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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2011 Mock Draft

Since the lockout has made a mockery of the NFL offseason, posts have been sporadic this month. But now it’s time to make up for all that with our 2011 mock draft.

Don’t forget to enter the Football Relativity draft contest to match wits with all of our readers. As we break down the 32 first-round picks, remember that we’ve written extensively on many top the draft prospects in our draft category.

1. Carolina Panthers – QB Cam Newton, Auburn
No matter whom the draft experts have slotted first – DaQuan Bowers, Marcell Dareus, or Blaine Gabbert – we’ve always believed that Newton is the guy for the Panthers to take as long as they held onto this pick. Of course, there are many non-complimentary rumors about Newton’s personality and genuineness, but those rumors can’t disguise the fact that Newton has been a big-time winner in college. He is, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “plutonium-grade raw material.” And because of that, the Panthers have to take a shot on him. Yes, that means throwing off 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen, and yes, it means developing a guy who hasn’t played a pro style offense. But if Newton hits, he can be the next Ben Roethlisberger/Josh Freeman type of quarterback. That’s major upside that the Panthers have frankly never had at quarterback in franchise history.

2. Denver Broncos – DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama
This is a tricky spot in the draft. New Broncos team president John Elway doesn’t seem sold on Tim Tebow, and so Blaine Gabbert is in play. Plus, we bet the Broncos would be happy to trade down a spot or two or three if the Bills, Bengals, or Cards covets Gabbert. But our hunch is that eventually the Broncos will settle into taking the best defensive front-seven player in the draft, and that’s Dareus. Perhaps Patrick Peterson is a better overall player, but Dareus is the top defensive lineman in the draft, and he can play either tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. At his best, he can be a destructive interior force a la Kevin Williams, and the Broncos desperately need that kind of up-front player. The fact that Dareus can help speed their transition to a 4-3 defense only makes things better. This isn’t the sexiest pick, but Dareus will be an impact player at a position of dire need. That’s enough for the Broncos to pull the trigger.

3. Buffalo Bills – DE Von Miller, Texas A&M
Miller isn’t a perfect fit for the Bills’ 4-3 system, but he’s so good that it’s worth tweaking the system to feature his talents. Buffalo hasn’t had an elite pass rusher in ages – since the Bruce Smith years – so Miller certainly will fit in well there. The question is whether the Bills will pass on Blaine Gabbert to pick Miller. With Ryan Fitzpatrick around, the Bills have the flexibility to wait if they’re not head over heels in love with Gabbert, and our sense is that they’d far prefer Newton to the Missouri product. So instead of trying to make it work with a quarterback they don’t lust after, picking the best pass rusher in the draft (and one of the draft’s sure things) is more appealing option.

4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green, Georgia
The Bengals are another team in the quarterback hunt, although Mike Brown may be too stubborn to admit to himself that Carson Palmer really is going to sit out rather than play another year in Cincinnati. So Gabbert would be in play here, at least for a team that has a good grasp on reality. But given the fact that Brown refuses to even consider trading Palmer, the self-delusion seems to indicate that the Bengals may try to appease him by drafting Green. The motivation behind that move would be wrong, but the pick itself will work. Green is a phenomenal receiver with good size and speed and ridiculously great hands. With Chad Ochocinco likely headed out of town (for nothing, two years after the Bengals could have had two first-rounders for him) and Terrell Owens as a free agent, Green also fits a need area. Teaming Green with young receivers Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson would give the Bengals a true No. 1 wideout with the complimentary pieces already in place. Picking the sure-thing Green will work well for the Bengals, regardless of how they come to the decision.

5. Arizona Cardinals – QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Gabbert was the trendy top pick a few weeks ago, but his stock has slipped in recent weeks, to the point that there are even rumors that the Cards would pass on him. Gabbert seems to fit the cookie-cutter mold for a franchise quarterback, which is great until you realize there is no mold. But Gabbert has nice tools, and he was generally productive in college. Maybe he doesn’t have the upside to be great, but he could be good, and that would be a major upgrade for the Cardinals. Arizona fell apart last year in large part because of horrific quarterback play. So we just can’t imagine Arizona not taking Gabbert if the opportunity presents itself.

