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Who is Mark Sanchez?

Mark Sanchez

Mark Sanchez. Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week, in our Football Relativity post, we analyzed who Aaron Rodgers is compared to other quarterbacks. (See the Packers entry for those thoughts.) We thought that was an interesting exercise, and so it’s no surprise that since then we’ve set our minds to try to figure out another of the NFL’s final four quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez.

And we’ve decided: Mark Sanchez is at least Trent Dilfer. And Mark Sanchez might be Ben Roethlisberger.

Let us explain.

Sanchez is not yet a consistent quarterback. He has sterling playoff success in his first two pro seasons, notching four road playoff wins thus far. And in these playoff games, Sanchez has rarely carried the Jets. But he has made big plays. Last year against the Bengals, for example, Sanchez hit a big throw to Dustin Keller that ended up being a key play in the game. This year, even in his inconsistent game against the Colts, Sanchez found Braylon Edwards on a key play to turn Nick Folk’s game-winning field goal attempt from a long kick to a far easier attempt.

In these ways, Sanchez is like Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens to their Super Bowl run a decade ago. Dilfer was not a dominant force for those Ravens teams, but he avoided crucial mistakes, and he seemed to hit one big throw a game to set up a touchdown. Throws to Shannon Sharpe against the Raiders and to Brandon Stokley against the Giants still come to mind. Sanchez can do this for the Jets right now.

But there is a key difference between Sanchez and Dilfer in this – that was the peak of Dilfer’s career, while Sanchez is still growing. He can get better. And in that way Sanchez is like his AFC championship game counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls thus far, but it’s hard to remember at this point in his career that in the first win, five years ago, Roethlisberger was the Steelers’ weak link. His Super Bowl 40 performance against the Seahawks was far from spectacular, but it was good enough to let the Steelers’ talent win out. And from that point, Big Ben kept developing, and three years later his performance against the Cardinals was so terrific that he outdueled Kurt Warner in a shootout, complete with a game-winning TD throw to Santonio Holmes at the end of the game. Big Ben was a different quarterback in his second title than he was in his first.

And that’s the hope for Sanchez and the Jets Since Dilfer and Brad Johnson (Buccaneers) won Super Bowls in back-to-back years, the list of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks looks like a who’s who. Tom Brady has won three, Roethlisberger two, Peyton Manning one, Drew Brees one, and Eli Manning one.

We’ve always like Sanchez – we favored him over Matthew Stafford in the draft two years ago – but the truth is that if Sanchez is to join that list of Super Bowl winners, it will have to be a la Dilfer. But if Sanchez is really growing like Roethlisberger did, as we suspect he might be, then Jets fans have a lot to be excited about – both this weekend and in the future.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL playoffs

Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 2

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

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

Running backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Applaud/A Fraud, Fantasy Football, Football Relativity

FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Comparing tight ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Finding gems at quarterback

It’s clear in fantasy football this year who the top eight quarterbacks are. But who are the sleeper quarterbacks in this year’s crop?

In a previous post, we identified the top quarterbacks, and we’ve also discussed Donovan McNabb’s declining stock and Jason Campbell’s promise in this post. Now we’re going to comb through the rest of the NFL’s starters to see which have the upside to contribute as fantasy starters this season.

Our baseline in this post is to find guys who are better than Big Ben. Roethlisberger would belong with the top 8 quarterbacks if not for his suspension, and so this post seeks to find guys we’d rather have than Roethlisberger starting in Week 5.  We’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to do this, identifying with each verdict what it means in relation to Big Ben plus a fill-in.

