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Cowboys/Broncos thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week 4 game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Denver won the game 17-10.

On-field
*The Cowboys have a lot of quality offensive weapons. In fact, with their offensive line and their stable of backs, Dallas should be a run-first juggernaut, much like the Panthers were last year. But you have to wonder whether coordinator Jason Garrett is willing to move that way as a play-caller. But a run-first approach would feature Marion Barber and Tashard Choice (as well as Felix Jones, when he gets healthy again) and allow Roy Williams to be a down-field threat and Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett to be mid-field threats via play-action. This kind of approach best fits the Cowboys’ offensive line as well, because they would be able to use their size to their advantage. It would also cover up the lack of depth Dallas has at wide receiver behind Williams.
*Moreover, leaning into their running strengths would allow the Cowboys to take pressure off of Tony Romo, who isn’t playing up to his physical gifts right now. He made killer mistakes that cost the Cowboys a Denver touchdown and a scoring chance of their own, but Romo was precise throwing the ball most of the time. He’s good with no pressure on him but seems to wilt under the pressure too often. If the Cowboys ran more, it would take some pressure off Romo and perhaps let him get his feet back under him.
*This is my first extended look at the Broncos’ defense, and I’m more impressed than I thought I’d be. OLB-DE Elvis Dumervil, who had his seventh and eighth sacks of the season, is quick and determined on the pass rush. The one thing the Broncos’ front seven has is speed, and that made for a bad matchup in pass protection for Dallas’ huge but slow offensive line in pass-rush situation. But Dallas’ line did a good job on several screen passes of making outside blocks to spring big plays.
*Rookie OLB Robert Ayers, one of Denver’s first-round picks this year who plays beside Dumervil on many passing downs, is downright tiny and will have to put on weight to be a force, but he is quick off the edge.
*The play Knowshon Moreno made on his second-quarter touchdown catch shows why the Broncos wanted to draft him even though he didn’t fit a need. Moreno is extremely talented, and Denver could build its offense around him if it wanted. It just doesn’t seem as though Josh McDaniels wants a run-first team revolving around a bell-cow back. Of course, Correll Buckhalter is a good player as well, so using both guys makes sense. But Denver could and should get more out of Moreno.
*Denver’s passing game, though, is less than the sum of its parts. Part of that is because Kyle Orton is OK but not special as a quarterback. He’s not able to utilize WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal the way strong-armed Jay Cutler was last year.
*Brandon Marshall can cause his share of trouble, but you saw at the end of the game why the Broncos haven’t cut the cord. Marshall’s leaping catch and then double-cutback run for the game-winning touchdown was a jaw-dropping play, and it indicates just how talented Marshall is.
*It’s not fair that Denver’s Matt Prater gets to kick off at altitude eight times a year. Combine his strong leg with the Mile High altitude, and you get the strange sight of Dallas RS Miles Austin standing five yards deep (in the stranger sight – the diamond-patterned end zone) to receive the kick. Prater becomes a field-position weapon for the Broncos on kickoffs in home games like this one.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*There are few things better as a fantasy owner than watching Marion Barber run as hard as he did and push the pile into the end zone as he did on his first-quarter touchdown. He’s a hard-nosed runner who’s a sure-fire starter as long as he’s healthy. The problem with his running style is that it keeps him from being healthy all the time.
*I like the skill set of both Broncos RBs, Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, but neither seems to be enough of a focal point to make them fantasy starters week to week. But both are good players, and they’re worth having on your roster because they’re decent options if you get in a bye-week or injury-caused pinch.
*I wouldn’t want to have to rely on any of the receivers from this game. For Dallas, Roy Williams simply isn’t a true go-to guy, which means Dallas won’t rely on him. And the other receivers – Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin, and Sam Hurd – are as unimpressive as any 2-3-4 combo in the league. Even Jason Witten, a terrific player, is losing numbers because defenses can focus on him – to the point that I might start looking for a replacement if I owned him. For Denver, Orton’s not able to make full use of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, and so their numbers suffer as well. None of these receivers, as talented as Williams or Marshall or Royal are, are among the top 20 fantasy wideouts, and only Marshall can make an argument to be in the top 25. He’s worth a shot in most leagues because he can break a big play, but I wouldn’t center my team around him.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

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

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

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

Running backs

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Regime change survivors

One of the biggest factors of a player’s fantasy football success is the offensive system he plays in. So as a service, we thought we’d go through the teams that are changing regimes this season and analyze how these changes should affect the relevant fantasy performers on each team. Where we’ve discussed players in more detail, we’ll include a link to our previous discussion. These offensive regime changes include teams with new head coaches as well as some teams with new offensive coordinators.

