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FR: 2012 Franchise Players

Each year, we use Football Relativity as a tool to compare the class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy.

DEFINITIONS: Under the current rules, the franchise tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position as determined by a new, complicated formula. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team.

Saints QB Drew Brees, via si.com

On to the comparison. All players are non-exclusive franchise players except for the first entry, Drew Brees.

10 – QB Drew Brees, Saints – It’s amazing that the Saints couldn’t get a deal with Brees, who is an elite, championship-quality quarterback at the top of his game. But the team and Brees are so far apart on a long-term contract that they had to use the tag. That’s a good financial deal for the team in 2012 – the $15 million or so they’ll pay for the exclusive franchise tag is below market value for a quarterback of Brees’ caliber. But it keeps the Saints from tagging other free agents like OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston, and it could also make it harder to get Brees signed long-term down the line. Chances are the Brees waits till the last possible moment to sign the tender, since that’s the only way he maintains leverage – by missing offseason workouts. That’s not a good way to go into the offseason and try to bounce back from a painful playoff loss in San Francisco. The Saints may claim to be financially responsible, but it seems like they’re just being cheap.

9 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is by far the Ravens’ best offensive player, and they cannot afford to lose him. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine paying the freight for a long-term deal for a running back who has gotten as many carries as Rice has. But the Ravens need to follow the examples of the Vikings (with Adrian Peterson), the Panthers (with DeAngelo Williams), and the Texans (with Arian Foster) and keep Rice around for the long term. Baltimore has a strong front office, and so we can expect them to make a deal at some point this offseason. Until then, Rice stays put on a $7.7 million tag.

9 (con’t) – RB Matt Forte, Bears – Like Rice, Forte is a do-everything back who is the best offensive player for his team. And while Forte was injured last season, he returned to play in the Pro Bowl to prove he is healthy headed into free agency. Forte may be half a step behind Rice in terms of talent, but he is as productive and as essential. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears end up paying Forte over the long haul.

8 – WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson is one of the most unique players in the league. Few receivers have the pure speed that he has, and so few receivers can take the top off a defense like Jackson. But he’s also a prickly personality who probably needs to be a premium No. 2 receiver but who demands the attention, targets, and money of a No. 1 wideout. For those reasons, the Eagles may look to deal Jackson if the right offer comes along. If not, the Eagles will pay Jackson $9.4 million to keep him around for 2012, and that price, though steep, is still palatable. The resolution of this tag situation will be one of the most interesting sagas of the offseason.

7 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots – The Patriots found Welker as a restricted free agent and turned him into the league leader in receptions. He’s nearly unstoppable coming out of the slot, and at this point he is Tom Brady’s preferred target. Welker’s reliable presence has allowed the Pats to develop tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski into down-field targets, and that should take a little pressure off Welker. But until New England finds a true outside threat, Welker is still irreplaceable. That made it a no-brainer decision to put the tag on Welker and make sure he’s around in 2012.

6 – CB Brent Grimes, Falcons – Grimes has developed into the type of cornerback who gets the shutdown label. That’s been vital in Atlanta, who had sought to find that corner first by drafting DeAngelo Hall and then by paying Dunta Robinson. Grimes is now better than both of them, and that means the Falcons can’t afford to lose him. The $10.6 million franchise tag is pretty stiff, but it’s a price the Falcons can’t help but pay. If they want to move from being an annual playoff team to being a true title contender, they need to add players like Grimes, not lose them.

6 (con’t) – DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals – Campbell has developed into a top-flight 3-4 defensive end, and those guys are incredibly hard to find. So the Cardinals are willing to spend $10.6 million to keep Campbell around for 2012. Last year was Campbell’s best, as he had eight sacks, 11 passes deflected, and even blocked three field goals. He is now a core player for the Cardinals, and so tagging him is definitely worthwhile. Campbell did get the non-exclusive tag, but it’s unlikely he will get away for two first-round picks.

6 (con’t) – WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After signing CB Stanford Routt, it became obvious that the Chiefs would let CB Brandon Carr enter free agency and instead tag Bowe, who has produced big numbers as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Bowe isn’t always consistent, and he can even disappear at times, but his combination of size and speed is rare. With a new offensive system in place now that Todd Haley is gone, the Chiefs need to give Matt Cassel and company the best chance to succeed, and that means keeping Bowe in town, even if he’s not a perfect receiver a la Larry Fitzgerald. So the $9.4 million tag for Bowe is a necessary move, even if it seems too pricy.

5 – S Michael Griffin, Titans – Instead of tagging CB Cortland Finnegan for $10.6 million, the Titans chose to keep former Pro Bowler Griffin around. The former first-round pick had his best season in 2010, and he has 17 picks in his five seasons. He’s a rangy player who helps corners like Finnegan play more aggressively by providing a safety net. That’s a worthwhile role, and it makes Griffin a solid investment at $6.2 million in 2012.

5 (con’t) – DE Cliff Avril, Lions – Avril is a developing player who had a career-high with 11 sacks in 2011. Obviously, he is benefitting from playing with a talented defensive line, but he has emerged as the best pass-rusher on the end over Kyle Vanden Bosch. Avril can be a core player, but the $8.8 million one-year tag is a little steep given his resume. Still, given the premium for pass rushers on the open market, it’s no surprise that the Lions used the tag to keep him around.

4 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson hit the free-agent market unfettered last year, but in the compressed offseason he didn’t get the kind of attention he wanted. After signing a one-year deal, Goldson now hits the market again, but this time the 49ers tagged him. He’s worth keeping for $6.2 million because he’s a big, rangy safety who hits. By tagging Goldson, the 49ers risk losing CB Carlos Rogers, who had a fine season last year. But Goldson’s tag is cheaper than Rogers’ would have been, and he’s been a key starter in San Francisco longer.

4 (con’t) – OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer, a former first-round pick, had a break-out season in 2009 but has leveled off a bit the last two seasons. He’s a good outside linebacker who can create pass rush across from DeMarcus Ware, but he’s not a dynamic player. The Cowboys need to ink Spencer to a long-term deal to lessen the $8.8 million tag he’s currently under, but they’re wise to keep him.

3 – S Tyvon Branch, Raiders – Branch is a solid starter for the Raiders, not a game-changing player. But after losing CB Stanford Routt to a salary-cap saving move earlier this offseason, and with FS Michael Huff perhaps headed for the same fate, the Raiders wanted some continuity in the secondary. Branch will now provide that at strong safety for a $6.2 million price tag. By tagging Branch, the Raiders opted to let RB Michael Bush hit the open market. Picking Branch over Bush (a part-time player who would have cost $7.7 million) was probably the right move for a team with serious salary-cap management issues.

