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FR: 2011 Retirements

Coach Russ Grimm and Alan Faneca of the Pittsb...

Alan Faneca with Hall of Famer Russ Grimm, during their Pittsburgh years. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we use our Football Relativity tool to compare the careers of NFL players who retire. So in this post, we’re comparing 2011 retirees on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2011 season. (This version is as of August 10.)

10 – WR Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had a 13-year career with incredible highs. He burst onto the scene as a rookie with the Vikings, earning All-Pro accolades as a rookie. He had five Pro Bowls in his first six season with the Vikings, along with three first-team All-Pro nods, but he grew unhappy in Minnesota and his play slumped in 2004. He moved to Oakland, where he had a mid-career lull and seemed to be on his last legs. The Raiders gave up, and Moss went to New England and exploded once again, catching 23 touchdown passes and returning to first-team All-Pro status during the Patriots’ undefeated regular season in 2007. Moss had three 1,000-yard seasons in New England and made two Pro Bowls, but in 2010 the team traded him back to the Vikings. As had happened too often in his career, off-field issues affected Moss in Minnesota, and he was released to land with Tennessee via waivers. Despite the infamous ending to his career, Moss is in the top 10 all time in catches (8th), receiving yards (5th), and receiving touchdowns (2nd). Moss had some lows in his career (as did other prominent receivers of his era), but his highs were as good as any receiver in the post-Rice era. Ultimately, the off-field issues will fade, and Moss will be remembered as a Hall of Fame receiver.

9 – OG Alan Faneca, Cardinals – Faneca has been perhaps the most respected guard in the league over the past 10 years, as proven by his nine Pro Bowl berths and equal number of All-Pro nods. Faneca was a first-round pick by the Steelers, and for a decade he was the earth-mover for Pittsburgh’s run-first offense. For those efforts, Faneca was named to the Steelers’ all-time team. He then moved to the Jets with an incredible contract for a mid-30s guard, andfor two years he continued as an effective run-blocker. He then spent one final season with the Cardinals. Throughout his career, Faneca was durable – missing just two games in 13 seasons – and he proved to be a terrific leader as a veteran. Faneca and Steve Hutchinson are clearly the best guards of their era, and they will be the only two at that position to merit Hall of Fame consideration. Faneca will be a borderline case, but the fact that he is in the conversation speaks to just how fine a career he had.

8 – RB Fred Taylor, Jaguars – Taylor, a longtime Jaguar who had an end-of-career cameo with the Patriots, signed a ceremonial contract to retire in Jacksonville. He had a fine 11-year career, running for 11,695 yards with seven 1,000-yard seasons. For a long time, he was known as the best player never to make a Pro Bowl, but he finally got the Hawaii trip in 2007, his last thousand-yard campaign. He finishes his career at No. 15 on the all-time rushing list, which is quite an accomplishment, and he has a strong 4.6 yards per carry average in his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he is probably the best Jaguar ever. That’s saying something.

7 – QB Kerry Collins, TitansWhen I was in college back in the mid-90s, my summer job was working for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, and the biggest perk of that gig was covering Carolina Panthers training camp each year. So I got to see Collins’ career from the very beginning. Collins’ career with the Panthers started with promise, as he led the team to the NFC championship game in his second season. (Then living in Chicago, I went to Green Bay to cover that Packers/Panthers game and wrote a story about whether Collins was on the verge of becoming a great QB.) But then it all fell apart for Collins in Carolina. He got in a racially-charged fight with a teammate, and then asked out of the lineup, leading to his release. But to Collins’ great credit, he did not let the fact that he busted out of Charlotte make him a bust. He got a second chance with the Giants and led that team to the Super Bowl (where they lost to the Ravens). And after the Giants drafted Eli Manning, Collins had a couple of decent seasons in Oakland and then became a starter in Tennessee, making his second Pro Bowl in 2008 in leading the Titans to the playoffs. Collins’ 16-year career has left him high up the lists of all-time passers, which speaks to his longevity and his productivity. The fact that several teams – the Titans and Panthers included – viewed him as a worthy backup/mentor for young QBs in 2011 speaks to how he completely changed his legacy over the course of his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he had a fine career after nearly losing everything just a few years in. So much for retirement; Collins signed with the Colts two weeks before the season.

7 (con’t) – DT Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins had a terrific two-act career, starring as a 4-3 defensive tackle in Carolina and then making just as much of an impact as a 3-4 nose tackle with the Jets. The result was three All-Pro nods and four Pro Bowl berths in a 10-year career. Jenkins might have been the best defensive lineman in football during his prime in Carolina, at least before major injuries shortened his 2004 season and cost him nearly the entire 2005 campaign. Injuries also cost Jenkins in his last two years as a Jet, although he gave the team a terrific first-season performance after it gave up two draft picks to acquire him in 2008. (His New York star turn was also when we gave him one of our favorite nicknames ever – Jackpot.) Jenkins was hurt too much over his 10 years to make the Hall of Fame conversation, but he was a terrific, impactful player for two strong contenders. That’s a fine legacy to leave.

7 (con’t) – RB Ahman Green, Packers – Green didn’t play in the NFL last year, but over his 12-year career he piled up more than 12,000 yards from scrimmage and 74 touchdowns. After a sputtering start to his career in Seattle, Green was traded to the Packers, and in seven seasons he had six 1,000 yard campaigns for the Pack. He was a terrific West Coast back who could run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. He was recognized with four Pro Bowl berths, and in 2003 he ran for an eye-popping 1,883 yards. Green wasn’t the most dominant back of his era, but he fit his offense perfectly and performed remarkably well. He’s not a Hall of Famer in Canton, but chances are he’ll be recognized in Green Bay one day.