As always, you can read all sorts of other fantasy football analysis in our fantasy football category tag. And we have to give thanks to this site for a current list of offensive coordinators.

In this post, we’ve made some intentional omissions:
*With the Jets, Brian Schottenheimer survived the coaching change, and so that offense will look quite similar
*The Saints replaced Doug Marrone (now the Syracuse head coach) with Pete Carmichael Jr. but should run the same system
*The Patriots didn’t replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, but Bill Belichick and his lieutenants will keep the same offensive system in place
*The Seahawks, moving from Mike Holmgren’s regime to Jim Mora’s, will still run a similiar West Coast style of offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Arizona (from Todd Haley to Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm/Mike Miller) – Now that Haley has gone to become the head man in Kansas City, Whisenhunt will probably look to become a little more proficient running the ball in Arizona. Grimm, like Whisenhunt an ex-Steelers assistant, will be the run-game coordinator, and Miller is the passing game coordinator. This shouldn’t affect the numbers of QB Kurt Warner or WRs Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin much – call them floats– but WR Steve Breaston’s numbers will likely sink a little, while rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who will surpass Tim Hightower as a fantasy option, looks like the main beneficiary of this regime change.
*More on Fitzgerald here
*More on Boldin here
*More on Breaston and Hightower here
*More on Wells here

Cleveland (from Rob Chudinski to Brian Draboll) – This change is hard to quantify, but it probably pushes the Browns just a bit more conservative. It’s hard to know what to think of the Browns anyway, because QBs Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are fighting for a job. But this should cause WR Braylon Edwards’ numbers to sink a bit, and could help RB Jamal Lewis’ numbers rise if he’s not in too much physical decline.

Denver (from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy) – This is a pretty significant change from Shanahan’s more wide open West Coast style offense to a more mixed New England-style offense. McCoy comes from Carolina, where he was QB coach in a run-run-run offense. This (plus the change from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at QB) will cause the numbers of WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to sink just a bit. TE Tony Scheffler will see an even bigger sink in his numbers. The beneficiary is rookie RB Knowshon Moreno and, to a lesser degree, ex-Eagle Correll Buckhalter.
*More on Orton and Buckhalter here
*More on Marshall here
*More on Royal here
*More on Moreno here
*More on Scheffler here

Detroit (from Jim Coletto to Scott Linehan) – The Lions’ offense was pretty much a train wreck last year, as was everything else in an 0-16 season. In comes Linehan, who bombed out as a head coach in St. Louis but who has a good record as a coordinator in Minnesota and Miami. He’s more prone to pass than Coletto was, and that should help the numbers across the offense work well. At quarterback, neither Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper is a great prospect, because neither will likely play all 16 games. But Calvin Johnson remains a stud whose numbers will float, and one of the receiver additions, Dennis Northcutt or Bryant Johnson, could see his numbers rise if he can seize a starting job. Plus, Kevin Smith’s numbers, which weren’t terrible fantasy-wise in ’08, could rise at least a little.
*More on Smith here
*More on Calvin Johnson here
*More on Bryant Johnson and Northcutt here
*More on Stafford here

Indianapolis (from Tom Moore to Clyde Christensen) – The Colts should run the same system – Christensen has been on the staff for years, and Moore did a runaround on the NFL’s new pension system for coaches by becoming a consultant. So the changes here will be minor. You can expect the numbers of QB Peyton Manning, WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark to basically float. RB Joseph Addai’s numbers will sink because of the addition of Donald Brown, while WR Anthony Gonzalez’s numbers will rise because of the departure of Marvin Harrison.
*More on Manning here
*More on Wayne here
*More on Clark here
*More on Addai here
*More on Brown and WR Austin Collie here

