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FR: May signings

This post compares free-agent signings from the beginning of the NFL draft to the end of May. For past signings, check out the April signings post and work your way back.

10 – Saints (kept UFA FS Darren Sharper; added LB Clint Ingram and FB Jason McKie) – Sharper returns on another one-year deal after a spectacular first year with the Saints. Sharper not only provided veteran wiles and stability to a secondary that had long been a trouble spot for the Saints; he also was a playmaker who picked off nine passes and returned three of them for touchdowns. Sharper is 34, but he showed he can still perform at a high level in the league. After taking Patrick Robinson in the first round of April’s draft, the Saints could have moved ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins to free safety, but it’s a far safer bet to spend a couple of million dollars to keep Sharper in place and use Jenkins as a jack of all trades. Eventually, Jenkins will replace Sharper, but the Saints don’t need to be in any hurry to make that switch because Sharper’s play is still superb. Ingram started for the Jaguars last year, but Jacksonville pulled his tender off the table after the draft. After the departure of Scott Fujita, the Saints are thin at outside linebacker, so Ingram becomes a low-cost addition who could conceivably start and hold his own. McKie is a traditional fullback who played well in Chicago but was out when the Bears moved to a Mike Martz offense this offseason.

10 (con’t) – Cardinals (added OG Alan Faneca and CB Justin Miller; kept UFA NT Bryan Robinson) – Faneca, whom the Jets cut just after the draft, now plugs into a system he’s familiar with through head coach Ken Whisenhunt and line coach Russ Grimm, both of whom coached Faneca in Pittsburgh. Faneca, who got a one-year, $2.5 million deal, will actually bring home more cash this year than he would had the Jets held onto him, will be a great leader for the Cards’ line, which has been one of the team’s weaker units in recent years. He’ll give Herman Johnson help developing and will stabilize the interior of the line, and Faneca’s style also fits the run-first persona Whisenhunt is trying to implement in the desert. Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower should high-five team execs for bringing Faneca on board. Robinson is a long-time veteran who will move to a backup role with the arrival of first-rounder Dan Williams. Keeping him around for a year to spell and mentor Williams is a good idea for the Cards. Miller has bounced around in recent years, and he’s not a great defensive player, but he can add some punch to the return game.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Bengals (added S Gibril Wilson, CB Pacman Jones, and PK Mike Nugent; kept UFA TE Reggie Kelly) – The secondary was a strong suit for the Bengals last year, but they brought in reinforcements. Wilson started for the Dolphins last year, and while he’s not a dynamic player, he’s at least OK. If he starts, he’ll be OK for the Bengals, and the team finally has a good price on a guy who has been overpaid the past two seasons in Oakland and Miami. Cincy also took a shot at Pacman Jones, who didn’t play last season. The former first-round pick has had plenty of off-field problems, but the bigger problem was his mediocre play in Dallas. Nugent, the long-time Jet kicker who filled in with the Cardinals at the end of last year, signed on with Cincy during the draft. He’ll compete against ex-Packer Dave Rayner to replace Shayne Graham. Kelly missed the entire 2009 season with an Achilles injury, but he’s a solid block-first tight end who fits well into Cincy’s run-first approach.

7 (con’t) – Redskins (added WRs Bobby Wade and Joey Galloway, DE Vonnie Holliday, LB Chris Draft, and DT Darrion Scott) – The Redskins are painfully thin at receiver, with Santana Moss aging and Devin Thomas and especially Malcolm Kelly as developmental prospects. So they brought in vets Wade and Galloway to add depth. Galloway no longer has special speed, and he was a bust in New England last year. Wade is not as well known, but he was productive as a Chief last year and could still fit in as a good third or fourth wideout for a contender. Draft is a capable starting linebacker who’s always replaceable but never horrible. He provides a good option for a team moving to a 3-4 in need of linebackers. Scott played for new Skins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett in the UFL last year, and so he could fit in as a backup as Washington moves to a 3-4 defense. Holliday, who played for Denver last year, can step in and start as a 3-4 end. He doesn’t make a ton of plays, but the long-time vet holds up really well against the run.

6 – Broncos (added LB Akin Ayodele and OT Maurice Williams, kept UFA LB Nick Greisen) – Ayodele was a veteran who brought stability but not tons of ability to the Dolphins the last two years. He knows the 3-4, though, and so can replace Andra Davis in the starting lineup. Greisen missed the ’09 season with a knee injury, but Denver’s going to take another look at him as a backup linebacker and special-teams cover guy. With Ryan Clady hurt, the Broncos brought in Williams, a disappointment as a second-round draft pick in Jacksonville who is athletic. Williams provides depth if he can recover his potential.