Jason Campbell, Raiders – We covered Campbell earlier and told of our reasons for optimism with his fantasy stock. But is his stock going to rise enough to put him over the Big Ben level? Last year’s 20-TD season was Campbell’s career high by quite a bit, and throwing 20 TDs is basically replacement level for a top-15 quarterback. So while Campbell has upside, he’s more of a fill-in for Big Ben than an improvement over him. There’s upside here, but not enough to surpass Big Ben plus a fill-in. Verdict: A fraud

Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler’s first season in Chicago was interesting but inconsistent. With 27 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, Cutler was a fine fantasy quarterback in leagues where interceptions didn’t deduct points. But if he matches his TD and yardage numbers (3,666) from last season and drops just a few interceptions, he’ll shoot up the fantasy charts toward the top 10 at the QB position. Plus, Cutler seems to have a better environment to succeed this year with Mike Martz stepping in as offensive coordinator and young receivers like Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu emerging. Cutler may not break the 30 touchdown barrier, but he’ll break the Big Ben plus a fill-in mark by throwing for 25 TDs and approaching 4,000 yards. Verdict: Applaud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback in his second season, throwing for 21 TDs in ’09 after throwing just 14 the year before. He also threw for 3,613 yards, an increase of about 650 yards. And many fantasy analysts are projecting even bigger things for Flacco this year now that the Ravens have added Anquan Boldin. Boldin immediately becomes the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver, and he and Derrick Mason are a fine pair of receivers. Adding other players such as Donte Stallworth and rookie TE Ed Dickson add to Flacco’s group of receivers. That’s all good news, but consider that Flacco was basically a replacement-level backup QB last year. He’ll take a step forward to around 25 TDs, but counting on Flacco as a top-10 quarterback is risky. Still, Flacco moves above the Big Ben or fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

David Garrard, Jaguars – The past two years, Garrard has been a consistent yardage producer, throwing for right at 3,600 yards both seasons. But in both seasons, he threw only 15 touchdowns a season. Even though he has run for five TDs in the last two seasons combined, those low TD pass numbers keep Garrard from being a top-15 fantasy quarterback. Even though Garrard has a talented group of young receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker, it’s just too hard to imagine him making a huge jump in TD passes that will make him a better option than Big Ben plus a fill-in. Garrard is far better suited as a fill-in in that scenario than as a replacement for Big Ben. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck’s fantasy stock plummeted due to injury two seasons ago, and last season his numbers were pedestrian even considering he missed two games. His yardage total (3,000 in 14 games) was fine, but 17 TDs put him with the average fantasy quarterbacks. And now that Pete Carroll is the new sheriff in Seattle, it seems like the heat has been turned up on Hasselbeck’s seat. Hasselbeck is probably a safe bet for 20 touchdowns and 3,200 yards if he stays healthy, but that puts him just under the Big Ben or a fill-in level. Hasselbeck is merely a fantasy backup at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne had a solid first season, throwing for 2,878 yards despite playing only 14 games. Even better, he seemed to click into gear late in the season. After throwing for 220 yards or more in only one of his first nine games, he did so in four of his final five contests. So projecting Henne for 3,200 yards seems safe, and he has the ability to ratchet that number up into the 3,600-yard range pretty easily, especially after the Dolphins added Brandon Marshall in the offseason. The question with Henne is touchdowns. He threw for just 12 last year. If he follows the Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco pattern, he’ll move up to the 20-TD level in his second year as a starter, and if that happens Henne will be a replacement-level top-15 fantasy quarterback. But projecting Henne to double in his TD total – which is what it would take to put him over the Big Ben and a fill-in level – seems like a two-year project, not a 2010 occurrence. Henne is a terrific fill in with Big Ben, but we can’t quite put him over that level. Verdict: A fraud

Kevin Kolb, Eagles – Kolb doesn’t have much of a track record with just two career starts, but he steps into a  fantasy gold mine in Philadelphia. Andy Reid loves to throw the ball, and with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek, the Eagles have one of the best groups of young receivers in the league. And in Kolb’s two starts last year, he put up solid fantasy numbers by throwing for more than 300 yards in each game with two TDs in each game. Of course, Kolb won’t live up to those numbers through a full season, but his potential and his ideal situation makes us willing to take the risk on Kolb before we take the risk on the Big Ben plus a fill-in strategy. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Leinart, Cardinals – After Kurt Warner’s retirement, Leinart finally gets his shot to start in Arizona. He hasn’t started more than four games since his rookie season, and his performance then mirrored what we’ve seen from guys like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan more recently. And in his one start last year, he was 21-of-31 for 220 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, which is not a warning flag. Now that Anquan Boldin’s gone, Arizona seems to be tipping toward the running game, but even with that emphasis Leinart has a great collection of targets in Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Early Doucet. We can’t put Leinart above the Big Ben and a fill-in level, but he’s a decent gamble as the fill-in because he could emerge as a nice fantasy performer who becomes an attractive trade chip once Roethlisberger returns to the field. Verdict: A fraud