3 (con’t) – DE Robert Mathis, Colts – The Colts franchised Mathis then quickly re-signed him just after the deadline. We discussed more about why this isn’t a great idea in this post. Still, Mathis is a quality player and a potent pass rusher, so he’s worth a contract to someone.

2 – TE Fred Davis, Redskins – Davis is a good player, but he’s not a franchise-caliber player. Plus, he served a four-game suspension under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy to end the 2011 season. But the recalculated franchise value means that tight ends are tagged at $5.4 million, and Davis is worth that. In fact, the Redskins might be better off paying him a one-year contract than investing long term in a guy who needs to answer character questions. Davis is a talented receiver, and with Chris Cooley breaking down due to injuries, he will definitely help. But if the tag was at the 2011 level that was $2 million higher, Davis would be hitting the open market. By tagging Davis, the Redskins are letting S LaRon Landry hit the market, which makes sense, because Landry would cost more and is injured too often.

2 (con’t) – PK Phil Dawson, Browns – Dawson will cost more than most kickers – $3.8 million vs. $2.6 – because he was franchised last year as well. He has proven to be a solid kicker in the unfriendly Cleveland weather, and the original Brown (at least Brown 2.0) is a fan favorite. At some point, the Browns will need to lock Dawson in on a long-term deal to keep him, but they’re willing to pay the freight year by year for now.

2 (con’t) – PK Matt Prater, Broncos – Prater has huge power in his leg, which makes him a perfect fit for the high altitude in Denver. He’s good at creating touchbacks and also dependable on long-distance field-goals. That makes him a valuable weapon, especially in the Tim Tebow era where first downs aren’t always easy to come by. The Broncos get to keep that weapon at a reasonable $2.5 million price.

2 (con’t) – PK Josh Scobee, Jaguars – Scobee isn’t well known, but he also has a big-time leg that shows itself on kickoffs and field goals. For a Jaguars team that isn’t always a big spender, paying the lowest franchise tag to keep a solid kicker in town makes sense. Tagging DE Jeremy Mincey would have cost much more but kept an impactful pass rusher, but Scobee is a guy the Jaguars need too.

1 – PK Mike Nugent, Bengals – The recalculated franchise values made it almost a bargain to keep a kicker with a one-year franchise tag at $2.6 million, which is a bit below the market value of a top kicker. That led the Bengals to lock in Nugent, the former Jet who has done a nice job of stabilizing the kicking position since moving to Cincinnati. The Bengals may be better off letting Nugent play under the tag in 2012 and trying to lock in a long-term deal for 2013 and beyond than doing the long-term deal now, since Nugent is coming off a great year but has shown inconsistency in the past.

1 (con’t) – P Steve Weatherford, Giants – Weatherford had a nice season moving across the hall in the Meadowlands from the Giants to the Jets, and his NFC championship game performance against the 49ers was spectacular. He isn’t a Shane Lechler/Andy Lee level of punter, but for a one-year, $2.5 million price tag, he’s a worthwhile investment. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants seek to lower that cap number by investing in Weatherford for the long term, or whether they wait for him to prove it once again.

1 (con’t) – PK Connor Barth, Buccaneers – Barth has emerged as a solid kicker in his 2 1/2 years in Tampa Bay, and his 26-for-28 field-goal performance in 2011 was terrific. But he’s not a kickoff specialist – Michael Koenen does that for the Bucs – and he’s not an elite long-distance kicker a la Scobee or Prater. Still, given the low franchise-tag number for kickers, you can’t criticize the Bucs for buying a little certainty for $2.5 million.

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Filed under Crazy Kicker of the Week, Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency

Week 8 Transactions

Each week, we note and comment on the NFL’s biggest transactions. Here are the transactions between the end of Week 7 and the beginning of Week 8. We’ll begin by focusing on four fascinating cuts.

Leigh Bodden, a player on the New England Patr...

Ex-Patriots CB Leigh Bodden. Image via Wikipedia

– Bodden, once a major free-agent signing, had fallen out of the lineup in New England, and he reportedly lost interest. So he was cut, even though the Patriots were also losing Dowling to injury. Bodden cleared waivers. Faulk moved right back into the lineup after missing the early part of the season.

Vikings (cut WR Bernard Berrian) – Berrian, once a high-dollar free-agent signing, had little production and a questionable attitude in Minnesota. The Vikings, who hit on something with Michael Jenkins and even Devin Aromashodu, had enough depth to just move on.

Bears (cut S Chris Harris) – Harris, who entered the year as a starter at safety for the Bears, got benched, then got pressed into emergency starting duty, and then got cut. He landed on his feet after the Lions claimed him on waivers – just before a Bears/Lions game in Week 10. Harris adds depth to a Lions secondary that isn’t up to the level of the rest of the team.

Cowboys (cut RB Tashard Choice, activate LB Bruce Carter from physically unable to perform list) – Choice, who had some nice moments in Dallas, got hurt, and the Cowboys waived him injured to move on to rookie DeMarco Murray. Choice was claimed on waivers by the NFC East rival Redskins.

Redskins (put RB Tim Hightower and TE Chris Cooley on injured reserve) – Hightower, the Redskins’ leading rusher thus far this season, was hurt against the Carolina Panthers. Cooley battled knee and hand injuries that ultimately ended his season. These injuries further depleted a Redskins offense that is struggling mightily.

Bills (put OLB Shawne Merriman on injured reserve) – A lot has gone right in Buffalo this year, but not the Merriman experiement. His knee hasn’t been right since he was in San Diego.

Buccaneers (put RB Earnest Graham on injured reserve) – Graham, who was filling in for LeGarrette Blount at running back and was also an effective fullback/pass-catching back, tore his Achilles against the Bears. It’s a big loss for a thin Bucs backfield.

Chargers (put OLB Larry English on injured reserve) – English, a former first-round pick, will miss the second half of the season with a foot injury.

Falcons (put FB Ovie Mughelli and OG Mike Johnson on injured reserve, add FB Mike Cox and OT Kirk Chambers) – Mughelli, one of the few fullbacks with a significant role in the NFL, suffered a knee injury that will cost him the season. Cox comes on board as a fill-in. Chambers adds depth for a banged-up offensive line.

Colts (put QB Kerry Collins on injured reserve) – Collins, who suffered a concussion during his effort to fill in for Peyton Manning, won’t be able to come back. This could be the end of a pretty good career.

Dolphins (put QB Sage Rosenfels on non-football injury list, add QB J.P. Losman) – Rosenfels, who is battling a nasty strep infection that won’t go away, had to give up on the season. Losman becomes the Dolphins’ latest emergency backup quarterback.

