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Finding a Fit: Plaxico Burress

The Man

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

 

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

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

Synopsis

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

Potential fits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best fits

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 12

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

In our two game thoughts posts this week, we have already analyzed several players:
Check out the Thanksgiving leftovers post for thoughts on QB Shaun Hill, WR Brad Smith, and RBs Chris Ivory, Maurice Morris, and Felix Jones
Check out the Jaguars/Giants post for thoughts on QB David Garrard, RB Brandon Jacobs, and WR Mario Manningham

Jay Cutler against the Eagles

Quarterbacks

Sam Bradford, Rams – Bradford threw for 300 yards for the first time in his career and tacked on three touchdowns without an interception in the Rams’ win over the Broncos. However, fantasy owners should remember that the Broncos’ defense is one of the league’s worst, which means Bradford is a questionable play, especially away from home, going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler had a nearly perfect game, throwing for 247 yards on just 21 attempts with four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles. The Bears have trimmed the turnovers out of their offense in recent weeks, and Cutler seems to be doing a better job dealing with protection problems in front of him. He’s a borderline top 10 fantasy quarterback who deserves lineup consideration in fantasy leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Toby Gerhart

Running backs

Toby Gerhart, Vikings – When Adrian Peterson went down, Gerhart, a rookie out of Stanford, stepped up with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. If Peterson misses a game, Gerhart is certainly worth a start in leagues of 10 teams or more. If Peterson is limited, then Gerhart would need to stay on your bench. Still, given Peterson’s uncertain status for Week 13, we’re clapping. Verdict: Applaud

Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, Panthers – Stewart returned from injury and ran for 98 yards in the Panthers’ one-point loss to the Browns. But Goodson still got the start, and he totaled 136 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Our sense is that Goodson is now a flex play in leagues of 12 teams or more, while Stewart is a flex option only in leagues that are at least two teams bigger. It’ll be interesting to see if both players can remain effective going forward. We’d bet on Goodson over Stewart if forced to pick just one Panther. Verdict: Applaud for Goodson, A fraud for Stewart

Mike Tolbert, Chargers – Tolbert, who has been a scoring machine, had another touchdown with the Colts but perhaps more impressively rambled for 103 yards as well. Whenever Ryan Mathews is out, Tolbert is a must-start, and even if Mathews returns Tolbert can be a solid flex play because of his nose for the end zone. Verdict: Applaud

Jacoby Ford

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears – Bennett, Cutler’s old college teammate, caught two touchdowns against the Eagles. Bennett is behind Johnny Knox in the Chicago receiver pecking order, but he’s worth a pickup as a guy who can step up as an emergency fantasy contributor. Verdict: Applaud

Davone Bess, Dolphins – With Chad Henne returning to the lineup, Bess immediately returned to fantasy relevance with six catches for 111 yards. Whenever Henne is playing, Bess should be in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Jacoby Ford, Raiders– Ford, a rookie receiver out of Clemson, had a monster game against the Dolphins, catching four passes for 108 yards and a score, returning a kickoff 101 yards for a score, and rushing for 13 yards as a little bonus. Ford has now had 100-yard receiving games in two of three games and has two kickoff returns on the year. From watching a lot of Ford’s games in college, we can tell you he has sprinter speed but also football smarts and toughness, despite his slight size. He’s a player on the come, so grab him now and see just how good he can be. Verdict: Applaud

Jordy Nelson, Packers – The Donald Driver injury situation has opened the door for the Packers’ backup receivers to step up, and this week it was Nelson, not James Jones, that was the productive one. But Nelson’s 61-yard day, which included a touchdown, is not something you can expect every week simply because of the Pack’s deep list of options at the position. Verdict: A fraud

Ben Obamanu, Seahawks – With Mike Williams sidelined by injury, Obamanu had a huge game with five catches for 159 yards and a score. If Williams misses next week’s game, Obamanu is worth a start. Regardless, he should be picked up as a potential hot hand going into the fantasy playoffs. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Billy Bajema, Rams – Bajema had two touchdowns against the Broncos, but he had just three total touchdowns. He remains behind Michael Hoomanawanui (who also had a TD catch) and Daniel Fells in the Rams’ tight end depth chart, and that means Bajema isn’t worth a claim. Verdict: A fraud

