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Fantasy Football: Breakout wide receivers

What wide receivers are ready to break out as stars this year? In this post, we’ll use our Football Relativity tool to compare the fantasy football stock of some potential breakout receivers and some receivers who broke out last year. With each player, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss whether he is worthy of being a top-4 receiver on your fantasy team (top 40 at the position). Players are listed alphabetically.

And remember, you can follow all of our fantasy football analysis in the Football Relativity fantasy football category.

Devin Aromashodu, Bears – Aromashodu is a big-time sleeper this year because of his strong finish last year (22 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the final four games of the season) and the Bears’ new emphasis on the passing game. But our sense is that Johnny Knox is more likely to shoot up the fantasy charts than Aromashodu is, and that makes us slot Aromashodu in as a No. 5 receiver with upside instead of a counting on him among the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Breaston, CardinalsWith Anquan Boldin gone, Breaston has a chance to replicate his ’08 numbers, which would make him a terrific No. 3 fantasy receiver. Even with Matt Leinart at quarterback instead of Kurt Warner, Breaston makes the breakout cut. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt had a nice rookie season with 42 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns, and it appears that he’s ready to surpass Justin Gage as the Titans’ top receiving option. Remember that Tennessee hasn’t really been a home of fantasy receivers since Derrick Mason left, and don’t get your head out over your skis, but you can pencil Britt in for 800 receiving yards and 5-6 touchdowns, which makes him a draftable receiver in all leagues as a No. 4. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie fit right into the slot in his rookie season with Indianapolis’ high-powered offense, putting up 60 catches for 676 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers put him on the border of the top 40, and being familiar with the offense from the beginning will only help Collie inch those totals upward. Even better, Collie is less susceptible to losing targets to Anthony Gonzalez because he thrives in the slot and not outside. Our hunch is that Collie ends up in the top 40 at wideout as a nice No. 4 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – We’ve already endorsed Crabtree as a top-20 receiver in this post. We’re still clapping and expecting an even bigger breakout for the sophomore. Verdict: Applaud

Early Doucet, Cardinals – The guy we now call Fluffy moves up to No. 3 wideout in Arizona with Anquan Boldin’s departure. Fluffy is ready for his close-up after 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in two terrific postseason appearances. Doucet will break out this year, likely surpassing his career regular-season totals of 31 catches and 304 yards. He won’t make it into the top 40, but owners in deeper leagues need to have Doucet on their draft boards. Verdict: A fraud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon was one of two young Colts receivers to emerge last year. He piled up 765 yards and four touchdowns on 47 catches (in just 14 games), and then added two more touchdowns and 251 yards in three playoff games. Maybe Garcon will take another big step forward this year, but we’re skeptical. Anthony Gonzalez could return to the field, and that could take targets away from Garcon and Austin Collie. And Garcon will likely need more catches to repeat his regular-season yardage and touchdown numbers. He has upside, but we’re leaving him just outside the top 40 at wideout and slotting him as a No. 5 fantasy wideout, not a No. 4. Verdict: A fraud

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – After being the first receiver picked in the ’09 draft, HeyBey only had nine catches for 121 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season. People have raved about his preparation this offseason, and the addition of QB Jason Campbell could aid Heyward-Bey’s deep skills. But he has so much improving to do that fantasy owners can’t put HeyBey in the top 40. Slide him in the top 50 if you want to take a shot on talent, but don’t get crazy. Verdict: A fraud

Jacoby Jones, Texans – Jones is starting to get some buzz as a fantasy sleeper this year after a six-touchdown season in ’09. But those scores came on just 27 catches and 437 yards, which are lower totals than most guys on this list. Jones has big-play ability, and if he can surpass Kevin Walter in the pecking order, there are fantasy points to be had. But we haven’t seen enough consistency to match the upside that would lead us to put Jones in the top 40. He’s a late-round sleeper, not a No. 4 wideout. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox was another in the list of rookies who had a terrific first season, with 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns (plus a kick return score). And the news out of Chicago in training camp is that Knox is emerging as the Bears’ best target. If that’s the case, Knox could really benefit from offensive coordinator Mike Martz’ new system. Before training camp, we would have put Knox just below the top-40 cutoff (and Devin Aromashodu just above it), but now Knox is the Bear whose upside is worth betting on. Verdict: Applaud

Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns – He didn’t get the fantasy pub that other rookies did last year, but Massaquoi finished the season with solid debut totals of 34 catches for 624 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t a consistent producer, but he showed the ability to have big games. Now he’s probably Cleveland’s best outside option. The Browns’ shaky quarterback situation could limit Massaquoi’s development, and that will keep him away from the top 40. But he’s worth thinking about for owners in larger leagues, because he comes with upside. Verdict: A fraud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem, a former first-round pick, emerged in his third year with nine touchdowns receiving (plus one on a fumble return) and 722 yards on 45 catches. He’s now a factor in a deep corps of Saints receivers, although he’s behind Marques Colston and on par with Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. Meachem’s fantasy scoring last year was very dependent on touchdowns, and his catch to touchdown ratio was abnormally high. Meachem has some upside, but he can’t be counted within the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Louis Murphy, Raiders – Murphy didn’t have the rookie season that other mid-round picks like Johnny Knox or Mike Wallace did, but his 34-catch, 521-yard, four-touchdown totals weren’t bad at all. Now he has a chance to emerge as the Raiders’ No. 1 wideout, and that could bear fantasy fruit. But before you get too bullish on Murphy, remember that Chaz Schilens is around the whole year and that the buzz around Darrius Heyward-Bey is good. Our hunch is that Murphy could become the best option, but the split among those three wideouts will keep any of them from making it into the top 40 at the position. Murphy is draftable, but not in the top 40. Verdict: A fraud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks had a surprisingly strong rookie season with 47 catches for 790 yards and six touchdowns, which were numbers good enough for top-40 status last year. And he put up those numbers despite some inconsistency. This year, it appears that Nicks has a chance to be the Giants’ second outside option behind Steve Smith, and if that’s the case, he’ll be a top-40 receiver. This is a borderline call, but we’ll point to Nicks’ upside and give him the benefit of the doubt as (barely) a top-40 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Chaz Schilens, Raiders – Schilens missed half of last season, but once he returned he produced decent fantasy backup numbers. Now that Jason Campbell is pulling the trigger in Oakland, there’s a chance that Chaz could become a fantasy fill-in. He falls just outside the top 40, but he’s a good No. 5 receiver with some upside. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – Wallace averaged a whopping 19.4 yards per catch last season as he piled up 756 yards and six touchdowns on just 39 catches. Now that Santonio Holmes is gone, Wallace will get more catches, but we expect his yardage and touchdown numbers to hover at the same level. Still, that’ll be enough to make him a No. 4 fantasy receiver while still giving him some upside. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Injuries and issues

As a service to fantasy football players, here’s a combined list of some of the major injuries and other issues that will affect players’ ability to play as the regular-season starts. So here’s the list, which we’ll update as more news develops. All week designations refer to the regular season.

Out to begin regular season

QB Matt Cassel, Chiefs – could be out up to two weeks with sprained MCL and ankle injury

QB Kyle Orton, Broncos – could miss opener with dislocated finger

QB Chris Simms, Broncos – up to first two weeks with a high-ankle sprain

QB Michael Vick, Eagles – undetermined suspension; will know how many games by Week 6

RB Marshawn Lynch, Bills – 3-game suspension

RB Kolby Smith, Chiefs – out at least 6 weeks

WR Brooks Foster, Rams – 4-6 weeks with ankle surgery

WR Jabar Gaffney, Broncos – “several weeks” (likely 2-4)  with a hamstring injury

WR Brandon Jones, 49ers – up to first four games with a shoulder injury

WR Chaz Schilens, Raiders – up to first four games with broken left foot

TE Ben Patrick, Cardinals – 4-game suspension

PK Garrett Hartley, Saints – 4-game suspension

Out for the year:

RBs Justin Green, Cardinals; Thomas Clayton, 49ers; Andre Brown, Giants

WRs Syndric Steptoe, Browns; Harry Douglas. Falcons; Roy Hall, Colts; Marcus Smith, Ravens; Plaxico Burress, Giants (suspension); Chris Davis, Titans; Donte Stallworth, Browns (suspension); Devard Darling, Chiefs; Brandon Tate, Patriots; Demetrius Byrd, Chargers

TEs Cornelius Ingram, Eagles; Dan Campbell, Saints; Reggie Kelly, Bengals; Tory Humphrey, Packers; Ben Utecht, Bengals

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FR: Training Camp Injuries

As happens most year, there have been several notable injuries in training camps this year. Here is a comparison of the players who have suffered significant injuries in training camps this summer, with the 10 level being the most significant injuries and 1 being the least significant. This post does not include minicamp injuries; you can find a comparison of those losses here.

