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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 4

Which fantasy football standouts from Week 4 do you need to trust, and which performances should you write off as unpredictable flukes? Each week we answer these questions by going through these performances and deciding whether to applaud or whether it’s a fraud. As always, with each verdict, we’ll give context for what it means.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Orton, Broncos – If you’re not on the Orton train yet, you should be. Orton threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns in Denver’s come-from-behind victory in Tennessee, and he’s already thrown for more than 1,400 yards, averaging 354 a game. He’s producing like a top-10 quarterback, so if you’re riding a borderline starter like Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, or Joe Flacco, making the move to Orton is the way to go. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis keeps getting better and better, as his 27-carry, 102-yard performance against the Bengals was his best of the season. Hillis has scored in every game this year, and he has claimed the Browns’ starting job. He’s a top-25 back at this point; don’t be afraid to start him. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Tolbert, Chargers – Tolbert had 16 carries for 100 yards and a score against the Cardinals, while stud rookie Ryan Mathews had just nine carries (for 55 yards and a score). Part of that was because of the blowout, and part was because the Chargers were easing Mathews back in after missing a game. But if Tolbert earns a split with Mathews in carries one more time, he’ll become a flex option in 12-team leagues. For now, though, owners can’t take the chance on starting Tolbert. Verdict: A fraud

LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – We haven’t been believers in Tomlinson, but he’s definitely showed some pop recently, including a 133-yard, two-TD game against the Bills this week. If you took the chance on Tomlinson, you should be starting him every week until he shows major signs of slowing down. On this one, we were wrong. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Ward, Texans – Ward came out of nowhere with an 80-yard, one-TD game against the Raiders, but he was in the lineup only because of discipline against Arian Foster. The performance shows that Ward is a solid handcuff for Foster owners, but anyone else should pass up Ward on the waiver wire because he’s not going to have these opportunities often. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Terrell Owens, Bengals – Owens finally broke out in Cincinnati with 10 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown, and although those numbers were inflated because the Bengals were trying to come back from a two-score deficit late, it’s a good sign for Owens owners. But we believe Owens needs to do it one more week before you can trust him as a regular starter. For now, he’s a matchup play, not a surefire fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal had eight catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, and he’s recovered from a disappointing 2009 season to be on pace for 100 catches and 1,196 yards. He’s once again a fantasy starter given his talent and the Broncos’ fling-it-around offense. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Stokley, Seahawks – In his first game with the Seahawks, Stokley had four catches for 62 yards. He’s going to have a role in the Seahawks’ offense, and that role will make him a top-40 receiver. He’s worth a waiver claim as a depth play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Joel Dreessen, Texans – In the supersleeper realm, Dreessen has some underrated value. He filled in for Owen Daniels this week and had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. He won’t keep his value once Daniels is healthy, but in Week 5 against the Giants, Dreessen could be a decent Hail Mary option in larger leagues. This applause is for 16-team leagues only, but don’t sleep on Dreessen. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, and he’s now on pace for a 1,000-yard season. If you’re looking for a bye-week fill-in at tight end, Miller’s a solid under-the-radar option. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 2

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

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

Running backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Rookie receivers

Last season was a surprising one for fantasy football owners, because the conventional wisdom failed. In the past, only truly elite rookie receivers were able to step in and make enough of an impact to be relevant for fantasy owners. But last season, many rookies – from Minnesota’s Percy Harvin to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks to Tennessee’s Kenny Britt to Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace to Indy’s Austin Collie – made fantasy impacts. So it’s worth fantasy owners’ time to take a closer look at this year’s crop of rookie receivers.

Now that we’ve broken down rookie running backs and their fantasy stock this season, we’re going to turn our attention to receivers – both wideouts and tight ends. In this post, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to indicate which receivers are worthy of being drafted. If a receiver is worthy of being drafted, we’ll indicate where in the post.