5 – Seahawks (kept UFA S Lawyer Milloy; added S Quinton Teal and QB J.P. Losman) – Milloy returns for a second season in Seattle, and in doing so he’ll be reunited with his first NFL coach, Pete Carroll, who returns to the pros after nearly a decade at USC. It’s been seven seasons since Milloy starred for the Patriots on their first Super Bowl winning team, but even though Milloy has been on lower-profile teams in Buffalo, Atlanta, and now Seattle, he remained a starter until last season. Milloy should be able to serve as a mentor to first-rounder Earl Thomas, and he provides veteran stability at a position where the only other player with NFL experience is Teal. Keeping Milloy at safety is a safe move that provides a sense of security for Seattle as they seek to develop Thomas into a defensive leader. Teal played some for the Panthers the last three years, but he wasn’t tendered a restricted free-agent contract this offseason.  Teal will provide veteran depth behind rookies Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Losman, a first-round bust in Buffalo, played well in the UFL last year and deserves another shot in the NFL. But he looks like little more than a No. 3 in Seattle behind Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst.

4 – 49ers (added UFA CB William James) – James (formerly known as Will Peterson) started 14 games for the Lions last year and played pretty well, picking off two passes. The nine-year vet steps into a spot that Dre Bly struggled in last year.

4 (con’t) – Patriots (added DT Gerard Warren; kept UFA OLB Derrick Burgess) – Warren, a former No. 3 overall pick in the NFL, never became a huge impact player, but he’s been a regular starter in recent years in Oakland. Now he moves to New England, where he could spell or even play alongside Vince Wilfork. After nine years in the league, Warren isn’t an ideal starter at this point, but he can provide quality as a rotation player. Burgess struggled in his adjustment to New England last year, but he began to produce late in the year with three of his five sacks over the last three games.

3 – Texans (added UFA LB Danny Clark and TE Michael Gaines) – Clark, most recently with the Giants, returns to Houston to help fill the gap after Pro Bowler Brian Cushing was suspended for the first four games of the season. Clark isn’t dynamic, but he makes the plays in front of him, and so he’ll be a dependable option for the Texans until Cushing returns. Gaines is a veteran tight end who faces an uphill battle to make a roster stocked at tight end by Owen Daniels and draft picks Dorin Dickerson and Garrett Graham.

2 – Dolphins (added OG Cory Procter) – Procter isn’t a dynamic player, but he provides nice depth at guard and can start in a pinch. He played OK in Dallas but was let go earlier this month when Dallas rescinded his restricted free agent tender to try to save some money. Procter was a waiver-wire find by Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano in Dallas, so his new team will know what he can do and what he can’t. At the least, Procter will provide insurance in case third-round pick John Jerry needs an adjustment period to the NFL as the Dolphins try to replace the traded Justin Smiley.

2 (con’t) – Jaguars (added LB Freddie Keiaho and LB Teddy Lehman) – Keiaho is a small but speedy linebacker who started two years in Indianapolis but was always a guy the Colts were looking to replace. He wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent, and now he moves to Jacksonville to compete for a job. Lehman, a former Lion, tries to return to the NFL after playing the UFL last season.

2 (con’t) – Lions (added S C.C. Brown) – Brown started for the Giants much of last year but didn’t play well in that role. But he can help provide depth for the Lions, who have one terrific safety in Louis Delmas but little else at the position. Brown will have to beat out several similarly talented players to win a job, but he at least has a shot of doing so.

1 – Ravens (added CB Travis Fisher) – Fisher has bounced around a ton lately, and he played only part of the year in Seattle last year. But given the Ravens’ problems at cornerback in 2009, it’s worth it for Baltimore to get a look at a guy who has started a bunch of games in the NFL to see if he can help.

1 (con’t) – Browns (added TE Alex Smith and PK Shaun Suisham) – Smith played for the Eagles last year, and he still has a bit of ability as a receiver. Smith will fight for a backup job behind free-agent addition Ben Watson in Cleveland. Suisham is a low-level NFL kicker, but he provides insurance in case the Browns can’t work out Phil Dawson’s contract situation.

1 (con’t) – Cowboys (kept UFA OG Montrae Holland) – Holland didn’t play at all for the Cowboys last year, but the team still brought him back as veteran depth on the offensive line. He’s a marginal backup who knows the system, but if he plays it’ll be a sign of trouble in Dallas.

