Tag Archives: darren sproles

Saints break records, smash Panthers

For National Football Authority, we break down the Saints’ big 45-17 win over the Panthers. We discuss what records the Saints broke, and why they went to the mat to break them, and also the injuries that could matter in the playoffs. Click here to read all about it.

Saints RB Darren Sproles breaks free vs. the Panthers, via panthers.com

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Postgame Points: Saints/Packers

For National Football Authority, we sum up the NFL kickoff game in which Green Bay beat New Orleans 42-34. Here are our thoughts with a Saints spin on Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and defensive struggles.

Darren Sproles, via acmepackingcompany.com

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Filed under Football Relativity, National Footbal Authority, NFL games, Postgame points

Pre-camp signings

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

New Titan Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

The NFL free-agent market opened with a flurry, and in this post we’ll try to make sense of it all. We’ll discuss all the major signings between the resumption of play and the August 4 date on which veteran signees could begin practicing. 

Panthers (keep DE Charles Johnson, RB DeAngelo Williams, and OLBs Thomas Davis and James Anderson; add NT Ron Edwards, PK Olindo Mare, QB Derek Anderson, TE Ben Hartsock, LB Omar Gaither and Safeties Kevin Payne and Sean Considine) – We discussed Johnson in this post and Williams in this post. Davis is a major impact player who has fought major knee injuries the last few years. While he wasn’t technically a free agent, the team had agreed to either re-sign him or cut him. So Davis got a five-year deal. So did Anderson, who stepped into the starting lineup when Davis was out last year and played quite well. He got a five-year, $22 million contract with an $8.5 million signing bonus. Anderson’s emergence will let the Panthers move Jon Beason back to middle linebacker, and it will give Carolina a powerful LB corps. Edwards fills a major need for the Panthers, who had terrible defensive tackle play last year. That’s why they gave him a solid three-year, $8.25 million deal. Even though the Panthers run a 4-3, they traditionally put one of their tackles right over the center, so Edwards fits in as he moves over from a 3-4. The Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million deal with a $4 million signing bonus. Mare has been terrific the last three years inSeattleafter a mid-career lull, and he’s got a powerful leg on kickoffs. That gives him an edge over Panthers fan (and owner) favorite John Kasay, who’s remained good on field goals into his 40s but who can’t kick off reliably anymore. Anderson, who played for new Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, comes on board as the veteran quarterback who can start Week One if Cam Newton isn’t ready. Hartsock, an ex-Cardinal, got a two-year deal to replace Jeff King as a reliable blocking tight end. Payne, who sat out last year, was a decent starting safety in Chicago and should be worthy of a roster spot. He may have to beat out Considine, a decent safety and strong special-teamer, to win that spot. The Panthers also extended the contract of Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason. Gaither busted out as a starter in Philadelphia last year, but he’s pretty good insurance against another Thomas Davis injury at strong-side linebacker. Like Considine, Gaither played for new Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Philadelphia.

Eagles (add CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, QB Vince Young, OG Evan Mathis, RB Ronnie Brown, OT Ryan Harris, DTs Derek Landri and Anthony Hargrove, S Jarrad Page, TE Donald Lee, and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins) – We discussed the major Asomugha move in this post. Jenkins moves over from Green Bay for a five-year, $25 million deal to provide a pass-rush push inside. He was one of the best defensive linemen on the market, and the Eagles adding him is a big upgrade. Jenkins played in a 3-4 last year, but he’s played in a 4-3 as well, which speaks to his versatility. Babin, who was a first-round pick in Houston once upon a time, bounced around the league (including Philadelphia) before having a breakout season in Tennessee last year. His DL coach with the Titans, Jim Washburn, is now in Philadelphia, so it makes sense that Babin would follow him to the City of Brotherly Love. Babin got a five-year deal worth up to $28 million (but with just $6 million guaranteed) to help the Eagles ramp up their pass rush. Young, who was released by the Titans, gets a one-year deal to back up Michael Vick. Despite his off-field reputation, he’s a pretty good insurance policy for the Eagles, and they could revive his career. Mathis looks to be a backup in Philadelphia, but he’s been a pretty decent starter at guard in the past. That’s a nice addition for depth. Brown may be starting the downhill part of his career, but he provides nice insurance behind starting RB LeSean McCoy. Harris was a good starter at right tackle at times in Denver. He adds depth but could challenge holdover Winston Justice for a starting shot. Landri and Hargrove add depth at a thin position. Landri probably fits better as a spot player; Hargrove can provide some interior pass rush. Page adds depth at safety, which is a young position on the roster. Lee is a blocking tight end with experience in the West Coast offense. Higgins has good return skills but will have trouble cracking the Eagles’ deep WR rotation.

Jets (keep WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie, OT Wayne Hunter, PK Nick Folk, CB Donald Strickland, Safeties Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, and QB Mark Brunell; add WR Plaxico Burress and S DaJuan Morgan) – We discussed Holmes’ signing and how it establishes him as a No. 1 receiver in this post. Cromartie was the consolation prize after the Jets missed out on Nnamdi Asomugha. Cromartie isn’t the shut down corner that Asomugha or Darrelle Revis is, but he’s good enough to make it hard on opposing quarterbacks. Plus, he’s dangerous if he ever gets the ball in his hands. He got a four-year, $32 million deal. Hunter, who filled in for an injured Damien Woody at right tackle last year, got a four-year, $13 million deal to take Woody’s place permanently now that Woody has retired. Folk performed well in his first year as a Jet and got a one-year deal to return. Strickland, Pool, and Smith are solid players who fit in well in the team’s DB rotation. Smith and Pool fit in as starters; Strickland a nickel back. Morgan adds depth at the position. Burress got a one-year, $3 million contract to replace Braylon Edwards as a starter across from Holmes. It’s a bit of a gamble for the Jets to rely on Burress, who has missed the last two seasons because of his legal problems, but if he’s the same player he was with the Giants he’ll be a nice addition. Brunell came back after being cut.