6 – LB Mike Vrabel, Chiefs -Vrabel was the ultimate Bill Belichick player. After four seasons in Pittsburgh in which he was primarily a backup, Vrabel was one of the 19 unrestricted free agents whom Belichick signed for the Patriots after his first season, and thus he became a part of the team-first group that upset the Rams and won the Super Bowl. Vrabel became a mainstay for the Pats, starting at outside linebacker for eight seasons and providing solid play against the run, the pass, and as a rusher. His versatility didn’t just apply to defense; he also played a little tight end in goal-line situations, recording 10 TD catches over the course of his career. When Scott Pioli left the Patriots to become the GM in Kansas City, he got Vrabel as part of the Matt Cassel trade, and Vrabel started for two more seasons as part of the Chiefs’ recent renaissance. Vrabel fit the Belichick wish list to a T – versatile, team-oriented, good but not overly talented, smart, and productive. Now he goes back to his alma mater to help the Buckeyes try to recover from the Jim Tressel mess. Vrabel left a bit of meat on the bone with his playing career, but if he takes to coaching he could become even more of a star in that arena than he was on the playing field.

6 (con’t) – ORT Damien Woody, Jets – Woody, a former first-round pick in New England, had a long career in which he played virtually everywhere on the offensive line. He started out as a center, making one Pro Bowl for the Pats and starting for the team’s 2001 Super Bowl champ. He then moved to left guard in 2003, starting for another Pats championship squad. He moved on to Detroit as a free agent, starting three seasons at right guard before moving to right tackle. He then spent three more years as a Jet, starting at right tackle. His versatility no doubt elongated his career, and to the end he remained an effective run blocker. He had good if not great athleticism for a lineman, which made him effective as well. After starting 166 games in 12 seasons, Woody can retire knowing that he made the most of his opportunities – no matter where on the offensive line they came. Now the Jets turn to Wayne Hunter, who got a four-year, $13 million contract the same day Woody retired, as their new right tackle.

6 (con’t) – QB Marc Bulger, Ravens – Bulger’s career started with a whimper, but before he was done he made some pretty significant impacts in the NFL. The sixth-round pick by the Saints in 2000 landed with the Rams and broke into the starting lineup in 2002. Before long, he had replaced Kurt Warner as a triggerman in Mike Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf offense, and Bulger wasn’t much of a drop-off. He made Pro Bowls in 2003 and 2006 as he completed 60-percent plus of his passes and had three 20-plus TD seasons. But Bulger also took a terrific beating, suffering at least 37 sacks in five different seasons (plus 26 in a half season in 2005). By 2007, Bulger’s performance in St. Louis started to decline, and he lost the starting job for good in St. Louis in 2009. Last season, Bulger didn’t play as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore. And this season, he had the chance to return to Baltimore as a backup, or to fight for starting jobs in Arizona and Carolina, among other places. But Bulger’s heart wasn’t in it any more. Bulger leaves with a solid 10-year career that far outpaced his draft position. Leaving that kind of legacy – and leaving when you want – is a pretty fond way to say goodbye.

5 – OG Stephen Neal, Patriots – After a 10-year career, all with New England, Neal retired just after the 2011 season. He leaves as a major scouting success story. Neal never played college football, instead wrestling collegiately at Cal State-Bakersfield. But he developed into a starting guard for the Patriots, holding down a steady job at right guard from 2004 until this season. Neal started in one Super Bowl and claimed three rings overall. His career typifies the kind of player development and scouting acumen that contributed to the Patriots’ success, and he deserves credit for taking utmost advantage of his unusual opportunity.

5 (con’t) – S Donovin Darius, Jaguars – Darius, the Jaguars’ first-round pick in 1998, had a strong career for the team, playing nine seasons for the team, all as a starter. He was always a solid safety during his long Jacksonville tenure. Darius last played for the Dolphins in 2007, but he signed a one-day contract in February so he could retire with the team for which he started 105 games.

5 (con’t) – LB Dhani Jones, Bengals – Jones played 10 years for the Eagles, Giants, and Bengals, and he ended up as a starter in the last nine of those seasons. While he was never an impact player, he was always a smart and reliable center of the defense he was on. His last three years with the Bengals were at the level of his best, which speaks to his consistency. Jones had the ability to keep playing, but his varied media interests made it easier for him to walk away before his skills eroded.

4 – LB David Thornton, Titans – Thornton, who missed the 2010 because of a hip injury, decided to hang up his cleats instead of trying to rebound. The former fourth-round pick developed into an eight-year starter in the NFL with the Colts and Titans, and at his best he was a clean-up outside linebacker who occasionally made a big play with a pick or a sack. He had a nice career, both for the Colts who drafted him and for the Titans who inked him to a big deal as a free agent.

3 – CB Ellis Hobbs, Eagles – Two serious neck injuries forced Hobbs to retire after six seasons with the Patriots and Eagles. Hobbs was only a full-time starter for two years in New England, but he provided a ton of excitement as a kick returner and also notched 10 interceptions in 79 career games. Hobbs is still talented enough to at least play as a nickelback in Philadelphia, but neck injuries are nothing to mess with. So he ends his career early with some good plays but also some regret.

3 (con’t) – PK Matt Stover, Ravens – Stover broke into the NFL with the Browns in 1991, and for nearly 20 years he was the franchise’s kicker, first in Cleveland, then in Baltimore. He made two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl despite kicking in conditions that were often unfavorable. Stover After 18 years with the Browns/Ravens, Stover lost his job, getting a late-season cameo with the Colts to conclude his career. (Coincidentally, my wife and I visited Baltimore in 2009 during the week of a Ravens/Colts game. Stover was the center of all the coverage. I’ve never seen more game coverage focused on a kicker than that week.) In his two decades, Stover connected on an impressive 83 percent of his kicks – a number even more impressive because he was in the low 70s in each of his first three seasons. Stover isn’t a Hall of Fame kicker – the bar at the position is impossibly high – but he could end up in the Ravens Hall of Fame given his lengthy career there.

3 (con’t) – ILB Channing Crowder, Dolphins – After six years and 74 starts, the Dolphins cut Crowder this offseason and replaced him with Kevin Burnett. Crowder then said he would retire and pursue a media career instead of seeking to land with another team. Crowder still has something left in the tank as a run-down player, but he’s never had the athleticism to be an every-down linebacker. He’s a marginal inside 3-4 starter who ended up having a decent career.

