy who knows the Brad Childress/Andy Reid style of offense well.

Patriots (add WR David Patten) – Patten didn’t play last year, but his history with the Patriots and New England’s lack of depth at wideout makes him worth a look as a fourth receiver. We’ll see through the offseason whether Patten still has the ability to contribute at age 35.

Seahawks (add LB Ricky Foley and LS Pat McDonald) – Foley, who played collegiately in Canada, didn’t hook on in his first NFL shot in 2006, but the four-year CFL vet had 12 sacks for the B.C. Lions last year and is worth a look. The Hawks hope he can become a situational pass rusher like Canadian import Cameron Wake was for the Dolphins in ’09. Seattle also added long snapper Pat McDonald from the CFL.

Steelers (add CB David Pittman and LB Renauld Williams) – Pittman, who hasn’t played in the NFL in two years, was a third-round pick by the Ravens in 2006. The Steelers will try to see if his draftable talent still exists. Williams played seven games for the Dolphins and 49ers from ’04 to ’06 and then became a starter for Saskatchewan in the CFL over the past two years. He’s a long shot to make the team, but the Steelers do have a knack for finding linebackers who contribute in all sorts of strange places.

Jets (add PK Nick Folk) – Folk showed great promise in Dallas in his first two seasons, but his 2009 season was marked by inconsistency, and he was finally released by the team. Still, he has a strong leg and some experience, which is a virtue. The Jets face free agency with Jay Feely, and so adding Folk is a nice insurance policy at this point in the offseason. They could do worse than entering the 2010 season with Folk as their placekicker.

Chiefs (kept RB Kolby Smith and QB Matt Gutierrez) – Both Smith and Gutierrez are backups whom the Chiefs re-signed as potential restricted free agents, most likely at rates below the usual tender amounts.

Redskins (add PK Justin Medlock) – The Redskins, who cut Shaun Suisham midway through the ’09 season, are taking a look at Medlock, a former Chiefs draft choice who lasted just one regular-season game with the Chiefs in ’07. Medlock went to Canada in ’09 and thrived with Toronto, leading to another shot with the Redskins. Graham Gano (a UFL import) did a decent job with the ‘Skins at the end of the ’09 season, but Medlock provides competition that should allow Washington to end up with a young kicker with upside.

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FR: Franchise Players 2010

As we did last year, we’re going to use Football Relativity as a tool to compare this year’s class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy. We’ll update this post with franchise players until the Feb. 25 deadline to name them passes. If you want a history of the franchise tag, Wikipedia has you covered. And for this year’s tag amounts, check out this post. All players below got the franchise tag unless otherwise noted.

A few general thoughts: Some defensive ends who might have normally been franchised, including Aaron Kampman of Green Bay or Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee broke free instead because the DE franchise tag cost so much – $12.4 million. That artifically-high tender resulted from Julius Peppers’ $16 million-plus salary in ’09.

Also, fewer players were franchised this year because some players who would have normally hit the open market were instead free because the league is moving into an uncapped year. Instead of needing four accrued seasons to become free, players now need six seasons, and that leaves many players restricted instead of unrestricted. That means that some 2009 franchise players, including S O.J. Atogwe of the Rams and TE Bo Scaife of Tennessee, were given restricted free agent tenders instead of franchise tenders. Basically, the teams still get the right to match any offer those players get, and if they sign elsewhere they will get 1st- and 3rd-round draft picks instead of two first-rounders. That’s a financial boon to those teams.

Now, on to the comparison of the 2010 franchise players. And as we did last year, we’re linking to Pro Football Weekly’s scouting reports where available.