6. Cleveland Browns – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
The Browns are in a weird position in this draft. Because there are seven elite players, picking sixth guarantees a good result. But the natural pick at this point – Patrick Peterson – duplicates Cleveland’s first-rounder from last year, Joe Haden. Of course, a team can never have too many corners, but for a team as bereft of game-breaking talent as the Browns, picking Peterson would be a misallocation of resources. So for Cleveland, the decision comes down to taking Julio Jones, who’s not among the top 7 players; reaching for a pass-rusher with injury questions in DaQuan Bowers or Robert Quinn, or taking Fairley. Most people have dropped Fairley lower than this, but there aren’t many impact defensive tackles on earth, and Fairley can be one. He had a Warren Sapp type of impact for Auburn last year, and so he brings the kind of disruption to a defense that we normally associate with defensive ends. Fairley has some character questions, but those questions aren’t any more damaging than what Bowers or Quinn faces. If the Browns go with the best player available here, Fairley should be the selection.

7. San Francisco 49ers – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
We’ve dubbed Peterson as the third sure-thing player in this draft, and he fits a need area for the Niners. San Fran has been looking for cornerbacks for a while, but the high-dollar Nate Clements isn’t living up to the price. So the chance to add Peterson and lock down one side of the defensive backfield will be too tempting to pass up. Peterson has unusual size for a corner, yet he still has good speed and cover skills. And if he ever gets the ball in his hands, look out. The Niners will be thrilled if the draft falls this way.

8. Tennessee Titans – QB Jake Locker, Washington
This is where things get crazy. I’m not a huge fan of Locker (as detailed here), but he is a major physical talent and a great kid. So you can see a team throwing its weight behind Locker as a potential franchise quarterback. And with Fairley off the board, a defensive end like Robert Quinn or DaQuan Bowers would be just as much of a risk as Locker at this point. Yes, taking Locker would be a reach, but our sense is that with so many QB-needy teams, Tennessee won’t have the option to take Locker in the second round, and it may actually cost less (in draft pick cost) to take him here than it would to trade back into the end of the first round to get him. Reports say that Tennessee has gotten comfortable with Locker as a future starting quarterback, and if that’s the case this is where they would have to get him. So while it’s a reach, we’re putting Locker here as the successor to the disappointing Vince Young era.

9. Dallas Cowboys – OT Tyron Smith, USC
It seems like every mock draft out there has the Cowboys taking Smith, the most talented of the offensive line group. It makes sense. Other than CB Prince Amukamara, none of the top players left on the board really fits a need, and it seems like the second-round DB options will be a little better than the O-line choices. Smith should be able to immediately step into the starting right tackle role, and he has a chance to develop into a top-flight left tackle if the Cowboys lose Doug Free via free agency.

10. Washington Redskins – OLB Robert Quinn, North Carolina
The Redskins are really in a dilemma in this year’s draft. The trades for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown last year cost them third- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft, which will really make it difficult for Washington to address all of its needs. Washington has so few playmakers that they need an impact guy with their first pick. That points to two guys among the available options – WR Julio Jones and OLB Robert Quinn. Given the fact that Mike Shanahan’s best receivers in Denver – Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and even Brandon Marshall – were all mid-to-late draft picks or scrap-heap pickups, we’ll go the defensive route and give them Quinn as a counterpart to Brian Orakpo.

11. Houston Texans – DE Cameron Jordan, California
Once again, the Texans simply have to spend their first-round pick on defense. While they reportedly covet Patrick Peterson, he won’t be around without a trade-up. Prince Amukamara would make sense, but after spending a first-rounder on CB Kareem Jackson last year, picking a cornerback isn’t the best move unless it’s an exceptional prospect like Peterson. So the Texans need to turn their attention to the front seven and especially to the front line of their reworked 3-4 defense. With Mario Williams already in place as a pass-rushing fiend, the Texans need a two-way defensive end who can provide some push but also hold up well against the run. Two available players – Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt and Cal’s Cameron Jordan. We like Jordan’s upside better, so he’s the pick here.

12. Minnesota Vikings – OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
The Vikings have a glaring quarterback need, but unless they’re head over heels in love with Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder or Ryan Mallett, pulling the trigger on a QB here would be foolhardy. It seems like Colin Kaepernick in the second round might be a nice fit as a long-term answer at the position. So if not a quarterback, who should they draft? Our sense is that this is a line pick. Maybe an offensive tackle like Anthony Castonzo to replace Bryant McKinnie, or maybe a defensive end like DaQuan Bowers to replace departing free agent Ray Edwards. Bowers has more upside, but Castonzo could be a Steve Hutchinson-type of player for the Vikings, which would be a welcome change from McKinnie, who has been less than an ideal effort guy in recent years. That’s more of a need for the Vikes than defensive end, so we’ll point this pick toward Castonzo.

13. Detroit Lions – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The Lions’ rebuilding process is going well, and last year’s first-rounder Ndamukong Suh is an elite talent. Now they try to build onto their defense with another prime player. The secondary was a big-time weak spot last year, and so having Amukamara fall into their laps would be serendipitous. Amukamara is a quality cover man who will immediately become a No. 1 cover man, and his presence would help guys like Alphonso Smith slide down the ladder to spots better befitting their talents. He would be another nice piece for a team that should be making a playoff push soon.