Eli Manning, Giants – Manning had his best fantasy season last year, throwing for career highs with 4,021 yards and 27 touchdowns. That yardage total was about 700 yards above what Manning had hovered around the three previous seasons, but that may be attributable to an improved group of receivers that features youngsters Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Even in Manning reverts to the 3,300-yard, 23-touchdown level that was his career norm before last year, he’s still above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. But last year showed that Manning has the upside to knock on the door of the top 10 at the position. Verdict: Applaud

Donovan McNabb, Redskins – We discuss McNabb previously, but just to reiterate our reservations about his stock. He’ll turn 34 during the season, which means his prime is waning if not completely gone. He’s never been a paragon of health, and now he’s moving behind an offensive line that’s more vulnerable up the middle than Philly’s was. Most of all for fantasy owners, McNabb’s cadre of receivers in Washington is two or three levels below what he had at his disposal in Philly last year. His numbers will decrease to the point that Roethlisberger’s a better bet starting in Week 5. You’d be better off with Big Ben and a fill-in than with McNabb. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – After an injury-plagued ’08 season, Palmer returned to play all 16 games in ’09. The problem was that his fantasy production didn’t return with him. After throwing for between 26 and 32 touchdowns in ’05 to ’07, he threw just 21 in ’09. (Three rushing touchdowns, more than his previous career total, mitigated that somewhat.) And instead of being in the 4,000-yard range, Palmer barely cracked 3,000. Part of the reason was that there was no real complement to Chad Ochocinco in the offense, and the Bengals believe signee Antonio Bryant addresses that issue. But fantasy owners know that a bigger reason is that the pendulum in Cincinnati has swung toward the running game. That means Palmer falls between 15 and 20 on the fantasy QB pecking order. Maybe there’s upside for him to begin to approach his glory-year numbers, but our hunch is that Big Ben and a fill-in will end up with better totals. So we’re placing Palmer below that level. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Although Ryan missed two games last year, his TD numbers went up from 14 to 22 as he took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback. Ryan hasn’t been a superb yardage producer – less than 210 yards per game – and that limits his fantasy value. But with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has two elite targets, and with a full season he should be in the 25-touchdown neighborhood again. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of risk of Ryan falling off the map. He’s not an elite fantasy quarterback, but you can comfortably put Ryan in the top 12 at the position and slot him above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie numbers were pretty typical – 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions with 2,444 yards (in 15 games). But he seemed to develop in the playoffs with four TD passes and just two interceptions, making him worth a second glance for fantasy owners this season. The Jets maintain a run-first offense, but by adding Braylon Edwards at midseason last year and Santonio Holmes (suspended four games) this season, the Jets have given Sanchez more to work with. Those guys, plus Dustin Keller and Jerricho Cotchery, create a deep group of receivers. It’s feasible to see Sanchez ratcheting up to the 20-TD, 3,000-yard mark, which would make him a fantasy backup. But expecting Sanchez to jump past Big Ben and a fill-in level to the top-12 at quarterback is asking too much. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford’s rookie numbers – 225 passing yards per game and 13 passing touchdowns in 10 games – weren’t bad. And if you project Stafford to take the same kind of second-year jump that Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did, he would move from an 18-TD pace to a 22- or 23-TD clip. That, plus his 3,500 yard pace from last year, are promising. Add in the fact that the Lions added Tony Scheffler, Nate Burleson, and rookie Jahvid Best to Calvin Johnson to set Stafford up to succeed, and it seems like Stafford’s set up to succeed. But Roethlisberger’s track record makes us just a smidgen more secure in picking him than Stafford. Ideally, Stafford would be the fill in you pair with Big Ben, because Stafford’s upside could give you a top-12 fantasy quarterback to trade once Roethlisberger returns. But for now, we’ll leave Stafford just a hair below the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: A fraud