1 (con’t) – Raiders (added FB Rock Cartwright, RB Michael Bennett, and OG Daniel Loper) – Cartwright, a long-time Redskin, got cut in Washington’s RB overhaul. Now he moves to Oakland, where he’ll provide depth behind Darren McFadden and Michael Bush at running back and behind Luke Lawton (who’ll miss the first two games of the season) at fullback. Cartwright can also return kicks, which helps his chances to stick. Bennett, a former first-round pick, will have to show he still has speed to stick around. Loper started five games for Detroit last year but is better as a backup at guard.

1 (con’t) – Bears (add LB Brian Iwuh) – Iwuh spent four years with the Jaguars, mostly as a backup outside linebacker. He comes in to provide depth on defense and special teams, perhaps filling the role that Jamar Williams had before he was traded to Carolina.

1 (con’t) – Bills (added RB Chad Simpson) – Simpson, an ex-Colt, can provide a little burst in the return game, but he’s not good enough to beat out C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson or Marshawn Lynch for many carries on offense.

1 (con’t) – Packers (added CB Charlie Peprah) – Peprah, who played in Green Bay from 2006-08, returns to the Pack after a year in Atlanta. He’s got a chance to claim the team’s last CB roster spot.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (added TE Jamie Petrowski) – Petrowski missed the ’09 season with the Colts due to injury, but the block-first tight end gets a chance now to come back in Carolina.

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Faneca’s new fans

We’re still working on our draft recap (a Monday work obligation slowed me down), but while you wait here are some thoughts on Alan Faneca’s release by the Jets and subsequent signing by his new fans in Arizona. We’ll compare Faneca to other cuts teams made in April at the end of the week.

Faneca was the Jets’ prize free agent acquisition two offseasons ago, and he rewarded Gang Green with two Pro Bowl appearances in his two Jets seasons. But the team drafted Vladimir Ducasse to replace Faneca at left guard, and they decided to eat $5 million in guaranteed money to save $2 million in salary and move on. Faneca has started to slow a little bit, and so he’s not the drive-blocking force he was during his best days in Pittsburgh, but with nine Pro Bowls in his 12 seasons he knows what he’s doing. He’s a good leader too, and that makes him a great starter for a team with an otherwise so-so offensive line in his new Arizona home. He can’t be the most athletic or most physical guy on a line anymore, but he can be part of a good unit. The Jets will depend on Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson to step forward as the leaders of their line and as Ducasse’s mentors.

In Arizona, Faneca plugs into a system he’s familiar with through head coach Ken Whisenhunt and line coach Russ Grimm, both of whom coached Faneca in Pittsburgh. Faneca, who got a one-year, $2.5 million deal, will actually bring home more cash this year than he would had the Jets held onto him, will be a great leader for the Cards’ line, which has been one of the team’s weaker units in recent years. He’ll give Herman Johnson help developing and will stabilize the interior of the line, and Faneca’s style also fits the run-first persona Whisenhunt is trying to implement in the desert. Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower should high-five team execs for bringing Faneca on board.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 15