2 – DE Paul Spicer, Jaguars – Spicer wasn’t drafted, and he had to bounce around and visit the CFL before getting his best shot to play in Jacksonville. He took advantage of the opportunity the Jaguars offered, playing nine years for the team and finally emerging as a starter over the last four. He finished his career with 28.5 sacks, including two 7.5-sack seasons. Spicer, who last played in 2009, signed a one-day contract to retire with Jacksonville in February.

2 (con’t) – OG Justin Smiley, Raiders – Smiley, who started 78 games over seven seasons with the 49ers, Dolphins, and Jaguars, retired during training camp after signing with the Raiders. His performance had slipped due to nagging injuries, but Smiley was once a decent starter.

2 (con’t) – FB Heath Evans, Saints – Evans, a 10-year veteran, retired when he didn’t find an offer to play in 2011. Instead, he got an offer to join the NFL Network as an analyst. Evans played 10 years for the Seahawks, Patriots, Dolphins, and Saints, starting a few games at fullback along the way. He leaves the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and a future gig – that’s not a bad way to go out.

1 – Ken Dorsey – Dorsey, who played six years in the NFL with Cleveland and San Francisco between 2003-2008, last played in the CFL in 2010. The former national championship quarterback at Miami started just 13 NFL games but was a quintessential backup. He appears headed down the Jason Garrett career path, as Dorsey is now coaching Cam Newton at IMG’s academy in Florida. A QB coach position somewhere is probably next for Dorsey, who could be a bright coaching prospect in a few short years.

1 (con’t) – TE Ben Patrick, Giants – After four years in Arizona, Patrick signed with the Giants. But once he got into training camp, he opted to retire instead of fighting for a roster spot. Patrick had 45 catches in 42 career games, and was known more for his blocking than his receiving.

1 (con’t) – OT Billy Yates, Browns – Yates bounced around the NFL for nine seasons, but he started just 11 games and played in just 25 in his career. Still, he earned a Super Bowl ring in New England and also played for the Dolphins and Browns. That’s not a bad career.

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Backs

This is our final post in picking the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. Next, we’ll combine all of our posts to create our all-jersey number 2009 team.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post and linebackers in this post. Now we move to defensive backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

20 – Ed Reed, Ravens – This hasn’t been Reed’s best year because of injury, but he still has three interceptions and three forced fumbles in 11 games. No safety in the league has had more impact this decade than Reed, and the fact that he won the league’s defensive player of the year award in a year that his team didn’t make the playoffs speaks to his greatness. So he gets the nod over long-time standouts S Brian Dawkins of Denver and CB Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay. Other notable 20s: Mike Adams, Browns; Alan Ball, Cowboys; Atari Bigby, Packers; Ralph Brown, Cardinals; Antoine Cason, Chargers; Chris Gamble, Panthers; Randall Gay, Saints; Brent Grimes, Falcons; Nick Harper, Titans; Michael Johnson, Giants; David Jones, Bengals; Keenan Lewis, Steelers; T.J. Rushing, Colts; Anthony Smith, Jaguars; Keith Smith, 49ers; Craig Steltz, Bears; Justin Tryon, Redskins; Jonathan Wade, Rams; Donald Washington, Chiefs; Donte Whitner, Bills; Madieu Williams, Vikings

21 – Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders – It’s an incredibly difficult call to go with Asomugha over Green Bay’s Charles Woodson, who is having an epic renaissance year in Green Bay. But while Woodson has eight interceptions, Asomugha has one pick and just four passes defensed because teams refuse to throw his way. That ultimate sign of respect ultimately gives Nnamdi the nod. Injured Colts S Bob Sanders, a former defensive player of the year, would be in this discussion were he able to stay healthy. Other notable 21s: Asher Allen, Vikings; O.J. Atogwe, Rams; Derek Cox, Jaguars; Vontae Davis, Dolphins; Andre’ Goodman, Broncos; Corey Graham, Bears; Joselio Hanson, Eagles; Mike Jenkins, Cowboys; Kelly Jennings, Seahawks; Dwight Lowery, Jets; Chris Owens, Falcons; Kenny Phillips, Giants; Sabby Piscitelli, Buccaneers; Brodney Pool, Browns; Antrel Rolle, Cardinals; Lardarius Webb, Ravens; John Wendling, Bills; Dante Wesley, Panthers

22 – Asante Samuel, Eagles – First in New England and now in Philadephia, Samuel has been and still is a top-level cornerback. His eight interceptions this year is the second-best total in his career, and he now has 34 in his career. Other notable 22s: Nate Clements, 49ers; Vincent Fuller, Titans; William Gay, Steelers; Chevis Jackson, Falcons; Johnathan Joseph, Bengals; Pat Lee, Packers; Brandon McDonald, Browns; Tracy Porter, Saints; Carlos Rogers, Redskins; Samari Rolle, Ravens; Benny Sapp, Vikings; Matt Ware, Cardinals; Terrence Wheatley, Patriots

23 – DeAngelo Hall, Redskins – It pains me to honor Hall, but he’s the best of the lot at a thinner number. Hall was OK in Atlanta and then awful in Oakland, but in D.C. he’s been pretty good. So he gets the nod over New England’s Leigh Bodden, a solid but unspectacular corner, declining CB Marcus Trufant of Seattle, and CB Dunta Robinson of Houston. Other notable 23s: Tyrone Carter, Steelers; Cedric Griffin, Vikings; Renaldo Hill, Broncos; Kevin Hobbs, Lions; Chris Houston, Falcons; Marcus Hudson, 49ers; Quentin Jammer, Chargers; Tim Jennings, Colts; Sherrod Martin, Panthers; Donnie Nickey, Titans; Dimitri Patterson, Eagles; Jermaine Phillips, Buccaneers; Hank Poteat, Browns; Mike Richardson, Chiefs; Corey Webster, Giants