Just a reminder before we begin – you can search all our fantasy football coverage in this category.

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant was the hot receiver name going into the draft, and he’s Jerry Jones’ pet pick as the Playmaker 2.0. But what kind of fantasy option is he? Obviously, Miles Austin has emerged as a No. 1 receiver both on the field and on fantasy scoresheets. But Tony Romo has spread the ball around, and Bryant immediately becomes a better option than Patrick Crayton and the disappointing Roy Williams. Don’t get your head out over your skis too much on Bryant, because Austin and Jason Witten are still ahead of him in the pecking order. But a 60-catch, eight-TD season is well within the realm of possibility for Bryant, and that makes him a No. 3 fantasy receiver in 10- to 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Broncos – After the Broncos sent Brandon Marshall out of town, they rebuilt their receiving corps with two rookies.  Thomas, a first-round pick, is a speedy outside threat who played in such a run-heavy offense that he may face an adjustment period to the NFL. Decker was a super-productive receiver at Minnesota who has good size and runs good routes, but he’s recovering from a foot injury and sat out OTAs. That’s enough for us to rule out Decker on draft day, although we believe he could be a pick-up during the season. Thomas, meanwhile, is worth a shot as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver simply because the Broncos have so few other options that are attractive in Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokely, and Jabar Gaffney. Verdict: Applaud for Thomas; A fraud for Decker

Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Buccaneers – Like the Broncos, the Buccaneers overhauled their receiving corps in the offseason, and now Benn (a second-round pick) and Williams (a fourth-round pick) look like they have clear shots to starting berths. Holdovers Sammie Stroughter, Reggie Brown, and Michael Clayton aren’t great shakes, while Benn and Williams are both big talents. The question is whether an offense helmed by second-year QB Josh Freeman can produce enough numbers to make Benn and Williams fantasy producers and whether both rookies can emerge at the same time. It’s hard to answer those questions definitively, but the talent is good enough with both guys that we’d recommend drafting either Benn or Williams as your No. 5 receiver and seeing how well they emerge. Verdict: Applaud for both Benn and Williams.

Golden Tate, Seahawks – Tate, a second-round pick, is Pete Carroll’s handpicked receiver to be the Seahawks’ big-play threat. That’s something that the Seahawks don’t have with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch. Matt Hasselbeck has had success in Seattle, and Nate Burleson (a similar player to Tate) had some good numbers in the offense. So Tate is a great option for fantasy owners as a bench guy with lots of upside. As a No. 4 or No. 5 receivers, Tate is a great investment. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, Panthers – There’s plenty of opportunity for Carolina’s two third-round picks, because after Steve Smith the Panthers don’t have a proven receiving threat. The tricky thing is figuring out whether LaFell or Edwards will step ahead of the other receivers, and if so what that means for fantasy owners. I reserve the right to amend this guess after visiting Panthers training camp, but the guess for now is that Edwards will find more of a role as a slot receiver as well as a return man, and that will make him a top-60 receiver, while LaFell will fall just below that level. That makes Edwards draftable in 12-teams league and LaFell a guy I’d rather follow as a early-season claim. Verdict: Applaud for Edwards; A fraud for LaFell

Mardy Gilyard, Rams – Gilyard, the first pick in the fourth round of April’s draft, fell into an ideal situation to emerge as a fantasy receiver. After being a big-play guy at Cincinnati, Gilyard is probably the best receiving option the Rams have after Donnie Avery. Granted, the Rams’ passing game will struggle this season with rookie Sam Bradford sure to get plenty of snaps, but Gilyard could still be a 40-50 catch guy who provides value and some upside as a No. 5 receiver in leagues with at least 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – We discussed McCluster in our rookie RB post because he could have RB eligibility in some leagues. As strictly a receiver, McCluster looks to be a 40-catch guy who could end up being in the top 60 at the position in fantasy terms if he finds the end zone enough. So if you’re in a 12-team league or larger, McCluster could be worth a final-round shot, just to see how much of a role he earns. Verdict: Applaud