10 – NT Vince Wilfork, Patriots – The massive Wilfork won’t see unrestricted free agency because the Patriots used the franchise tag on him. That guarantees Wilfork a one-year, $7 million contract but keeps him from hitting the lottery with guaranteed money in a long-term contract elsewhere. The Pats say they want to find a long-term solution with Wilfork, but the franchise’s unwillingness to pay other players like Asante Samuel or Richard Seymour is enough reason to make Wilfork’s agent nervous. Wilfork is the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle, and that makes him incredibly valuable. He’s a run stuffer who can collapse the pocket, and there just aren’t many of those guys walking the earth. So Wilfork is definitely worth the $7 million to the Patriots this season, and he might still end up cashing a bigger check by the time his status is resolved.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – NT Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers – Franklin doesn’t get the pub that other 3-4 nose tackles do, but he’s developed into a solid player at that position since joining the 49ers from Baltimore three seasons ago. After four seasons as a backup in Baltimore, Franklin has been a full-time starter in San Francisco, and his ability to take on blocks has helped Patrick Willis and the rest of the Niners’ defense fly around. That makes Franklin a core player in San Francisco, which makes it no surprise that the Niners decided it was worth a guaranteed $7 million in 2010 to keep him. Franklin may not be quite the impact player that fellow NT Vince Wilfork is for New England, but he’s better than a declining Casey Hampton of Pittsburgh and is a guy San Francisco just can’t afford to lose. This is good use of the tag by the 49ers, especially in an uncapped year, because Franklin is a big reason their defense is emerging as a force.

6 – none

5 – DE Richard Seymour, Raiders The Raiders paid handsomely – a 2011 first-round pick – to acquire Seymour from the Patriots on the eve of the 2009 opener, so it makes sense for them to protect that investment by paying a premium to keep Seymour in 2010. The $12.4 million franchise tag for defensive ends is steep, especially for an end who had just four sacks last season, but Seymour is a quality leader who can help the Raiders’ dysfunctional locker room as well as their pass rush. For his part, Seymour doesn’t seem to mind the franchise tag, which makes sense because it’s no guarantee that a 30-year-old defensive end like him will get much more than $12 million in guaranteed money with a 2011 lockout looming. So look for Seymour to lock in that money while the Raiders seek a long-term deal (or perhaps even trade Seymour once 2010 is officially an uncapped year).

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

3 – none

2 – PK Jeff Reed, Steelers – Pittsburgh planned taking advantage of the uncapped year rules by using both a franchise tag and a transition tag, but they signed potential franchise player NT Casey Hampton on the day the franchise tags were due. That left Pittsburgh the freedom to use the franchise tag instead of the transition tag on Reed. Reed has been the team’s kicker since late in the 2002 season, and his ability to successfully kick in the tricky winds of Heinz Field is a big asset. He’s made at least 82 percent of his field goal tries in all but two of his seasons, and he continues to be a solid kickoff guy as well. In a year when so many teams had kicker problems in the playoffs, keeping a dependable guy like Reed is worth the one-year, $2.8 million franchise tag.

1 – PK Olindo Mare, Seahawks – Mare almost got cut after Week 3 (as we noted in this post), but now that the free-agent market is opening the team has decided that he’s worth keeping around and paying a one-year, $2.8 million salary. Mare isn’t an elite kicker, but he’s been solid over his 11-year career, and in a year when so many teams struggled with kickers (especially in the postseason) he could have easily found another home. And Pete Carroll, who didn’t have the beef with Mare that old coach Jim Mora did during the season, saw that Mare has made 48-of-53 field goals in Seattle and is also one of the shrinking number of kickers who’s just as good on kickoffs and on field goals. That makes the investment feasible for the Hawks – and a nice payday for Mare.

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Westbrook joins the RB unemployment line

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

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

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

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

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

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Linemen

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 and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post. Now we move to defensive linemen, who can wear numbers in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 90s, with the 90s by far the most popular and populated numbers. If a number is omitted, it’s because no defensive lineman who has played this season wears those digits.

54 – Quentin Groves, Jaguars – Groves has been a bust after being a second-round pick by the Jaguars back in 2008, going without a sack this year after notching just 2.5 in 16 games as a rookie. But since he’s the only defensive lineman wearing No. 54, he gets the nod.

