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FR: 2012 Franchise Players

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

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

Saints QB Drew Brees, via si.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 10

Each week, we look through the Sunday NFL results to find one team that’s rising, one team that’s sinking, and one team that stays at the same level. You’ll see these changes reflected in our weekly Football Relativity comparison of all 32 teams.

Bears return man extraordinaire Devin Hester struck again against the Lions, via kfoxtv.com

Rise – Chicago Bears – The Bears are on a serious roll, and they showed just how well they’re playing by thumping the Lions 37-6 in Soldier Field. The team has figured out how to protect Jay Cutler, which makes the passing game more potent and takes some pressure off of star RB Matt Forte. And the Bears’ defense is playing as well as ever. At 6-3, it’s a long shot that the Bears can catch the Packers, but they look every bit like a playoff team right now.

Sink – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles have talent, but they simply aren’t going to get it together this year, and a 21-17 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals is the nail in the coffin. QB Michael Vick is inconsistent, the defense is less than the sum of its parts, and to top it all off, DeSean Jackson got benched for blowing off a team meeting. The defensive coaching staff will likely get fired after the year, and if head coach Andy Reid isn’t careful, this situation could spiral out of control to the point that his long tenure is endangered.

Float – New York Giants – The Giants failed in their comeback attempt in San Francisco, but a 27-20 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco isn’t reason for concern. It looks like the NFC East is going to come down to the Giants and the Cowboys, and so while the Giants’ schedule gets tough down the stretch, having both games between those teams left to come will determine the division title.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding a Fit: Plaxico Burress

The Man

Will Plaxico Burress be left by himself, or will he find a new football home? Image by tedkerwin via Flickr

 

Plaxico Burress will be released from prison Monday, and with that backdrop we want to consider Burress’ future NFL home in the latest edition of Finding a Fit. This is the fifth edition in a series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray Edwards, and Aubrayo Franklin. Click through to check those out, and if you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Synopsis

Burress was once a true No. 1 receiver, both with the Steelers and the Giants. He is a long, lanky target who can get downfield and make the big play. Plus, he’s proven he is clutch, with his game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 42 as proof. But for the last two years, Burress has been in prison because of a weapons charge in which he shot himself in the leg with a concealed gun in a night club. Now he’ll try to make an NFL return at age 33 and reclaim his career, which has featured 505 catches for 7.845 yards and 55 TDs.

Potential fits

N.Y. Giants – It seems as though the door is closed on a Burress return to the Giants. Former teammate Brandon Jacobs said as much in an interview last week. It makes sense for Burress to want a new start, and the Giants have a deep receiving corps with Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Burress-sized prospect Ramses Barden. It makes the most sense for both teams to move on.

N.Y. Jets – If Burress wants to stay in the Big Apple, the Jets could be an option, especially if free agents-to-be Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith leave. But it appears that Burress would be a fallback option at best for the Jets, which is probably not the situation he’s looking for.

Philadelphia – Burress has made it known that he’d love to land with the Eagles, in large part because of the team’s success resurrecting Michael Vick’s career. But while the connection makes sense from an off-field perspective, on the field Burress doesn’t fit. The Eagles have a great young receiving corps in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper. There’s simply no room for Burress to take up a roster spot.

St. Louis – Burress and Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo were in New York at the same time, and that connection could lead to a chance for Burress. QB Sam Bradford has a ton of young targets, but aside from Mark Clayton (and maybe Danny Amendola at this point), none are proven. Taking a low-cost shot at Burress makes sense, and few teams offer Burress more playing-time opportunity than the Rams.

Washington – The Redskins are receiver-poor, with only smallish Anthony Armstrong established as a solid option. So they will need to add a receiver in free agency, and Burress could offer depth or even backup in case higher-profile, higher-priced targets stay away. This situation bears watching.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers originally drafted Burress, but they let him leave via free agency because his off-field demeanor seemed to limit his talents. (The same thing happened with Santonio Holmes a few years later.) Reports indicate that Pittsburgh may consider a Burress return, but with Hines Ward still ensconsed and youngsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerging, the luxury of having Burress wouldn’t be worth the baggage of the past for the Steelers.