Chargers (add ILB Takeo Spikes, OLB Travis LaBoy and WR Laurent Robinson; keep S Eric Weddle, OT Jeromy Clary, TE Randy McMichael, S Bob Sanders, OLB Antwan Barnes, NT Jacques Cesaire, and QB Billy Volek) – Spikes, who played for new Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in San Francisco, is a solid veteran who is still a reliable run-down tackler. He’ll be a good fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, even if his three-year, $9 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus is a little rich given his age. LaBoy is another vet who is a solid but unspectacular outside linebacker. He’s shown pass rush ability in the past, but not in recent years. Weddle was the Chargers’ biggest free agent, and they paid big money to keep him – a five-year, $40 million contract with a $13 million signing bonus and $19 million guaranteed that his agent claimed as the richest contract ever for a safety. Weddle may not be the best safety in the league, but he’s very good. His range at free safety is remarkable, and his presence allows the Chargers more flexibility in pass coverage. They simply couldn’t afford to lose him. Clary got a four-year deal to continue to play right tackle, even though his pass blocking has been suspect. McMichael provides insurance against Antonio Gates injury, while Sanders brings a veteran influence and hard hitting to the strong safety position if he can stay healthy. Barnes bounced around last year but finally found a home that matches his pass-rush skills in San Diego. Cesaire has started at nose tackle the last couple of years and played well. His return stabilizes the front line, because he does a nice job against the run. Volek is a solid veteran hand backing up Philip Rivers. The Chargers know he can be a solid short-term replacement if Rivers were to get injured. Robinson has been hurt a lot, but he’s big and fast. If healthy, he could help replace Malcom Floyd.

Redskins (keep WR Santana Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Philip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, and S Reed Doughty; add DT Barry Cofield, DE Stephen Bowen, CB Josh Wilson, WR Donte Stallworth, QB Kellen Clemens, and OL Chris Chester)We discussed Moss in this post. Cofield was one of the big prizes of the free agent market, and might have been the best defensive tackle available. But it’s odd for Cofield, who thrived in a 4-3 last year, sign to play in a 3-4 in Washington. Maybe he will provide the Redskins a lot of scheme flexibility, but there’s a strong chance he’ll end up being a square peg trying to fit a round hole. That’s not what you want in a guy you’re giving a six-year megacontract. Bowen, who got a five-year, $27.5 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus, is a perfect fit for the system. He’ll step in as a solid five-techinique defensive end, and he’ll really improve the front. With Bowen and Cofield, the Redskins have taken a nice step forward up front. Wilson is a much better fit. He had a nice year in Baltimore last year, and he should provide an upgrade over the departing Carlos Rogers across from DeAngelo Hall. Wilson signed for a reasonable deal as well – three years, $13.5 million with $6 million in guarantees. We discussed all of these defensive additions in this post. Stallworth, who signed a one-year deal, adds depth to a receiving corps that is young aside from Moss. He’s likely a No. 4 receiver at best, but he still does have downfield speed. Clemens never made much of an impact as a second-round pick with the Jets, but like John Beck at one point he was a hot prospect. Clemens likely fits in as a No. 3 QB. Chester, who has been starting at guard for the Ravens, comes over to address a big need on the interior of the Redskins line. He got a five-year contract worth up to $20 million. Brown got a five-year deal to return and play right tackle. He didn’t have his best year last year, but he’s talented enough to play left tackle or right. Buchanon adds depth at corner, but he will miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension. Golston is a decent backup lineman. Doughty adds depth at safety.

Seahawks (add WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OG Robert Gallery, DTs Alan Branch and Ryan Sims, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, and PK Jeff Reed, ; keep DT Brandon Mebane, CB Kelly Jennings, RB Michael Robinson, LB Leroy Hill and DT Junior Siavii) – Once Santonio Holmes re-signed with the Jets, Rice was the best receiver on the market, and Seattle stepped up to sign him to a five-year, $41 million deal with $18.5 million guaranteed. Rice fought injuries last year, but he showed in 2009 that he can be an elite downfield receiver because of his great size and ball skills. His presence will let Mike Williams settle in as a solid No. 2 receiver and shore up a trouble area. Miller, who was a fine receiving tight end in Oakland, wasn’t at a position of need, but his talent was strong enough that the Seahawks gave him a big deal (five years, $34 million, with $17 million guaranteed). He’s a big-time receiving threat. The question is who will get Rice and Miller the ball. The Seahawks couldn’t come to a deal with Matt Hasselbeck, and to replace him they brought in Jackson on a two-year, $8 million deal that basically puts him on equal footing with Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson fell far out of favor with the Vikings last year, but he played well down the stretch in 2008 before Brett Favre hit town. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was with the Vikings at that point, so he knows Jackson’s ability and potential. Still, Jackson will have to grow more consistent and protect the football if he is to knock off Whitehurst and seize the starting job. Gallery was a bust as a tackle, but he’s played well as a guard. Former Raiders head coach Tom Cable is now in Seattle, so he must trust that Gallery can add veteran experience to an offensive line that’s young at tackle with Russell Okung and James Carpenter. Branch was a disappointment in Arizona, but he is huge and moves well, so the Seahawks will try to unlock his potential. Branch got a two-year, $8 million deal with $4 million guaranteed. Mebane was a huge retention for the Seahawks. He was one of the top defensive tackles on the market and had several suitors. Now he returns to create havoc up front. Having a wide body like Branch alongside could allow Mebane to penetrate even more. Robinson is a backup running back who is a decent receiver as well.  Hill had played well for the Seahawks in the past, but off-field issues have limited his impact in recent years. Still, he has talent. Siavii adds depth inside. Sims and Wilkerson provide depth. Reed replaces the departed Olindo Mare. Jennings is a good but not great corner who’s probably better suited to play in a nickel set than as a starter.