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

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

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Yes, he had a big game this week (331 yards, two touchdowns). But it was against Cleveland. Just move on. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco had a four-touchdown game in the Ravens’ 31-7 blowout of the Bears. But while that’s a solid effort, it comes against a bad defense. So don’t jump Flacco into starting status without looking closely at his opponent. Flacco is a matchup play, not a starter, at this point. Verdict: A fraud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Garrard threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts, which is one of his better games of the year. But take it from someone who is stuck with Garrard as a starter in a 16-team league – fantasy owners can’t start him and feel great about it on a weekly basis. He’s just below starter caliber. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne threw for 349 yards in the Dolphins’ valiant comeback effort in Tennessee, but with just one touchdown and three interceptions he’s simply not starter worthy. He’s a top-20 fantasy quarterback this season, and projects to be even more next season, but for now you can’t start him and hope for a playoff win. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers, producing more than he has in recent weeks. With a game against the Chiefs next week, Palmer is back to solid starter status. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans – Young threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns against the Dolphins, continuing his solid play of late. He’s a top-15 fantasy quarterback, which means he is a borderline fantasy starter in larger leagues. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be afraid to start Young going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber has been a disappointment for fantasy owners, in part because of injury, but he delivered 62 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. While that doesn’t move Barber back into the realm of top-15 backs, but it does mean you can strongly consider starting Barber next week against the Redskins. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – Harrison, who last week played second fiddle to Chris Jennings, this week had the third best rushing game in NFL history with 286 yards. He added three touchdowns just to make those who have claimed and dropped Harrison this year go a little crazier. But all this happened against a terrible Chiefs team, and that makes it hard to project Harrison rushing for a third as many yards next week. Take the chance on him if you want, but we think there are better options for you. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney has had inconsistent yardage totals this year, but he scored a touchdown this week against Buffalo (his first in three weeks) and added 83 rushing yards. He’s not a great starting option for fantasy owners, but at least he is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Maurice Morris, Lions – With Kevin Smith now gone for the season, Morris emerged with 126 rushing yards and a score against a pretty good Cardinals defense. If you’re desperate for a starting option, Morris is a gamble worth looking at. He’s still a long shot, but you’re not crazy if you start him going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Chris “Beanie” Wells, Cardinals – Wells had 110 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Lions this week. Normally, we tend to cast a skeptical eye toward performances against Detroit, but it’s worth noting that Wells has had both 70-plus rushing yards and at least one touchdown in four of his past six games. It looks like this rookie is coming on, and fantasy owners should try to ride the wave. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – Even with Dwayne Bowe back in the lineup, Chambers had a nice game for the Chiefs with five catches for 114 yards and a score. While that came against the lowly Browns, it does indicate that Chambers still has fantasy value. Owners in leagues with 12 teams or less should stay away, but in larger leagues Chambers remains on the starting-lineup radar. That leads to this verdict. Verdict: Applaud

Braylon Edwards, Jets – Few big-name receivers have been as mediocre as Edwards, but he had five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown this week against Atlanta. With Mark Sanchez back, the Jets’ offense will be at least a smidge more potent, but that doesn’t mean Edwards is trustworthy for fantasy owners. He remains an enigma who you should try to bench if you have a better or even a comparable options. Verdict: A fraud

Justin Gage, Titans – Gage had two touchdowns against the Dolphins, but those were his only two catches. Look elsewhere for an emergency fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Few players are as all-or-nothing as Sims-Walker, and that makes him a maddening choice for fantasy owners each and every week. But he had six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against the Colts this week, and he has 758 yards and six touchdowns on the season. So on the whole, he’s a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a touchdown for the second straight week as he had seven catches for 86 yards against Tampa Bay. But that marked the first time in six games that Carlson had more than three catches. In other words, don’t count on Carlson to repeat this performance going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was a go-to guy in the red zone for Baltimore Sunday, scoring twice among his five catches against the Bears. But that happened in a pass-happy game against a team that struggles against the pass and that has bad safeties and backup linebackers in the lineup. Don’t read too much into it. Verdict: A fraud

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 9

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well.

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Cassel threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully tried to rally against the Jaguars. This is the kind of game that makes Cassel a decent fantasy backup, and his instant rapport with Chris Chambers is encouraging. But Cassel still is no better than the 15th best fantasy quarterback. If a quarterback between 15 and 20 on the chart helps you, Cassel’s your guy. But we can’t recommend him as more than that. Verdict: A fraud

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – In his first career start, the rookie Freeman led the Buccaneers back to a 38-28 victory over the Packers. And while he completed just 14-of-31 passes, he ended up with three touchdown passes plus a two-point conversion. That’s more than fantasy owners can expect from Freeman on a weekly basis, but the fact that he showed he can do it makes him worth a pickup in leagues where any starting quarterback has value. If you’re in a 16-team league or a league in which you can start two quarterbacks, Freeman is worth a waiver claim. But your league has to be that big for a pickup to be worth it. That’s why we’re not clapping at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford threw two first-quarter touchdowns against Seattle, but he ended up with a rather pedestrian game with 203 passing yards and those two scores. Plus, he had five interceptions, which really hurts in many fantasy leagues. The best news is that Stafford is showing he is healthy. But as of now, it’s still hard to see Stafford contributing for fantasy owners unless they’re in a league in which starting two quarterbacks is a good option. Verdict: A fraud