55 – John Abraham, Falcons – Abraham is an impactful pass rusher who has five career 10-sack seasons, including a career-high 16.5 last year. He has just 3.5 sacks this season but is still a strong pass-rush threat. Other notable 55s: Darryl Tapp, Seahawks

57 – James Wyche, Jaguars – Wyche made his NFL debut last week vs. the Texans after spending two seasons on the Jaguars’ roster. But like his teammate Groves, he’s the only defensive lineman currently wearing his number.

58 – Trent Cole, Eagles – Cole has developed into a strong pass-rushing threat off the edge for the Eagles. He has 44 career sacks, including 9.5 so far this year. He is also one of the best defensive ends in the league in terms of solo tackles. First-round pick Aaron Maybin of the Bills, another 58 who has yet to record a sack in his rookie season, hopes to one day be the kind of impact pass rusher that Cole is.

60 – Joe Cohen, Lions – Cohen, a first-year player out of Florida, is a backup defensive tackle who has seen action in five games this season. He gets the nod over injured Panthers rookie Corvey Irvin.

61 – Gerard Warren, Raiders – Warren, in his ninth year, never lived up to the billing he had as the third overall pick in the 2001 draft. But he has been a starter every year of his career but one, and now serves as a run-stuffing defensive tackle for Oakland. Other notable 61: Derek Landri, Panthers

64 – Kedric Golston, Redskins – Golston, in his fourth year with the Redskins, is a solid rotation defensive tackle. That’s something every team needs a couple of. Other notable 64: Antonio Dixon, Eagles

66 – DelJuan Robinson, Texans – Robinson, a third-year defensive tackle out of Mississippi State, played in all 16 games last year and has seen action in seven contests this season. He’s the only defensive lineman wearing 66 who has seen action this year.

68 – Jonathan Fanene, Bengals – One of the most surprising stat lines I uncovered in researching this project was the season Fanene is having for the Bengals. He has five sacks, two passes defensed and a interception (which he returned for a touchdown). That’s a huge step forward for a player who had just one sack in his first four seasons. Other notable 68: Eric Foster, Colts

69 – Jared Allen, Vikings – This was an easy call. Allen is one of the league’s best pass rushers, with 12.5 sacks thus far this season and 70 in his six-year career. He’s just entering his prime, which means he’ll give the Vikings many more sacks to come. Other notable 69s: Leger Douzable, Rams; Anthony Hargrove, Saints; Henry Melton, Bears; C.J. Mosley, Browns; J’Vonne Parker, Broncos

70 – Kendall Langford, Dolphins – Langford is a second-year starter at defensive end in Miami’s 3-4 system. He has 3.5 career sacks, which is enough to give him the nod at this number over long-time backup DT Alfonso Boone, now with the Chargers. Other notable 70: Mike DeVito, Jets

71 – Kroy Biermann, Falcons – Biermann, a second-year defensive end for Atlanta, is coming into his own as a pass-rushing specialist. He has five sacks this season. So we give him the nod over Kendrick Clancy of the Saints, who has started three of the past four seasons but has played just two games this year. Other notable 71s: Lionel Dotson, Dolphins; Gary Gibson, Rams; Israel Idonije, Bears; Alex Magee, Chiefs; Ahtyba Rubin, Browns; Dave Tollefson, Giants

72 – Osi Umenyiora, Giants – Umenyiora isn’t having his best year after missing the entire ’08 season with a knee injury, yet he still has five sacks and is still a dangerous pass rusher. Osi has 46.5 career sacks and has performed at a level far above what we’ve yet seen from 2008 top-five draft picks Chris Long of the Rams and Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs, who also wear 72. Dorsey is at least among the leading tacklers on the defensive line. Other notable 72: Stephen Bowen, Cowboys

73 – Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings – Kennedy was once the 12th overall pick, but his career has been disappointing. Now in his seventh season, he’s nothing more than a rotation defensive tackle for the Vikings. But since he’s the only notable defensive lineman wearing 73, he gets props here. Sometimes the world ain’t fair.

74 – Jacques Cesaire, Chargers – Cesaire, now in his seventh season with the Chargers, has started 11 games this season as a 3-4 defensive end, taking over the spot that Igor Olshansky vacated. He’s been a solid hand for the Bolts for many years now.