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FR: The 2011 NFL draft

Each year, we break down the NFL draft using our Football Relativity tool. Instead of giving grades, we compare teams to each other, with the teams that we feel did best in the draft landing on the 10 level and the teams we feel did poorly landing on the 1 level.

Remember that you can review the first round in our draft first thoughts, review our mock draft here, and see who won the Football Relativity draft contest here.

10  – Cleveland Browns – Two years ago, we pounded the Browns for trading down from the fifth overall pick and not getting good value. This year, the Browns tried a similar move, but they maximized their return by adding four picks – second- and fourth-rounders this year, plus first- and fourth-rounders in 2012. Those picks are a boon to a rebuilding team. Cleveland gave back one extra pick to trade up to get NT Phil Taylor, which might have been a bit of a reach but was at least an aggressive move to get a player who’s a rare commodity. It’s incredibly hard to find young nose tackles, so you can’t blame the Browns for paying to get one. Second-round DE Jabaal Sheard adds pass-rush punch to a defense that sorely needs it, while WR Greg Little becomes the most talented receiver on the roster and a guy capable of developing into a No. 1 wideout if his head is screwed on straight. Fourth-round TE Jordan Cameron is another high-potential player who comes with some risk. Cleveland added both depth and impact in this draft, and they are primed to do so in the 2012 draft as well. That’s a win-win that Browns fans should appreciate.

10 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts knew what they needed going into the draft — offensive linemen — and they met that need with good players. In the first round, polished OT Anthony Castonzo fell in their laps, and they took him. Castonzo may never be an otherworldly left tackle, but he fits the mold of a solid, dependable guy at the position for the next decade. That’s precisely what the Colts needed. Then in the second round, the Colts drafted Villanova’s Ben Ijalana, who is a little more physical and could fit at right tackle or at guard. Adding these two players will help the Colts right away. Third-round DT Drake Nevis also addresses a need if he can contribute to a rotation right away, while fourth-round RB Delonte Carter may replace the injury-prone Joseph Addai, who’s a free agent. The Colts didn’t try to get as fancy as they have in recent drafts, and the results should help them prolong their window as contenders. What else can you ask for?

9 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons made the big move of the draft, giving up five picks – including their first-rounder next year – to trade up from 27 to 6 to pick WR Julio Jones. Jones certainly fills a big-time need, as the Falcons have never had a strong complement to Pro Bowl WR Roddy White. If Jones can provide that, he will be a huge boon who’s probably worth the steep price. The move gutted the Falcons’ draft, so they didn’t get a ton of help elsewhere. ILB Akeem Dent could step in as a contributor, and fourth-round Jacquizz Rodgers could become a Darren Sproles type of contributor. And we’ve seen enough of seventh-round DE Cliff Matthews to know he has ability. Sometimes, teams need to be bold to get over the hump, and we admire the Falcons’ willingness to take that risk, even though it cost an arm and a leg.

9 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs traded down in the first round and made the most of it. Moving down from 21 to 27 (which turned into 26 when the Ravens let the clock expire) allowed the Chiefs to add WR Jonathan Baldwin, an ubertalented prospect who had a dented reputation. Maybe Baldwin is a bit of a diva, but if the Chiefs can help Baldwin mature, they’ll get a terrific complement to Dwayne Bowe. And with the extra third-rounder they got from the Browns, the Chiefs added OLB Justin Houston, a first-round talent whose failed drug test at the combine knocked down his stock. Both players are risk, but they are high-end talents that can help the Chiefs continue moving upward. Second-round C Rodney Hudson is a safe player who adds depth to the inside of the line, while fifth-round QB Ricky Stanzi was a good value who could develop into a solid backup for Matt Cassel. The Chiefs got great value with their picks, and even though that took some risk, it’s worth it because the roster already had a lot of good players but not enough great ones.

9 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – The Bills’ draft class isn’t eye-popping, but a team in dire need of talent added some. First-rounder Marcell Dareus will be a difference maker up front, and since Pete Borini approves of the move, we do too. Dareus immediately upgrades the roster. So does second-rounder Aaron Williams, a big corner who teams with third-round S Da’Norris Searcy to add depth and talent to a secondary that hasn’t performed well in recent years. ILBs Kelvin Sheppard (second-round) and Chris White (sixth round) could plug in as starters soon too. Buffalo didn’t spend a lot of picks on their massive offensive tackle need, but fourth-rounder Chris Hairston could emerge as a swing tackle right away, and seventh-rounder Michael Jasper is a small-school prospect who is quite raw but could turn into a home run. Buffalo didn’t get fancy in this draft, and as a result the roster is several measures better now than it was before the draft.

9 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans are moving to a 3-4 defense, and so they spent much of their draft equity on improving the defense and especially their front seven. First-round DE J.J. Watt was probably the best 3-4 defensive end available, and he should step in as an immediate starter. Watt will be a solid if unspectacular player, and if he can become a Justin Smith/Aaron Smith type, the Texans will be thrilled. In the second round, the Texans added an outside linebacker in pass rusher Brooks Reed. Those two players join with Mario Williams and the rest of the Texans’ talent to give new coordinator Wade Phillips some tools. The Texans also addressed their major secondary needs by trading up to take CB Brandon Harris in the second round and then taking CB Rashard Carmichael and S Shiloh Keo down the line. Harris could combine with 2010 first-rounder Kareem Jackson to provide a young CB duo. The Texans also took a shot at developmental QB T.J. Yates in the fifth round, which could pay dividends via trade or as a backup down the line. The Texans drafted for need, but did so while still getting good value and some impact. Now it’s time for their defense to emerge as a dangerous unit a la the offense.

8 – Detroit Lions – Pundits are raving about the Lions’ draft, and there is certainly plenty to like. DT Nick Fairley was a top-10 talent who slipped to No. 13, and the Lions nabbed him to create chaos alongside 2010 first-rounder Ndamukong Suh. Two second-round picks, RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young, add explosiveness and depth to a burgeoning skill-position set. But the Lions didn’t get any help for their beleaguered secondary – passing on Prince Amukamara to get Fairley – and a dearth of picks (in part due to a trade up to get Leshoure) won’t help a team still building depth. The Lions got big impact, but this is a young team that needs depth just as much as it needs impact at this point.