Pat White, Dolphins – You might have noticed that White had 45 rushing yards against the Patriots out of the wildcat formation. But he had just one pass attempt, which was incomplete. My guess it that White got so much use because he was drafted to take the Wildcat to the next level specifically against the Patriots, which is why he got so much work in this particular game. But that view means that White has little to no value for fantasy owners going forward, even in leagues that feature multiple quarterback starters. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Ladell Betts, Redskins -After Redskins starter Clinton Portis suffered a concussion in the first quarter, Betts stepped in and had 15 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. If Portis is sidelined, Betts is a borderline top 20 fantasy back, which makes him a starter in most leagues. That means that Betts is unquestionably worth a pickup if he’s available in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – With Larry Johnson suspended, Charles was supposed to be the Chiefs’ answer at running back. But while he averaged six yards per carry, he had just six carries and 36 rushing yards. That was half of the carries that Chiefs running backs got, in large part because the Chiefs fell so far behind so early. Charles is still the Chiefs’ best answer at running back, but that doesn’t mean he’s a legitimate answer for your fantasy team. He’s not a top-30 back. Verdict: A fraud

Ahman Green, Packers – Green had 45 rushing yards in Green Bay’s shocking loss at Tampa Bay, and he did it on just six carries. That’s enough to tell us that he’s now the primary backup to Ryan Grant. But Green isn’t worth a pick up unless you have Grant on your roster and want some insurance. Green is just too old to be a major fantasy factor at this point unless Grant gets hurt and the Packers run out of options. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney had another good game with 82 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and he did it in a close game. He’s now had a touchdown in three straight games and appears to be emerging as the Patriots’ No. 1 running back once again. That’s enough to make him a flex type of play in 10- or 12-team leagues. Maybe, just maybe, Maroney will once again live up to the fantasy hype he had two or three years ago. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Moats, Texans – After his huge game in Week 8, Moats won a starting role in Houston. But Moats didn’t deliver on his shot, rushing for just 38 yards on 16 carries and fumbling once at the goal line. He did have a short receiving touchdown, and Moats got more work than Steve Slaton, but he looks more like a flex option than a surefire starter. Verdict: A fraud

Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – Ward has been one of the biggest fantasy disappointments at running back this season, and although he had a receiving touchdown against Green Bay, he still had just five rushing yards on four carries. So don’t let his 54 receiving yards fool you. Ward’s still not a guy that fantasy owners can count on. Verdict: A fraud

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – Wells got some extended work in Arizona’s blowout win over Chicago, and he paid off with 72 rushing yards on 13 carries. But Wells is still behind Tim Hightower in the Cardinals’ pecking order, and that means that Wells remains outside the top 30 at running back. So for now, Beanie has to remain on the bench in your fantasy league. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears – As the Bears flung the ball around in an ultimately unsuccessful comeback attempt, Bennett piled up 93 receiving yards on seven catches. Bennett is having a decent year, but he’s still outside of the top 50 fantasy receivers when you look at the rest of the year. Unless you’re in a mega-sized league of 16 teams or more, it’s not worth owning Bennett despite this solid game. Verdict: A fraud

Greg Camarillo, Dolphins – Camarillo is the Dolphins’ version of Wes Welker lite, and against the real Welker he had a decent game with five catches for 71 yards. Camarillo isn’t a guy with much fantasy upside, but if you need a fill-in to get you 50 yards or so he’s a decent bet. That’s not worth a waiver claim in most leagues, but if you’re desperate Camarillo is a name to know. Verdict: A fraud

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – Chambers, who was cut by San Diego earlier this week and then claimed on waivers by the Chiefs, broke out in his first game with K.C. He caught two second-half touchdowns and finished with three catches for 70 yards and those two scores. I don’t know if you can count on Chambers to be a consistent fantasy threat going forward, but he’s worth a claim this week so that you’re in position to see if he does. Claim him on a flier because there’s just enough of a chance that he might actually produce in his new home. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Hill, 49ers – Jason who? Hill, who had no catches this season and only two catches in his three-year career entering Sunday’s game against the Titans, had four catches for 50 yards with two touchdowns in that game. That looks like the epitome of a fluke. Hill should still be behind Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, and Josh Morgan in the Niners’ WR pecking order, and San Fran doesn’t throw enough to support a fourth receiver as a fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter, Texans – Both Jones and Walter finished the game with 67 receiving yards, Jones on four catches and Walter on five. It’s so hard to separate which of these two if Houston’s No. 2 receiving target now that Owen Daniels is out that you can’t start either guy with confidence. For now, Jones and Walter need to stay on your bench until we figure out which one is going to be the more dependable fantasy producer. Verdict: A fraud