Kansas City (from Chan Gailey to Todd Haley/Gailey) – Gailey survived the coaching change in K.C., but with Haley now serving as head coach we should see a little different offensive system for the Chiefs. By the end of the year, Gailey was basically running a spread-type system that used the running talents of QB Tyler Thigpen and also let him fling the ball around. If the Chiefs are better this year, you have to think they’ll play it a little more conservatively, which would bode well for RB Larry Johnson. If Johnson plays the full year, his numbers should rise from his 874-yard, 5-touchdown campaign in 2008. WR Dwayne Bowe’s numbers should continue to rise just a bit, if for no other reason than the fact that import Matt Cassel is better than Thigpen. Look for Mark Bradley’s numbers to rise a little bit as well, and we’ve already predicted that free-agent addition Bobby Engram’s stats will float. Engram actually could fill the reliable role that Tony Gonzalez held for so many years in K.C. Cassel’s numbers should float in Haley’s pass-friendly system as well. All in all, the Chiefs should be a fantasy-friendly team this year.
*More on Cassel here
*More on Engram here 
*More on Bowe here

Oakland (from Lane Kiffin/Greg Knapp to Ted Tollner) – Good luck trying to describe the Raiders’ offense last year – best I can tell, it was more or less a West Coast offense approach, given Knapp’s history. And good luck trying to even identify the offensive leader this year – Tollner is passing game coordinator, Paul Hackett is quarterback coach, and there is no run game coordinator. But given the fact that head coach Tom Cable is an offensive line coach, and given Al Davis’ history, we can expect a run-friendly offense with deep passing. That means Darren McFadden is ready for his numbers to rise, especially if he stays healthy. McFadden’s just too good not to get a bunch of carries. If he does, as we expect, then Michael Bush and Justin Fargas will see their numbers sink. Passing wise, don’t expect too much out of JaMarcus Russell, who could lose snaps to Jeff Garcia. That could cause Russell’s modest numbers to sink even a bit more. Meanwhile, TE Zach Miller’s numbers should rise a little bit – he won’t have just one touchdown again – and Darrius Heyward-Bey actually has good fantasy potential for a rookie receiver.
*More on Miller here
*More on Heyward-Bey here

St. Louis (from Scott Linehan to Pat Shurmur) – Linehan is a quality offensive coordinator, but his head-coaching tenure was a disaster. Now the rams are under the system installed by Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ QB coach. His pedigree (his uncle Fritz was a longtime Mike Holmgren aide) indicates a pedigree in the West Coast offense. The Rams have completely reworked their offense, letting stalwarts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce go. It should center around RB Steven Jackson, whose numbers should at least float. QB Marc Bulger is coming off a horrendous season, and if he can stay healthy his numbers will rise, but not enough to make him a fantasy starter. He’s not even really a feasible backup in most fantasy leagues. The only other Ram who is draftable is WR Donnie Avery, who had a decent first season and could see his numbers rise if he can up his touchdown total from the three he tallied in ’08.
*More on Jackson here

San Francisco (from Mike Martz to Jimmy Raye) – The 49ers had a pass-happy system under Martz last year, at least until Mike Singletary took over. Now Singletary will revert to a more old-school, pro-style offense that will feature lots of running and short passing. That means that RB Frank Gore’s numbers should float and that rookie Glen Coffee is worth a look late in the draft. The quarterback situation is still a battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, so watch to see who wins the war before investing in one of them as a sleeper. At receiver, Michael Crabtree is a draftable prospect (as long as he doesn’t hold out too long) and either Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones could emerge as a quality fantasy backup. And while TE Vernon Davis isn’t draftable at this point, he’s a fantasy sleeper to watch if he finds more of a role in the 49ers’ new system.
*More on Gore here
*More on Crabtree and Coffee here

Tampa Bay (from Jon Gruden to Jeff Jagodinski) – Gruden fancied himself an offensive guru who used a high-flying offense, but new coordinator Jeff Jagodinski will likely be a bit more conservative. That means that breakout WR Antonio Bryant’s numbers will likely sink, and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow’s numbers will rise only because he missed time with injury last year. At running back, both Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are draftable, but the fact that they’re splitting carries is nettlesome for fantasy owners. We expect Ward’s numbers to sink and Graham’s to sink as well given the new split, which should be almost 50-50. QB Byron Leftwich’s numbers will rise because he should start some games, but don’t rely on him too heavily because rookie Josh Freeman is in the wings and could see time in the second half of the season.
*More on Bryant and Ward here
*More on Leftwich and Mike Nugent here
*More on Graham here
*More on Winslow here

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Fantasy Football: Applaud or a Fraud?