14. St. Louis Rams – WR Julio Jones, Alabama
The Rams would be doing backflips if Jones slipped this far. He will be in play as early as pick 6 in Cleveland, and preeminent wideouts are hard to find. The position certainly has been troublesome for the Rams since the departures of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and Jones would immediately become Sam Bradford’s top target. And getting Jones would let Mark Clayton (who’s expected to return) and Danny Amendola slip into better roles. The Rams could also spend a pick on a defensive linemen, and Mike Pouncey would also fit nicely, but Jones would be simply too appealing to pass up.

15. Miami Dolphins – C/OG Mike Pouncey, Florida
The Dolphins are in an interesting position in this draft. They need a quarterback of the future, but unless they fall in love with Ryan Mallett or another prospect, it would be a reach to take one here. They need a running back, but spending their only pick in the first two rounds on Mark Ingram wouldn’t really address needs long term. There are tons of defensive linemen and pass rushers on the board here, but with guys like Paul Soliai, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, and Jared Odrick, the Dolphins have lots of good young players in the front seven. Ultimately, a trade down is probably in their best interest. But if they stay in place, Pouncey would be a nice addition. Miami has solid terrific tackles in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, so they’re more likely to pull the trigger not on a tackle like Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi but on Pouncey, who is versatile enough to play any of the three interior positions and talented enough to step right in and make a difference.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE DaQuan Bowers, Clemson
Bowers was once considered a potential first overall pick, and with good reason. But questions about his knee’s long-term health have dropped him down the board. But at some point, a contender who falls in love with Bowers’ massive potential will take the risk. Jacksonville seems like a good spot for that risk. The Jaguars have been building their lines in the last two drafts successfully, with OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britten two years ago and DTs Tyson Alualu and D’Anthony Smith last year. But while those moves have worked, defensive end has been a trouble spot, as former first-rounder Derrick Harvey hasn’t panned out, and free-agent Aaron Kampman didn’t make a huge splash either. Bowers would add elite talent and would ratchet up the scare factor for the Jags D several notches.

17. New England Patriots (via Oakland Raiders) – OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
The Patriots rarely make the trendy pick, but the fact that they’ve had to rely on Tully Banta-Cain for outside pass rush in recent years highlights the fact that an impact pass rusher is a big-time need. Smith played as a smallish defensive end in college, but he could move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 to be a bigger, Willie McGinest-sized rusher for the Pats. The Pats could also take a five-technique defensive end like J.J. Watt or Ryan Kerrigan, but they have other options at those positions. Smith would add a unique element that’s not currently on the roster, and that’s why he’s the pick here.

18. San Diego Chargers – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
It’s hard for a fan base to get excited about their favorite team picking a five-technique defensive end, but it’s imperative that teams pick them when they get a chance because they’re so hard to find. Watt fits the profile of that position to a T. He can provide the kind of stability up front that helps pass-rushers like Shaun Phillips and Larry English create havoc. That’s why Watt, more than outside players like Ryan Kerrigan or Adrian Clayborn, makes sense here. Note that the Chargers have been very aggressive about moving up to get their guy recently – with English, Ryan Mathews, and Eric Weddle, to name a few – so a trade up makes sense if A.J. Smith falls in love with a certain guy.

19. New York Giants – OT Nate Solder, Colorado
The Giants have long been strong in the trenches under head coach Tom Coughlin, but the offensive line is starting to show the cracks that come with age. Young OT William Beatty hasn’t really emerged as a difference-maker, so adding one of this year’s top tackles makes sense here. Solder is a big, physical specimen who has the potential to play either side, and his physical style makes him a better fit for Big Blue than Gabe Carimi.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn’s stock has slipped because of a injury that occurred at birth that still impacts the strength in his right arm. As a result, Clayborn will have to lock in on one side of the defense. That lack of versatility is a drawback, but Clayborn can still provide a ton of pass-rush pop. After investing in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price last year, the Bucs need to step up their outside threats on defense, and Clayborn is the best option at this point to do that. Tampa Bay could also use a cornerback, but given the legal problems Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson are facing, the Bucs can’t afford to gamble on Jimmy Smith at this point.

21. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
This is a popular pick, since it’s clear to see the Chiefs’ gaping hole at right tackle, and Carimi seems to be around at this spot on just about every mock draft you see. But the pick makes a ton of sense. Branden Albert is a decent starting left tackle, but not dominant, and Carimi could either fill in the RT hole or take Albert’s job and force him to jump over there. Either move should help to stabilize the Chiefs’ front line.