James Jones, Packers – Jones is generally the Packers’ No. 4 receiver, but he moved up a slot with Jordy Nelson out. That enhanced role showed, as Jones had four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against the Packers. Jones probably won’t deliver anything close to this on a regular basis, but he is capable of producing numbers every once in a while. Jones is a decent Hail Mary-type of player if you’re stuck, but with bye weeks all but done you likely won’t be in that much of a pickle. That means that Jones is worth leaving on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Lance Long, Chiefs – Chambers wasn’t the only Chiefs wideout to break out with a big game. Lance Long, who was with head coach Todd Haley in Arizona, had eight catches for 74 yards. Long isn’t a top-40 receiver, but in large leagues he’s worth a claim because he may be a guy the Chiefs want to take an extended look at the rest of the season. That could add to his fantasy value quite a bit. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem had a big game against Carolina, catching five passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. With Lance Moore continuing to battle injury problems, Meachem is developing into the Saints’ No. 2 wide receiver behind Marques Colston. Meachem had been a bust in his first two seasons, but he’s starting to contribute, and he’s moved into the top 40 among fantasy wideouts. Even better for fantasy owners, Meachem has a chance to continue moving forward. He’s got upside, and that makes him worth a claim if he’s still on your league’s waiver wire. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker has emerged as Jacksonville’s top receiver, and he is delivering big fantasy numbers as a result. His huge day Sunday against the Chiefs – six catches, 147 yards and a touchdown – is just a reminder that you should be starting Sims-Walker if you have him. Here’s the rule – if a Jaguar has a hyphenated last name, he should be in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Greg Olsen, Bears – In one league Sunday, I had to put Olsen in my lineup as a wide receiver/tight end at the last minute because Donald Brown and Anquan Boldin were both inactive after being questionable. That worked out, as Olsen exploded with three touchdowns among his five catches for 71 yards. Part of that was because the Bears were being blown out and therefore in throw-it-around mode, but it goes to show Olsen’s ability as a receiver. Maybe this will spark Olsen the rest of the season. At the very least, it rewards Olsen owners who have been patient. Mark Olsen down as a top-15 tight end right now and hope that this positive trend continues. He’s back to being a guy you should think hard about starting on a weekly basis. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions – Pettigrew caught a touchdown in the first quarter against Seattle and finished with a supersolid seven-catch, 70-yard game. He’s moving into the top 16 to 20 tight ends, which is putting him in starting range in large leagues. There still may be better options on your league’s waiver wire, but owners no longer need to be afraid of Pettigrew’s rookie status. He can contribute to your team. Verdict: Applaud

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Running Backs

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top running backs who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Michael Turner, Falcons – Turner’s yards per carry average isn’t great at 3.5, but he has scored in his last two games and has had at least 50 yards in all three games. This is a bit of a slow start, but it’s still fair to consider Turner a legitimate No. 1 fantasy running back. He hasn’t been the dominant player that most owners who drafted him in the top 2 would hope, but his performance has been good enough for applause. Verdict: Applaud

2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson is averaging 103 yards per game, is second in the league in rushing yards, and has five touchdowns already. While much of that production came in a huge Week One, Peterson’s performance is what you expect from a top-tier fantasy running back. Clap it up. Verdict: Applaud

3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo’s yardage total of 296 rushing doesn’t look great, but he also has 97 receiving yards, and his five rushing touchdowns is tied for the league lead through Week 4. He’ll end up with 1,200 rushing yards, another 400 receiving yards, and 15 TDs or more. That’s exactly what owners at the top of fantasy drafts were hoping for when they called his name. Verdict: Applaud

4. Matt Forte, Bears – Forte started really slow before putting up 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 4. If we had done this post last week, Forte would have been a fraud. But now his yardage totals (271 rushing and 92 receiving) are close enough to Jones-Drew’s, and if he starts scoring he’ll be just fine. He’s been a little disappointing thus far, but he’s still a No. 1 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – When I was putting together my rankings, it took a long time for me to settle on who the No. 5 and No. 6 backs were. But Williams, who I eventually moved up into this spot, has delivered despite terrible performances by his quarterback and receivers this year. He has 180 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards, and two TDs in three games, which is solid production. Owners can be confident that Williams will end up with 12 touchdowns and 1,200 total yards at least, and those are No. 1 back numbers. He’s the only Panther worth clapping for, but he’s earned it. Verdict: Applaud

6. Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson was the player I moved into the 6th position, and he has delivered big-time. Even though the Titans are 0-4, Johnson leads the league in rushing yards with 434 rushing yards, and he has another 117 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. If you got Johnson in the first half of the first round of your draft, it’s paying off big time. Verdict: Applaud

7. Steve Slaton, Texans – Like Forte, Slaton started out incredibly slowly before breaking out in Week 4. He has just 192 rushing yards, but he also has 121 receiving yards and the two touchdowns he scored this past Sunday. Slaton looks to be a yardage machine, and if he starts getting into the end zone regularly, he’ll be worth the first-round pick he cost in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