24 – Darrelle Revis, Jets – Revis has had a breakout season as the preeminent lockdown corner in the league. So even though he wears the same number as all-time great CB Champ Bailey of Denver, stud safety Adrian Wilson of Arizona, and former Pro Bowl S Chris Hope of Tennessee, Revis is the obvious choice. Other notable 24s: Al Afalava, Bears; Ron Bartell, Rams; Sheldon Brown, Eagles; Jarrett Bush, Packers; Brandon Flowers, Chiefs; Dominique Foxworth, Ravens; Deon Grant, Seahawks; Tye Hill, Falcons; Michael Huff, Raiders; Dante Hughes, Chargers; Terrence McGee, Bills; Kalvin Pearson, Lions; Sean Smith, Dolphins; Ike Taylor, Steelers; Terrell Thomas, Giants; Leigh Torrance, Saints; Jonathan Wilhite, Patriots; Eric Wright, Browns

25 – Ryan Clark, Steelers – In a battle of former teammates, we’ll go with hard-hitting strong safety Clark over CB Bryant McFadden, who left Pittsburgh to play corner for Arizona in the offseason. Clark doesn’t get the hype that his teammate Troy Polamalu does, but he’s a good player who really fits into the attitude of the Pittsburgh defense. Other notable 25s: Will Allen, Dolphins; Kevin Barnes, Redskins; Tarell Brown, 49ers; Chris Carr, Ravens; Pat Chung, Patriots; Kevin Ellison, Chargers; Nick Ferguson, Texans; Coye Francies, Browns; Danny Gorrer, Rams; Bruce Johnson, Giants; Tyrell Johnson, Vikings; Ellis Lankster, Bills; William Moore, Falcons; Reggie Nelson, Jaguars; Jerraud Powers, Colts; Kerry Rhodes, Jets; Aqib Talib, Buccaneers; Morgan Trent, Bengals; Pat Watkins, Cowboys; Marvin White, Lions

26 – Antoine Winfield, Vikings – Winfield is not just a great cover corner; he also hits with the tenacity of a safety. Even though he’s missed several games this season, we’ll give him the nod. So he gets the nod over fine Lions rookie S Louis Delmas. Other notable 26s: Will Allen, Buccaneers; Josh Bell, Packers; Michael Coe, Jaguars; Erik Coleman, Falcons; Abram Elam, Browns; Ken Hamlin, Cowboys; Kelvin Hayden, Colts; Sean Jones, Eagles; Kevin Kaesviharn, Titans; Dawan Landry, Ravens; Ty Law, Broncos; Mark Roman, 49ers; Stanford Routt, Raiders; Lito Sheppard, Eagles; Quinton Teal, Panthers; DeShea Townsend, Steelers; Eugene Wilson, Texans; Josh Wilson, Seahawks; Ashton Youboty, Bills

27 – Rashean Mathis, Jaguars – He doesn’t get a lot of attention because he plays in front of empty seats, but Mathis is a terrific cover corner. He gets the nod over two safeties, Jordan Babineaux of the Seahawks and Philadelphia’s Quintin Mikell. Other notable 27s: Michael Adams, Cardinals; Kyle Arrington, Patriots; Will Blackmon, Packers; Daniel Bullocks, Lions; Joe Burnett, Steelers; Reggie Corner, Bills; Torrie Cox, Buccaneers; Jamaal Fudge, Falcons; Cletis Gordon, Cowboys; Walt Harris, 49ers; Malcolm Jenkins, Saints; Jacob Lacey, Colts; Paul Oliver, Chargers; David Roach, Rams; Fred Smoot, Redskins; Nick Sorensen, Browns; Donald Strickland, Jets; C.J. Wilson, Panthers

28 – Gibril Wilson, Dolphins – Wilson was a safety on the Giants’ Super Bowl champion team, and then got a contract that was too big from the Raiders. But the Raiders cut him after the season, and Wilson found a great home in Miami. Other notable 28s: Darius Butler, Patriots; Thomas DeCoud, Falcons; Steve Gregory, Chargers; Marlin Jackson, Colts; Leodis McKelvin, Bills; Antwuan Molden, Texans; Curtis Taylor, 49ers; Greg Toler, Cardinals; Usama Young, Saints; Tom Zbikowski, Ravens

29 – Leon Hall, Bengals – Hall has been the breakout corner of the season, as he and Johnathan Joseph have given the Bengals a terrific pair of corners. Hall has five picks and 20 passes defensed this season. He gets the nod over Arizona’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another good young corner. Other notable 29s: Tyrone Culver, Dolphins; Drayton Florence, Bills; Lendy Holmes, Redskins; D.J. Johnson, Giants; Eric King, Lions; Derrick Martin, Packers; Marcus McCauley, Saints; William Middleton, Jaguars; Ryan Mouton, Texans; Ryan Mundy, Steelers; Glover Quin, Texans; Derrick Roberson, Buccaneers; Shawn Springs, Patriots; Brian Williams, Falcons; Cary Williams, Ravens

30 – Mike Brown, Chiefs – At a popular safety number, Brown gets the nod with his renaissance season in Kansas City. He has stayed healthy all season after injury problems plagued him in three of his last five years in Chicago. So he earns the choice over Charles Godfrey of Carolina, LaRon Landry of Washington, and Brandon McGowan of the Patriots. Other notable 30s: David Bruton, Broncos; Chris Clemons, Dolphins; Drew Coleman, Jets; Gerard Lawson, Browns; Jason McCourty, Titans; D.J. Moore, Bears; Geoffrey Pope, Eagles; Ko Simpson, Lions; Reggie Smith, 49ers

31 – Cortland Finnegan, Titans – If Antoine Winfield isn’t the most physical corner in the league, Finnegan is. He’s vital to the Titans’ defense and their strong second half of the season. So he gets the nod over rookie sensation Jarius Byrd of Buffalo and corners Antonio Cromartie of San Diego and Al Harris of Green Bay. Other notable 31s: Dre’ Bly, 49ers; Phillip Buchanon, Lions; Hiram Eugene, Raiders; Ellis Hobbs, Eagles; Justin King, Rams; Maurice Leggett, Chiefs; Ken Lucas, Seahawks; Richard Marshall, Panthers; Darcel McBath, Broncos; Brandon Meriweather, Patriots; Bernard Pollard, Texans; Pierson Prioleau, Saints; Aaron Ross, Giants; Scott Starks, Jaguars; Nathan Vasher, Bears; Fabian Washington, Redskins; Roy Williams, Bengals