22. Indianapolis Colts – DT Corey Liuget, Illinois
The Colts usually spend their top pick on offense. That strategy worked well as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark became stars playing with Peyton Manning, but more recent picks like Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown haven’t panned out. Last year, the Colts picked DE Jerry Hughes, who didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie. We see them going defense this year, in part because the top group of offensive linemen has been picked through in our mock draft, and in part because there’s such value along the defensive line, which is another huge need area. Liuget would be a three-technique, penetrating tackle; a widebody like Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson would also be an option.

23. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles always, always, always spend their first-round pick on a lineman. Given how the offensive line crew has been picked through a bit at this point, instead of taking guard Danny Watkins or OT Danny Sherrod, we’ll point the Eagles toward defense. Kerrigan is a nice player with a high motor who makes some plays but may not have the punch of some other prospects. Still, he seems like he could develop into a Kyle Vanden Bosch type of end, and that would be a terrific addition at this point. The fact that the Eagles hired Jim Washburn, the league’s best D-line coach, in the offseason makes picking a guy like Kerrigan even more attractive – because they can trust Washburn will get the best out of him.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Andy Dalton, TCU
Dalton is the flavor-of-the-month West Coast offense quarterback, and there have been enough rumors linking him to the Seahawks at 25 that some team will trade back into the first round to pick him. The Saints should get a premium to trade out of this spot so that Cincinnati or San Francisco – or another team that has kept its Dalton love quiet – can beat Seattle to the punch. We’ve already discussed how Dalton is our choice as the No. 3 QB in the draft.

25. Seattle Seahawks – QB Christian Ponder, Florida State
The Seahawks still need a quarterback, given the fact that Matt Hasselbeck is hitting the open market. Ponder is also a West Coast style quarterback, but he has a little more elusiveness and a stronger arm than Dalton. Ponder’s big question (as we detailed before) will be durability. But with OL cornerstones center Max Unger and OT Russell Okung in place, the Seahawks are better positioned to protect Ponder than many other teams.

26. Baltimore Ravens – CB Jimmy Smith, Colorado
It seems like the Ravens have a strong roster with two continually glaring holes in recent years – wide receiver and cornerback. Given the way the draft board breaks down, receiver isn’t going to be an option this year. So while the cornerback play was a bit better last year, Josh Wilson’s free agency leaves it as a need. Smith would really help in that area. Smith is an ubertalented cover man with a rough reputation, but Baltimore seems to have the veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in place to help Smith grow up more quickly. But he could end up being a home run pick, which would be a coup this late in the first round.

27. Atlanta Falcons – OG Danny Watkins, Baylor
The Falcons are solid across the board, and so they can afford to spend a first-rounder on a less premium position like guard to get a premium player. That’s what Watkins, an ex-firefighter, can be. With OGs Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and OT Tyson Clabo all facing free agency, adding depth up front is crucial for the Dirty Birds. Watkins could step in and start at a guard spot, which would give the Falcons some financial flexibility without losing performance.

28. New England Patriots – NT Phil Taylor, Baylor
The Pats are, as always, prime targets to trade out of the first round, especially if a team is gaga over Ryan Mallett (bad idea) or Colin Kaepernick. But if they stay put, they can add to their defensive line once again either with Muhammad Wilkerson, who would play defensive end in their system, or with Taylor, who would apprentice under Vince Wilfork on the nose. Given the fact that the Pats had success with Wilfork playing end last year, Taylor would be a better fit. Adding a sturdy defensive lineman and a pass rusher would make for a terrific first-round haul for the Pats – especially with the first pick in the second round in their pocket.

29. Chicago Bears – OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
The Bears could use an offensive lineman, but they don’t seem too high on Derek Sherrod, the one first-round-level prospect left on the board. So we have them turning to Ayers, a versatile outside linebacker who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme. Ayers would add youth to a linebacking corps held down by linchpins Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and Ayers seems to have the skills to play on the strong side instead of sitting behind one of the stars. Ayers is a physical freak whose performance on the field wasn’t always consistent, but his ability could be too much to ignore at this point.

30. New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
The Jets need to add some depth in their front line on defense, given the departure of Kris Jenkins and the age of Shaun Ellis. Wilkerson, who has the skills to play as a defensive end in the 3-4 and also play inside in 4-3 sets, would add a nice piece for Rex Ryan’s attacking defense. The Jets could also look at Cameron Heyward in a similiar role, but Wilkerson’s a higher rated prospect.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
The Steelers have been beset by offensive line injuries in recent years, and it would be wise to add a first-round talent like Sherrod instead of having to depend on a fill-in like Flozell Adams again. The other spot they could address is at cornerback, where big, physical Aaron Williams of Texas may be tempting as well.