Vince Young, Titans – Young is an unconventional fantasy quarterback. In basically three seasons’ worth of starts, he has thrown just 32 touchdown passes, but he’s also run for eight. As much as his value comes from running the ball (about 25 yards per game last year) as from passing (about 150 yards per game last year). Some are projecting Young to emerge as a fantasy quarterback, and some signs are there. Young seemed to mature last season, throwing for 235 yards or more in three of four games down the stretch. Plus, Kenny Britt seems to be becoming the best receiver the Titans have had since Derrick Mason left. But even with those positive harbingers, we can’t put Young above the Big Ben plus a fill-in level. The numbers just don’t support it. Verdict: A fraud

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OP: Don’t forget Gresham

As we approach the NFL draft later this month, we wanted to go on record about a couple of players we really like in this year’s class. This is always a risky business, but these are guys that we think are going to be terrific pros even if talent evaluators are finding some warts in their profiles. Yesterday we picked Texas’ Sergio Kindle as our defensive crush; now we turn to the offensive side of the ball.

By the way, for all our draft coverage,  including posts on Kindle, Jimmy Clausen, and Tim Tebow, go to the Draft category on the blog and click around.

When you think of impact players in this year’s NFL draft, most minds go to QB Sam Bradford, RB C.J. Spiller, and WR Dez Bryant. All those players have their assets, but fans shouldn’t forget the player who might make the quickest impact for teams is a guy who played but one game in his senior year – TE Jermaine Gresham. Few players are as physically imposing as Gresham, who’s 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds yet still runs in the 4.8 range for his 40-yard-dash. And Gresham isn’t just a physical specimen – he’s also productive, as he piled up 25 touchdowns in ’07 and ’08 before missing the 2009 season with a knee injury.

The only question teams can ask about Gresham is about the health of his knee. Otherwise, they know what they’ll get from him. Sure, he’s not ever going to be a dominant blocker, but he can stretch the field as a receiver in a way that makes a huge impact. Think about what Dustin Keller has done for the Jets or what JerMichael Finley has done for the Packers, and then realize that Gresham has more physical ability than either guy. That will help you start to get a feel for how much of an impact Gresham can make.

Not since Vernon Davis has there been a tight end this gifted come out in the draft, and Gresham won’t cost a top-6 pick like Davis did. Gresham may be pulled off the board in the teens, and he’s solid value there, but once the draft enters the 20s Gresham would become a godsend for whatever team decides to pick him. Knee injury or not, Gresham is going to be a huge catch for a team that needs a tight end who can catch.

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RP: Building philosophies

As we analyze the NFL’s final four, we thought we’d look at the most significant building philosophy of each remaining team. This was Chase’s idea put through a little bit of a filter. It’s interesting to see that there’s not just one way to build a team, as you’ll see below.

Indianapolis Colts
Key strategy: Second day of the draft – Obviously, Peyton Manning is the key acquisition for the Colts, and he was the first overall pick in the draft. But with so many guys paid so much money, building depth on the second day of the draft is crucial. And the Colts have done this with OTs Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem, WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, LB Clint Session, S Antoine Bethea, and DE Robert Mathis are all second-day draft picks who have developed into above-average players. Bethea and Mathis are even more than that – among the better players at their positions in the league. Those reinforcements are complimented by rookie free agents like CB Jacob Lacey, DT Antonio Johnson, and an all-time classic, C Jeff Saturday, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl center despite not being drafted.
Significant strategy: First-round hits – Manning, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Reggie Wayne, and TE Dallas Clark are all premium players – that’s an incredible hit record. RB Joseph Addai isn’t at that superstar level, but he’s a very good player too.
Key waiver pickups: OG Ryan Lilja, DT Daniel Muir – Lilja started all 16 games at left guard this year, while Muir has emerged as a key player in the DT rotation this year.
Least significant strategy: Signing free agents – The only unrestricted free agent signee currently on the Colts’ roster is PK Adam Vinatieri, and he’s not even active. The Colts scour the market for castoffs, not for high-dollared players, because they do such a good job of hitting on superstars in the first round. They have no players acquired by trade either. It’s all about the draft and rookie free agents for the Colts.