We’re going to play another one of our site games here as we continue our fantasy football preparation. In this post, we’re going to look at several of the breakout players from 2008 and see whether we should applaud them or consider them fantasy frauds for 2009. These are judgments of fantasy football value, not of a player’s ability or contribution to his NFL team. Feel free to leave comments with other guys you’d like included in this post, and we’ll update it as we go forward.

Note: Some guys who fit this category have been analyzed elsewhere. For example, you can read about Steve Slaton, DeAngelo Williams, and Chris Johnson in this post. You can find that and all of our other ’09 fantasy football coverage  through this category link.

QB Matt Cassel, Chiefs – After taking over for Tom Brady last year, Cassel had a supersolid year, throwing for nearly 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns, with two rushing TDs added in for good measure. Cassel is moving on to Kansas City, which at first seems like a recipe for fantasy irrelevance. He’s a fantasy sleeper, though, because he has a top-flight receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and the Chiefs’ new head coach Todd Haley proved he could put together a pass-happy offense in Arizona last year. Cassel isn’t a fantasy starter, so we can’t clap for him, but he’s an intriguing backup option in most leagues. We give this verdict with our fingers crossed. Verdict: A fraud

QB Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers had been a so-so fantasy quarterback for two seasons before exploding last year with 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns. Those are elite numbers, and the fact that he did it for the first time leads to the question of whether he can do it again. Here’s why we say yes. First, he continues to build experience with coach Norv Turner, who has his faults as a head coach but is money tutoring quarterbacks. Secondly, Rivers finally got an elite receiver last year because Vincent Jackson emerged as a true No. 1 threat. With Jackson, TE Antonio Gates, and RBs LaDanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, Rivers has plenty of places to throw the ball. With all that going for him, Rivers should be a top-8 fantasy quarterback yet again. Verdict: Applaud

QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – Rodgers waited and waited and waited his turn in Green Bay while Brett Favre changed and unchanged and changed his mind again. Finally, the Packers went with Rodgers, and he delivered with 4,000 yards, 28 passing TDs, and 4 rushing TDs. Rodgers has an elite target in Greg Jennings, and there’s a lot of receiver depth in Green Bay as well. Rodgers might not be a top-5 fantasy quarterback, but he’s definitely a top-10 guy at his position. That’s worth a hand clap. Verdict: Applaud

RB Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson was a bust with the Bears after being a top-5 pick in the NFL draft, but after signing with Cincinnati during the ’08 season, he finished with 747 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games. That projects to a 1,000-yard season and begs the question of whether Benson is back as a fantasy consideration. He’s certainly not a top-20 back, but the RB crop drops off so quickly that Benson becomes a consideration rather quickly. For a guy who was completely off the radar in last year’s draft, Benson has put himself back on the list. So while we’re not giving him a standing ovation, we can muster at least a golf clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

RB T.J. Duckett, Seahawks – Duckett only had 172 rushing yards last year, but in his short-yardage role he scored a whopping eight touchdowns. That role is very unpredictable, and so predicting another eight touchdowns in ’09 is flatly unwise. Draft Duckett at your own risk. Verdict: A fraud

RB Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower broke out as a fantasy back last year, beating out Edgerrin James for a primary back role. But after winning the job, he ended up struggling, and he finished with just 399 rushing yards. He did score 10 touchdowns on the season. Hightower doesn’t have to contend with James anymore, but he will have to outman Chris “Beanie” Wells for carries. The guess here is that Wells will win that race and that Hightower’s touchdown total takes a significant dip in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