32 – Eric Weddle, Chargers – At a tough number to call, we’ll give Weddle, a key player in the Chargers’ defense, a nod over CB Jabari Greer of New Orleans and big-money safety Michael Lewis of San Francisco. Other notable 32s: Jason Allen, Dolphins; Fred Bennett, Texans; Anthony Henry, Lions; Orlando Scandrick, Cowboys

33 – Charles Tillman, Bears – Tillman isn’t a premier cover corner, but he’s pretty good in coverage. He’s also a good tackler and great a punching the ball out, as his six forced fumbles attest. He gets the nod over Raiders SS Tyvon Branch, who has a ridiculous 110 tackles this season. Other notable 33s: Melvin Bullitt, Colts; Michael Griffin, Titans; Nate Jones, Dolphins; Elbert Mack, Buccaneers; Jamarca Sanford, Vikings; Alphonso Smith, Broncos; Eric Smith, Jets; Brandon Underwood, Packers

34 – Dominique Barber, Texans – At a thin number, Barber, a part-time starter at safety for the Texans, gets the nod over Mike McKenzie, a long-time solid pro who recently re-signed with the Saints. Other notable 34s: Marquice Cole, Jets; Travis Daniels, Chiefs; Kyries Hebert, Bengals; Roy Lewis, Seahawks; Mike Mitchell, Raiders; Byron Westbrook, Redskins

35 – Zack Bowman, Bears – Bowman took over as a starting cornerback in Chicago, replacing Nathan Vasher. He gets the nod over rookie safety Macho Harris of the Eagles. Other notable 35s: Kevin Dockery, Giants; Todd Johnson, Bills; Jacques Reeves, Texans

36 – Nick Collins, Packers – Collins is a terrific safety for the Packers, and he gets the edge over another safety, Tanard Jackson of Tampa Bay, because Jackson missed four games due to suspension earlier this year. Collins has six picks this year, while Jackson has four. Other notable 36s: Jamar Adams, Seahawks; Josh Barrett, Broncos; Josh Bullocks, Bears; Quincy Butler, Rams; Courtney Greene, Jaguars; Mike Hamlin, Cowboys; Brandon Hughes, Chargers; Jim Leonhard, Jets; Lawyer Milloy, Seahawks; James Sanders, Patriots; Shawntae Spencer, 49ers

37 – Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins – Bell is a solid starting safety for the Dolphins, and his tackle total (103) is among the tops for defensive backs across the NFL. So we opt for Bell over George Wilson, another tackling machine playing safety for Buffalo, and Raiders CB Chris Johnson. Other notable 37s: James Butler, Rams; Sean Considine, Jaguars; Reed Doughty, Redskins; Eric Frampton, Vikings; Roderick Hood, Titans; Anthony Madison, Steelers; Chip Vaughn, Saints

38 – Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson is emerging as not just a starter at free safety but as an impact player for the Niners. He gets the nod over Packers CB Tramon Williams and Bears S-CB Danieal Manning. Other notable 38s: Brandon Anderson, Buccaneers; DeMarcus Faggans, Texans; Bret Lockett, Patriots; DaJuan Morgan, Chiefs; Mark Parson, Texans; Charlie Peprah, Falcons; Ramzee Robinson, Browns

39 – Brandon Carr, Chiefs – Carr has started all 30 games at cornerback for the Chiefs since he entered in the NFL as a 2008 fifth-round pick. He gets picked on a bit because Brandon Flowers is emerging as a good corner on the opposite side, but Carr has broken up 16 passes this year. Other notable 39s: Husain Abdullah, Vikings; Quintin Demps, Eagles; Trevor Ford, Packers; Chris Reis, Saints; DeAngelo Smith, Lions

40 – Marquand Manuel, Lions – Manuel has bounced around a lot, but he has been a starter in all but one of his six NFL stops. This year in Detroit, he started six of the nine games he played before going on injured reserve. Other notable 40s: John Busing, Texans; K.J. Gerard, Ravens; Jamie Silva, Colts

41 – Antoine Bethea, Colts – Bethea, the Colts’ starting free safety, has had to be the one constant in the secondary for the Colts this year, and he’s played his role well with 90 tackles and four interception. He gets the nod over Cowboys CB Terrence Newman, Saints S Roman Harper, and Bengals S Chinedum Ndukwe. Other notable 41s: Tyron Brackenridge, Jaguars; C.C. Brown, Giants; Antoine Harris, Falcons; William James, Lions; Corey Lynch, Buccaneers; Brice McCain, Texans; Kareem Moore, Redskins; Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers; Evan Oglesby, Dolphins; Karl Paymah, Vikings; C.J. Spillman, Chargers; Raymond Ventrone, Browns; Frank Walker, Ravens

42 –Darren Sharper, Saints – Sharper’s veteran leadership has helped the Saints stabilized their secondary, and the veteran continues to make plenty of plays. He has eight picks this year, three of which he’s returned for touchdowns, and now 62 career interceptions. Other notable 42s: Gerald Alexander, Jaguars; Chris Crocker, Bengals; Brian Russell, Texans; Jack Williams, Lions

43 – Troy Polamalu, Steelers -Polamalu has been hurt much of the year this year, but his ability to range and make plays is what takes the Steelers defense from good to great. He may miss the Pro Bowl for the first time since his rookie season, but he still gets the nod here in a walk. Other notable 43s: Craig Dahl, Rams; Aaron Francisco, Colts; Chris Harris, Panthers; Hakuri Nakamura, Ravens; Tom Nelson, Bengals; Bryan Scott, Bills; Gerald Sensabaugh, Cowboys

44 – Jarrad Page, Chiefs – Page was in his third season as a starting safety in K.C. before going on injured reserve after playing five games this season. Still, that’s a better resume than that of Kevin Payne, who has lost his starting safety job with the Bears. Other notable 44s: James Ihedigbo, Jets; Rico Murray, Bengals

45 – De’von Hall, Colts – Hall, an undrafted rookie out of Utah State, has seen action in four games in his rookie season, notching three tackles. He is the only active defensive back wearing 45.