Titans (add QB Matt Hasselbeck, LB Barrett Ruud, DT Shaun Smith and TE Daniel Graham; keep OG Leroy Harris, FB Ahmard Hall, and DEs Jacob Ford and Dave Ball) – The Titans stole Hasselbeck away from the Seahawks with a multiyear deal. The move will allow the team to develop rookie Jake Locker slowly, and and it will also help the Titans compete in the short term. Hasselbeck should have the personality to mentor Locker, but he’ll have to play better than he has the past 2-3 years if he is to really make the Titans contenders. Still, the team needed a veteran QB, and Hasselbeck was the best available. Smith has a reputation of crossing the line, but he played well for the Chiefs last year. He’s capable of starting and holding his own. Ruud, who was a tackle machine in Philadelphia, isn’t the thumper that departing MLB Stephen Tulloch is, but Ruud brings more athleticism to the position. The Titans will be able to play a little differently with him in town. Harris got a two-year deal to return as a starting guard, but he needs to continue to develop into that role. Graham is a solid blocking tight end with some receiving skills who will help to replace Bo Scaife. Hall is a solid blocking back who had options elsewhere but returned. Ball and Ford are not world-beaters, but they’re at least rotation-quality defensive ends who can hold up on run downs. Neither is going to create a ton of pass rush, though.

Texans (add CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning FB Lawrence Vickers, and P Brad Maynard; keep WR Jacoby Jones, OT Rashad Butler, QB Matt Leinart, and DT Damione Lewis) – The Texans have a lot of talent, but secondary play was their tragic flaw last year. They addressed it with two big signings. Joseph, regarded as the second-best corner on the market, got a monster five-year, $48.75 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus to be the lead corner. He played really well in Cincinnati, and he’ll be a huge upgrade. Manning, a versatile player who struggled to find just the right fit in Chicago, comes in to play free safety. He has immense talent if the Texans can figure out where to play him. Manning got a four-year, $20 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. Jones got a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million in guarantees in the hopes that he’s ready to fulfill his vast potential and emerge as a starter opposite Andre Johnson. The skills are there; the question is whether Jones can unlock them. Butler started four games at tackle as a fill-in last year. Leinart got a two-year, $5.5 million deal with $3.75 million guaranteed, which means the Texans expect him to compete with Dan Orlovsky for the backup spot behind Matt Schaub. Lewis got a one-year deal to play in Houston’s new 3-4; he played in a similar scheme in New England. Vickers, an ex-Brown, replaces Vonta Leach as a blocking fullback. Vickers isn’t as good as Leach, but he’s pretty good. Maynard started to fall off last year, but the vet may find punting easier in warm Houston than it was in cold Chicago.

Ravens (keep OG-OT Marshal Yanda, CB Chris Carr and LB Prescott Burgess; add FB Vonta Leach and S Bernard Pollard) – Yanda, who for years was a solid guard for the Ravens, moved out to right tackle last year and continued to play well. His strong play led to a strong market for his services, but the Ravens stepped up to keep Yanda with a five-year, $32 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus. Yanda is dependable, and his versatility will help him continue to make an impact through the length of the deal. That should make this a good deal for the Ravens. Burgess fits in as a backup outside linebacker. Carr is a solid nickelback who got a four-year deal to return. That’s important, especially after the Ravens lost two secondary starters – Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson – via free agency. Leach got a three-year, $11 million deal to replace LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee in the fullback role. Leach isn’t a great runner, but he’s a terrific blocker and will help Ray Rice tremendously in that role. Pollard is a great in-the-box safety who isn’t great in coverage. His skills mirror Dawan Landry, so he’s a decent replacement despite being older.

Rams (add S Quintin Mikell, OG Harvey Dahl, WR Mike Sims-Walker, DTs Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, CB Al Harris, LBs Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga, and RBs Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams) – The Rams had to cut FS O.J. Atogwe back before the lockout because of a huge escalator, and that was a huge loss. To replace him, they broke the bank for Mikell, an eight-year vet who has emerged as a top safety the last year or two. Mikell got a four-year deal worth $27 million with $14 million guaranteed, so he’ll need to continue to play at an elite level to be worth the price. But his presence will help the Rams defense continue to grow. Dahl is a good guard in large part because of his physical, borderline-dirty style of play. He’ll add an edge up front for a Rams line that features young OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold and C Jason Brown. They could become one of the best front fives in the league now that Dahl’s in town on a four-year deal. Sims-Walker is a big receiver who’s more talented than any on the Rams’ roster. Since Mark Clayton isn’t yet healthy enough to play, MSW could be the Rams’ No. 1 option. Bannan, who got a three-year deal, is a versatile lineman who got cut after a scheme change in Denver. He can be a decent backup inside or outside. Muir, who got a one-year, $1.85 million deal, is in the same boat. Both add good depth. Harris got a one-year deal to see if he can resuscitate his career. He adds veteran wiles at least. Diles is an athletic weak-side linebacker. Poppinga can play outside as well. Norwood and Williams add depth at a position that was razor thin behind Steven Jackson last year. Both are great on third-down; the question is whether one or both can stay healthy.

Jaguars (add MLB Paul Posluzny, OLB Clint Session, S Dawan Landry, CB Drew Coleman, and OG Jason Spitz) – The Jaguars made their splash by signing two linebackers to fix a trouble spot. Posluszny, an ex-Bill, got a six-year, $45 million contract that includes $15 million in guarantees. Posluszny is an athletic player who fits best in a 4-3 like the Jaguars run, not in the Bills’ 3-4. He’s a reliable tackler who also has the athletic ability to get deep in coverage, and he fills an area that was a problem for Jacksonville last year. The price was high, but the fit seems right for the Jaguars. Session, an ex-Colt, got a five-year deal worth $30 million with $11.5 million in guarantees to play on the weak side. He’ll add even more ranginess to the group. After building the defensive line through the draft the last few years, the Jaguars hope Posluszny, Session, and holdover Daryl Smith are ready to make the front seven formidable. Landry got a five-year deal to address safety, which was another big trouble area. Landry’s better in run support than coverage, but he’s a lot better than what Jacksonville had at the position. Coleman, who got a three-year, $7.4 million deal, is better playing in the slot than outside, but he will help a trouble area. We discussed all of these Jaguars defensive moves in this post. Spitz will get a chance to start a left guard.