75 – Vince Wilfork, Patriots – Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles around, and he’s going to be rewarded for his ability (and his girth) as a free agent this season. He has started regularly since his second season, and he is now one of the few impact players left on the Patriots defense. He’s made one Pro Bowl. Other notable 75s: Jovan Haye, Titans; Turk McBride, Lions; Juqua Parker, Eagles; Hollis Thomas, Panthers; Matt Toeaina, Bears

76 – Jamal Williams, Chargers – Williams played just one game this season before injuries shelved him, but for many years he was the preeminent 3-4 nose tackle. He made three bowls and was the heart of several terrific Chargers defenses. Other notable 76: Chris Hoke, Steelers

77 – Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins made the transition from a dominant tackle in a 4-3 defense with Carolina to being a stud nose tackle in the Jets’ 3-4. He played in just six games this season before getting hurt, so he’ll have to be content with four Pro Bowl appearances for now. He gets this nod over his brother Cullen, a defensive tackle for the Packers. Other notable 77s: RaShon Harris, Steelers; Matt Shaughnessy, Raiders

78 – Jacob Ford, Titans – Ford hasn’t yet broken through as a defensive end starter in Tennessee, but he has provided solid pass-rush skills in his two seasons. He has 3.5 sacks this season after notching seven as a rookie. Other notable 78s: Alan Branch, Cardinals; Tony McDaniel, Dolphins

79 – Ryan Pickett, Packers – Pickett was a bit of a disappointment as a first-rounder in St. Louis, but he’s found a home in Green Bay. In fact, Pickett’s ability to move from a defensive tackle in the 4-3 to playing on the nose in a 3-4 has been a key in Green Bay’s relatively seamless transition between those defensive schemes. Other notable 79s: Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins; Raheem Brock, Colts; Ropati Pitoitua, Jets; Sammie Lee Hill, Lions; Red Bryant, Seahawks; Marcus Thomas, Broncos

90 – Julius Peppers, Panthers – This is an incredibly close call for Peppers, who has all the talent in the world and has turned it into 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this year. Among the top competition is Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, who has seven sacks and is among the leading DL tacklers in the league; Mario Williams of Houston, a talented pass rusher; solid run-defending DE Chris Kelsay of Buffalo; and top-flight NT Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys. Other notable 90s: Ryan Baker, Dolphins; Desmond Bryant, Raiders; Adam Carriker, Rams; Colin Cole, Seahawks; Kenyon Coleman, Browns; Fred Evans, Vikings; Jarron Gilbert, Bears; Darren Howard, Eagles; Grady Jackson, Lions; Jeremy Jarmon, Redskins; Jevon Kearse, Titans; Travis Kirschke, Steelers; Daniel Muir, Colts; Kenny Peterson, Broncos; DeMario Pressley, Saints; Trevor Pryce, Ravens; B.J. Raji, Packers; Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons; Pat Sims, Bengals; Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers; Julius Williams, Jaguars

91 – Will Smith, Saints – This was another tough call, as Justin Tuck of the Giants is well known for his ability to be a force both at end and at tackle. But Smith is having a terrific season with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles, so we’ll give him a slight nod over Tuck. Ray Edwards of the Vikings (6.5 sacks) is the sleeper candidate here, and Pittsburgh DE Aaron Smith woudl be if he were healthy. Other notable 91s: Everette Brown, Panthers; Chris Clemons, Eagles; Ronald Fields, Broncos; Robert Geathers, Bengals; Justin Harrell, Packers; Tommie Harris, Bears; Derrick Harvey, Jaguars; Kenny Iwebema, Cardinals; Rob Jackson, Redskins; Spencer Johnson, Bills; Jason Jones, Titans; Leonard Little, Rams; Ray McDonald, 49ers; Brandon McKinney, Ravens; Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Chargers; Amobi Okoye, Texans; Sione Pouha, Jets; Myron Pryor, Patriots; Brian Schaefering, Browns; Trevor Scott, Raiders; Stylez White, Buccaneers