A few notes: We’ve only included injuries that could affect regular-season play. And we’ll continue to update this post through the fourth preseason game; we’ll do invidiual posts of major injuries and link back here.

10 – Panthers DT Maake Kemeoatu – Kemeoatu is the Panthers’ anchor on the defensive line. He has used his tremendous size to clog the middle and keep blockers off of MLB Jon Beason. His presence also allows fellow DT Damione Lewis to slash through the line and rush the passer more often, which maximizes Lewis’ value. The Panthers don’t have any backup DTs with any experience, so they’re likely going to have to add some depth via free agency or the waiver wire just to set up a four-man DT rotation. Regardless, this injury could make Carolina much more susceptible to the run.

9 – Eagles MLB Stewart Bradley – Bradley suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Bradley emerged as a starter in Philly last year, totalling 108 tackles, 86 of them solos. He’s a big thumper who provides the kind of stability that a 4-3 defense needs inside. With Bradley now almost certainly out for the year, the Eagles will turn to Omar Gaither or Joe Mays or recent addition Matt Wilhelm to fill in. Regardless of who steps in, it’s going to be a drop-off from what Bradley could do.

8 – Seahawks OLT Walter Jones – Jones, who quietly has been an all-time great at offensive tackle, was trying to come back from microfracture knee surgery, but he suffered a setback and had to have a follow-up surgery during training camp. The Seahawks are saying he’s out indefinitely, which could mean anything from a return at the beginning of the season to the end of Jones’ Hall-of-Fame-caliber career. The Seahawks don’t have a successor in place, so losing Jones for any amount of time is a monster problem for them.

7 – Panthers LB Jon Beason – Beason, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl middle linebacker, suffered a torn MCL in the second preseason game. That’s usually a 4-to-6 week injury, which would indicate that Beason could miss up to the first month of the regular season. Reports indicate that the Panthers hope it’s a mild enough sprain that Beason will be able to play before that, which would be a huge boon to the Panthers. Remember that Carolina already lost DT Maake Kemeoatu, and consider that the Panthers don’t have enough of a depth of defensive playmakers to replace another key starter.

7 (con’t) – Saints OLT Jammal Brown – Brown, an emerging star at left tackle, had surgery to repair a sports hernia in late August. The Saints still hope he can return to open the regular season, but that would be an especially optimistic timetable. A more normal recovery is 1-2 months, which would cost Brown the first 4-6 games of the regular season. The fact that Brown’s backup has also been dinged up in the preseason makes Brown’s speedy return even more possibly.

6 – TE Cornelius Ingram, Eagles – Ingram was a fifth-round pick who looked like a steal because his athletic ability merited a higher pick but a college knee injury depressed his draft stock. But that potential went bust when Ingram tore the ACL in his left knee during training camp. It’s the second time Ingram has done that, and that makes the chance that Ingram will ever contribute pretty remote. It’s a shame, because Ingram was a nice prospect. Now the Eagles must rely heavily on Brent Celek to bring them some offense over the middle.

6 (con’t) – WR Harry Douglas, Falcons – Douglas emerged as a big-play threat (actually a triple threat) as a rookie last year for Atlanta, and he added a pretty interesting dynamic to the Falcons’s offense. But he tore an ACL in training camp and now will miss the season. That’ll hurt the Falcons’ ability to threaten defenses out of multi-receiver sets, and with Roddy White holding out, it could quickly become an even more significant blow.

6 (con’t) – Bengals TE Reggie Kelly – Kelly is a starting tight end who doesn’t catch many balls but still makes an impact by being a fantastic blocker. His absence will likely cause the Bengals to change the way they approach offense, but it could actually open up snaps for rookie Chase Coffman, who has a lot of potential as a pass-catcher.