32. Green Bay Packers – DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
The Packers are loaded on the defensive line because they have invested so heavily there in the draft. But with Johnny Jolly’s career likely over and Cullen Jenkins looking to hit the jackpot via free agency, adding a player at the position would be wise. Heyward can play as a defensive end and add a little bit of pass rush push at the position. He’s a better fit than Marvin Austin, more of a 4-3 defensive tackle.

Guys who we considered for first-round spots:

QB Colin Kaepernick
QB Ryan Mallett
RB Mark Ingram
DT Marvin Austin
CB/S Aaron Williams

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, preja vu

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 16

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down. Now that we’re at the end of the seasons, we’re only noting players who have a chance of starting in a Week 17 championship game or who emerged out of nowhere in Week 16.

Tim Tebow

Quarterbacks

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – Freeman has emerged as a fantasy starter this year, and if you hadn’t noticed, Sunday’s five-TD performance against the Seahawks should have turned your head. He’s a top-10 fantasy quarterback both this year and next. Verdict: Applaud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer has had a solid fantasy season even though his on-field performance has been awful. But Sunday against the Chargers, he was truly good, throwing for 269 yards and four touchdowns while completing 16-of-21 passes. The fact that he put up such good numbers without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens was surprising, but the truth is that the Bengals are on their way to another late-season rush that means nothing. So if you want to ride Palmer next week against Baltimore, go ahead. Verdict: Applaud

Stephen McGee, Cowboys – McGee was pressed into action when Jon Kitna was injured on Christmas night, and he performed fairly well with 111 yards on 11-of-17 passing and one touchdown without an interception. If Kitna misses Week 17, McGee qualifies as a desperation play in two-QB or incredibly deep leagues because of Dallas’ strong receiving corps. We could see a two-TD game out of him as a starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Tebow, Broncos – In his first home start, Tebow ran for a touchdown (his fifth of the season) and threw for one. But the surprising stat was that he was able to shred the Texans’ admittedly sorry pass defense for 308 yards. Because of his rushing threat, Tebow is a startable fantasy player right now. His value is pinned to getting that rushing touchdown, but if you’re desperate, Tebow the Hero is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber had missed three games before returning on Christmas with a 58-yard game that included a touchdown. Barber still falls behind Felix Jones on the carries list in Dallas, but Marion the Barbarian is more likely to find the end zone than Jones. His return makes Tashard Choice irrelevant in fantasy terms, but that doesn’t mean we can trust Barber as a starter against the Eagles next week. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Filling in for Knowshon Moreno, Buckhalter had both a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. If Moreno is out next week, Buckhalter becomes a flex option, albeit one with some risk. Verdict: Applaud

Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Both Greene and Tomlinson scored touchdowns against the Bears. It was Greene’s second touchdown of the season (first since Week 5) and Tomlinson’s first rushing TD since Week 6. We noted a few weeks ago that Tomlinson has really been slowing down, and with the Jets clinching a playoff spot this week, you’d have to figure he gets a break next week vs. the Bills. Greene, meanwhile, had 70 rushing yards against the Bears and could be coming on. We’d much rather play Greene than Tomlinson next week, but it could be that the Jets give Joe McKnight a look to protect both guys. Avoid both next week. Verdict: A fraud for both

Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, Colts – The Colts brought Rhodes back off the UFL scrap heap two weeks ago, and this week Addai returned from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for more than a month. Those two returns have made Donald Brown irrelevant for fantasy owners, and while Addai scored a touchdown against the Raiders, Rhodes was the leading rusher with 98 yards on 17 carries. It’s impossible to tell how this will play out next week, which means you can’t start any of them. But Rhodes is worth a claim if he’s available in your league, because he could qualify as a desperation play. Verdict: A fraud for Addai, Applaud for Rhodes

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt was having a huge season until a Week 8 injury sidelined him for nearly five games. But since his return, Britt has had four catches in every game, and he followed up Week 15’s 128-yard performance with a four-catch, 89-yard game with a touchdown against the Chiefs. Despite the Titans’ lethargic play, Britt is a must-start guy right now. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Crabtree has had a disappointing season, garnering more than 61 receiving yards in just one game before his 122-yard performance against the Rams Sunday. Crabtree has talent, but the Smiths (Troy and Alex) at quarterback aren’t great, and so relying on him in any given week is just too much of a crapshoot. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox has emerged as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver this year, and he’s nearly over the 1,000-yard mark on the season. More importantly for fantasy owners, Knox scored two long touchdowns against the Jets, giving him five on the season. Four of those five have come in the last five games, which means Knox has reached must-start status next week against Green Bay. And don’t worry about weather – Jay Cutler has thrown well in bad weather against the Vikings and Jets the last couple of weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson rode an 80-yard touchdown catch to a big day against the Giants. But you can’t rely on him to repeat his 124-yard performance, because he clearly falls behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones in the pecking order. Verdict: A fraud