92 – Albert Haynesworth, Redskins – Haynesworth doesn’t get to pile up numbers, but no one wreaks more havoc from the inside than Haynesworth does. That’s why the Redskins made Haynesworth the highest-paid defensive player in the league in the offseason. With Cleveland NT Shaun Rogers hurt, Haynesworth is the easy choice. Haloti Ngata of Baltimore, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends, deserves mention as well. Other notable 92s: Cliff Avril, Lions; Remi Ayodele, Saints; Ron Brace, Patriots; Chauncey Davis, Falcons; Ryan Denney, Bills; Shaun Ellis, Jets; Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers; Wallace Gilberry, Chiefs; Damione Lewis, Panthers; Vaughn Martin, Chargers; Brandon Mebane, Seahawks; Rob Meier, Jaguars; Jayme Mitchell, Vikings; Dre Moore, Buccaneers; Frostee Rucker, Bengals; Richard Seymour, Raiders; Jeff Zgonina, Texans

93 – Kevin Williams, Vikings – This was an exceedingly close call between Williams, the disruptive Vikings defensive tackle, and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, a preeminent pass rusher. Freeney outpaces Williams in sacks this year 10.5 to 6, but the fact that Williams is one of the top sackers from the tackle position gives him the edge in what amounts to a coin flip. These two are a step above other candidates like Tennessee DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jets DE Marques Douglas, who is second in tackles among defensive linemen this season. Other notable 93s: Jay Alford, Giants; Tim Bulman, Texans; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Luis Castillo, Chargers; Phillip Daniels, Redskins;  Nick Eason, Steelers; Dwan Edwards, Ravens; Chris Ellis, Bills; Demetric Evans, 49ers; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Thomas Johnson, Falcons; Tommy Kelly, Raiders; Trevor Laws, Eagles; Bobby McCray, Saints; Roy Miller, Buccaneers; Adewale Ogunleye, Bears; Greg Peterson, Jaguars; Craig Terrill, Seahawks; Tank Tyler, Panthers

94 – Aaron Schobel, Bills – The crop of defensive linemen at 94 is a little thinner, but Schobel is a solid choice. He has seven sacks this year yet is also solid against the run. We’ll give him the nod over Vikings NT Pat Williams, who is the big run-stopper who allows Kevin Williams to attack more aggressively. Other notable 94s: Victor Adeyanju, Rams; Jason Babin, Eagles; Ervin Baldwin, Colts; Justin Bannan, Ravens; Copeland Bryan, Lions; Charles Grant, Saints; Marcus Harrison, Bears; Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; Peria Jerry, Falcons; William Joseph, Raiders; Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants; Louis Leonard, Panthers; Sen’Derrick Marks, Titans; Anthony Montgomery, Redskins; Kyle Moore, Buccaneers; Jarvis Moss, Broncos; Jeremy Navarre, Jaguars; Domata Peko, Bengals; Cory Redding, Seahawks; Antonio Smith, Texans; Justin Smith, 49ers; Randy Starks, Dolphins; Ty Warren, Patriots;  Jarius Wynn, Packers

95 – Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons – While 94 is a gaunt number for defensive linemen, 95 is straight slim pickings. So we go with Babineaux, a solid defensive tackle who has 5 sacks this season. Other notable 95s: Victor Abiamiri, Eagles; Anthony Adams, Bears; Tim Anderson, Cowboys; Rocky Bernard, Giants; Shaun Cody, Texans; Jared DeVries, Lions; Ron Edwards, Chiefs; Jason Ferguson, Dolphins; Howard Green, Jets; Orien Harris, Bengals; William Hayes, Titans; Chris Hovan, Buccaneers; Lawrence Jackson, Seahawks; Ricky Jean-Francois, 49ers; Charles Johnson, Panthers; Fili Moala, Colts; Darrell Reid, Broncos; Clifton Ryan, Rams; Junior Siavii, Cowboys; Montavious Stanley, Jaguars; Kyle Williams, Bills; Chris Wilson, Redskins