8 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – In 2010, the Buccaneers spent their first two picks on defensive tackles, stabilizing their line. This year, they used the same strategy at defensive end, adding Adrian Clayborn in the first round and then DaQuan Bowers when he fell in their laps in round two. Both players had physical questions – with Bowers’ knee being the most significant issue – but you simply can’t argue with the production Tampa Bay added. If one becomes a star, the Bucs will be happy, and they have the upside to have two terrific players. Third-round ILB Mason Foster and fifth-round S Ahmad Black could become contributors at areas of need, and fourth-round TE Luke Stocker has the ability to emerge as a starter in a couple of years. The Bucs used a good strategy early and got solid value late, and so while there’s a little risk injury-wise, they got quite a nice influx of talent.

8 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals’ draft class looks safe, but they actually took perhaps the biggest risk of any team in the league by staying put at No. 35 overall in the second round and waiting on QB Andy Dalton to fall to them. Somehow, Dalton – the best quarterback on the board from No. 12 on – did fall in their laps, which is either extraorindary luck for or unbelievably good information gathering by the Bengals. Someday, I’d love to learn whether the Bengals were incredibly savvy or just extremely fortunate. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is apparently in love with Dalton, and with Dalton and WR A.J. Green, the Bengals are ready to start a new era. Dalton isn’t the most talented quarterback, but he’s smart as a whip and a fine leader, which are traits a QB needs. If he turns out to be Drew Brees-like, as the Bengals hope and as many analysts suggest, the Bengals got a steal. Green is an elite receiver a la Calvin Johnson, and he can be a game changer for the Bengals offense. Cincinnati also added a solid offensive lineman in Clint Boling, a fourth-rounder who could plug right in as a starter at guard. Cincinnati didn’t get much defensive help, but third-round OLB Dontay Moch was a good value who projects as a starter sometime soon. The Bengals weren’t aggressive in moving to get their guys, but they got them and therefore deserve props.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens had egg on their face after a botched first-round trade with the Bears, but while Baltimore didn’t pick up an extra fourth-rounder, they got their guy in CB Jimmy Smith. Smith is an elite talent with questionable character, but the Ravens locker room gives him a great chance to succeed. If he does, he’ll answer one of the biggest questions the Ravens have add over the years. Fifth-rounder Chykie Brown can also help at corner. The Ravens’ other big question over the years has been at receiver, and WRs Torrey Smith (second round) and Tandon Doss (fourth rounder) should help. Smith is a speedy outside guy who should improve on what Donte Stallworth offered last year, while Doss becomes more of a possession guy. If both hit, the Ravens’ passing game under Joe Flacco adds lots of punch. In the third round, the Ravens took OT Jah Reid, who could allow the Ravens to move Michael Oher back to right tackle and should allow the team to move on from Jared Gaither, which the team appears inclined to do. As usual, the Ravens come out of the draft with quite a nice haul.

8 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – The Rams played the value game in the first round, picking DE Robert Quinn when he slipped to No. 14. At his best, Quinn can bring a pass-rushing presence that the Rams lack. That’s a worthy goal, and worth the first-round investment. The Rams then turned to added targets for QB Sam Bradford. TE Lance Kendricks, a second-rounder, is more of a Chris Cooley type of H-back, but he could team with 2010 rookie Michael Hoomanawanui to give the Rams a 1-2 punch there. Then the Rams took two wideouts, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, who will compete with another 2010 rookie, Mardy Gilyard, to join Mark Clayton (expected to be re-signed) and Danny Amendola in the team’s top 3. Many of the draft analysts prefer Salas, who is more polished now, but Pettis could emerge as the kind of outside receiver the Rams currently lack. The skill-position investment will make or break this draft class, but there looks to be enough on board that the Rams will end up in the plus column.

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers had the No. 1 overall pick, and they did what they had to do with it, picking QB Cam Newton to take a chance on greatness. Yes, it’s a risk, and Newton isn’t the kind of “clean” prospect that so many pundits endorse, but he has the chance to be incredibly good. The Panthers weren’t going to get this kind of quarterback anywhere else, so taking the risk on Newton was what they needed to do. Without a second-round pick, the rest of the Panthers’ draft looks thin. Third-round DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua need to step into the rotation immediately, while fourth-round CB Brandon Hogan could emerge as well. The Panthers did what they could after the Newton pick, but their boldness in being willing to take the quarterback buoys their draft grade.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants took the value approach to the draft, picking CB Prince Amukamara and DT Marvin Austin because they were the best players on the board, not because they fit needs. That approach can work, because it’s the best way to add talent, and both Amukamara and Austin have the potential to become top-flight starters, if not all-pros. But neither of those players – nor third-round WR Jerrel Jernigan – addressed the Giants’ big need on the offensive line. Maybe fourth-round OT James Brewer emerges as a starter, and if so this draft can be great. But if not, you have to wonder if the Giants will regret not taking the Colts’ approach and draft for value within their needs.

6 – Green Bay Packers – As the Super Bowl champs, the Packers didn’t have high picks, but they added nice players throughout the draft. First-round OT Derek Sherrod joins ’10 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga as the tackles of the future, soon replacing aging stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Second-round WR Randal Cobb is a versatile player who will help replace likely departing free agent James Jones and keep the WR corps deep for Aaron Rodgers. RB Alex Green and TE D.J. Williams could also be nice offensive producers, while D.J. Smith and Rick Elmore will get a shot to emerge as under-the-radar pass rushers a la Desmond Bishop and Frank Zombo. The Packers didn’t get a ton of impact, but they got guys who fit the system well and who should see playing time within two years. That makes their draft a win.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers did their typical solid job at the end of the draft, adding players who will help at key positions. DE Cameron Heyward, the first-round pick, looms along with a former first-rounder, Ziggy Hood, as the eventual successors to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Heyward will get time to develop, which is a good thing, but he may not make an immediate impact. Second-round pick OT Marcus Gilbert has a clearer shot to playing time if he can hold up on either side. Then the Steelers upgraded their secondary by taking CBs Curtis Marsh and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth rounds. Both need to move into the rotation to help a need area. And fifth-round OLB Chris Carter has potential as a pass rusher at a position where Pittsburgh often turns later-round picks into stars. The Steelers’ draft wasn’t sexy, but they addressed their needs with players who will get time to develop in a system that does a good job maximizing players.