46 – none

47 – Jon McGraw, Chiefs – McGraw is in his eighth season, and he has started seven games for Kansas City this season, which is a career high. He also recorded his first career sack this season. His long career of contributing gives him the nod over rookie Cary Harris of Buffalo and fourth-year man Matt Giordano of Green Bay.

48 – Chris Horton, Redskins – Horton, a second-year player out of UCLA, emerged as a starter in his rookie season but fell out of the lineup before a midseason injury stopped his sophomore campaign. He is the only notable DB wearing 48.

49 – Rashad Johnson, Cardinals – Johnson, a third-round pick out of Arizona, is the only active defensive back wearing 49. He has not seen action this year.

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Week 9 moves

We do a weekly update on major NFL transactions. We include signings, releases, and also players who are put on injured reserve, because they are lost for the year. You can check out the Week 8 transactions here and work your way back through the season.

Additions

Lions (add CB Jack Williams) – Williams was the player that the Broncos cut to add Ty Law late last week, and he was obviously in demand as four teams put in a waiver claim. He went to Detroit, which cut Jason David in favor of Williams. That’s the kind of move a bad team needs to make, because while Williams probably isn’t a starting-quality corner, he could end up being a nickel or dime guy down the line. Once again, the Lions showed aggressiveness in adding a guy who might be able to help, which is a good sign.

Raiders (add DT William Joseph) – The Raiders brought back Joseph, a former first-round pick by the Giants, and cut former starting OG Paul McQuistan. In other words, they shuffled the deck chairs. The Titanic? It’s still sinking.

Subtractions

Chiefs (cut RB Larry Johnson; put OG Mike Goff on injured reserve) – We broke down Johnson’s cut on our MVN blog. The Chiefs also put Goff, a long-time starter in Cincinnati and San Diego who moved to K.C. this year and started seven of eight games, on injured reserve and signed Justin Rogers to take Goff’s roster spot.

Panthers (put LB Thomas Davis on injured reserve) – Davis had been a big playmaker at the strong-side linebacker spot, but he suffered a knee injury that will sideline him over the rest of the season. That’s a blow to a Panthers defense that has just a placeholder at the other OLB spot in Na’il Diggs. Carolina promoted LB Kelvin Smith from the practice squad to take Davis’ roster spot.

Browns (put LB Eric Barton on injured reserve) – Barton was one of the ex-Jets that Eric Mangini brought over to install his defense in Cleveland. Now he’s one of two starting inside ‘backers who is out for the year. That’s a blow to a Cleveland D that is bad to begin with. The Browns signed Josh Stamer to take Barton’s roster spot.

Bengals (put WR Chris Henry and S Roy Williams on injured reserve) – The Bengals suffered two big blows because of injuries this week. Henry, the team’s No. 3 receiver and top deep threat, broke his arm vs. Baltimore last week and is gone for the year. Williams, who has been starting at safety, suffered a forerarm injury as well. These injuries will test the Bengals’ depth. To fill these roster spots, Cincy promoted WR Maurice Purify from the practice squad and brought back OG Scott Kooistra, whom they had cut last week.

Eagles (put CB Ellis Hobbs on injured reserve) – The Eagles took two blows at cornerback this week. Hobbs, who was not only a corner but also the team’s kickoff returner, sustained a neck injury that ended his season. Meanwhile, fourth corner Joselio Hanson was suspended four games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. To replace the two corners, the Eagles signed CB Ramzee Robinson (who can also serve as a returner) and promoted CB Jack Ikegwuono from the practice squad.

Buccaneers (put S Will Allen and LB Rod Wilson on injured reserve) – The Bucs suffered two injuries to defensive players. Allen, who had been playing as an extra defensive back, suffered a thumb injury. Wilson, more of a special-teamer, suffered a shoulder injury. To replace them, Tampa re-signed LB Matt McCoy and promoted CB Derrick Roberson from the practice squad.

Redskins (put S Chris Horton on injured reserve) – Horton, who started 10 games as a rookie, started five more this season with more limited success as a sophomore. Now he will miss the second half of the season with a toe injury. To replace Horton, the Redskins brought back RB Quinton Ganther.

Giants (put LB Gerris Wilkerson on injured reserve) – Wilkerson was a backup linebacker, and, as importantly, a special-teams ace. But a wrist injury will end his season. To replace him, the Giants added CB D.J. Johnson, who will step in on some special-teams coverage units.

Bills (cut RB Xavier Omon) – The Bills thought Omon had promise, but he couldn’t find a role behind Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. So he was finally cut so that the Bills could activate WR James Hardy from the physically unable to perform list.

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Filed under Football Relativity, MVN blogs, NFL Free Agency, NFL Injuries

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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FR: Trades and swaps

The trade market in the NFL has gotten far more active than it was when I covered the league more regularly (1996-2002). With some deals already in the books, I thought we’d create a football relativity scale to compare the swaps. This post will include both trades and restricted free agent signings, which basically become like trades because of the draft pick compensation that a team losing a player (usually) gets in return. We’re using a 10-point scale, with 10 being the biggest impact and 1 being a move that doesn’t really matter. (After the Jay Cutler trade, we of course tweaked the comparison.)