96 – Tyler Brayton, Panthers – This is another group of slim pickings, to the point that Brayton’s 37 tackles and four sacks are enough to give him the nod. That’s one more tackle and the same number of sacks as Chicago’s Alex Brown. Other notable 96s: Kentwan Balmer, 49ers; Barry Cofield, Giants; Tim Crowder, Buccaneers; Keyunta Dawson, Colts; Andre Fluellen, Lions; Cornelius Griffin, Redskins; James Hall, Rams; Ziggy Hood, Steelers; Tim Jamison, Texans; Travis Johnson, Chargers; Terrance Knighton, Jaguars; Mike Montgomery, Packers; Brian Robison, Vikings; Paul Soliai, Dolphins; Marcus Spears, Cowboys; Kevin Vickerson, Titans

97 – Kelly Gregg, Ravens – This is more like it – a number filled with quality players. The best of the bunch is Gregg, the run-stuffing nose tackle for Baltimore who is currently sixth among defensive linemen in tackles. His ability to take on defenders and stuff inside runs allows the rest of the Ravens to run free. He gets the nod over Packers DE Johnny Jolly, who is by far the leader among defensive linemen in passes broken up with eight, and periennially solid pass rusher Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks. Other notable 97s: Mark Anderson, Bears; Tony Brown, Titans; Brodrick Bunkley, Eagles; Jeff Charleston, Saints; Jarvis Green, Patriots; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys; Reggie Hayward, Jaguars; Jason Hunter, Lions; Trey Lewis, Falcons; John McCargo, Bills; Phillip Merling, Dolphins; Frank Okam, Texans; Bryan Robinson, Cardinals; Darell Scott, Rams; LeKevin Smith, Broncos; Hilee Taylor, Panthers; Jimmy Wilkerson, Buccaneers; Renaldo Wynn, Redskins

98 – Robert Mathis, Colts – Mathis doesn’t get as much pub as his teammate Dwight Freeney, but he’s nearly as devastating as a pass rusher. Mathis has 9.5 sacks thus far this season, tied for fourth among defensive linemen. So he gets the nod over Cleveland DE Robaire Smith, who leads the league in tackles among defensive linemen; up-and-coming Saints DT Sedrick Ellis; and Steelers NT Casey Hampton. If Bengals DE Antwan Odom hadn’t gotten hurt after six games, he would have more than eight sacks and would have certainly claimed this honor. Other notable 98s: C.J. Ah You, Rams; Jamaal Anderson, Falcons; Dave Ball, Titans; Connor Barwin, Texans; Landon Cohen, Lions; Dusty Dvoracek, Bears; Letroy Guion, Vikings; Nick Hayden, Panthers; John Henderson, Jaguars; Curtis Johnson, Cowboys; Ryan McBean, Broncos; Mike Patterson, Eagles; Nick Reed, Seahawks; Jay Richardson, Raiders; Fred Robbins, Giants; Ian Scott, Chargers; Ryan Sims, Buccaneers; Kelly Talavou, Ravens; Gabe Watson, Cardinals

99 – Andre Carter, Redskins – Carter, a former top-10 pick, is kind of a forgotten guy, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league. He has nine sacks, which places him sixth among defensive linemen, and is fourth among defensive linemen in tackles. When you think about how solid the Redskins’ defense is, you have to give Carter much of the credit. So he gets the nod over solid Bills DT Marcus Stroud. Other notable 99s: Gaines Adams, Bears; Chris Canty, Giants; Greg Ellis, Raiders; Atiyyah Ellison, Jaguars; Vonnie Holliday, Broncos; Antonio Johnson, Colts; Tank Johnson, Bengals; Brett Keisel, Steelers; Maake Kemeoatu, Panthers; Igor Olshansky, Chargers; LaJuan Ramsey, Rams; Derek Walker, Seahawks; Vance Walker, Falcons; Dewayne White, Lions; Corey Williams, Browns; Mike Wright, Patriots

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