Cleveland – The Browns have a cadre of promising young receivers led by Mohammed Massaquoi and rookie Greg Little, but they don’t have a veteran go-to guy. So Burress makes sense from an on-field perspective. But Burress’ skills don’t necessarily match up with Colt McCoy’s best traits, and the Browns are rebuilding so much that Burress could be a distraction. So unless the opportunity is a low-cost flier, it’s hard to see the Browns being the ones to take the plunge in this market.

Chicago – The Bears don’t have a high-profile receiver, although youngsters Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester. Burress would add a tall receiver and a red-zone threat, but is he precise enough in his route-running to play for Mike Martz? It’s hard to see Burress jumping into such a complicated system in a lockout-shortened season.

Oakland – The Raiders always end up on lists of homes for lost souls, and their receiving corps has promise in Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and first-round bust-so-far Darrius Heyward-Bey. If no contender steps up, the Raiders could end up being Burress’ best option in terms of playing-time possibilities. This is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.

The best fits

1. St. Louis – It would be a bit out of character for the Rams to take a chance on a veteran like Burress, but he would provide a safety net for a young group of receivers, and he could be the difference between an NFC West title at 8-8 or 9-7 and another 7-9 season. Plus, the Giants ties with Spagnuolo add a comfort level.

2. Washington – If Burress wants to prove to the Giants that he can still play, Washington is the place he would get the most chance to play. The Redskins added a bunch of old receivers last year, but aside from Joey Galloway, none even made a regular-season catch. With Santana Moss facing free agency, Burress may provide a bit of security and a bit of leverage for the Redskins.

3. Oakland – The Raiders don’t have a strong need for Burress, but taking a shot on a veteran fits Al Davis’ history. This option makes less sense, but we get a nagging suspicion that Oakland is going to be a player in this market.

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s wild-card games. (For a look at Saturday’s games, click here.)

Todd Heap of the Ravens vs. Eric Berry of the Chiefs

 

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7
*Ray Rice didn’t find a ton of room running the ball for the Ravens (17 carries, 56 yards), but he did a great job in the passing game, as usual, with five catches for 42 yards and a score. It seems like Rice needs two or three steps to get going, but once he does, he’s elusive and hard to corral. He’s the best offensive player the Ravens have. But Baltimore got great performances out of TE Todd Heap (a franchise postseason record 10 catches for 108 yards) and WR Anquan Boldin (five catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), among others.
*Because the running game wasn’t thriving, the Ravens had to rely on Joe Flacco, and he did a good job getting the ball to receivers on crossing routes. The Ravens didn’t make a ton of throws outside, but Flacco killed the Chiefs on inside plays as he threw for 265 yards and two scores. Flacco has now made the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is 4-2 in the postseason despite not having a home playoff game yet.
*Matt Cassel only threw seven interceptions all season, but he threw three in this game, including two early ones that doomed the Chiefs. Cassel still has a bright future, but right now the Chiefs don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome these kinds of mistakes.
*Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles made a huge play for the Chiefs with a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and his hustle play after a Cassel interception in the third quarter forced a fumble that Charles recovered. But Charles’ second-quarter fumble really stifled the Chiefs’ momentum when they had a 7-3 lead.
*Despite the loss, this might have been the day that Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali became a national star. After finishing second in the league this season with 14.5 sacks, Hali had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens, and a third-quarter pressure forced a field-goal attempt.
*Ray Lewis is already a star for the Ravens, and he showed why in the third quarter with a hit on Dexter McCluster that forced a fumble and led to a field goal. He also had a late sack. Lewis isn’t quite as active as he once was, but he’s still an asset and a physical force. So is Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks in the game and provides a consistent pass rush.
*Despite the loss, the Chiefs have a bright future, and it’s thanks in large part to their first-round picks. On defense, Hali, rookie S Eric Berry (four passes defensed), LB Derrick Johnson (huge stop in a first-quarter goal-line stand), and DE Glenn Dorsey all played well – all are former first-rounders. And on offense, OLT Branden Albert held up pretty well. The one first-rounder who went missing was WR Dwayne Bowe, who had a terrific year but didn’t make an impact at all in this game, going without a catch.