Damian Williams, Titans – Williams, a third-round pick, goes into a Titans offense that turned rookie Kenny Britt into a fantasy factor last year. But that receiving group is deeper than it was last year because of Britt’s emergence alongside Justin Gage and Nate Washington. That means Williams will struggle to find targets and end up below the draftable level for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Jordan Shipley, Bengals – Shipley was a do-everything slot receiver at Texas, and the third-round pick could find a similar role in Cincinnati. But we see another rookie as the better prospect for fantasy relevance with the Bengals (see below), and because of that view we see Shipley as more of a bit player. That will prevent him from having draft-worthy fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers – Sanders, a third-round pick by the Steelers, has an opportunity to step into a No. 3 receiver role in Pittsburgh behind Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. And fantasy owners know that role was fruitful for Wallace last season. But given the Steelers’ miserable QB situation in the first quarter of the season, our thought is to pass on Sanders in the draft and watch him as a pick-up prospect, especially once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – We raved about Gresham in the pre-NFL draft process, and he landed in a fantasy friendly offensve in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t gotten a lot of tight end production in recent years, but that’s been more of a personnel issue than a system issue. Gresham is a terrific receiver who should be the third receiving option behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, and that may be enough to find top-20 value at tight end. So in larger leagues, Gresham is worth drafting, and in keeper leagues he’s also worth a look because he could develop into a top-8 tight end within a couple of seasons. Verdict: Applaud

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Patriots – The Patriots cleared out their tight end corps in the offseason and drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez while signing only veteran Alge Crumpler, who’s mostly a blocker at this point in his career. New England has produced some tight end numbers under this offensive system, but they’ve usually been spread out among several players. If you had to pick one Pats tight end to draft in fantasy leagues this year, it would be Gronkowski, but he’s unlikely to break into the top 20 at tight end since it’s such a deep position at this point. So unless you’re in a mega league or a strong keeper league, neither Gronkowksi or Hernandez is draftable. Verdict: A fraud

Ed Dickson, Ravens – Dickson’s a nice prospect at tight end for the Ravens, but with Todd Heap still around, there’s not much room for Dickson to be a fantasy force this season. He’ll be on draft boards at some point in his career, but not this year. Verdict: A fraud

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Miami’s Marshall plan

Another day, another wide receiver trade as the Broncos finally peddled disgruntled but talented wideout Brandon Marshall to the Dolphins in exchange for second-round picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Below are some thoughts on the trade; you can see how it compares to other offseason deals in this again-updated post.

Marshall is as talented as any receiver in the league, but Denver tired of his petulant behavior and finally cut ties. Marshall’s troubles are connected to but not totally explained by his desire for a new deal, and with $24 million guaranteed in his new five-year, $50 million contract. If that’s the case, the Dolphins will be thrilled. They’re counting on Marshall to be a no-doubt No. 1 receiver, the kind of player the Fins haven’t had since Paul Warfield. At age 26, Marshall is entering his prime, and few receivers in any era have had three straight 100-catch seasons as Marshall has. Marshall gives young Miami QB Chad Henne a target that will speed his development, and Marshall’s presence will help guys like Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo move into roles that better suit their talents. On the field, this is a home run for Miami that moves the Dolphins toward contender status in the AFC East and beyond. Marshall just has to behave off the field. For Denver, getting two second-round picks for Marshall is fair value in today’s market. (For instance, the Ravens paid less to get Anquan Boldin.) Denver wanted to get rid of Marshall’s troublemaking, but they will struggle to replace his talent. Losing Jay Cutler and Marshall over the past two years has taken much of the explosiveness out of Josh McDaniels’ offense, and no scheme will completely replace it. Now guys like Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, and Kenny McKinley must emerge. Maybe one of those guys will be a revelation, but we doubt it. If Denver adds a draft pick like Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, this deal will make more sense. Until then, we can’t call it addition by subtraction.