RB Le’Ron McClain, Ravens – The Ravens’ backfield was a mess from a fantasy perspective, as McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice all had games in which they were the primary ball carrier. McClain, who entered the year as a backup fullback, ended up with the best fantasy numbers after piling up 902 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. But in ’09, I wouldn’t want to rely on McClain as a fantasy starter or even as my primary backup at the position, because it’s much more likely that Rice ends up as Baltimore’s best fantasy producer at running back. So while McClain has some skills and might be a good guy in the locker room, I don’t think I want him on my fantasy team. Verdict: A fraud

RB Kevin Smith, Lions – As a fourth-round NFL draft pick last year, Smith emerged as Detroit’s top running back. He started 12 games and rushed for 976 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those aren’t great fantasy numbers, but given how pathetic the Lions were around him, they’re an acceptable rookie showing. The question is whether Smith can take a step forward this year. The Lions might not be completely sold on him, but given the other running back options around Detroit this year, Smith is still the one Lions back you should consider. Plus, the offensive line got a lot of veteran help in the offseason, which should bode well for Smith’s numbers. Smith should end up as a top-25 back, and we’ll give him a bit of a clap for that. Verdict: Applaud

RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart had a strong rookie year, rushing for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns even though he was clearly the No. 2 option behind DeAngelo Williams. It’s hard to see the Panthers ending up with 30-plus rushing touchdowns again in ’09, but Stewart should still be a productive fantasy back. He’s not going to pile up a lot of yardage numbers – that’s more of Williams’ forte – but he is the better short-yardage option, and that should pad his touchdown total. We can see him accumulating 800 rushing yards and 8 TDs again, and that makes him a legitimate fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas, an undrafted free agent a few years back, has slowly estabished himself as a legitimate NFL back. In 2007, he beat out draft pick Antonio Pittman to make the Saints, and in 2008 he surpassed long-time Saint Deuce McAllister to become the Saints’ primary back. Now Thomas pairs with Reggie Bush to form the Saints backfield. Thomas finished the year with 625 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns, and he’s being listed as a top-20 fantasy running back going into 2009. But it would be a mistake to take Thomas that high. His yardage total should tick upward, perhaps to 800 yards or so, but his touchdown number looks suspicious. I think he’s much more likely to score 6 times than he is to score 10-12 times. I don’t see Thomas as a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

RB Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – Ward was part of the Giants’ Earth, Wind, and Fire backfield last year, and thanks to a late-season injury to Brandon Jacobs, he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards. But he only had two touchdowns, and in the offseason he moved to Tampa Bay to team with Earnest Graham. It seems to me that Ward and Graham are basically equal partners in the RB tandem in Tampa, and if Cadillac Williams can get healthy – and that’s a monstrous if – Ward’s carries will decline a bit more. Ward may be the best fantasy back in Tampa this year, but he’s not a fantasy starter. I smell a 700-yard, 4-TD season. So from a fantasy perspective, we have a verdict. Verdict: A fraud

WR Steve Breaston, Cardinals – Breaston, Arizona’s third receiver, exploded last year with 77 catches for 1,006 yards. He also had three touchdowns. But those numbers were padded during the 2 1/2 games when Anquan Boldin was out last year. So we can expect a step back from Breaston to more of the 700-yard range. So while he’s draftable in fantasy leagues, he’s not even a strong backup option in most leagues. He will not match his ’08 numbers in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

WR Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers – Bryant had gone through a star-crossed career and had missed the entire 2007 season before Tampa gave him a chance last season. That gamble paid off big time, as Bryant totaled 83 catches for 1,248 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Bucs then slapped the franchise tag, paying more than $8 million on Bryant to keep him for 2009. Bryant enters the season as Tampa’s No. 1 receiver option. However, it would be crazy to expect another monster season from him. Bryant has talent, but his reliability is still a question. Plus, the Bucs have a new quarterback situation, and so Bryant will be catching balls from Byron Leftwich or perhaps rookie Josh Freeman. And there’s a new coaching staff too. All that makes a repeat of Bryant’s breakout especially unlikely. Verdict: A fraud

WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson broke through the usual rookie receiver wall, catching 65 passes for 912 yards and scoring four total touchdowns. Now he is Philly’s No. 1 receiving option, with rookies Jeremy Maclin and TE Cornelius Ingram likely to support. That means Jackson will get his chances, and when he gets his hands on the ball, he’ll take advantage. Don’t rate Jackson too highly, but he’s between 20 and 25 on the fantasy WR list. That makes him a starter in most leagues and causes us to give him a hand. Verdict: Applaud