Packers 21, Eagles 18
*Aaron Rodgers had a terrific game – throwing for three touchdowns that should have been four had James Jones not dropped a beautiful deep throw just before the half – but the revelation for the Pack was rookie RB James Starks, who ran for 123 yards after recording just 101 in the regular season. Starks is a big, physical runner who got more from his chunks than Brandon Jackson ever could. (Give Jackson credit, though, for great patience that turned a screen pass into a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.)
*Michael Vick had a good but not great game for the Eagles. He threw for 292 yards, but aside from one chunk late in the game, he couldn’t get DeSean Jackson free for a big play. (Jackson was battling an injury.) Vick also threw a critical interception late in the game as he tried to bring the Eagles back. Vick ran for 33 yards, but Green Bay’s decision to spy on him with Charles Woodson kept the quarterback from breaking free very often. The Packers also sacked Vick three times, which was an accomplishment.
*One of the things that makes Green Bay so dangerous is its depth of receivers. Greg Jennings, the Pack’s best outside man, had just one catch, but Rodgers still threw for 180 yards and moved the team effectively. Rodgers’ willingness to spread the ball around definitely paid off in this game.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle - As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia - This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 2

Which fantasy football performances from the Sunday Week 2 action should you take seriously, and which can you chalk up as one-week frauds? Let’s take an in-depth look. With each applaud or a fraud designation, we explain what action you should take.

Quarterbacks

Jay Cutler, Bears - Cutler threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys, and in this game he was incredibly efficient, completing 21-of-29 passes. He’s started the season well in Mike Martz’s new offensive system, and now it’s safe to say that Cutler will end up as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Cutler owners should feel comfortable starting him over guys like Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, and Brett Favre who were ranked around him before the season. Verdict: Applaud

Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders – After the Raiders benched Jason Campbell at halftime, Gradkowski came off the bench to lead Oakland to a 16-14 win over the Rams. Gradkowski threw for 162 yards and a touchdown (with one interception). He doesn’t have the fantasy upside that Campbell has because he doesn’t throw the deep ball as well, but Gradkowski may be worth considering as a bye-week fill-in in larger leagues if he claims the starting job permanently. For now, though, take a pass. Verdict: A fraud

Kyle Orton, Broncos - Orton threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks, after a 295-yard performance in Week One. If he can continue to post those kinds of yardage numbers, he becomes a borderline starter in 12-team leagues. He’s still kind of a risky play, because we don’t trust him to put up these kinds of numbers all season long. But he had an extended hot streak to begin last season, and so if you want to ride him as a starter right now, we won’t argue. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Jahvid Best, Lions – Best scored two touchdowns for the second straight game, but in Week 2 he did so with major yardage numbers -78 rushing and 154 receiving. He has the look of a fantasy superstar and a guy who should be in your starting lineup every week as long as he’s healthy. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Hightower, Cardinals - Hightower piled up 115 rushing yards and had the Cardinals’ only touchdown against the Falcons, but remember that Beanie Wells was almost ready to return to action this week. When Wells returns, Hightower becomes a borderline flex option instead of a fantasy starter. We hope Hightower owners took advantage of Wells’ two-game sabbatical, but don’t get carried away with Hightower’s value. Verdict: A fraud

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis has scored touchdowns in his first two games, and even though he’s averaging just 63 yards from scrimmage in the first two games, he does appear to have the Browns’ goal-line role. That makes him worth at least owning as an emergency fill-in, because he’s liable to score most weeks. We’d actually rather own Hillis than James Harrison, who’s had two subpar games. If Hillis is on the waiver wire in your league, go ahead and grab him. Verdict: Applaud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles - McCoy had a monster game against the Lions’ porous defense, running for 120 yards and three touchdowns. He hasn’t shown that kind of propensity to get in the end zone at other times in his career, but with Kevin Kolb still questionable next week because of his concussion, McCoy remains a solid fantasy starter with good upside. Verdict: Applaud