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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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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Wide Receivers

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

We’ve already done this with the top 35 running backs and emerging running backs, both of which we covered last week. Now we turn to the top 35 receivers from our preseason draft board.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top wide receivers who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – It’s four games, four touchdowns for Fitzgerald, who had a two-score game in Week 5 to cement his status as a fantasy stud again this year. While Fitz hasn’t been the dominant force he was in the playoffs last year, he’s doing just fine as a No. 1 fantasy receiver. Expecting much more than this is just being greedy. Verdict: Applaud

2. Andre Johnson, Texans – Like Fitzgerald, Johnson had two TDs in Week 5, but his numbers actually look a bit better than Fitzgerald. Johnson is averaging 87 yards per game and has had two two-TD games. He’s also averaging a whopping 15.6 yards per catch. Aside from an average Week 1 performance, Johnson has been the fantasy bellweather that owners expected when they drafted him. Verdict: Applaud

3. Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson got off to a bit of slow start as rookie QB Matthew Stafford gained steam, and then a Week Five injury held him to just one two-yard catch against the Steelers. So Johnson’s numbers are not quite what fantasy owners expected, but he still has 325 receiving yards plus a bonus 37 yards rushing. Given his Week 5 injury, those numbers will do for a No. 1 fantasy wideout – just barely. We’ll clap, although if his current injury lingers we might have to reluctantly change our verdict. Verdict: Applaud

4. Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is averaging 73 yards a game, which is OK for a top receiver, but he has just one touchdown so far this season. The Tom Brady/Moss combo certainly isn’t what it was two years ago, which may be leaving some fantasy owners struggling. This is another marginal call for a top receiver, but we’ll clap based on Moss’ solid yardage total. Verdict: Applaud

5. Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith suffered through Jake Delhomme’s Week One meltdown, and the Panthers’ offensive woes have held him to 259 yards from scrimmage in four games. Even worse, his first and only score of the season was a two-point conversion in Week 5 against the Redskins. It’s certainly not his fault, but you just can’t praise what Smith has provided fantasy owners thus far. Even worse, you can’t project that much more going forward. Smith is not a No. 1 fantasy wideout this year. Verdict: A fraud

6. Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings has had a weird year. He had 106 yards in Week One, and then didn’t catch a pass in Week 2. He had 103 yards on just two catches in Week 3, and then had just 31 yards in Week Four. The overall yards-per-game total is OK for Jennings – 60 yards per game – but his wild inconsistency and lack of scoring (one TD plus a two-pointer) leaves him just short of applause. This year, he looks more like a good No. 2 fantasy receiver with upside than a true No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: A fraud

7. Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has been the most consistent fantasy wideout thus far this year, and his totals of 95 yards per game and four total touchdowns are nearly the best in the league. In only one game has Wayne had less than 60 receiving yards, which means you can rely on him for big numbers week after week. Clap it up for the No. 1 overall fantasy receiver thus far and going forward. Verdict: Applaud

8. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals – After a sorry Week One, in which he had just 19 yards receiving, Boldin has had at least 69 receiving yards in the last three games. He has just one touchdown, but his total of 252 yards is fine four games into the season. He’ll need to get in the end zone more often to draw season-long applause, but we’re clapping for now. Verdict: Applaud

9. Roddy White, Falcons – After a so-so start to the season, White had a huge Week 5 against the Seahawks with 210 yards and two touchdowns. Now his season totals of 329 yards and three TDs put him among the top fantasy receivers in the game. That’s his rightful place – as a solid No. 1 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

10. Terrell Owens, Bills – I kept moving Owens down my rankings in the preseason, to the point where I had him as a borderline No. 1 receiver, but I couldn’t imagine him bottoming out the way he has thus far. He was completely shut out in Week 3 and has just 12 catches in five games, and he’s averaging just 40 yards per game with a single touchdown in Week 2. Owens is barely startable in leagues that have three WR spots in the lineup. You can’t clap for that. Verdict: A fraud

11. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks – Houshmandzadeh is another wideout who started slow, but he has a 100-yard game and then a two-TD game in his last two outings. He’s averaging 65 yards per game, even though starting QB Matt Hasselbeck missed two games and much of a third. Plus, the arrow is pointing up at this point. Houshmandzadeh looks like he’s going to be a solid No. 2 fantasy wideout going forward. Given this draft position, that kind of production works just fine. Verdict: Applaud

12. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Bowe will give you heartburn because he seems to catch his TD passes late in games when it appears like he’ll be a fantasy bust. But the bottom line is that he has scored touchdowns in three of the four games he played, and in each of those games he had at least four catches. He missed Week 3 due to injury and had just one catch the following week when he still wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but when he’s been right he’s been an acceptable fantasy starter because of his touchdowns. So while it’s a little nerve-wracking to do so, we’ll clap for him as a No. 2 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

13. Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the de facto No. 1 receiver in New Orleans’ high-powered offense, but the Saints have so many threats that it’s hard to get consistent production out of any single player. Colston comes closest, with 228 yards and three touchdowns in four games thus far. But he’s also been held under 35 receiving yards in two of those four games. That keeps Colston from being a No. 1 fantasy receiver, but he’s a quality No. 2 fantasy wideout who can throw up big numbers any week. Verdict: Applaud

14. Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Jackson established himself as an every-week starter in fantasy leagues last year, and this year he’s taken the leap to being a No. 1 guy. His worst games are 56-yard efforts, and he’s totalled 373 yards in four games total. Plus, he has two touchdowns. He’s emerging as a No. 1 fantasy force, and that’s reason for a standing ovation. Verdict: Applaud

15. Braylon Edwards, Jets – Had we done this analysis last week, Edwards would have been judged a fraud with no hope for the rest of the season. But now that he’s been traded to the Jets, there’s reason for hope. Edwards had five catches for 64 yards and a score in his first game in green, and it looks like he’s immediately stepping in as a red-zone and down-field threat. And that’s even before he masters the offense. So while Edwards has had two awful fantasy games and has just 15 catches on the season and is averaging just 40 yards per game, we’ll applaud him based on what we expect going forward. He should at least be a regular fantasy starter now that he’s a Jet all the way. Verdict: Applaud

16. Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s litany of off-season transgressions impeded his fantasy value entering the season, and owners were right to have questions about his role even though his talent was undeniable. But the trend is undoubtedly pointing up at this point. In each of the last three games, Marshall has had at least 70 yards from scrimmage and at least one touchdown . Those are No. 1 fantasy receiver numbers. Now that Kyle Orton has proven he can put up some numbers in Josh McDaniels’ offense, Marshall is a No. 1 fantasy wideout as he has been the past couple of years. Verdict: Applaud

17. Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker had a huge game with 12 catches for 93 yards in Week One, and then he missed the next two games due to injury. But last week he appeared to be fully back with eight catches for 86 yards and a score against the Broncos. So while Welker has been a bust so far for fantasy owners because he missed so much time, he’s now back to being a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver. You can expect the same going forward. Verdict: Applaud

18. Roy Williams, Cowboys – Some penciled Williams in as a top No. 2 fantasy wideout, but I was skeptical entering the season. That skepticism was justified. He missed Week 5 with an injury, but before that he had two good games with at least 75 receiving yards and two games with 35 yards or less. Plus, he has just one touchdown on the season. Even though I was down on Williams, I wasn’t down enough. He’s no more than a No. 3 fantasy receiver going forward. Verdict: A fraud