Andre Roberts, Cardinals – Roberts, a rookie out of The Citadel, had just 15 catches on the season before his five-catch, 122-yard breakout against the Cowboys that included a 74-yard touchdown. But somehow, Roberts went off while Larry Fitzgerald had just one catch and Steve Breaston and Early Doucet had none. That has all the looks of a one-week fluke that fantasy owners should ignore. Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Simpson, Bengals – With Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco out, Simpson broke out with a six-catch, 124-yard day against the Chargers that included two touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Simpson and Jordan Shipley are featured again next week as the Bengals figure out whether they can move on from the diva receivas in 2011. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Jared Cook, Titans – Cook, the Titans’ No. 2 tight end, had 96 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs. The Titans seem to want to get a better look at Cook and Craig Stevens right now, but Bo Scaife is healthy, which means you can’t rely on any of the Tennessee tight ends. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 13

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

Quarterbacks

Tarvaris Jackson

 

Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings – Jackson stepped for the injured Brett Favre and had a typical T-Jax game – throwing two touchdown passes but also turning the ball over three times, including one for a pick-6. Jackson has talent, and he has a talented corps of receivers to target. But if your league docks for turnovers, Jackson is too much of a risk to play. Still, in large leagues Jackson is worth a pickup this week, because if he takes over for Favre permanently (always a question), he’s going to get the Vikes in the end zone fairly frequently. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Schaub, Texans – Schaub threw for 337 yards and two scores against the Eagles, marking just his fourth 300-yard game of the season. Schaub has been a fantasy disappointment this year after playing his way up to elite status last year, but he has thrown multiple TD passes in three of the last four games. More importantly, the schedule really opens up for Schaub over the last four games against the so-so Ravens pass defense and the abysmal Titans, Broncos, and Jaguars secondaries. It’s time to reinstate Schaub as a starter. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Michael Bush, Raiders – Bush led the Raiders in carries with 25 (to Darren McFadden’s 19) and ran for 95 yards and a score against the Chargers. Obviously, the Raiders’ lead opened the door to plenty of carries for both backs, but most weeks McFadden is the preferable option. Bush is a potential flex play, but little more. Verdict: A fraud

Tashard Choice against the Colts, via espn.com

Tashard Choice, Cowboys – With Marion Barber out, it was Choice, not Felix Jones, who got the call against Indy. He responded with a 100-yard outing that included a touchdown. Barber could return next week, and if he does Choice loses fantasy relevance, but if Barber is inactive Choice is an intriguing option as an under-the-radar play. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Over the last two weeks, Jacobs has looked to have a lot more pop running the ball than he did early in the season. That’s something fantasy owners needed to notice. Jacobs is now a must start, and if you put him in your lineup for his 103-yard, two-touchdown day (that came on just eight carries), you were rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

Javarris James, Colts – James had just 18 yards on six carries, but he did score two touchdowns against the Cowboys. He actually led the Colts in carries (to 5 for Donald Brown and 4 for Mike Hart). But you can’t count on James to get in the end zone once, let alone twice. You can’t start any of these Colts backs. Verdict: A fraud

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks – Lynch’s tenure in Seattle has been a fantasy disappointment, so his three-TD game against the Panthers came out of nowhere. But given Lynch’s game stats, you simply can’t rely on him as a fantasy starter, even after Sunday’s solid game. Verdict: A fraud

James Starks and Brandon Jackson, Packers – In the Packers’ win over the 49ers, it was Starks, not Brandon Jackson, that got the majority of the work. Since Jackson’s value is completely tied to workload, his four-carry day is a major red flag. You cannot start him next week. Starks, who had 18 carries for 73 yards, is worth a pickup, because if he gets that much work every week he’ll find the end zone in Green Bay’s prolific O. Verdict: Applaud for Starks, A fraud for Jackson