Darren McFadden, Raiders – With Michael Bush sidelined for a second straight week, McFadden once again put up big numbers, running for 145 yards. After two games with 150 yards from scrimmage, McFadden is a good bet to remain the starter even after Bush returns. His yardage totals may slip a little, but McFadden should put up enough numbers to be at least a flex-quality play. Is the former top-5 pick actually starting to live up to his potential? Maybe so. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Snelling, Falcons – Snelling had 186 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns against the Cardinals, but he got an unusual amount of work because Michael Turner (who had 75 rushing yards) suffered a groin injury. But initial reports are that Turner should be fine next week, and that means Snelling isn’t going to be more than a Turner handcuff or a No. 4 fantasy back. Snelling has a lot of talent, but as long as Turner is around he won’t have the opportunity to be a big fantasy contributor. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Tolbert, Chargers – With Ryan Mathews suffering an ankle injury, Tolbert, the Chargers’ fullback, became a featured runner and delivered 82 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns. Given Mathews’ fumbling issues, it’s entirely possible that Tolbert will continue to get a fair share of carries even if Mathews is healthy. And if the rookie is hurt, Tolbert becomes a must-add. Either way, he’s worth a claim this week. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

DeSean Jackson, Eagles – After a disappointing opening game with just 30 receiving yards, Jackson blew up with 135 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. We still believe he’s an every-week fantasy starter, whether Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick is throwing the ball. Verdict: Applaud

Louis Murphy, Raiders - Murphy had a solid game against the Rams with 91 receiving yards and a short touchdown. We believe he has the most value of any Raiders’ wideout, and that makes him ownable in leagues of 12 teams or more. But he’s a backup, not a starter, for fantasy teams right now. Maybe things will change if Bruce Gradkowski remains the Raiders’ quarterback, but for now Murphy is simply a depth player. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – After a catchless Week One, Sims-Walker delivered 105 yards and a touchdown in Week Two. He has the potential to put up big numbers in any week, but his inconsistency will bedevil fantasy owners. He should be a fill-in, not a starter, in 10- and 12-team leagues. Don’t get sucked back in after this week. Verdict: A fraud

Demaryius Thomas, Broncos – After missing the season opener, Thomas, one of the Broncos’ first-round picks this season, exploded for eight catches, 97  yards, and a touchdown against the Seahawks. It will be no surprise if Thomas ends up being Denver’s No. 1 receiving option over proven journeymen like Eddie Royal and Jabar Gaffney, and that would give Thomas fantasy value. Claim Thomas now if he’s available in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Walter, Texans - The buzz was behind Jacoby Jones this offseason to take over Walter’s role in the Texans’ high-powered offense, but Walter has delivered touchdowns in the first two games, and he had 144 yards in Houston’s wild 30-27 overtime victory in Washington. So reports of Walter’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Walter remains a No. 3 fantasy receiver in 12-team leagues who is worth starting-lineup consideration most weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Washington, Titans - We explained why two touchdowns in two weeks isn’t reason to pick Washington up in our Steelers/Titans post. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Williams, Buccaneers - The rookie has scored in his first two career games, and he’s established himself as the Bucs’ best outside threat. He’s not an every-week starter, but once bye weeks start this Mike Williams can be a useful fill-in. Don’t be afraid to start him. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Aaron Hernandez, Patriots - Hernandez broke the century mark with a 101-yard, six-catch day against the Jets. His numbers were skewed upward by the Patriots’ late comeback attempt, but the performance does show Hernandez’ talent. However, fantasy owners should remember that fellow rookie TE Rob Gronkowski has had his share of good games in the preseason as well, and that means Hernandez’s big games will be impossible to predict. That means Hernnandez should stay on the waiver wire in your league. Verdict: A fraud

Dustin Keller, Jets - Keller had a huge game against the Patriots, posting 115 receiving yards and a touchdown. It seems like whenever Mark Sanchez plays well for the Jets, Keller benefits. That makes Keller a solid play as a low-end starter in a 12-team league. His performance will still show some inconsistency, but we can endorse Keller as an upside play in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Tony Moeaki, Chiefs – After scoring a touchdown in his first NFL game, Moeaki had five catches for 58 yards against the Browns in Week 2. He’s not worth a claim, but Moeaki bears watching to see if he emerges as a sleeper at tight end. If you’re in a massive league, go ahead and make the claim now just in case, but owners in most leagues should wait until bye weeks make tight ends more scarce. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions - After notching just one catch for six yards in the opener, Pettigrew exploded for 108 yards on seven catches against the Eagles. But those numbers were skewed upward by the Lions’ comeback attempt. You can’t expect Pettigrew to be a major yardage producer on a weekly basis with threats like Calvin Johnson and Jahvid Best getting the first looks each week. He’s not a starting tight end, even in 16-team fantasy leagues. Verdict: A fraud

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