Colts (keep QB Peyton Manning, PK Adam Vinatieri, S Melvin Bullitt and RB Joseph Addai; add QBs Dan Orlovsky and Nate Davis, LB Ernie Sims, DE Jamaal Anderson, and DT Tommie Harris) – Manning, who was the franchise free agent for the Colts, had some tense moments of negotiation but eventually re-signed for a massive five-year, $90 million deal. He tried to take a little less money to make room for the Colts to re-sign some key players such as Addai, who is still the best back the Colts have despite his age and fragility. Vinatieri got a three-year deal to remain as the Colts’ dependable clutch kicker. Bullitt, who missed most of last season, also got a three-year deal. He’ll be in the mix to start at safety. After Orlovsky was cut by Houston, he quickly got a new gig in Indy. He’ll be an upgrade at backup quarterback. Davis, a bust as a 49ers draft pick, gets a two-year deal in Indy to compete with Curtis Painter for the No. 3 job. We discussed the Colts’ additions of three former first-rounders – Harris, Sims, and Anderson – in this post.

Falcons (add DE Ray Edwards; keep OT Tyson Clabo, OG Justin Blalock, and OLBs Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson) – Edwards, the second-best defensive end on the market behind Charles Johnson, got a solid but not earth-shattering deal to come to Atlanta – five years, $30 million with $11 million guaranteed. He’ll add pass rush and allow the Falcons to use John Abraham more strategically. That kind of pass rusher was one of the biggest needs for the Falcons, and Edwards was one of the best available. That’s a win for the Dirty Birds. Atlanta fought off a major challenge from the Bills to keep Clabo, who provides physical play at right tackle. The Falcons, who had three OL starters hitting free agency, gave Clabo a five-year, $25 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed to stay. Blalock got a six-year, $38 million deal to return at left guard. Clabo and Blalock will stabilize a run game and give the Falcons more flexibility with their other guard spot. Nicholas has emerged as a quality outside ‘backer for a Falcons defense that is strong at that left. He got a five-year, $17.5 million contract that includes $7 million in guarantees to stay and help the Dirty Birds get over the hump. Peterson, who plays at the other outside linebacker spot, returns as well. He’s got a ton of experience and still drops into coverage pretty well.

Cowboys (keep OT Doug Free, DEs Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, OL Kyle Kosier, and S Gerald Sensabugh; add DE Kenyon Coleman and S Abram Elam) – The Cowboys had to cut a bunch of salary just to get under the salary cap, but they kept cutting to make sure they could keep Free, who emerged as a starting left tackle last year. Dallas fought off Tampa Bay by signing Free to a four-year, $32 million contract with $17 million in guarantees. If Free develops into an above-average left tackle, he’ll be worth that deal, and he’s young enough to do so. That makes this a wise investment for Jerry Jones. Kosier is a versatile player who can start inside. He got a three-year, $9 million deal. Spears got a five-year, $19.2 million deal to stay and play defensive end. He became a priority when Stephen Bowen went to the division rival Redskins. Hatcher got a $2.5 million signing bonus on a three-year, $6 million deal to help out in the defensive end rotation as well. To add depth after Bowen’s departure, the Cowboys brought in Coleman, a veteran who played for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Cleveland. Elam is another Cleveland import. He’ll team with Sensabaugh, who played well in Dallas last year, to improve Dallas’ safety situation. Both Sensabaugh and Elam got one-year, $2.5 million contracts.

Steelers (keep CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay, OT Willie Colon, OG Jonathan Scott, NT Chris Hoke, RB Melwede Moore, PK Shaun Suisham and P Daniel Sepulveda; add TE John Gilmore) – Taylor, regarded as one of the best corners on the market, stays in Pittsburgh on a four-year deal. His physical style fits the Steelers’ system well, and the system keeps him from being exposed in coverage. He wouldn’t fit any other scheme as well. Gay isn’t as good as Taylor, but he’s been a decent starter for the Steelers. Suisham stepped in for Jeff Reed last season and did a nice job for the Steelers. Colon has battled injuries the last two years, but he has played well when healthy at left tackle. Pittsburgh’s counting on him to man the position at a high level, because they cut Flozell Adams and Max Starks as they gave Colon a five-year, $29 million deal. Scott adds solid depth at several positions. Sepulveda returns to punt for Pittsburgh once again. He’s been effective when healthy. Hoke and Moore are key players at their positions. Gilmore helps to replace departed backup TE Matt Spaeth.

Chiefs (add WR Steve Breaston, NT Kelly Gregg, ILB Brandon Siler and RB LeRon McClain; keep DE Tamba Hali, C Casey Wiegmann, WR Terrance Copper, S Jon McGraw, and CB Travis Daniels) – Breaston showed promise in Arizona, especially when now Chiefs head coach Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator there. He comes in to provide a complement to Dwayne Bowe as first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin develops. Breaston got a five-year deal that includes $9 million in guaranteed money. Gregg, who played for the Ravens, has been a solid plugger up front who frees the players around him to make plays. He’s a nice replacement for the departed Ron Edwards and could be an upgrade if he can maintain his past performance. Siler is a solid inside linebacker who will help against the run. McClain can play tailback but probably fits in better as a versatile fullback. Hali, the Chiefs’ preeminent pass rusher and franchise player, got a long-term deal – 5 years, $60 million with $35 million guaranteed. It’s a high price, but Hali has earned it. Wiegmann, who has played more than 10,000 consecutive snaps since 2001, got a one-year, $2.25 million contract to remain K.C.’s starting center. Copper, McGraw (who got a one-year deal), and Daniels all add experienced depth, which is key after a no-minicamp offseason.