Wide receivers

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver had just six catches between Week 7 and Week 12, in large part because of injury, but he rebounded with four catches for 73 yards and a score against the 49ers. That’s a great sign that Driver is back and ready to contribute for fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem hasn’t been a fantasy force for much of the year, but he has started to deliver in recent weeks. He’s had 50-plus yards three weeks in a row, including Sunday’s three-catch, 106-yard day against the Bengals Sunday. Plus, he has three TDs in the last three games. If you’re looking for receiver help, Meachem is an acceptable flex option for the first time all season. Verdict: Applaud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – In his third game of the season after offseason knee injury, Rice had his first big game, combining with Tarvaris Jackson for five catches, 105 yards, and two touchdowns. That’s a great sign of Rice’s health. He should be ready to be a fantasy factor for owners patient enough to hold on to him (or savvy enough to grab him off the waiver wire in time). Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne remains a No. 1 fantasy receiver, and he delivered with a 200-yard game (on 14 catches) against Dallas. That put him over 1,100 yards for the season. His TD numbers are a little light, but you can still count on Wayne. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Vernon Davis against the Packers, via espn.com

 

Vernon Davis, 49ers – Davis has had a disappointing year, and entering Sunday’s game he hadn’t produced much since Troy Smith took over at quarterback for the Niners. But he busted out for four catches, 126 yards, and a touchdown against the Packers. It’s too soon to return Davis to the TE elite, but at least he rewarded owners who have stuck with him all season. Verdict: A fraud

Cameron Morrah, Seahawks – Morrah, who was filling in for the injured John Carlson, had three catches for 69 yards against the Panthers. He became the only big-receiver option for the Hawks after in-game injuries to Mike Williams and Ben Obamanu. Without those circumstances going forward, it’s hard to see Morrah doing much, but if Carlson is out next week, Morrah could suffice as a Hail Mary play for owners in mega-deep leagues. Verdict: A fraud

Benjamin Watson, Browns – Watson had his best game of the season with 10 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. He’s been a solid producer all season who is a nice fallback option for owners who find their tight end out for a week. Keep him high on your list of fill-ins. Verdict: Applaud

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Chiefs/Colts thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we’re focusing on the upstart Chiefs’ trip to Indianapolis to face the stalwart Colts. The Chiefs played tough, especially defensively, but couldn’t punch it in the end zone as the Colts fought their way to a 19-9 victory.

Despite the loss, in our minds this game solidified the Chiefs as an AFC West contender. They have a good, maybe even great, defense and a terrific running game. The passing game keeps them from being an elite team, but it won’t surprise us to see the Chiefs end up with nine or 10 wins.

Jamaal Charles against the Colts. From espn.com

On-Field Perspective
*The Colts’ offense struggled against a Chiefs defense that has a lot of good young players. But the fact that Indy looked out of sync should concern Colts fans. Yes, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were playing at less than 100 percent, and Joseph Addai had to leave the game in the third quarter. But despite those injuries, Peyton Manning completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes (26 of 44), and the Colts just didn’t look sharp. Dallas Clark did very little (in part because of Mike Vrabel coverage), while Reggie Wayne had little second-half impact. Yes, the Colts put together a key drive in the fourth quarter to put the game away, but this was far from a vintage Colts performance, and Indy needs to show it can still can create those vintage efforts.
*The Chiefs’ offense also struggled, but that’s because of a talent gap. QB Matt Cassel (16 of 29, 156 yards) just isn’t consistent enough to keep the chains moving regularly, and he doesn’t have premium outside targets. Dwayne Bowe (see below) is quickly moving into disappointment territory, and Chris Chambers showed little of the pop he added last season. RB Jamaal Charles is explosive, and rookies Tony Moeaki and Dexter McCluster can make big plays as well, but K.C. needs to upgrade its wideouts before Todd Haley’s offense can really get going.
*Chiefs DT Glenn Dorsey, who was considered a bust in his first couple of NFL seasons, has emerged under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel this year. Dorsey made a big play by creating a push and breaking up the rhythm of a Addai fourth-down run late in the first half.  Dorsey’s pressure enabled Jon McGraw to come up and stop Addai short. Dorsey later had a big tackle for loss against Addai in the third quarter. It’s good to see Dorsey, a former top-five overall pick, living up to his promise.
*While Dorsey is playing pretty well, Tamba Hali is the Chiefs’ best defensive lineman. Hali is built like Indy’s Dwight Freeney, and he out-Freeneyed the Pro Bowler through much of the game. At one point in the third quarter, Hali hit Manning hard three times in a few plays, with the final hit causing a fumble that the Colts fell on. Hali’s pass-rush ability adds a frightening dimension to a solid Chiefs D.
*Kansas City also has some good young corners. Brandon Flowers shut down his man through most of the game, and he made a terrific play to break up a deep pass to Garcon in the fourth quarter. Brandon Carr and rookie nickelback Javier Arenas are also talented, although Manning picked on them a little more effectively. Still, that’s a good group who gives the Chiefs the ability to have not just a good defense but a great one.
*The big hit award for this game goes to Colts S Antonie Bethea, who crushed Jamaal Charles late in the first half to force a fumble that the Colts recovered.
*Chiefs PK Ryan Succop was Mr. Irrelevant as the last pick in the 2009 NFL draft, but he’s emerged into a dependable placekicker while also serving as a strong-legged kickoff man. Although he missed a 51-yarder late, he’s an asset. It’s hard to find guys in the NFL who can do both, which makes Succop a nice find for the Chiefs, especially with the last pick of his draft.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*Cheifs WR Dwayne Bowe has gotten a lot of fantasy football respect, but he’s no longer a guy who’s worth starting because he’s not dependable. Bowe dropped consecutive passes in the third quarter, including what should have been a 30-yard touchdown. Even worse for Bowe owners, the Chiefs used a lot of two-TE, two-RB sets that featured Terrance Copper out wide instead of Bowe. Bowe has just one touchdown this season, and he’s not getting enough targets to overcome drops and post decent fantasy numbers. Sit him.
*Mike Hart, who became the Colts’ only running back option after Addai got hurt, did a good job punching it inside and ran for 50 yards and a score. If Addai can’t play next week and Donald Brown remains sidelined, Hart’s not  a bad fill-in next week against Washington.
*Charles is really the only Chief offensive player you can start with confidence. Thomas Jones has had a few decent games, as has Moeaki, but Charles (87 rushing yards, 14 receiving yards) is the one Chief who consistently posts 100 yards from scrimmage week after week.
*Wayne, Garcon, and Collie each had at least five catches for the Colts, and so even in a game when Indy didn’t throw for a touchdown, they all had some fantasy value. We still prefer Collie to Garcon over the rest of the season as long as health is not an issue, but it’s going to be close.