6 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots entered the draft with double picks in the first three rounds, which gave them the opportunity to do something great in this draft. But the results were not great but good. Yes, the Patriots came out of the draft with extra first- and second-rounders in 2012, but the players they picked lacked great impact. First-round OT Nate Solder met a need, and he and Sebastian Vollmer will be the bookend tackles for the Pats for years to come. And second-round CB Ras-I Dowling joins a group of young, talented corners. But RBs Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) look more like role players than bell cows, and QB Ryan Mallett (third round) is at best a backup quarterback who plays well enough in preseason chances to get traded in two years. Fifth-round OT Marcus Cannon is a big-time talent who’s a medical risk, but the Pats have enough picks to take such a risk. While this class will help, the Pats would have been better served in our opinion to take Atlanta’s approach and trade up for an impact guy or two. Instead, we’re left with a good class that fell short of what it could have been.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Unlike the Patriots, the Jaguars took chances in this draft by trading up to try to find elite talent. We’re not in love with Blaine Gabbert, but he has a far better chance of being a top-flight NFL quarterback than Jaguars incumbent David Garrard. Garrard isn’t terrible, but he’s basically an average NFL starter – about the 16th best in the league – and the Jaguars aren’t going to win big with him. So giving up a second-rounder to trade up and take Gabbert makes sense. If Gabbert can be a top-8 quarterback, which is possible, the Jaguars made the right move. The Jaguars also traded up in the third round to take OG Will Rackley, a small-school player who projects as a early starter. Jacksonville also added badly needed secondary help in S Chris Prosinski and CB Roderick Isaac and a developmental receiver in Cecil Shorts. So the Jaguars met some needs, but Gabbert is the headline of this draft. While he’s not a sure thing, he gives the Jaguars upside they didn’t have before. For that reason, we admire the risk they took.

5 – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles make a habit of stockpiling draft picks, and they used those picks in this draft to address specific needs. First-rounder Danny Watkins and late-rounders Julian Vandevelde and Jason Kelce add depth and talent to the offensive line, while second-round S Jaiquawn Jarrett and third-round CB Curtis Marsh will help in the secondary. The one luxury pick was fourth-round PK Alex Henery, but having a lot of picks allows the Eagles to replace David Akers with an elite prospect. It’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles can develop LB Casey Matthews into an impact player and whether the failure to pick a defensive lineman comes back to bite them.

5 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys made no secret of their affinity for OT Tyron Smith, a young prospect from USC who has immense potential. If Smith becomes a lockdown left tackle, this draft class will be an unqualified success, but even if Smith struggles to adjust to the NFL, he can plug in at right tackle and be an upgrade over Marc Colombo. OG David Arkin could also emerge as a starter, which woudl further address the Cowboys’ biggest need area. Second-round LB Bruce Carter is recovering from injury but has high upside as an impact inside linebacker. Dallas also added skill-position talent in RB DeMarco Murray, FB Shaun Chapas, and WR Dwayne Harris, but only fifth-round CB Josh Thomas addresses secondary concerns. Still, the Cowboys invested heavily in helping the offensive line, and if those picks pan out, the draft will be a win. 

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers went with a boom or bust approach to the draft, taking talented but unpolished pass rusher Aldon Smith in the first round (earlier than many expected) and then trading up in the second round to get QB Colin Kaepernick. Both Smith and Kaepernick are physical freaks who aren’t ready for the NFL grind yet but who have enough intrinsic talent to become superstars. If both hit, this draft class becomes the building block for a 49ers renaissance. The Kaepernick trade limited the 49ers’ picks down the line, but that’s worth it for a QB of the future. Third-round CB Chris Culliver addresses a need area, and fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter adds needed depth behind stalwart Frank Gore. The 49ers may not see many dividends from this class in 2011, but it’ll be fascinating to see just how close Smith and Kaepernick can come to living up to their potential promise.

5 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – Denver had strong defensive needs and addressed them in this draft. However, picking OLB Von Miller over DT Marcell Dareus was a quizzical move. Miller is the better pass rusher, but Miller doesn’t dovetail with the 4-3 system new head coach John Fox wants to run. Of course, the Broncos can cater their system to feature Miller, and Miller may be worth such an investment. But that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie. S Rahim Moore, a second-rounder, should step right in, while fellow second-rounder Orlando Franklin will join a line that’s mismatched because the Broncos have switched systems three times in the last four years. Denver has big-time needs, and the players they got should help. But we’d feel much better about the future had the Broncos chosen Dareus over Miller.

5 (con’t) – Arizona Cardinals – The Cards made the strategic decision that they wanted to add a veteran quarterback to 2010 rookies John Skelton and Max Hall, which set them up to pass on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and the like and instead take CB Patrick Peterson with the fifth pick. Peterson is a fine player who’s not unlike ex-Card Antrell Rolle, although Peterson has better coverage skills and could stick at corner. He’ll help the Cardinals, even though he’s not at a position of glaring need. But after Peterson, the Cardinals’ draft was uninspiring. Second-round RB Ryan Williams can play, but he doesn’t have a clear path to contribution. Third-round TE Robert Housler is talented but raw. If those guys find their way into the lineup, or if later-round guys like OLB Sam Acho and ILB Quan Sturdivant exceed their draft position, the Cardinals will look great. But our sense is that this draft class is not great but just OK.

5 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets entered the draft short-handed because they had dealt their second-rounder for CB Antonio Cromartie. But they still did a good job addressing needs at two positions, the defensive line and wide receiver. Defensive line was the more pressing need, and first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson is a terrific prospect to succeed Shaun Ellis as a two-way threat at defensive end. Third-rounder Kenrick Ellis is versatile enough to play on the nose or the end, which will let the Jets shape their rotation the way they want. Both should help immediately. At wide receiver, where the Jets’ top three options are all free agents, the team added depth in fifth-rounder Jeremy Kerley and seventh-rounder Scotty McKnight. And as they always do, whether they need to or not, the Jets picked a running back, fourth-rounder Bilal Powell. This is a solid class that’s held back only by the lack of early-round picks.

4 – Washington Redskins – The Redskins didn’t like any of the quarterbacks in this draft, so instead of being aggressive to draft one, they went in with a strategy to stockpile picks. That philosophy is fine, and it will help a roster that needs depth, but it doesn’t appear that the Redskins added much impact in the draft. First-round OLB Ryan Kerrigan should be a solid player, but does he have enough pass-rush skill to take pressure off of Brian Orakpo? That’s the difference between a solid starter, which is what Kerrigan looks like to us, and a big-time player. Second-round DE Jarvis Jenkins is a nice player at a need area, so that pick makes sense. The Redskins also addressed their anemic WR corps with third-rounder Leonard Hankerson (a fine value), fifth-rounder Niles Paul, and sixth-rounder Aldrick Robinson. Hankerson has starting ability, and Paul adds size to a smurfish unit, while Robinson is an Anthony Armstrong clone who could find playing time. The Redskins also added RBs Roy Helu and Evan Royster, productive big-college players who could jump right in for a coach in Mike Shanahan who knows how to find mid-round runners. So even if the depth approach works as the Redskins planned, it didn’t cover all of the Redskins needs, which makes us wonder whether adding extra late-round picks was really worth it.