Bengals (add DE Manny Lawson, QB Bruce Gradkowski, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nate Clements, and OG Max-Jean Gilles; keep RBs Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard and S Gibril Wilson) – Lawson is a talented pass rusher who doesn’t have many sacks but still makes an impact. He could spring to life replacing Antwan Odom. He’s certainly worth a one-year, $3 million deal. Gradkowski, who had some success as a starter in Oakland, comes to Cincinnati to be the placeholder until rookie Andy Dalton is ready. Gradkowski played for Jon Gruden in Tampa, so he’ll be comfortable in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s system. He was the right fit to be the Bengals’ Week 1 starter. Howard got a two-year, $6.5 million deal to move over from Oakland and step into the starting lineup. Clements, who never lived up to his massive contract in San Francisco, returns to Ohio (where he played college football) to replace Johnathan Joseph in the starting lineup. Gilles is a massive player who can play either guard spot or even fill in at tackle. He got a one-year, $1.15 million deal. Benson has had off-field problems, but he’s been a decent back for the Bengals. The question is whether his career is on the decline given his age. Leonard, who got a two-year deal, is a versatile back who can run, catch, and block. He’s a key contributor to the Bengals’ offense. Wilson was a starting safety last year. He’s OK but not great.

49ers (keep QB Alex Smith, DE Ray McDonald, and C Tony Wragge; add C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, S Madieu Williams, PK David Akers and OLB Antwan Applewhite) – In one of the worst kept secrets of the lockout, Smith got a one-year, $5 million deal to be the 2011 starter and placeholder for Colin Kaepernick. McDonald got a much bigger deal to provide sturdy play up front – five years, $20 million with $7 million guaranteed. McDonald pushes the pocket more than most think. Wragge, who got a one-year deal, provides depth at center after the loss of David Baas to the Giants. But Goodwin, who came over from the Saints for a three-year, $10.9 million deal with $4 million in guarantees, should become the starter at the pivot. Rogers, an ex-Redskin, takes over for Nate Clements. Rogers has hands of stone, but he’s pretty good in coverage and may be an upgrade over Clements. Williams fills in at safety, which is a position full of question marks right now. Akers, a long-time Eagle, comes to town to replace injured kicker Joe Nedney, who was cut. Akers has a ton of experience if he can keep his skills intact. Applewhite moves over from San Diego to add depth at an outside linebacker spot that’s been hit hard by free agency.

Buccaneers (keep OLB Quincy Black, OG Davin Joseph, and OT Jeremy Trueblood; add P Michael Koenen) – Black, who is the best playmaker among the Bucs’ linebackers, got a big-time deal to stay – five years, $29 million, with $11.5 million guaranteed. He’s playing the weak-side spot that Derrick Brooks made so many plays in for so many years. Joseph is a talented guard who struggled a bit last year but had a Pro Bowl season in 2009. He got a big deal – 7 years, $52.5 million with $19 million guaranteed – to continue to anchor the Bucs’ line. Trueblood is a marginal starter at right tackle, but he still got a two-year deal to ensure continuity on the line. Koenen comes over from Atlanta on a major deal – six years, $19.5 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – to replace Adam Podlesh. Koenen’s also great on kickoffs.

Giants (add C-OG David Baas, P Steve Weatherford, QB David Carr, TE Ben Patrick, and DT Gabe Watson; keep RB Ahmad Bradshaw, OT Shawn Andrews, OG-OT Kevin Boothe, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, and WR Michael Clayton) – After purging three starting offensive linemen, the Giants started the rebuilding process with Baas, who proved with San Francisco that he can be an effective starter at center as well as guard. Boothe got a two-year deal to provide depth at tackle, and he may get a chance to start at left guard. Kiwanuka is a versatile player who has contributed both at defensive end and at strong-side linebacker. With Osi Umenyiora threatening a holdout, the Giants couldn’t afford to let Kiwanuka leave. Weatherford, an ex-Jet, is an upgrade over last year’s punter for the Giants. Plus, he has experience kicking in the Meadowlands. Bradshaw tested the market but stayed in Big Blue with a four-year, $18 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. He’s the best back the Giants have. Patrick is a solid blocker but not much of a receiver. Watson and Clayton were high picks who disappointed elsewhere but still have talent. Andrews, who had been cut, returns and could start again. Carr returns as Eli Manning’s backup after a year in San Francisco.

Saints (add RB Darren Sproles, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Fabian Washington, and OTs Alex Barron and George Foster; keep WR Lance Moore, OTs Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, LBs Scott Shanle and Danny Clark, Safeties Roman Harper and Chris Reis, and CB Leigh Torrence, add LB Will Herring) – After trading Reggie Bush, the Saints signed Sproles, who proved in San Diego that he can be a game changer as a returner, runner and receiver if used correctly. The Saints’ RB depth should let them feature the diminutive Sproles without wearing him out. If they can do that, the four-year, $14 million deal with $6 million guaranteed will look like a bargain. Franklin came to town on a one-year deal that significantly upgrades the Saints’ front line. (We’ll analyze that addition further soon.) Harper got a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed to return as the starting strong safety. He’s been a very solid player for New Orleans. Moore, an ideal slot receiver, got a five-year deal to stay in New Orleans. He can be a real X-factor for the offense, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him. Bushrod has started at left tackle for the last two years for the Saints and has held up OK. He had other options in free -agency but wanted to return to New Orleans on a two-year deal. Torrence is a backup corner and special-teams ace, as is Reis, a backup safety. Herring, an ex-Seahawk, adds depth at linebacker, in addition to solid contributors Shanle (two years, $4 million) and Clark. Washington adds depth to help replace the departed Usama Young. Strief is a solid swing tackle, but he’ll have to beat out former first-round picks Barron and Foster to keep his job. Barron and Foster have been disappointments elsewhere.