10 – Broncos trade QB Jay Cutler and an ’09 fifth-round pick to Bears for QB Kyle Orton, an ’09 first-round pick  (No. 18), an ’09 third-round pick, and a 2010 first-round pick
In what may be remembered as the blockbuster trade of the decade in the NFL, the Broncos closed the door on the Jay Cutler imbroglio by dealing the disgruntled signal-caller to Chicago. Cutler is the Bears’ most significant quarterback investment maybe ever. If he fits in as a Bear, he solves a decades-long problem. But if Cutler fails in the Windy City, it will set the Bears back until Barack Obama runs for reelection. Still, Bears fans who haven’t seen a top-flight QB for scores of years rightly feel as if Christmas came early in the form of this Santa Claus, Indiana, native. The fact that the Bears are relying on Cutler’s Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett to start at wideout only makes the move a better fit.
For the Broncos, the pressure is now on. They got what they wanted from the deal – first-rounders this year and next, a third this year, and a quarterback who can start this year in Kyle Orton. There’s only about a 5 percent chance that Orton can be the long-term answer, though, and so they must get a QB of the future this year. If they don’t move up to assure that they get Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez – or take Josh Freeman if they’re believers in him – then this trade will be a step back. The worst thing Denver can do is to let it’s ego take over (again) and take a sixth-rounder and say he’s the guy for the future. They must use these picks well, including one on a quarterback, to make this huge haul from being fool’s gold.

9 – Patriots trade QB Matt Cassel (franchise player) and LB Mike Vrabel to Chiefs for a second-round pick (No. 34 overall)
The Patriots franchised QB Matt Cassel in order to trade him, and Saturday they dealt Cassel (along with LB Mike Vrabel) for a second-round pick (34th overall). It’s not a huge bounty for the Pats, but they also clear $18 million in salary-cap space in the deal. The Chiefs pay a fair but not exorbinant price for their quarterback of the future. Solving this issue this early allows the Chiefs to focus on their other myriad issues from here on out. GM Scott Pioli knows Cassel from New England, so he more than anyone has a feel for what the Chiefs are getting in this still-young QB. Mike Vrabel went from an underrated performer to an impact player to a grizzled vet in New England – and the last category is why the Chiefs want him to be part of their team. Pioli knows Vrabel can be a great influence in the locker room and in the defensive huddle. Vrabel’s value is as the veteran influence who can help the Chiefs learn a new defensive system as well as develop a personality of a winning team. When Romeo Crennel was in Cleveland, he brought in Willie McGinest to do a similar thing. This part of the move that won’t win a ton of games in Kansas City, but it should help the Chiefs’ young players learn how to win. It appears this deal will go down in Chiefs lore as one of that helped begin to turn things around.

8 – Bills trade OLT Jason Peters to Eagles for ’09 first-round pick (No. 28), ’09 fourth-round pick, and a ’10 sixth-round pick
Peters, a college tight end, developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle in Buffalo, but for the last 2 offseasons he’s been discontent over his contract. That seemed to affect his play in ’08, as it was down a level from his ’07 performance. Because Peters wasn’t happy, the Bills decided to turn the page. They’ll need to replace him, because he was a major building block in their offensive line. This deletion could even make the Terrell Owens addition a little less impactful, because quarterback Trent Edwards (who has been injury prone) won’t have the same protection. The No. 28 pick probably won’t yield a top tackle, but having that pick could allow the Bills to get a top tackle with their pick at No. 11.
For Philly, this is a much needed addition. After letting longtime starting OTs Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan leave via free agency, the Eagles (who have always emphasized line play on both offense and defense) needed help. Peters will step in on the left side, while free-agent addition Stacy Andrews likely will get the right tackle spot. That’s a pretty good recovery by the Eagles.

7 – Seahawks trade LB Julian Peterson to Lions for DT Cory Redding and a 5th-round pick in ’09
Peterson’s first two years in Seattle were dynamic, as he used his freakish athleticism to make plays all over the field. But last season was not a good one for Peterson, who had just 5 sacks and struggled along with the rest of Seattle’s defense. After giving fellow LB Lofa Tatupu a big contract and franchising LB Leroy Hill, Seattle couldn’t stomach Peterson’s price tag anymore. Defensive tackle is a big need area, so they get Redding, who got paid big bucks last year. Redding has promise and makes some big plays but isn’t a force as consistently as a true bellwether DT should be. That’s why Detroit was willing to part with him. It will be interesting to see if new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz can unleash Peterson again. The guess here is that he can, and here’s why: Schwartz was in Tennessee when the Titans turned Jevon Kearse into “The Freak” who terrorized quarterbacks. I think Kearse and Peterson are comparable as athletes and in their builds. Something tells me that the plan in Detroit is to make Peterson the defense’s biggest weapon. Peterson has that level of ability, so that sounds like a good plan to me.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs trade TE Tony Gonzalez to Falcons for a 2010 second-round pick
Gonzalez is the most accomplished tight end in the game today, and he might end up with the best numbers of any tight end ever. He’s made 10 Pro Bowls in his 12 seasons and has 916 catches, nearly 11 thousand receiving yards, and 76 touchdowns. And he’s not slowing down; he had 96 catches for 1,058 yards and 10 scores last year in the Chiefs’ wild-and-crazy spread offense. But with new leadership in Kansas City, Gonzalez’s role going forward was a bit uncertain, and he’s made no secret of his desire to play for a contender. Atlanta is that, and Gonzalez shouldn’t have that much pressure on him in the ATL because the Falcons have a true No. 1 receiver in Roddy White. White and Gonzalez are a pretty good tandem for Matt Ryan to work with. And while Gonzalez is little more than an efficient blocker, the Falcons have a good blocking tight end in Justin Peelle who can rotate with or even play across from Gonzalez. All in all, it’s a good addition that will cost the Falcons nothing now but a second-rounder in 2010. By the way, the Chiefs may be thankful to wait a year on that pick, because it’s entirely possible that the second-rounder will be higher than the No. 55 spot, which is Atlanta’s second this weekend.

6 – Browns trade TE Kellen Winslow to Buccaneers for 2nd-round pick in ’09 and 5th-round pick in ’10
Kellen Winslow never quite lived up to his potential as a top-10 pick, but the second-generation tight end has certainly shown flashes of it in his five-year career – most notably during his 2007 Pro Bowl season. In Tampa, he’ll be at least the second receiving target (behind WR Antonio Bryant). Cleveland obviously wanted to turn the page and start over under a new coach and GM, and I’m not surprised they dealt Winslow. (I was expecting the trade to be WR Braylon Edwards to Philly, but this move is quite similar.) But the Browns will have to upgrade their offensive weapons if QB Brady Quinn (or Derek Anderson, if he starts) is going to have a chance of success. This move makes Tampa better, and it gives the Browns a chance to push the reset button harder and more effectively than they could have with Winslow still in the locker room.