4 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers addressed one of their biggest needs in the first round with DE Corey Liuget, who may not be a prototypical 3-4 defensive end but who should provide a little more impact at that position than the typical plugger. Second-round CB Marcus Gilchrist is a big player with pretty good coverage skills who could play outside or at safety. He and third-round CB Shareece Wright provide depth at an area that has thinned ou in recent years. Many analysts panned the second-round selection of LB Jonas Mouton, who wasn’t rated nearly that highly, but he fits a need area at inside linebacker. Third-round WR Vincent Brown, a local product, and sixth-round RB Jordan Todman add some punch. The Chargers also tried to draft players who succeeded on special teams, which was the team’s downfall last year. Maybe there’s not great upside in this draft class, but there’s pretty good depth thanks to five picks in the first three rounds. That depth is something that had leaked away from the Chargers in recent years, so the approach will help.

4 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders never get good draft grades because they don’t try to play the draft game. They take the players they want and make sure they get them, regardless of what the perceived draft value of the players are. And while that’s not a popular strategy, it has worked for the Raiders, who actually have a pretty deep roster of talent on board. The Raiders love speed, and third-round CB Demarcus Van Dyke and fifth-round RB Taiwan Jones have it in spades. Second-round C Stefen Wisniewski (nephew of Raiders legend Steve) and third-round OT Joe Barksdale address a need area, and while they aren’t physical freaks like 2010 picks Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell, Veldheer’s emergence (in particular) allowed the Raiders to add solid if not spectacular guys at that position. Cornerback was another need, so Van Dyke and fourth-rounder Chimdi Chekwa are need picks too. For a team without a first-round pick (it was traded for Richard Seymour), the Raiders hit on their needs. Regardless of the perceived value, they did just fine.

4 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans took a big swing in the first round, taking QB Jake Locker. Locker is a physical freak who never fully played up to his talent in college, but he has a ton of talent and a strong desire to succeed. His performance will make or break this draft. In the second round, the Titans added OLB Akeem Ayers, who could become a playmaking guy a la Keith Bulluck. He and fourth-rounder MLB Colin McCarthy upgrade what used to be a strength for the Titans. Tennessee also spent picks up front in third-round DT Jurrell Casey and late-rounders Karl Klug and Zach Clayton. Now they must show they can develop linemen as well as they did when DL coach Jim Washburn was in Music City. The Titans added talented guys in Locker and Ayers, but they must coach them up for this draft to end up looking good.

3 – Chicago Bears – Strangely, the Bears’ draft is defined more by the snafu of their aborted first-round trade with Baltimore than by the fact that Chicago got its man in OT Gabe Carimi. GM Jerry Angelo hasn’t done well at all with his first-round offensive line picks in Chicago, but the fact that OL coach Mike Tice fell in love with Carimi speaks well of him. The Bears also traded up to add DT Stephen Paea, a strong player who will provide stability against the run. The question on Paea is how much pass rush he can provide as the Bears seek to replace the injury-plagued Tommie Harris. Because they traded up for Paea, the Bears had few other picks. Third-round safety Christopher Conte could step in and play. The Bears probably need all three picks to emerge as solid starters for this draft to keep their positive 2010 momentum going.

3 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins, who traded their second-rounder as part of the Brandon Marshall deal, were chasing picks throughout the draft, and the result is a thin class that doesn’t address all that many needs. First-rounder Mike Pouncey will step in and start on the interior of the offensive line, which was a big problem last year, so even if he was a minor reach in terms of value, he’s a good player and a great fit. After picking Pouncey, Miami dealt away its third- and fifth-round picks to take RB Daniel Thomas at the end of the second round. Thomas is a good enough runner, but unless he is significantly better than the rest of the rookie class, the trade-up was a poor use of resources.

2 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints were set up to have a great draft after DE Cameron Jordan fell into their laps at No. 24 in the first round. But instead of being content with that serendipity, the Saints decided they had to have RB Ingram, and so they gave up their first-rounder next year to get him. Making such an investment – especially when solid runners Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are in place – seems impetuous. After that, the Saints did OK, especially with third-round OLB Martez Wilson, who should become a starter. But the Ingram move was far too expensive for our tastes and especially for the player.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – It’s easy to pan the Seahawks’ draft class because it didn’t fit the value charts. But Seattle obviously came into the draft to address a specific offensive line need. First-round James Carpenter likely fits at  right tackle, while third-rounder John Moffitt projects as a guard. While those aren’t always high-round positions, since the Seahawks have OLT Russell Okung and C Max Unger in place, the plan does make some sense. Seattle had to trade out of the second round to replace the pick they gave up for QB Charlie Whitehurst, and that limited the ability to add top-flight talent in the draft. OLB K.J. Wright doesn’t fit a need area, but fellow fourth-rounder WR Kris Durham could. The Seahawks seemed to draft more for need than for talent, and it doesn’t appear their roster is strong enough to merit that approach. But if the needs are filled capably, the Hawks will be justified.

1 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings went boom or bust from the beginning of the draft by taking QB Christian Ponder with the 12th pick. Ponder has lots of talent, but he had trouble staying healthy, and some analysts don’t like the way he reacts to pressure in the pocket. If Ponder turns into a good starter, the Vikings will have the last laugh, but we don’t see that happening. Second-round pick TE Kyle Rudolph is a talented player who struggled with injuries last year, and he doesn’t fill a specific need. But the Vikings are an aging team that needs a talent infusion, so we’ll give the pick a thumbs-up just on that basis. DT Christian Ballard, a fourth-round pick, could be a steal who can help replace Pat and Kevin Williams, but Ballard’s positive drug test at the combine is a question mark. Still, in the fourth round there wasn’t a more talented player available. If Ponder and Ballard are both hits, this will be a great draft class, but that combo seems like a long shot to us.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 11

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down.