Bills (keep CB Drayton Florence; add S Brad Smith, LB Nick Barnett, and QB Tyler Thigpen) – Florence played well for the Bills last year, his first in Buffalo. His reward is a three-year, $15 million deal. Thigpen started for the Chiefs in 2008, but his skills fit a Pistol offense that few teams use. Bills head coach Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator during Thigpen’s best NFL season, so he will be able to make the most of the QB’s skills if Ryan Fitzpatrick gets hurt or falters. This is a good match of player and coach for a backup quarterback. Smith, an ex-Jet, got a four-year, $15 million contract. He can make an impact as a slot receiver, option quarterback, and kick returner, which creates a lot of options for the Bills. Let’s just hope having Smith run the Pistol isn’t one of them. Barnett, who was cut by the Packers, will help replace Paul Posluszny. Barnett, who’s more physical than Posluszny, should fit the 3-4 defense better than the former Bill did. Barnett got a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.

Vikings (keep PK Ryan Longwell and OT Ryan Cook; add WRs Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, DL Remi Ayodele, and OT Charlie Johnson)– Longwell has been a reliable kicker for the Vikings, so they anted up to keep him with a four-year, $12 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Jenkins, who got a three-year deal, never lived up to his status as a first-round pick in Atlanta, but he has great size and speed and is a willing blocker. He won’t replace Sidney Rice, but he’s going to get a chance to. At the least, his presence will allow the Vikings to continue to play Percy Harvin in the slot. Aromashodu showed some promise with the Bears, but he fell out of favor last season and was not tendered a free-agent contract. Still, his ability and size makes him worth a shot for the Vikings, especially since their biggest target, Sidney Rice, left in free agency. Ayodele did a nice job as a rotation player for the Saints. He’ll provide depth behind the Williams wall and help to fill in during their suspensions. Johnson and Cook add depth at offensive tackle, and Johnson may start after Bryant McKinnie’s release.

Cardinals (add OGs Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack, LB Stewart Bradley, WR Chansi Stuckey, CB Richard Marshall, and TE s Todd Heap and Jeff King) – Colledge, who was a starter for the Packers, moves over to provide help at a big trouble spot. He’ll also take over some of the veteran leadership role that the retired Alan Faneca had last year. Womack, an ex-Brown, is versatile enough to fill in at guard or tackle. He’s an ideal sixth lineman. Bradley is a big, physical inside linebacker who has seen his skill sapped by injuries the last two years. Still, he’s worth a look to see if he can return to form. Stuckey adds depth at receiver after the departure of Steve Breaston. Marshall’s 2010 season wasn’t good, but in previous years he was a good starter for the Panthers. He will get a chance to start in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and on a one-year deal he’s a nice addition. Heap, a longtime Raven, got a two-year deal to return to Arizona, where he played his college ball. Heap will add an element that hasn’t been in the Cardinals passing game in past years. King, a solid blocker who also has good receiving skills, becomes the tight end complement for Heap and rookie Robert Housler in Arizona. King got a one-year deal.

Browns (add S Usama Young, RB Brandon Jackson and CB Dmitri Patterson; keep PK Phil Dawson,  TE Evan Moore and DE Jayme Mitchell) – Dawson, a reliable kicker who was the Browns’ franchise player, signed for the guaranteed one-year tender of about $3 million. Young, an ex-Saint, can play corner but likely fits in as a starting free safety with the Browns. He brings ability and locker-room leadership to the mix. Patterson, an ex-Eagle, was exposed as a starter last year, but he’s good enough to be a nickel back, and he fills a need position. Moore emerged as a good pass-catching tight end last year and could earn a bigger role. Jackson got a two-year, $4.5 million contract. He fits in as a good third-down back for the West Coast offense, although he showed last year he’s not a starting caliber back. Mitchell didn’t play much after coming over via trade last year, but the Browns see him as a starting tight end in their new 4-3 defense. He got a two-year deal.

Packers (keep PK Mason Crosby, WR James Jones and FB John Kuhn) – The Packers re-signed Crosby, who has been a solid kicker even in bad winter weather, to a five-year deal. Jones was looking to move up the depth chart by moving in free agency, but he didn’t find a deal to his liking. His return means the Pack remains incredibly deep at receiver. Kuhn is a blocking full back who can catch and can run in short yardage. He fits the Packers better than any other team, and so re-signing makes sense.

Raiders (keep OLB Kamerion Wimbley, S Michael Huff, OT Khalif Barnes, C Samson Satele, OG Justin Smiley, OLB Jarvis Moss and LS Jon Condo; add QB Trent Edwards and OT Stephon Heyer) – Wimbley, the Raiders’ franchise player, had his best season since his rookie year last year, but that doesn’t mean his massive five-year, $48 million contract with a whopping $29 million guaranteed is a good deal. That deal was necessary so that the Raiders didn’t take the full brunt of the franchise tag this year. Huff had a breakout year at safety last year, but he didn’t find big money on the open market. The Raiders happily took him back. Barnes got a one-year deal to return as a starter at tackle while youngsters at the position develop. Moss, whom the Raiders picked up off the scrap heap last year, was a first-round bust in Denver, but he has enough pass-rush ability to be a solid backup at a one-year, $1.25 million price. Condo is a dependable long-snapper for the Raiders’ elite specialists, so he’s worth keeping around. Edwards comes to town as Jason Campbell’s new backup. Satele, Smiley, and Heyer (who got a one-year, $1.7 million deal) add depth at offensive line, and a couple of the trio could end up starting.

Dolphins (keep DE Tony McDaniel; add ILB Kevin Burnett, OLBs Jason Trusnik and Jason Taylor, QB Matt Moore, DT Ronald Fields and OT Marc Colombo) – With trade negotiations for Kyle Orton falling apart, the Dolphins added Moore, who was a bust as a starter in Carolina last year but who might be good enough to keep Chad Henne on his toes. Moore’s no Orton, but he should be an average backup. McDaniel got a two-year deal to remain as a backup defensive lineman. Trusnik, most recently with Cleveland, is a solid outside linebacker and special-teams player who provides quality depth behind Koa Misi and Cameron Wake. Trusnik got a two-year deal as well. Taylor does as well, returning to the team he has spent most of his career with for the third time. Taylor can still make a play or two as a featured pass rusher. Burnett got a big deal – five years with $10 million in guarantees – to replace Channing Crowder at inside linebacker. Burnett’s more athletic (and less annoying) than Crowder. Fields is an inside plugger who can back up Paul Soliai. Colombo has ties to Tony Sparano from the Dallas days, and it appears the Dolphins are moving Vernon Carey inside so that Colombo can start at right tackle. But Colombo didn’t really hold up at the position last year, so that plan seems risky.