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Colts/Broncos thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we turn our attention to the Mile High city, where the Colts put together a solid 27-13 victory over the Broncos.

Peyton Manning plays against the Broncos. Getty Images via espn.com.

On-field perspective

*The Broncos moved the ball up and down the field, at least through the air, but failed to get in the end zone in five red-zone trips. No matter how good Kyle Orton’s numbers look, he won’t be a quality quarterback until he finds consistency and success in that area.
*Orton did make some big plays down field, notably to Brandon Lloyd, who had a monster 169-yard game. In Lloyd, Gaffney, and rookie Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos have an unsung group of receivers that’s playing well. The group’s chance to become special lies in Thomas, who is fast as lightning and tough. He made great hustle plays both as a blocker for Lloyd and as a tackler on a Jacob Lacey interception return.
*Lacey and Kelvin Hayden (forced fumble) caused turnovers in the Colts secondary, but that group also allowed some big plays through blown contracts and missed tackles. That group could be a liability if the Colts struggle to generate pressure as they did in this game.
*In case you haven’t noticed, Peyton Manning is good. He wasn’t his sharpest in this one yet still threw for 300-plus yards and three TDs.
*Austin Collie really stepped up for the Colts when they needed him. Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez were out, and Champ Bailey did a good job on Reggie Wayne, but the Broncos (and especially Perrish Cox, who was filling in for Andre Goodman) had no answer for Collie, who went off for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Cox also fumbled a punt return that the Colts recovered and turned into a field goal, so it was not a good night for him.
*Manning is good, but neither running game in this contest was. For the Colts, Joseph Addai and Donald Brown showed little burst or escapability. For Denver, Laurence Maroney was pedestrian in his Broncos debut (12 carries, 24 yards), while Correll Buckhalter is dependable but nothing more. Denver really missed the injured Knowshon Moreno.

Fantasy football perspective
*Before the season, we believed that Austin Collie would be more valuable than Pierre Garcon to fantasy owners. Garcon didn’t play in this game, but Collie scored for the third straight week and finished with career highs in catches (12) and yards (171). Collie doesn’t get a ton of respect from fantasy owners, but even when Garcon plays Collie is a top-30 wideout who can be a No. 3 receiver in 10-team leagues.
*Of all the backs on the rosters of these two teams, Moreno is the only one I could imagine starting with most confidence, and he’s injured. Maroney’s change of scenery doesn’t change his shortcomings, and Addai’s attractiveness for fantasy owners is based completely on situation, not ability.
*Both Lloyd (169 yards) and Gaffney (12 catches, 140 yards) went over the century mark for the Broncos, but Lloyd’s inconsistency makes us leery of putting him in a lineup. With byes coming up Gaffney becomes a depth play, but Thomas is still the Bronco with the most fantasy upside.
*Orton, meanwhile, is on a hot streak numbers-wise right now, to the point that he’s fighting to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. You can start him with confidence.

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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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