19. DeSean Jackson, Eagles – I was high on Jackson before the year, ranking him as a borderline No. 2 wideout instead of as the No. 3 fantasy WR that most lists slated him to be. Thus far, that gamble has more or less paid off. He has just 13 catches in four games, but in two games he had more than 115 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and he added a return touchdown in Week One. He’s averaging 77 yards from scrimmage per game, which is quality production. While DJax isn’t a great player in a point-per-catch league, he’s been a solid fantasy stud. Last week’s one-catch, one-yard performance is a red flag, but we’ll consider that an anomaly until we see it again. Verdict: Applaud

20. Santana Moss, Redskins – Moss started really slow, with 5 catches for 41 yards in the first two games combined. But since then, he’s taken off with two really good games and a so-so game in Week 5. Moss’ unpredictability keeps him from being a sure-fire every week start, but if he’s a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver for your team, you’re in OK shape. That means we’ll clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

21. Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – I was down on ol’ 8-5 coming into the season, but Chad has rebounded to once again become a No. 1 fantasy receiver. He’s averaging 70 yards per game, and in his one paltry yardage game (24 yards vs. Cleveland), he scored two touchdowns. So he’s provided consistent production. So if you drafted Ochocinco here, or even as the No. 10 or No. 12 overall receiver, you’ve gotten all you wanted and then some. Give Chad some attention, because he deserves applause from fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

22. Eddie Royal, Broncos – While Brandon Marshall is emerging, Royal has yet to come close to matching his ’08 production. I moved Royal up in the preseason as I started moving Marshall down, so Royal probably should have ended up around No. 30 at receiver before the opener given the uncertainty about Kyle Orton. But even at that marginal No. 3 starter level, his production – 18 catches for 148 yards and just one touchdown in five games – is lacking. He’s a good player, but the production has yet to earn applause. He may turn it around, but we can’t clap yet. Verdict: A fraud

23. Bernard Berrian, Vikings – When Brett Favre signed, we figured that Berrian would follow up on his sneaky good ’08 fantasy season by becoming a starting-caliber receiver. But Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin seem to be getting as many looks as Berrian is, and Berrian hasn’t produced by numbers. He has just 19 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown. Those aren’t starting-caliber receiver numbers, and the way the Vikings’ passing game is spreading things out, it’s hard to see Berrian stepping things up big time. So we can’t clap for him here. Verdict: A fraud

24. Lance Moore, Saints – Moore had a great season last year, but injuries have limited him to just three catches so far in ’09. Even though he’s missed one full game and been limited in others, we can’t clap. Moore might be a sleeper pickup going forward, but projecting him anywhere near a starting lineup is farfetched right now. Verdict: A fraud

25. Santonio Holmes, Steelers – After the ’08 playoffs, it seemed as though Holmes was emerging as the Steelers’ top receiver. But Hines Ward is among the league leaders in receiving yards right now, and rookie Mike Wallace is filling the Nate Washington role to give Pittsburgh a legit No. 3 receiver. Those factors, plus a few drops, have held down Holmes’ value. He’s averging 67 receiving yards per game, which is OK, but he has just one touchdown. At this draft position, Holmes needed to be starting quality, and he’s just a hair below that level. So this is a close verdict. And since we’re being generous, close points to clapping – barely. Verdict: Applaud

26. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant had a ridiculously season coming out of nowhere last year, and we were skeptical he could repeat it and be a No. 1 fantasy receiver again. So we put Bryant as a No. 3 receiver. But he has not yet even been that. He missed Week Two and had just three catches through Week 3, but he is coming on at least a little bit with nine catches for 106 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. So that’s a sign of hope, but it’s not reason for applause, even at this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

27. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets – Cotchery ended up in this spot because he was an above-average receiver who was the default No. 1 option with the Jets. He delivered on that status early, with at least four catches for at least 71 yards in each of the first four games. He’s battling a hamstring now, which limited him to one catch for four yards, and now that Braylon Edwards is in town Cotchery’s role will slip, but we’ll clap for what he’s done so far. Cotchery was a terrific No. 2 fantasy receiver for the first quarter of the season, and he’ll be a solid No. 3 fantasy wideout the rest of the way. Verdict: Applaud