Bears (add P Adam Podlesh, TE Matt Spaeth, WRs Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, RB Marion Barber, DE Vernon Gholston, DT Amobi Okoye, and C Chris Spencer; keep DT Anthony Adams and LB Nick Roach) – After cutting stalwart Brad Maynard, the Bears brought Podlesh over from Jacksonville on a five-year deal worth more than $10 million. The Bears traditionally have among the best special teams in the league, so adding Podlesh’s stronger leg to the mix will make a difference. Spaeth, an ex-Steeler, replaces blocking TE Brandon Manumaleuna. He’s not as bulky but is a better receiver out of short-yardage sets. Williams was a bust in Dallas, but he had his best season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in Detroit. He’s a worthwhile gamble, especially since the Bears don’t have a receiver with his kind of size. Hurd is a nice depth signing at wide receiver; he’d be a quality fourth option at the position. Adams got a two-year deal to return as a solid tackle who can play over the center. He’s solid and allows the guys around him to make plays. Barber got a two-year, $5 million deal to add some physicality to the running game. The question is whether injuries limited him in Dallas, or whether his career is winding down. Gholston and Okoye, both disappointments as first-round picks, are rebuilding projects for Rod Marinelli, considered one of the best defensive line coaches around. Both got one-year deals, and if Marinelli turns them into forces, it will be a huge win. Roach got a two-year, $4.5 million deal to return as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. After failing to come to a deal with long-time center Olin Kreutz, the Bears added Spencer on a two-year deal. The former first-round pick was never great in Seattle, and his style is more finesse than physical. But O-line coach Mike Tice is one of the best in the league, so he might be able to get a little more out of Spencer’s talent.

Lions (add CB Eric Wright, LBs Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, and WR Rashied Davis; keep QB Drew Stanton, CBs Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, OL Dylan Gandy, LB Bobby Carpenter, and PK Dave Rayner) – Wright has played pretty well in Cleveland, and he got a one-year deal to address a huge need area for the Lions. Wright’s at least good to be a top three corner. Houston returns as a starter. He was Detroit’s best corner last year, and he’s good enough to be a solid starter. Detroit couldn’t afford to lose him. Durant, an ex-Jaguar, got a two-year deal to upgrade the linebacking corps that was such a problem last year. Tulloch will be an even bigger upgrade; he was hoping to hit it big in free agency but took a one-year, $3.25 million deal to reunite with Jim Schwartz. The Lions will be glad he did, because he’s a big-time thumper at middle linebacker. Davis, an ex-Bear, is a fine special-teams cover player who can contribute at wideout in a pinch. Stanton, a former second-round pick, played well in relief last year and provides a solid backup option. McDonald played in six games, starting two, as a backup corner last year. Rayner filled in for long-time kicker Jason Hanson after Hanson got hurt; now Rayner has a chance to steal away Hanson’s job. Gandy got a two-year deal. Carpenter returns to add LB depth.

Broncos (add RB Willis McGahee, WR David Anderson, TEs Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario, and DT Ty Warren) – McGahee, who had been released by the Ravens, got a four-year, $9.5 million deal to come in as Knowshon Moreno’s backup. It’s a ridiculous deal for an older running back who hasn’t shown much pop in recent years, and the fact that it takes away from Moreno’s carries makes it even worse. Anderson, who was released by the Texans, adds depth at wide receiver. Fells (an ex-Ram) and Rosario (an ex-Panther) have shown pass-catching potential, but neither has been consistent. Still, they should help the passing game. Warren, whom the Patriots cut after he failed a physical, got a two-year, $10 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed to help the Broncos move to a 4-3. Warren and trade acquisition Brodrick Bunkley now form the center of that defense. Warren has been great at points in his career, but he must prove he is now healthy enough to still play well. Still, he’s a nice and necessary addition for Denver.

Patriots (keep OT Matt Light, RB Sammy Morris and RB Kevin Faulk) – Light returns to play left tackle, but now he’s a place holder until Nate Solder is ready. Still, he provides good insurance for the Pats on Tom Brady’s blind side. Morris, a versatile back who takes snaps at tailback and fullback, re-signed on a one-year deal. Faulk, who missed much of last season due to injury, returns as the Patriots’ do-everything back. But with the emergence of young backs, Faulk could face an uphill battle for a roster spot.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency

FR: The 2011 NFL draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football – Rookie running backs

Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.

To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.

(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)

9 – none

8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.

7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.

7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.

(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)

6 – none

5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.

4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.

4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.

3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.

(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)

2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.

1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.

1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.

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Fantasy Football: Which running backs will break out?

As I work on creating tiers on my draft board, one of the things I like to do at the top of Tier 2 is to list young players with big upside. As part of the process, I analyze which young players – especially at running back – are most likely to break out. In this post, we’ll share that analysis of potential breakout running backs, both among veterans and among the top rookies.

(For analysis of who fits on Tier 1, check out our RB, WR, and QB Tier 1 posts. And though it isn’t our work, this fantasy football depth chart site is invaluable.)