8. Clinton Portis, Redskins – At one point this offseason, I was staring at Portis’ impressive record and pencilling him in as a top-5 back. I drifted off that a bit, thankfully, as the season neared, but I still considered Portis great value at the end of the first round of my drafts. But Portis hasn’t really delivered, running for 281 yards in four games – three against soft defenses in Detroit, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. The schedule says that Portis should have had a hot start, but he hasn’t done so, and he hasn’t even reached the end zone yet. At this point, I wouldn’t consider Portis an every-week starter, and that makes this preseason ranking just flat wrong. Verdict: A fraud

9. Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Jacobs hasn’t started frequenting the end zone yet, but he has 288 rushing yards in the first four games. He’s not really a top-10 fantasy back yet, but once he starts finding pay dirt more often he will be. For now, he’s a solid fantasy starter, and that’s enough reason to clap. Verdict: Applaud

10. Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson is tied for fourth in the league in rushing yards with 367, and he also has 67 receiving yards. The problem for fantasy owners is that he hasn’t yet scored. Jackson is a victim of the Rams’ sorry offense, but at this point he’s still worth starting for fantasy owners because of his yardage numbers. His worst game was a 67-yard performance in Week One, and that’s not abysmal. So we’ll give him a golf clap. Verdict: Applaud

11. LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – I was down on Tomlinson this year because of his age and injuries over the past years, and so far those concerns have been valid. Tomlinson has just 72 yards from scrimmage so far and just one touchdown, and he has missed two games. His performance could get better, but at the quarter pole his fantasy owners can’t be happy. Verdict: A fraud

12. Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook has missed one game with injury and had a bye, and he’s had one good fantasy game and one OK performance. So while he, like Tomlinson, hasn’t really shined yet, his numbers look a little better in context. His upside for ’09 still has yet to be seen, but he’s done just enough to get a soft clap at this point. Verdict: Applaud

13. Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore is another back who’s already missed a game and most of a second tilt. His injury history was a big reason I didn’t include him in my top 10. When he’s played, he’s been terrific, with 298 total yards and 4 TDs. That makes Gore a legit No. 1 back when he’s in the lineup, and that’s worth applause despite his injury. Verdict: Applaud

14. Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber is another back who’s missed a game already, but in the three games he’s played he has 302 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. That’s production well worth a top-15 draft spot, even including the fact that he missed a game. Verdict: Applaud

15. Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t a guy that gives you great assurance when you take him, but as the top back on my Tier 2, he has just barely delivered thus far with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s been lacking in some games, but as a No. 2 fantasy back he’s been OK. Given how that meets expectations, we’ll give him some reserved applause. Verdict: Applaud

16. Ryan Grant, Packers – Grant got off to an awful start last year, but he’s been better in the first quarter of the season this year. He’s run for 257 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 receiving yards, which helps. Those are solid No. 2 fantasy back numbers that are worth of this spot on the preseason draft board. Verdict: Applaud

17. Darren McFadden, Raiders – I was far higher on McFadden than most people, figuring that his natural talent would lead to a 1,000-yard, 8-TD season no matter how bad his situation was. But he has just 198 yards from scrimmage and one TD in the first four games, and now he’s hurt. He’s a No. 4 fantasy back, not a fantasy starter. This was a bad preseason ranking. Verdict: A fraud

18. Kevin Smith, Lions – I didn’t love Smith this year, but I liked him enough to rate him as a borderline fantasy starter. And with 335 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, Smith has been a little better than borderline. He’s been a pleasant surprise thus far. Verdict: Applaud

19. Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas missed the season opener and played very sparingly in Week 2, but since then he’s been a big-time back. In the preseason, had Thomas not gotten hurt, he would have been a top-15 back. With 258 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs in the last two games, Thomas is a legit fantasy starter. Those who had patience with Pierre are being rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

20. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno (who was also hurt in the preseason) has been a good but not great fantasy player so far with 249 rushing yards and two TDs. And after a slow start in Week One, he has at least 65 rushing yards in each game. Now that Correll Buckhalter is hurt for a few weeks, Moreno has a chance to really emerge as not just a fantasy starter but as a No. 1 fantasy back. That makes him well worth this kind of preseason ranking. Verdict: Applaud

21. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is a good back, but he’s not good enough to overcome the general malaise that has hit the Panthers thus far. So even though he’s averaging more than 4 yards per carry, he has just 162 yards from scrimmage in three games and no touchdowns. That’s not worth this draft position, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to being a fantasy starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

22. Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – This ranking was way, way off. I didn’t see Cadillac Williams as a serious contender for carries, but it’s been Williams who has been the lone fantasy-relevant back for Tampa. Ward has just 129 yards from scrimmage and one TD. That’s not worth this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

23. Larry Johnson, Chiefs – I was far from sold on Johnson, but it was hard for me to imagine him not being at least a decent No. 3 back. But he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, and his 237 yards from scrimmage without a touchdown makes him nothing more than a roster-filler for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

24. Marshawn Lynch, Bills – It’s hard to judge Lynch because he missed the first three games due to his suspension. In his first game, he had just four yards on eight carries, although he did have 43 receiving yards. It’s far from certain that Lynch will be able to beat out Fred Jackson for the bulk of chances in Buffalo’s running game. So the signs aren’t yet good, but if you drafted Lynch you committed to be patient because you knew he would miss the first three games. For now, we’ll be patient with our verdict. Verdict: Incomplete

25. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – I was a lot further down on Brown than most, and he went as a No. 2 fantasy back in the drafts I was in. But Brown has delivered so far. He’s third in the league with 369 rushing yards, and he also has four touchdowns and 50 receiving yards. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now, which is what I was skeptical of. Another miss on my part. Verdict: Applaud

26. Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson gained steam as a sleeper during the preseason, and with good reason. He’s tied for fourth in the league with 367 rushing yards, and he has two touchdowns. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now and a nice surprise for owners who took a shot on him. Verdict: Applaud

27. Jamal Lewis, Browns – I was down on the Browns entering the year, but Lewis still made it into No. 3 running back range because he was one of few undisputed starting backs left. Lewis had 150 yards from scrimmage in the first two weeks, which is OK, before missing the last two games. You would never feel good about starting Lewis in a fantasy league, which means this ranking is about five spots too high. He should have been a No. 4 fantasy back at best, not a No. 3, and so we can’t clap for him at this level. Verdict: A fraud

28. Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is averaging 6 yards per carry, and he already has 429 yards from scrimmage. He just has one touchdown, which is the only thing keeping him from being a No. 1 fantasy back. But he’s a fantasy starter at this point, meaning that owners who got him at this point in fantasy drafts should be thrilled. Verdict: Applaud

29. Donald Brown, Colts – One of my big predictions in my preseason draft-boarding was that Brown would end up being a better fantasy back than Joseph Addai. That’s not yet the case – Brown has 257 yards from scrimmage and two TDs to 283 yards and three TDs for Addai – but I still get the sense that Brown will end up being better. In any case, Brown is already an OK No. 3 fantasy back who still has upside to move into being a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

30. Willie Parker, Steelers – Parker missed Week 4, and before that he put up 203 yards and one TD. Those aren’t quite No. 3 fantasy back numbers, but they’re close enough that this draft position for him is defensible. Verdict: Applaud

31. Reggie Bush, Saints – I kept moving Bush down my draft board in the preseason, but even this level wasn’t low enough. Mike Bell and Lyndell Hamilton have scored for the Saints, and yet Bush has just one touchdown. He does have 269 yards from scrimmage, and as a No. 3 fantasy back, he’s marginal. This is probably going to end up being about the right ranking for Bush, so we’ll clap – reluctantly. Verdict: Applaud

32. Beanie Wells, Cardinals – We projected that Wells would beat out Tim Hightower for the Cardinals’ No. 1 running back role, but that hasn’t yet happened. So Wells has just 71 rushing yards, and he doesn’t have a catch yet. If you drafted Wells, you probably have to stash him on your bench hoping that he’ll get it more and more as the year goes on. But even with that hope, this draft position looks too high. Verdict: A fraud

33. LenDale White, Titans – White became a fantasy starter last year by being a rushing-TD machine, but with the Titans falling apart White’s goal-line role has disappeared. He has just one touchdown and just 94 yards from scrimmage. He’s barely ownable at this point. Verdict: A fraud

34. Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson took advantage of his role as the Bills’ primary back in the first three games, and he has a whopping 493 yards from scrimmage in the first four games. He has just one touchdown, but if you took Jackson as a short-term answer, you have to feel good about how he did and about what he can do moving forward. Verdict: Applaud 

35. Joseph Addai, Colts – You can’t be secure about Addai’s role in the offense with Donald Brown emerging, but thus far Addai has been a solid No. 3 fantasy back. So given this ranking, we’ll applaud him. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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