5 – Eagles trade CB Lito Sheppard to Jets for fifth-round pick in ’09 and conditional pick in ’10
CB Lito Sheppard has wanted out of Philadelphia ever since the Eagles paid Asante Samuel instead of him lady offseason. Now Sheppard is getting his wish via a trade to the Jets. The Jets, who were so desperate for corner help last season that they signed Ty Law, now have a legitimate starter to pair with emerging star Darrelle Revis. Sheppard fits best as a No. 2 corner, so it’s a good landing spot for him. Philly is getting a fifth-round pick in ‘09 plus a conditional pick in 2010. They have Samuel, Sheldon Brown, and Joselio Hanson at corner, so the Eagles were dealing from a position of strength.

4  – Texans trade QB Sage Rosenfels to Vikings for 4th-round pick
In this post, we compared all of the quarterbacks in starting discussions on the relativity scale. Note that Rosenfels and incumbent Vikings starter Tarvaris Jackson were on the same tier. So does this make the Vikings better? Well, if you believe that competition will bring out the best in one or both of them, then maybe. But I’m more of the opinion that the Vikings now have 2 quarterbacks who are between the 25th and 40th best in the NFL, and that neither is going to elevate much beyond that point on a season-long basis. And that means that the quarterback spot remains a trouble spot for a Vikings team that is pretty strong almost everywhere else. This move does not a true contender make.

4 (con’t) – Patriots trade CB Ellis Hobbs to Eagles for two 2009 fifth-round picks
In this draft-day trade, the Patriots let go Hobbs, a great athlete who has been above-average but not great for New England. He’s a little too wild-eyed to be a consistent corner, but as a nickel back he’s good. Hobbs is also a dangerous return man. He makes sense for Philly after the Eagles traded Lito Sheppard, especially considering that Sheldon Brown is now asking for a deal. The price was right for the Eagles to add some depth just in case.

3- Eagles trade WR Greg Lewis and a 2010 draft pick to Patriots for a 2009 fifth-round draft pick
I’ve always liked Lewis, but he never became a consistent starter in Philadelphia. With the emergence of DeSean Jackson as a rookie last year, Lewis became merely a bit player in Philly. In New England, Lewis will drop into the Jabar Gaffney role as an outside receiver to complement Randy Moss and Wes Welker. That’s a role Lewis can succeed in. He’ll make at least three or four significant plays for the Pats in ’09 — well worth the cost of a fifth-round pick.

3 (con’t) – Dolphins trade C Samson Satele to Raiders for a 2009 sixth-round pick. Teams also swap fourth-round picks.
Satele was a second-round pick two years ago and an instant starter as a rookie, but he fell out of favor in Miami when Bill Parcells took over. Satele is more of a quick center than a powerful one, and Parcells has always preferred beefier linemen. When the Dolphins signed C Jake Grove this offseason, the writing was on the wall for Satele. But he’s a good get for Oakland (who lost Grove) and will probably start there.

3 (con’t) Jets trade DE Kenyon Coleman, S Abram Elam, and QB Brett Ratliff along with a first-round pick (17th overall) and a second-round pick to Browns for a first-round pick (5th overall)
This was the Mark Sanchez draft-day trade, and it would of course rate much higher on the scale in that light. But we’re rating it here solely on the veteran players who moved, and the truth is that none of them are special. Coleman is a decent 3-4 defensive end who’s good against the run, but he’s 30 years old, which means he’s not a core guy. The Browns tried to get Elam as a restricted free agent, but the Jets matched his 1-year, $1.5 million deal to keep him. Elam showed flashes of ability last year, but he was slated to be a backup in New York. He should at least be a starter in Cleveland. Ratliff is a former undrafted free agent who made a big splash in the preseason last year, but quarterbacks have often done without transferring that success to the regular season before. So I still view Ratliff as a long shot to ever be an NFL contributor. All in all, I think the Browns settled a little too easily in this deal in terms of the vets they got.

2- Cowboys trade DB Anthony Henry to Lions for QB Jon Kitna
An actual player-for-player trade is still pretty rare in the NFL, but this swap is exactly that. Kitna, who wanted out of Detroit after being benched for the year with a short-term injury last season, is an upgrade for the Cowboys at backup quarterback. (Brad Johnson was washed up when he had to play last year.) This gives the Cowboys more security in case Tony Romo gets hurt. Henry is no longer quick enough to play corner, but he has the size to move to safety, so he’s worth a shot for the Lions. Detroit needs so much help that they might have been better off just taking a draft pick from Dallas, but Henry should at least make the team.

2 (con’t) – Falcons trade WR Laurent Robinson to Rams. Teams also swap fifth- and sixth-round picks in ’09
Robinson showed promise in his rookie season in ’07, but he fell out of favor last year in Atlanta. Still, he’s a prospect who could turn into a third or fourth receiver, and given St. Louis’ dearth of receivers, he’s worth the small price. The Rams don’t even lose a draft pick – they just move down 20 spots or so in two rounds.

1 – Jaguars trade DT Tony McDaniel to Dolphins for 7th-round pick
McDaniel has been injury prone in his three year career, missing 23 games in that span. But the Dolphins believe he can be a rotation defensive end in their 3-4 defense. At this minor price, why not give him a shot?

1 (con’t) – Packers trade LS J.J. Jansen to Panthers for conditional 2011 7th-round pick
There won’t be a more minor deal this offseason than this, with a player who missed his first pro season due to injury being swapped for a pick two years from now. But it’s worth noting because it’s a sign of how hamstrung the Panthers are by the Julius Peppers situation. They are so tight against the cap that they couldn’t re-sign reliable veteran long snapper Jason Kyle. Instead, the Panthers will rely on a minimum-salary rookie who is completely untested as a pro. They need to do something with Peppers soon — a trade, a new deal, whatever — or else the only other additions will be via miniscule moves like this.

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