6  (con’t) – TE Ben Utecht, Bengals – Utecht, who was probably going to start for the Bengals at tight end, suffered a nasty concussion that will cost him the season. With Utecht and Reggie Kelly out, the Bengals are counting on rookie Chase Coffman pretty signficantly.

6 (con’t) – Giants DT-LS Jay Alford – Alford is a key member of the Giants’ defensive line rotation, and he also serves as the team’s long-snapper. But in the team’s second preseason game, he suffered a knee injury that tore his MCL and partially tore his ACL. He’ll be out for the year. This injury hurts on two fronts – the Giants’ defense, which attacks so much that depth is vital, and on special teams as well. Alford’s potential as a penetrating pass rusher will be missed.

5 – Lions DE Jared DeVries – DeVries, a usual starter over the past three years in Detroit, ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss the year. DeVries isn’t wonderful, but he’s a legitimate rotation guy and an average starter in the NFL. For a team as devoid of depth as Detroit still is, losing that kind of guy is a big blow.

5 (con’t) – Ravens OT Adam Terry – Terry, who was slated to compete with Michael Oher for the starting right tackle job and then settle into a role as the primary backup at both tackle spots, had a knee injury that just wasn’t getting better, so during the first week of camp he had a surgery that will cost him the entire ’09 season. His absence limits the Ravens’ experience but shouldn’t be a deathknell because Baltimore has done a good job of accumulating depth.

5 (con’t) – Buccaneers LB Angelo Crowell – Crowell, a former standout in Buffalo, signed with the Buccaneers in the offseason to be a starter after missing the entire ’08 season. But a torn biceps muscle will bench Crowell for the entire ’09 season as well. That hurts a Bucs defense that let a lot more talent go in the offseason than what they brought in. Crowell’s veteran wile will be missed in what looks like a rebuilding season in Tampa Bay.

5 (con’t) – QB Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Cassel, the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, suffered a sprained MCL and an ankle injury in the third preseason game, and it could cost him up to two regular-season games. That’s a huge blow to the Chiefs, who are counting on Cassel to provide QB stability for the franchise over the long term. This injury could also inhibit K.C.’s ability to trade QB Tyler Thigpen for a draft pick, as it had hoped.

5 (con’t) – Bears RB Kevin Jones – Jones, who was slated to be Matt Forte’s primary backup this season, tore an ankle ligament and will miss the entire season. Jones, who had a major knee injury in Detroit that cost him an entire season, now must rehab again. That’s a bad break for him and a blow to the Bears, who thought Jones was a higher-quality backup than Adrian Peterson (the other one) or Garrett Wolfe.

4 – WR Brandon Jones, 49ers – Jones, whom the Niners signed in the offseason to bolster their receiving corps, could miss up to four regular-season games with a broken shoulder. That’s a big blow, because aside from Isaac Bruce, Jones is probably the most experienced wideout San Fran has. Jones and Josh Morgan will still be fighting for a starting job, but this injury gives Morgan an edge in that battle. And Michael Crabtree (in the midst of an acrimonious holdout) could figure in later this offseason as well. But the Niners probably need all four receivers to contribute, and this injury limits the chance of that happening.

4 (con’t) – RB Andre Brown, Giants – Brown, a rookie out N.C. State, was the guy the Giants drafted as they tried to replace Derrick Ward in their Earth, Wind, and Fire running back corps. But Brown ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg in the opening preseason game and will miss the season. That’s a blow both to the Giants and to this promising runner, because he is good enough that he could have helped in a complementary role this season.

4 (con’t) – WR Chaz Schilens, Raiders – Schilens isn’t a household name, but he was actually slated to be the Raiders’ No. 1 wideout this season before he broke a bone in his left foot in mid-August. If the injury follows the normal course of healing, it will sideline Schilens until early-to-mid October. That’s a shame, not just because Schilens showed so much promsie as a rookie but also because we all need more guys named Chaz in our lives.

4 (con’t) – S Daniel Bullocks, Lions – Bullocks started 15 games last season, and as a former second-round pick he still has some potential. But he’s also dealing with a lingering knee injury that will end up costing him the entire 2009 season.