Minnesota Vikings
Key strategy: Big splash – No team in the NFL has tried to make more big splashes than the Vikings. Signing Brett Favre is the latest example, but there are many others – OG Steve Hutchinson, the highest-paid guard in league history at the time; CB Antoine Winfield, who was a big-dollar signing from the Bills back in 2004; and DE Jared Allen, who was the prize in a huge trade with Kansas City last offseason. Those big splashes seem a bit strange in a medium market like Minnesota, but they’ve gone a long way toward giving the Vikings a corps of superstars.
Significant strategy: Draft success – Like the Colts, the Vikings have done a good job on the first day of the draft, finding stars like RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and stalwarts like LB Chad Greenway, CB Cedric Griffin, TE Jim Kleinsasser, and OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt.
Key free-agent signings: Free agency –  The Vikes have hit not just on the big splashes but on other free-agent signings like DT Pat Williams, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, RB Chester Taylor, S Madieu Williams, and PK Ryan Longwell. Those guys are important players who, in the case of Williams and Shiancoe, have become important contributors to the team’s core group.

New Orleans Saints
Key strategy: Free agency – The Saints signed QB Drew Brees in free agency, and that in itself is reason to make this the key strategy for the team. The Brees signing was the most important free-agent signing of the last decade and will end being on par with Green Bay’s signing of Reggie White as an all-time signing if Brees eventually leads the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. But Brees isn’t the only key free-agent signing by the Saints – S Darren Sharper and CB Jabari Greer were significant upgrades to the Saints’ secondary this offseason that made a huge difference throughout the season and last week, and LB Scott Fujita has been a great low-cost signing since he joined the team in 2006.
Significant strategy: Draft – Not only have the Saints found premium players early in the draft – RB Reggie Bush, DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Will Smith, DE Charles Grant, and WR Robert Meachem were all first-round picks, and S Roman Harper and CB Tracy Porter were second-rounders. All play key roles. But the Saints have also found value in the mid-rounds with OG Jahri Evans and OT Jermon Bushrod, and they made one of the best seventh-round picks of all time in WR Marques Colston.
Key trade acquisitions: LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Scott Shanle, TE Jeremy Shockey – Vilma is an impact player, and Shanle is a starter. Shockey provides another key target when he can stay healthy.

New York Jets
Key strategy: Trading up on draft day – The Jets traded up in the draft to acquire of their most important players: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Darrelle Revis, and ILB David Harris. Revis is the Jets’ best player, and Harris is the best player in a stacked linebacker corps. and Sanchez is a key part of the future as well. In addition, playoff revelation Shonn Greene was acquired via trade-up in the third round of the ’09 draft. The aggressiveness that Mike Tannenbaum has shown on draft day has paid off in big ways for Gang Green.
Significant strategy: Free agency  – The Jets have a ton of high-profile free agents – LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard this year joined guys like OLB Calvin Pace, OG Alan Faneca, and OT Damien Woody. All are vital players for this team.
Key draft picks: C Nick Mangold, OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, TE Dustin Keller, WR Jerricho Cotchery – Mangold, a late first-rounder, is the best center in the league right now, and Keller has been one of the team’s best offensive weapons in the offseason.
Key trade acquisitions: RB Thomas Jones, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Lito Sheppard – Jones has paid off big for the Jets, while Edwards and Sheppard have had their moments more inconsistenly since joining the Jets this season.

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