Quarterbacks

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards against the Saints, but those numbers were inflated by the fact that Seattle was trying to come back from a big deficit. Don’t buy him as a top-15 fantasy quarterback, because he can’t live up to that status. Verdict: A fraud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – Kitna had his second consecutive three-TD game, and even though he didn’t throw for that many yards, he showed he can be a fantasy factor. He’s not a top-10 quarterback, but if you need an emergency starter, Kitna’s a great option. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson had been a disappointment most of the year, averaging just 62 rushing yards a game with only one game over 81 rushing yards until Sunday. Despite the fact that the Bengals are awful, maybe Benson’s 125-yard performance against the Bills is a sign of things to come. Unfortunately, we can’t recommend betting on it enough to put Benson back in your starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Goodson, Panthers – Goodson had his second straight 100-yard rushing game for the Panthers, and now that DeAngelo Williams is officially out for the season, Goodson becomes a nice sleeper play in fantasy leagues. He should be a flex consideration next week. Verdict: Applaud

BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, Patriots – Both Green-Ellis and Woodhead scored touchdowns against the Colts, and both are becoming nice fantasy contributors. Green-Ellis now has seven rushing touchdowns on the year, and in the five games where he’s had at least 16 catches, he’s piled up at least 80 rushing yards. He’s a solid bet as a weekly starter. Woodhead broke free for a 36-yard touchdown and had 90 yards from scrimmage. It’s the third time that Woodhead has had at least 90 yards, which makes him a decent flex play in leagues with 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud on both

Wide receivers

Steve Breaston, Cardinals – It’s been lost in Arizona’s horrific season, but Breaston has been a solid contributor for fantasy teams when he’s been healthy. Sunday’s 92-yard performance was his third 90-plus-yard game in the last four. If you’re looking for a sneaky starter, check out Breaston. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Burleson, Lions – Burleson had seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys, marking his second good game out of three. If you’re looking for a Hail Mary type of receiver to put in your lineup, Burleson’s not a bad guy to give a shot to right now. Verdict: Applaud

Santonio Holmes, Jets – Holmes has returned as an elite fantasy receiver, and his 126-yard, two-touchdown game against the Texans – which featured his second game-winning touchdown in as many weeks – cemented that fact. Holmes could be a top-10 receiver down the stretch. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Jones, Bills – Steve Johnson was the offensive star for the Bills with three TD catches, but Jones, a rookie out of Youngstown State who had just two catches in the first 10 games of the season, delivered five catches for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals. In a shootout, Jones’ numbers were inflated, and we don’t see this as a trend to follow. But at least now we know Jones’ name. Verdict: A fraud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem has had a disappointing season, and so this week’s two-touchdown game against the Seahawks was too little, too late. Meachem has great talent, but the Saints have too many options for Meachem to thrive numbers-wise. Verdict: A fraud

Ben Obamanu, Seahawks – Obamanu had five catches for 87 yards and a touchdown against the Saints, but it’s important to remember that he was still behind Mike Williams in the pecking order this week. Obamanu has some talent, but he’s a fourth receiver for Seattle, and that means he’s not worth a roster spot on your team. Verdict: A fraud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – In his return to the field, Rice piled up three catches for 56 yards. That’s a decent debut, and it means that Rice is already a flex-caliber play for fantasy owners. Depending on how the Vikings’ QB situation plays out, Rice has even more upside than that, but regardless it’s time to find room for him in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Washington, Titans – In a game where Randy Moss went without a catch, Washington had five grabs for 117 yards. But given the fact that both Kerry Collins and Vince Young are fighting injuries, we can’t recommend any Titans receiver right now. Verdict: A fraud

Blair White, Colts – After Austin Collie went out with another concussion, White made two terrific touchdown catches in Indy’s failed fourth-quarter comeback. White isn’t a special player, but he’s good enough to make plays in the slot if Collie is out for a while. Depending on Collie’s status, White could be worth a claim in leagues of 14 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley, a former fantasy stalwart, had his best game of the season with seven catches for 91 yards. But that doesn’t mean Cooley is back to being a superstar fantasy tight end. The Redskins’ offense hasn’t put up a ton of points this season, and without touchdowns Cooley has little upside to really help your fantasy scoresheet. Verdict: A fraud

Michael Hoomanawanui, Rams – The Rams’ rookie tight end has shown flashes of potential for much of the year, but this week’s game against the Falcons was his best performance. It’s reasonable to think he can compile four catches for 46 yards on many weeks, but he’s not yet ready to be a fantasy contributor. Verdict: A fraud

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Comparing tight ends

Of the skill positions that fantasy football owners care about, none has developed depth more quickly than tight end has in recent years. So as we continue to build our draft board, it’s time to compare the value of the draftable tight ends. We’ll compare these tight ends on a 10-point scale, with 10 denoting the most valuable tight ends and 1 denoting tight ends who are barely draftable. We’ll indicate throughout the comparison what the levels mean.

Remember that for far more fantasy football coverage, you can check out our fantasy football category.

10 – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark is an elite receiver who just happens to play tight end. Last year, he finally played all 16 games and put together a do-everything fantasy season with 100 catches for 1,106 yards (both career highs) and 10 touchdowns. That’s probably the limit of what Clark can do, but the good news for fantasy owners is that even 80 percent of that production makes Clark a no-brainer starter at tight end and a legitimate starter at receiver for leagues that don’t have to start a tight end. He’s the lone tight end to make it onto Tier 2 of our overall draft board.

10 (con’t) – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates had a rebound season last year, setting a career-high with 1,157 receiving yards while making 79 catches, the most he had had since 2005. Gates also scored eight touchdowns, marking the sixth straight year he’s had at least that many. That dependable production is what has made Gates a fantasy stalwart, and the good news on Gates’ stock this year is that Vincent Jackson’s suspension and potential holdout may actually lead to a few more targets for Gates this year. Count on Gates for eight touchdowns as always, but more importantly, count on him for 1,000 yards once again.

*Clark and Gates are the only tight ends on Tier 2. That means they are worth starting as one of two receivers in 10-team leagues that do not require a starting tight end.

9 – Vernon Davis, 49ers – Davis, a former No. 6 overall draft pick, finally lived up to his potential last year, putting up 78 catches for 965 yards and a whopping 13 touchdowns. All of those numbers were career highs by a wide margin, but we don’t need to worry about them being a fluke because his increased production was more of a sign of the light coming on. Davis is a safe bet as an elite tight end, and the only number you can’t expect him to replicate is 13 touchdowns. Trust Davis to get you 8-10 scores, and you’ll still be thrilled with him as a draft pick at the top of Tier 3.

8 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – T-Gon’s first year in Atlanta was a good one, as he put up 83 catches for 867 yards and six touchdowns. The scary thing is that his yardage total was actually his lowest since 2002, which speaks volumes about Gonzalez’s consistency. He’s had at least 63 catches and 773 receiving yards for 11 straight seasons. And this year, if Matt Ryan stays healthy, Gonzalez could see a slight uptick in his numbers. For now, figure on an 80-catch, 800-yard season with six touchdowns, knowing that Gonzalez is capable of numbers that are even a little better. He’s safely on Tier 3 as a top tight end option.