4 (con’t) – Seahawks C Chris Spencer – Walter Jones isn’t the only Seahawk lineman who’s hurting. Spencer, the starting center, has an injured left quadriceps, and the team has yet to figure out how many regular-season games he’ll miss, although it will be at least a couple. At least rookie Max Unger could step in for Spencer, a former first-round pick who has turned into a decent center. But losing two offensive line starters, even if it’s just for a handful of games, will most likely put a significant crimp in Seattle’s offensive style.

4 (con’t) – Bears DT Dusty Dvoracek – Dvoracek, once a second-round pick, now sees his season ended early by injury for the fourth time in four years, this time with a torn ACL. That’s a blow to the Bears, who are going to have to limit stud DT Tommie Harris’ snaps to keep his aching knees as healthy as possible. This injury probably will spell the end of Dvoracek’s Bears tenure as well, because it’s hard to see a team counting on a guy who has been injured so often once again next season.

4 (con’t) – Cardinals OLB Cody Brown – Brown, the Cardinals’ second-round pick this year, is a pass-rushing linebacker from Connecticut who was expected to find a rotation role for Arizona this year. He and Calais Campbell were slated to help replace the potent rush of Antonio Smith, who moved to Houston via free agency. But Brown broke his wrist and will miss the entire season. That hurts his development and takes a defensive weapon away for a defense that could use him.

3 – LB Nick Griesen, Broncos – Griesen was one of the myriad veteran free agents Denver brought in during the offseason to create depth. However, he suffered a knee injury on Aug. 3 that will cost him the season. His intelligence and experience in a 3-4 defense would have helped, but he looked to be more of a backup than a starter, so this loss doesn’t look to hamper Denver too much in the long run.

3 (con’t) – WR Syndric Steptoe, Browns – Steptoe had 19 catches as a rookie last year, but he’ll miss his second year with a shoulder injury. The most interesting thing about this injury is that Steptoe’s agent blames Browns head coach Eric Mangini for it. Steptoe was hurt in a practice conducted at full speed in a driving rain. Maybe this lends a little more credibility to our argument against Bill Belichick lieutenants succeeding as NFL head coaches. It’s a shame for Steptoe, who actually had some promise.

3 (con’t) – TE Tory Humphrey, Packers – Humphrey broke his forearm in training camp and will miss the entire season for the second time in three years. He has showed promise as a receiving tight end, but given his injury history it’s unlikely Green Bay will rely on him again.

3 (con’t) – LB Mark Simoneau, Saints – Simoneau was once a starter in New Orleans, but a right triceps injury will force him to miss the entire season for the second straight year. That limits New Orleans’ LB depth, which is already short because of Stanley Arnoux’s minicamp injury, and it caused the Saints to start looking at veteran ‘backers like Derrick Brooks.

3 (con’t) – P Josh Bidwell, Buccaneers – Bidwell had so much soreness in his hip that the Buccaneers opted to sideline him for the year and replace him with Dirk Johnson. The one-time Pro Bowl pick is a consistent punter, if not the biggest leg in the league, so losing him will sting – especially if Johnson struggles as much as he has in recent years.

3 (con’t) – LB Cato June, Texans – June was a starter with Indy and Tampa Bay, but at age 28 he was trying to start over and find a role in Houston. While he had the look of a future starter, he was running with the third team when he broke his arm just before the second preseason game. It will cost him the season.

3 (con’t) – Cowboys OT Robert Brewster – Brewster, a third-round pick, was projected as a backup tackle for the Cowboys. Instead, he’s going to be on injured reserve and miss the season after tearing a pectoral muscle. Given the age of Dallas’ tackles, this move could end up hurting more than it would appear at first glance.

3 (con’t) Broncos QB Chris Simms – So much for a quarterback competition in Denver. Simms, who had an opening to try to seize the starting job from Kyle Orton after Orton’s up-and-down performance in the first two preseason games, suffered a high ankle sprain that will cost him the last two preseason games and could hinder him in the first few weeks of the season. It’s another in a long list of injuries for Simms in his career.

3 (con’t) – WR Jabar Gaffney, Broncos – Gaffney, brought over from New England to be Denver’s reliable outside receiver, suffered a broken thumb that will cost him a few regular-season games.

3 (con’t) – OG Darnell Stapleton, Steelers – Stapleton started 12 games for the Steelers last year, and helped to stabilize an offensive line that struggled much of the year. But he suffered a knee injury early in training camp and will miss the whole season.

2- WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery hurt his leg in training camp and could miss the season opener. He’s vital to the Rams’ offensive plans this year, because he’s their No. 1 receiver. In fact, Avery is the only receiver for the Rams who’s even semi-proven in the NFL. So missing him for any games is a huge deal for St. Louis.

2 (con’t) – CB Jacque Reeves, Texans – Reeves broke a leg early in training camp and should miss at least a couple of games in the regular season, if not more. Reeves was a starter, and his absence could be compounded by the holdout of Dunta Robinson. Missing both of those players to start the season would really inhibit Houston’s ability to defend the pass, which is why the Texans added Deltha O’Neal after Reeves was hurt.

2 (con’t) – OT Khalif Barnes, Raiders – Barnes broke a leg in the first week of August and should miss some early regular-season action. He was slated to be the team’s starting left tackle after signing a one-year deal in the offseason, and so his absence will hurt the Raiders. But this falls to the bottom of this list because the Raiders don’t appear to be much of a contender even in the mediocre AFC West.

2 (con’t) – TE Dan Campbell, Saints – Campbell had only played three games over the past two seasons because of a knee injury, and it just didn’t get better. He’s a good blocking tight end, but given this chronic knee injury, his 11-year career looks to be nearing the end.

2 (con’t) – WR Marcus Smith, Ravens – Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2008, was slated to perhaps become the Ravens’ No. 4 receiver after a rookie season in which he played seven games without a catch. Instead, he tore an ACL and will miss the season.  The significance of this injury is about Smith’s potential but also about the lack of depth the Ravens have at receiver.

2 (con’t) – Cowboys LB Brandon Williams – Like fellow rookie Brewster, Williams will miss the season. He has a torn ACL. Williams, a fourth-round pick, was slated to be a backup linebacker and likely a special-teams contributor.

2 (con’t) – Rams WR Brooks Foster – Foster, one of myriad young receivers who are trying to find playing time in a rebuilt corps, suffered a high ankle sprain in the first preseason game and had surgery two weeks later. The fifth-round pick will be out 4-6 games, but that might be long enough for the Rams to put him on IR and save him for 2010.

2 (con’t) – OLG Todd Herremans, Eagles – Philly’s starting left guard will miss the first regular-season game with a left foot injury.

2 (con’t) – CB Brandon Hughes, Chargers – Hughes, a fifth-round pick, will miss the entire season with a knee injury he suffered late in training camp.

2 (con’t) – OLs Ryan Tucker and Fred Weary, Browns – As they tried to stabilize their offensive line, the Browns signed Weary and kept veteran Tucker around. But both suffered knee injuries in training camp, and both are now on injured reserve.

2 (con’t) – WR Devard Darling, Chiefs – Darling, once a promising prospect in Baltimore, suffered a knee injury and will miss the season. The Chiefs had Darling as a starter on the depth chart, and while that wasn’t going to last, Darling would have made the team and contributed.

2 (con’t) – CB Don Carey, Jaguars – Carey was a sixth-round pick in Cleveland, and when he injured his shoulder, the Browns tried to stash him on injured reserve. But because he had to clear waivers first, he was available, and the Jaguars grabbed him. Jacksonville will stash Carey on injured reserve this season and then see if they can develop him in 2010.

1 – OT Damion Scott, Lions – Scott was an occasional starter in Detroit last year, but as the Lions added depth this offseason, Scott’s roster spot began looking precarious. But that’s moot now, because Scott tore a triceps muscle and will miss the season.

1 (con’t) – LB Cody Spencer, Lions – Spencer was brought over from the Jets to provide depth at linebacker, but he’ll miss the season with a knee injury. For a team as thin as Detroit is, any loss like this stings.

1 (con’t) – WR Roy Hall, Colts – Hall was competing for the Colts’ No. 3 receiver job with rookie Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, but injuries plagued him throughout his three-year career and knocked him out for the season this year. At this point, it’s hard to see Hall getting another shot in Indy, which is a shame because the Colts could use a young wideout as promising as him.

1 (con’t) – WR Chris Davis, Titans – Davis was fighting a hamstring injury, but the fact that he got arrested during his rehab doomed him. That’s why Tennessee waived/injured him, which should land him on injured reserve for the year.

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