WR Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Jackson didn’t get a lot of pub last year, but he had a terrific season, emerging as Rivers’ No. 1 option and totalling almost 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. He only had 59 catches, which is a little low for a No. 1 wideout, especially on a pass-happy team like the Chargers. I expect that catch number to increase to 65-70 this year, and if that happens, Jackson’s numbers could actually go up. He’s a top-20 receiver for fantasy owners this fall. Verdict: Applaud

WR Lance Moore, Saints – Moore emerged as an all-world slot receiver last year, piling up 79 catches for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns in the Saints’ pass-happy offense. Some may look at those numbers and wonder if Marques Colston’s injury problems opened the door for Moore, but the fact that Moore plays inside and Colston plays outsider mitigates that concern. The bottom line is that Moore is in an incredibly potent offense, and he’s going to get his numbers. You can expect a minimum of 60 catches, 800 yards, and 8 touchdowns from him, and that’s reason to cheer. Verdict: Applaud

WR Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal was another rookie who had a huge rookie season, finishing with 91 catches for 980 yards and 5 scores. He’s a small, shifty guy who can play out of the slot or outside, and he is the perfect complement to Brandon Marshall. But expecting 90 catches or 1,000 yards this season is foolhardy, because the Broncos have downgraded at quarterback from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton. Marshall’s holdout talk and trade demand are troubling as well. So while Royal will be productive, he’ll end up looking like an imposter when compared to his ’08 numbers. Verdict: A fraud

TE John Carlson, Seahawks – As a rookie, Carlson finished ninth among all tight ends in terms of both catches (with 55) and yards (with 627). Combine those numbers with his 5 touchdowns, and you have a starting tight end for fantasy teams. Can he earn starter status again? The signs are good. QB Matt Hasselbeck should return to provide a more reliable passing offense, and that will help Carlson’s numbers significantly. And while the arrival of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh may take a few receptions off Carlson’s plate, the fact that there’s no true second option should give Carlson plenty of room to perform well again. Fantasy starting lineups, here he comes. Verdict: Applaud

TE Anthony Fasano, Dolphins – Only four tight ends had at least seven receiving touchdowns last year. You’d guess the first two – Antonio Gates and Tony Gonazalez. But you’d be hard pressed to name Visanthe Shiancoe and Fasano as the other two. Fasano, who Bill Parcells brought over from Dallas when he arrived in Miami, isn’t a great pass catcher – he had just 34 total catches. That kind of catch-to-TD ratio always makes me nervous, because it generally indicates that the TD total is out of whack. So while it’s safe to expect 30 catches and 400 yards from Fasano again, my guess is that the touchdown total will be 3 or 4, not seven. That makes Fasano a fraudulent fantasy starter in ’09. Verdict: A fraud

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had 56 catches for 778 yards in ’08, piling up an impressive 14 yards per catch. He scored just one touchdown, but he still announced himself as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league. That emergence should continue in ’08 as Miller and his quarterback JaMarcus Russell both emerge. While Miller isn’t a top-5 fantasy tight end, he’s good enough to earn a spot in the top 10 – and to earn a round of applause. Verdict: Applaud

TE Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – No veteran tight end had a bigger breakout in 2008 than Shiancoe, who had 42 catches for 596 yards and 7 TDs. That doubled the yardage total he had in his first five seasons, nearly doubled his catch total, and took his career TD tally from four to 11. So is Shiancoe a legitimate fantasy threat? It’s hard to say right now, given the Vikings’ unstable quarterback situation. But the fact that the Vikings only have one real starting-quality receiver (Bernard Berrian), and given the fact that struggling quarterbacks tend to look at the tight end more often, we’ll pencil Shiancoe in as a top-12 fantasy tight end. That’s enough for us to give a very light round of applause. Verdict: Applaud

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All Brandons are not created equal

Could it be happening again in Denver? Reports surfaced this week that hypertalented (if sometimes troubling) Broncos WR Brandon Marshall, who missed part of but not all of the team’s mandatory minicamp last weekend, has asked owner Pat Bowlen for a trade. Marshall is looking for a new deal, so he could still be mollified, but you have to wonder if new head coach Josh McDaniels’ harsh handling of QB Jay Cutler is another motivating factor for Marshall. Maybe he doesn’t like how McDaniels is reflecting Bill Belichick’s shadow side. Or maybe he’s emboldened because McDaniels ultimately let Cutler talk his way out of town.