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November 29, 2010 · 5:36 pm

Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 9

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

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

Running backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

Each week, we’ll comb through the stat sheets to identify fantasy football performances of note. Then we’ll try to analyze these performances to see if these players should be applauded or if they’re a one-week fraud. As we do this, we’ll focus on players that are start/sit decisions for most fantasy owners or players who are on many waiver wires. The reason for this is that we all know to applaud Drew Brees or Adrian Peterson, and so saying that doesn’t give fantasy owners insight they can act on. Note that not all verdicts mean the same thing. Some mean pick the player up or let him stay on the waiver wire; others mean start the player or leave him on your bench. The report beside each player spells out our thinking.

So here we go. If we forget anyone, feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll update to include them.

Quarterbacks

Brodie Croyle, Kansas City (177 passing yards, 2 touchdowns) – Don’t get fooled by Croyle’s appearance on the waiver wire this week. He was a fill-in for Matt Cassel, and so he should not be picked up. His stats do indicate that Cassel has some value as a fantasy backup quarterback this year, but that’s all you should take from Croyle’s Week One numbers. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Baltimore  (307 passing yards, 3 touchdowns) – Flacco had a huge opening game against Kansas City. The Chiefs’ defense is in major rebuilding mode, so these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But two of the Ravens we had most questions about – TE Todd Heap and WR Mark Clayton – both showed up for Flacco. Plus, Flacco showed that he’s continuing to grow as a quarterback. This extreme level of production is unreasonable to expect on a weekly basis, but Flacco is a top-20 fantasy quarterback who is moving quickly into the top 12 to 15. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks (279 passing yards, 3 TD) – After an injury-plagued season in ’08, Hasselbeck looks healthy once again, and he’s producing at the level he did back in the day. The Seahawks also have found an emerging weapon in second-year TE John Carlson, which only helps Hasselbeck’s cause. He’s a fantasy starter once again as long as he stays healthy. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

You can read our take on fantasy running backs in Week One on our Most Valuable Network blog. It’s found on MVN’s Football Wire.

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears (7 catches, 66 yards) – Bennett didn’t have a single catch as a rookie last year, but this year he got off to a big start playing with his former college teammate Jay Cutler. (He actually led the Bears in targets, according to Peter King.) Bennett won’t put up monster numbers, but he’s going to be a consistent producer who is probably worth owning in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Burleson, Seahawks (7 catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) – Burleson was the Seahawks’ most productive receiver in Week One, continuing an emergence that we saw during the preseason. He won’t surpass T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the long run, but Burleson showed that he is definitely ownable in fantasy leagues. As long as Hasselbeck stays healthy, Burleson has value. Verdict: Applaud

Patrick Crayton, Cowboys (4 catches, 135 yards, 1 TD) – There’s plenty of room for receivers to step up in Dallas with Terrell Owens gone, and Crayton stepped up in Week One. I’m still waiting to see if Crayton or Miles Austin (who also scored) becomes the No. 2 wideout behind Roy Williams, but this opening-game performance at least makes Crayton ownable while you watch to see how the competition shakes out. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Gage, Titans (7 catches, 78 yards, 1 TD) – We gave our thoughts on Gage in this post. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings (4 catches, 36 yards, 1 TD) – Harvin is a buzz-worthy rookie who people have fallen in love with, and he scored a touchdown in Week One to keep the hype machine going. I still wouldn’t start him yet, but he’s probably worth owning in your league as you wait and see over the next few weeks how consistent he can be with his production. Verdict: Applaud