Worth the Tier 2 gamble

Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews wasn’t the first running back taken in the April draft, but he certainly has the best opportunity to make a big fantasy impact among rookie runners. Mathews is a big, burly back who can handle 20 carries a game, and he moves into a San Diego offense that helped make LaDainian Tomlinson a fantasy record-setter. With Darren Sproles still in town, Mathews won’t put up LDT numbers, but Mathews should come in with a terrific season – 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns is well within reach. That makes Mathews a great rookie to take a shot on atop Tier 2.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – As a rookie, Moreno piled up 1,150 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns, even though he had 10 carries or fewer in five of his 16 games. Moreno still faces a carries challenge from Correll Buckhalter, and Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is from the Bill Belichick school of rotating running backs, but it’s fair to assume that, in his second year, Moreno will break through the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground. He should finish with upward of 1,300 total yards, and if he gets the 8-10 touchdowns that usually accompany that kind of yardage, Moreno will find himself securely in Tier 2. We predict a modest increase in his numbers, and that makes him a solid fantasy starter.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – The Daily Show had another fine fantasy season last year, running for 1,133 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also grabbed 139 receiving yards, and, more importantly for fantasy owners, scored double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season. Even in a 60-40 carry split behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart has proven he’s a legitimate fantasy starter. And when you consider that the Panthers won’t have Jake Delhomme turning the ball over constantly in ’10, both Williams and Stewart could actually see their numbers increase in the upcoming season. Because of his role, his week-to-week production can fluctuate, but the end-of-season results make it impossible to omit Stewart from Tier 2. He’s easily a top-20 fantasy back, and he’s knocking on the door of an even more elite group. And if Williams were to get hurt, Stewart’s stock would shoot up even more. He’s the real deal for fantasy owners.

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles had shown flashes of great ability in his rookie season and into his second year, but it wasn’t until Larry Johnson was sent packing that Charles exploded. He had at least 17 touches in each of the final eight games, and the results were six days with 100 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. So if the late-season status was the same, Charles would be a no-brainer for Tier 2 and a contender for Tier 1. But the Chiefs’ addition of Thomas Jones in the offseason will limit Charles’ opportunities enough to make him a borderline Tier 2 player. Charles (who had an impressive 40 catches last season) will still pile up 1,200 total yards, but Jones could steal a few touchdown chances and hold down Charles’ upside. So entering the season, we’ll include Charles at the bottom of Tier 2, with the proviso that if Jones gets hurt Charles could easily become a top-10 fantasy back.

Shonn Greene, Jets – Greene emerged as a running threat in the playoffs last year, and the Jets were sold to the point that they cut Thomas Jones and traded Leon Washington in the offseason. Now Greene and Tomlinson, who came over from San Diego, are the runners in an offense that depends on the ground game. Greene averaged five yards a carry in the regular season last year, and he had two 100-yard games in the postseason. Greene hasn’t proven he’ll be an end-zone specialist, and he hasn’t been much of a receiver out of the backfield, which limits his upside for fantasy owners. But if you’re looking for a No. 2 running back who will pile up 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns without making you sweat while still giving you the potential for much more, Greene’s a good option.

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – As a rookie last year, Wells started slowly, but he ended up with 793 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. More importantly, he established himself as at least an equal partner with Tim Hightower in the backfield by about Week 6, and from that point on Wells was a solid option. With Hightower around, Wells is unlikely to get more than about 18 touches a game, especially since Hightower trumps him in the receiving department. But with Kurt Warner gone, there should be more carries in Arizona, and that bodes well for Wells. And if Hightower were to get hurt, Wells’ upside jumps considerably. We think a 1,000-yard season is in the offing for Wells, and it should come with 8-10 touchdowns. That makes him a guy we’ll sneak onto Tier 2 as an upside play.

Wait to roll the dice

Felix Jones, Cowboys – As the season dawns, it looks as though Jones has a leg up on Marion Barber and Tashard Choice in the Cowboys’ crowded backfield. That’s important, because while Barber and Choice are more physical runners, Jones is the Cowboy with the most breakaway ability. After playing just six games as a rookie, Jones stayed healthy enough for 14 last year, and the results included 800 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. With a few more touches (and good health, which isn’t a given), Jones could knock those numbers up to 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. But while that upside is there, Dallas’ stacked depth chart and Jones’ injury history make it unlikely. So we’ll leave Jones off Tier 2 and consider him an exciting No. 3 fantasy back instead of a dependable No. 2.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – With Brian Westbrook gone, McCoy looks primed to take over as the Eagles’ No. 1 back. But don’t read too much into that role. FB Leonard Weaver proved last year that he needs to get a few carry chances in each game, and free-agent signee Mike Bell is going to find a role too. Given that situation, it appears that McCoy’s best games will be 80-yard, single-touchdown affairs, and he could finish under 1,000 yards for the season despite being the starter in Philly. McCoy is only a borderline fantasy starter, and that leaves him on Tier 3 instead of with the starters-with-upside group in Tier 2.

Jahvid Best, Lions – Best is one of three running backs who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and like Mathews he seems to have a clear shot at starting, at least until Kevin Smith returns from a major knee injury at midseason. But Best proved to be a bit brittle in college, and he looks like a back who can succeed more in 15 touches a game than a carry-the-load, 25-carry guy. Best will make his share of big plays, but he’s more of a matchup play and a bye-week fill-in for fantasy owners than a guy they will want to depend on each and every week. Others may be enamored with Best’s skills, but our feel for his role causes us to leave him on Tier 3.

C.J. Spiller, Bills – Spiller may be the most skilled of the rookie running backs, and he proved in college that he could break a big play on a run, catch, or a return. But Spiller doesn’t have a clear shot to carries in Buffalo, where even with Marshawn Lynch apparently out of favor, Fred Jackson still merits touches. Spiller is small enough that a carry split is wise, at least early in his career, but Buffalo’s below-par offensive line is another strike against Spiller’s fantasy value. As long as Jackson is around, Spiller isn’t more than a No. 3 fantasy running back in most leagues. On Tier 3, he’ll provide enough big plays to be an exciting option for fantasy owners. On Tier 2, though, Spiller’s numbers will be sporadic enough to make him a disappointment. So drafters should hold off on picking Spiller until the Tier 3 level.

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