The Broncos can’t afford to lose Marshall. While he hasn’t been a good citizen often enough, he’s a talent, and that’s a commodity in short supply right now in Denver. With Cutler gone and TE Tony Scheffler also rumored to be leaving, new QB Kyle Ortom won’t have enough options. Eddie Royal is good, but he’s a complement, not a No. 1 target. The Broncos need to find a way to keep Marshall happy enough that he’ll stay around.

In what certainly appears to be a related move, Denver signed journeyman WR Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd has talent, but he’s bounced from Washington to San Francisco to Chicago and now to Denver without putting it all together. He was a decent target for Orton with the Bears last year, which is a plus, and his size would be a good contrast to Eddie Royal were Brandon Marshall to be unavailable. If the Broncos have designs on Lloyd replacing Marshall, they’ll quickly and painfully discover that not all Brandons are created equal.

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FR: Receivers for 2009 and beyond

When I was writing the post about Terrell Owens going to Buffalo, I mentioned that there were at least 5 receivers I would take before Owens. So that got me to thinking… Exactly where does Owens rate among receivers in the NFL going into 2009? So I compiled a relativity post comparing NFL receivers to each other. (We already did this earlier this offseason with quarterbacks.)

Here are the qualifications I used: Since so many receivers start and/or play in the NFL, I used a statistical benchmark. We’ll rate the 33 receivers who had at least 800 yards receiving in 2008. In addition, we’re including nine of 10 receivers who had 800 yards in ’07 but not ’08 (omitting Shaun McDonald). We’re also including two of the 3 receivers who had 1,000 yards in ’06 but didn’t reach 800 in either of the last two years (omitting Mike Furrey). That leaves 44 receivers, who we’ve compared on 10 levels. 10 is the level for the ultimate receiver, and 1 is a guy who shouldn’t be starting anymore.

10 – Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson. Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and his play in the playoffs was at a level we haven’t seen much at all since Jerry Rice was in his prime. Andre Johnson is a physical specimen whose only negative is his inability to stay healthy. Smith is a gamebreaker who is just 5-foot-9, but the Panthers are still able to throw jump balls up and trust Smith to catch them, as if he were 6-foot-5. (The end of last year’s win at Green Bay was a prime example.) Calvin Johnson had terrible quarterbacks and still had an amazing year. If the Lions get a young quarterback who can grow with Johnson, watch out.

9 – Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Hines Ward. Wayne has developed into a true No. 1 receiver in an offense that remains one of the league’s most potent. Moss is a tremendous deep threat who has resurrected his great career in New England. Welker, Moss’ teammate, is the ultimate slot receiver who catches pass after pass and gets first down after first down. He’s impossible to cover inside. Ward isn’t a gamebreaker with the ball, but his ability to block downfield puts him on this level. He remains a great asset, especially on a running team.

8 – Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin, Roddy White, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings. So there are eight receivers definitely ahead of Owens on my list, and I’d take Boldin and maybe White on this list above him in ’09 as well. (Thinking long term, Bowe and Jennings would move ahead of him too.) Owens is still a gamebreaker, but his hands were spotty last year, and his age (35) says a slow-down is coming before too long. Boldin is a great receiver after the catch, and he could be a No. 1 on most teams. However, he’s not at Fitzgerald’s level. White emerged as a good receiver in ’07 and took another step forward last year. He and Matt Ryan will be a top-flight combo for a long time. Bowe is physically gifted, and he’s put up good numbers in bad offenses the last two years. It’ll be fun to see how he steps up with Matt Cassel at the Chiefs’ helm now. Marshall has the talent to be a 9, but his off the field issues have made him unreliable. He could easily miss some games on league suspension in ’09, and that has to be accounted for. I’m not sure I would gamble on him as a long-term answer at this point. Jennings has developed into a strong threat, and last year he finally passed Donald Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 threat. He and Aaron Rodgers make another good pitch-and-catch combo.