8 (con’t) – Jason Witten, Cowboys – The good news about Witten is that he’s surpassed 90 catches and 1,000 yards in two of the last three seasons, making him an elite yardage producer at tight end. But the bad news is that he’s had more than six touchdowns just once in his seven-year career, and last year he had just two. Because he’s not a consistent red-zone option, we can’t include Witten on the Dallas Clark/Antonio Gates level, and Vernon Davis has the upside to surpass Witten’s numbers as well. But Witten is truly an elite tight end, and if you’re using early picks elsewhere, Witten is a great option as a terrific starter at the position.

*Davis, Gonzalez, and Witten fit on Tier 3 of the draft board, which means their value as receivers is equivalent to the top 25-30 at the position. They are legitimate starters in three-WR leagues without a tight end position.

7 – Brent Celek, Eagles – Last year, Celek put up fantasy numbers that rivaled everyone at the position except Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark, and Antonio Gates. His 76-catch, 971-yard, eight-touchdown season made him a game-changing tight end for fantasy owners. But this year, with Kevin Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb at quarterback, we expect Celek’s numbers to sink just a bit, as we discussed in this post. Celek will still surpass 60 catches or 800 yards, but the inevitable inconsistency of a first-year starting quarterback depresses Celek’s start just a little. He sneaks onto Tier 3 of our draft board, but only barely.

7 (con’t) – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels was on his way to a phenomenal season last year before a knee injury shelved him in Week 8. He was on pace for an 80-catch, 1,038-yard, 10-touchdown season, which would have put him on par with Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates. We won’t move him that far up, especially since his midseason knee injury could hamper him a bit, especially early in the season. But expecting 60-70 catches from Daniels with 800 yards is reasonable, and there’s upside for even more production.

6- JerMichael Finley, Packers – Finley’s second season was a breakout one, as he put up 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns despite missing three midseason games. Finley’s athleticism is stunning, and he and Aaron Rodgers have a great rapport. But Rodgers has perhaps the league’s deepest core of receivers, and that means that Finley’s opportunities are just a bit limited. Finley’s 16-game pace for ’09 – 68 catches for 832 yards and six scores – is a reasonable expectation for his 2010 numbers. That makes him a solid starter.

6 (con’t) – Chris Cooley, Redskins – In an earlier post, we discussed how Cooley has a chance to grow his numbers now that Donovan McNabb is in D.C. So where does that leave Cooley in the tight end pecking order? We see him getting into the 70s with his catch numbers and nearing 800 yards as well. The question is whether Cooley can get back to his solid scoring ways after scoring just three total touchdown in the last two years. We’ll hedge a little bit on that and put Cooley on Tier 4 instead of back among the super-elite at the position.

6 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had a sneaky good season last year, and we’ve already proclaimed that the addition of Jason Campbell should make the Raider tight end even better this year. If that happens, Miller will be a 70-plus catch guy who nears 900 yards. He’s a quality starting tight end whom you can depend on as a Tier 4 draft pick. Note that there’s also a tight end named Zach Miller playing in Jacksonville and be careful to click the right one in your draft.

*Celek, Daniels, Finley, Cooley, and Miller are solid starting tight ends in 10-team leagues. They fit on Tier 4 of the draft board.

5 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe scored a career-high 11 touchdowns last year, and that buoyed his fantasy stock. But that TD percentage is abnormally high for 56 catches and 566 yards, and that causes us to keep Shiancoe’s stock a little lower than it was last year. The uncertainty about Brett Favre’s future, at least right now, is another reason not to bet too heavily on Shiancoe. He’s a borderline fantasy starter at tight end, not a sure-fire starter.

5 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson was one of the few bright spots in a terrible Seahawks season, piling up 51 catches for 574 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers mirrored his rookie-year stats from ’08 and give a good indication of Carlson’s ability. Maybe he gets more chances with Pete Carroll in town this year, or maybe he does about the same. Regardless, he’s a borderline fantasy starter but not a huge upside candidate.

4 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller had a terrific season last year with 76 catches for 789 yards, both career highs, and six touchdowns. But it would be unreasonable to expect Miller to repeat those numbers this year because of the Steelers’ QB situation over the first four games of the season. Our expectation is that the Steelers will struggle to throw the ball with Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon, and Miller’s numbers will suffer as a result. Miller is a starting-quality tight end once Ben Roethlisberger returns, but he falls just below that level because of Big Ben’s suspension.

4 (con’t) – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow had a shockingly good year in ’09 with 77 catches for 884 yards and five touchdowns despite a rotating smorgasboard of inexperienced and/or inefficient quarterbacks. Part of the reason for that was that Winslow was by far the best receiving option of any kind Tampa had. This year, we expect those numbers to slip a little because the Bucs want to develop young receivers Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, and Sammie Stroughter. Josh Freeman’s development, however, could keep Winslow’s numbers from plummeting, as we discussed earlier. Winslow has value as a bye-week fill-in at tight end, and if you wanted to start him in a larger league, we wouldn’t argue, but our hunch is that Winslow’s numbers slip a bit in 2010.

*Shiancoe, Carlson, Miller, and Winslow are potential starters in larger leagues or premium fill-ins in smaller leagues. They fit on the bottom of Tier 4 of the draft board.

3 – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller gets a ton of pub, in part because he scored touchdowns in all three of his playoff games last year. But his season stats of 45 catches, 522 yards, and two touchdowns were more of bye-week fill-in than starter stature. Maybe Keller develops a little bit this year with Mark Sanchez, but remember that the Jets have also added Santonio Holmes, Laveranues Coles, and a full season of Braylon Edwards to their receiving corps. Our hunch is that Keller stays under the 60-catch level and off the top of the tight end list. 

3 (con’t) – Greg Olsen, Bears – As we discussed in this post, offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s arrival in Chicago is not good news for Olsen. Moreover, Olsen’s eight touchdowns last year was a high percentage given his 60 catches, and so it’s reasonable to expect that number to slip as well. Olsen is a bye-week fill-in who has enough upside to merit a draft pick in larger leagues, but don’t expect too much or else you’ll be disappointed.

2 – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey had a decent season with New Orleans, piling up 48 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns despite missing three games. That pace would make him a borderline starter in larger fantasy leagues. However, Shockey hasn’t stayed completely healthy through most of his career, missing at least two games in each of the last three years. That’s enough reason to slot him lower on the draft board than other tight ends whose fantasy numbers are on the same pace.

1 – Kevin Boss, Giants – Some expected Boss to break out as a fantasy tight end last year, but he took a minor step forward instead of a major one. His numbers – 42 catches for 567 yards and five touchdowns – were OK, but they didn’t keep up with the other youngsters who have made tight end an incredibly deep position. It’s fair to expect Boss to match his ’09 numbers, but we don’t foresee another step forward, even a minor one.

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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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