Devery Henderson, Saints (5 catches, 103 yards, 1 TD) – The Saints’ receiving numbers were all jacked up because Drew Brees had such a monster game against the Lions in Week One. Henderson and Robert Meachem both caught TD passes, and it’s easy to pencil one of them in as the No. 2 receiver in Nola behind Marques Colston. But don’t forget about Lance Moore, and don’t get too eager to grab Henderson when he might be the No. 4 or even No. 5 receiver some weeks. The Saints’ depth of targets makes Henderson a risky claim at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Devin Hester, Bears (4 catches, 90 yards, 1 TD) – Hester is the Bears’ best outside receiver, and he showed in Week One that he can produce commensurate with that level. Given Jay Cutler’s ability to get the ball deep, Hester should be a borderline starter in most fantasy leagues of 10 teams or more. He should end the season as a top-30 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Antwaan Randle El, Redskins (7 catches, 98 yards) – Randle El was the Redskins’ leading receiver this week, but that’s not going to last. The Redskins are going to try to get production out of young receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, and Santana Moss is still the preferred target outside. Take a pass on the former college quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Laurent Robinson, Rams (5 catches, 87 yards) – Robinson was a training-camp phenom for the Rams after coming over via trade from Atlanta, and he backed up the hype with a solid Week One showing. Robinson isn’t a great fantasy producer, but he has enough upside to be worth noting and even worth picking up in larger leagues. He’s clearly one of the Rams’ top two receivers along with Donnie Avery. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Stokely, Broncos (1 catch, 87 yards, 1 TD) – Talk about a fluke fantasy star. While Stokely ended up posting a batch of fantasy points, it all came on the most unlikely of plays. Unless the Broncos offense starts going bonkers, Stokely (the No. 3 receiver behind Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall) isn’t worth a roster spot, unless your league has some crazy tip-drill-only rule. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

John Carlson, Seahawks (6 catches, 95 yards, 2 TDs) – Carlson had a solid rookie season and then a spectacular Week One. He’s among a big group of tight ends vying for top-10 status, and he’s going to end up winning. He’s a starter in any league that has a designated tight end spot. Verdict: Applaud

Brent Celek, Eagles (6 catches, 37 yards, 1 TD) – Celek is still an unknown, but he’s going to be the top tight end in an offense that’s traditionally tight-end friendly. I wouldn’t consider him a top-5 fantasy player, but he’s good enough to be a starter in a 12-team league, and he may end up in the top 10 – even with Alex Smith coming in just before the season and Donovan McNabb banged up right now. Celek is a quality fantasy option. Verdict: Applaud

Todd Heap, Ravens (5 catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) – It’s easy to forget the days just a few years ago when Heap was listed with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates as an elite fantasy tight end. Health has been his big issue. But if Heap is healthy, then he’s capable of putting up some nice fantasy days. He’s probably a top-15 tight end if healthy, with a chance to move into the top 10. That makes him a borderline starter but someone worth watching and owning. Verdict: Applaud

Dustin Keller, Jets (4 catches, 94 yards) – If Mark Sanchez is for real, then Keller will produce at the tight end spot. He’s another of the guys in the clump of tight ends between 5 and 15 who is starting-caliber in most fantasy leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Royal, Browns (4 catches, 60 yards, 1 TD) – Royal had a good first game, and he’s the best tight end option in Cleveland now that Kellen Winslow is in Tampa Bay. But there are so many good options at tight end that it’s hard to take the leap and pick up Royal at this point in the season. Congrats on a good game, but he hasn’t made himself fantasy relevant. Verdict: A fraud

Jeremy Shockey, Saints (4 catches, 31 yards, 2 TDs) – The good news is that Shockey looks healthy and that he now has his first TDs in a Saints uniform. But it’s hard to imagine Shockey putting up fantasy numbers with enough consistency to be a top-10 fantasy tight end. I’d much rather have Carlson than Shockey out of the two-TD tight ends from this week. Verdict: A fraud

Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers (5 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD) – Winslow isn’t a starting fantasy tight end, but he’s a good backup with upside still. He’s worth owning in most leagues, but he can’t be considered a top-10 fantasy tight end as long as slow-throwing Byron Leftwich is the quarterback in Tampa. Verdict: A fraud

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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