7 – Santana Moss, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, Donald Driver, Lee Evans , Braylon Edwards – Moss is a consistent playmaker for Washington, but his lack of size keeps him from being higher on this comparison. Houshmandzadeh has been a consistently good possession receiver, but he can be a bit more – and will have a chance to prove it in Seattle this year. Holmes emerged as a game-changing receiver in the playoffs, and I expect him to knock down the door and become an elite receiver in ’09. Driver is getting up in age but has been a productive guy under the radar for several years. Evans is a deep threat whose yards-per-catch average is always good and should be better with T.O. in Buffalo now. Edwards struggled with drops last year, which keeps him down on this list, but he has the talent to be on the 8 or 9 level if he improves his consistency.

6 – Antonio Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Derrick Mason, Eddie Royal, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Bernard Berrian, Roy Williams  – Bryant finally capitalized on his immense talent level last year in Tampa. If he can do it again and stay on the field, he’ll rocket up this list. Jackson is a big receiver who quietly had a monster year in ’08. He and Philip Rivers are a pretty good answer as a pitch-and-catch combo. Mason has lost a step from his Tennessee days, but he’s a solid veteran receiver who still makes more plays than you might expect. Royal had a great rookie season and is an ideal complement to Brandon Marshall because of his speed, shiftiness, and breakaway ability. Moore emerged last year as a big-time player in New Orleans’ offense. He’s the inside receiver who can make big plays, while Colston is the big outside receiver. Both are good, and if Colston gets healthy, that could be an elite tandem in ’09. Berrian has breakaway ability, and he delivered a fair amount of big plays last year after Minnesota brought him over to be their No. 1 wideout. Williams has all the ability in the world but didn’t produce last year after moving to Dallas. He has the ability to move up this ranking, but does he have the will?

5 – Steve Breaston, DeSean Jackson, Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, Muhsin Muhammad, Torry Holt – Breaston emerged as a legitimate starter in Arizona last year and is ready to step in and produce if Anquan Boldin moves on. Jackson was a big-play source as a rookie, but his size may prohibit him from being a true No. 1. He’s better as the big-play threat than the every-down target. Cotchery isn’t dynamic, but he’s solid and can put up numbers. Coles, who moved to Cincinnati, is not as good as he thinks he is but is still an above-average NFL starter. Johnson (or Ocho Cinco, if you prefer) had a down year last year, and he’s been banged up the last two years. Can he still be a true No. 1 guy? Muhammad had a suprisingly big year returning to Carolina in ’08 and is also a good downfield blocker. He is still a quality complement to Steve Smith. Holt was banged up much of last year, and injuries have slowed him down at least a little, but he can still be an effective starter as long as a team has a speed guy who can draw coverge his way on the opposite side.

4 – Kevin Walter, Kevin Curtis – Walter had a big year in Houston last year and seems to be a good complement to Andre Johnson. He’s good enough to be an above-average No. 2 target. Curtis battled injuries last year but had a big year in ’07. He probably fits better as a No. 3 than a No. 2, but he won’t kill a team if it has to start him.

3 – Plaxico Burress – Burress has worlds of talent, but his off-the-field issues drop him well down the list. The fact that the Giants are at least considering keeping him, though, shows he still has some value.

2- Joey Galloway, Bobby Engram  -Welcome to the has-been haven. Galloway is moving to New England to show he still has value, but he’s a No. 3 there at best. He probably still can succeed in that role. Engram moves to Kansas City, where his possession skills should help take some pressure off of Dwayne Bowe.

1 – Chris Chambers, Javon Walker, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce – Has-been haven continues Chambers went to San Diego in ’07 to be a No. 1, but he’s slipped while Vincent Jackson has stepped up. Now it’s a question whether Chambers can even be an average No. 2 target. Walker has been a major bust in Oakland, but 2 years ago in Denver (before a serious knee injury) he was dynamic. It’s unlikely he can near that form again, but he’s still the Raiders’ best option. Harrison had a decent year last year, but he’s falling off, and he needs to find the perfect situation to keep playing. Bruce wasn’t bad in San Francisco, but he’s in decline too. He’s considering retirement, and if he plays he might not even be starter quality anymore.

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