28. Lee Evans, Bills – We figured Evans was so good that he would maintain at least decent fantasy production even with Terrell Owens coming to town. But as the Bills’ offense has bottomed out, Evans’ numbers have been awful. He’s averaging just 52 yards per game, and he has just one touchdown. Even worse, he has more than 32 yards in just one game. Evans is still a talent, but his bad situation keeps him from being anywhere close to a fantasy starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

29. Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter missed the first two games of the season due to injury, and since returning he has been up and down. He had a huge first game with seven catches for 96 yards and a score, but his next two weeks have averaged just 39 yards per game. Walter still should emerge as a No. 3 fantasy wideout given the Texans’ prolific offense, but he hasn’t yet, and so we can’t clap. Verdict: A fraud

30. Torry Holt, Jaguars – When he moved to Jacksonville, it appeared that Holt would be the Jags’ No. 1 receiver. But Mike Sims-Walker has assumed that role, keeping Holt’s value down. In the four games he’s played with Sims-Walker, Holt has had between 42 yards and 65 yards. He did break out in Week 5 with a 95-yard game, but that was because Sims-Walker was suspended. Holt hasn’t scored this year either. Holt’s worth owning, but he shouldn’t end up in your starting lineup unless the injury bug bites you multiple times in a single week. Verdict: A fraud

31. Hines Ward, Steelers – We downgraded Ward because we figured he had to slow down at some point, and we thought Santonio Holmes was ready to surpass him. But that hasn’t happened. Ward is fourth in the league with 440 receiving yards so far, and he scored his first touchdown last week. Ward is once again a solid fantasy starter and deserving of your applause. Verdict: Applaud

32. Laveranues Coles, Bengals – Coles has been a solid fantasy receiver for many years, and we figured that moving to the Bengals he would fall into the No. 2 role behind Chad Ochocinco. But Coles is behind Chris Henry and even Andre Caldwell in the Cincy WR pecking order, and his numbers have plummeted. He has just 10 catches for 78 yards through five games, and has just one touchdown. He’s not even ownable in fantasy leagues right now. It looks like the big contract the Bengals gave Coles isn’t going to pay off. Verdict: A fraud

33. Donald Driver, Packers – I’ve never been a Driver fan, even as he’s put up big fantasy numbers. This year, I projected him as just a marginal No. 3 fantasy wideout, but he once again has been better than I expected. He has at least four catches in every game and is averaging 72 yards per game. He also has two touchdowns. Those are No. 2 fantasy receiver numbers and good value for where he was drafted. Verdict: Applaud

34. Derrick Mason, Ravens – Mason was one of the hardest guys to rate before the season because he retired and then unretired. Still, we slated him as the Ravens’ best receiver and a marginal No. 3 fantasy guy. He has been the Ravens’ best receiver, and through five games he has 284 yards and two touchdowns. Even though he took a bagel in the catch column in Week 5, Mason has been a solid starting option given where he was drafted. And with Joe Flacco really emerging as a fantasy producer at quarterback, Mason should continue to have solid fantasy value. Verdict: Applaud

35. Devin Hester, Bears – We figured that with Jay Cutler in Chicago, someone had to emerge as a fantasy relevant receiver. We pegged Hester as the guy with the best opportunity for that, but the truth is that Cutler has spread the ball around using Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Greg Olsen, and even Kellen Davis. Hester has OK numbers through four games, with 189 yards and two touchdowns. But he’s had two great fantasy games and two horrible games. As a No. 3 fantasy receiver, he’s a boom or bust guy in your starting lineup, but this far down the draft order, that’s actually OK. Hester probably has 4-6 huge games left in him this season, and although it may be frustrating trying to find those games, that’s reason enough to clap for him at this draft position. Verdict: Applaud

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