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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 16

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down. Now that we’re at the end of the seasons, we’re only noting players who have a chance of starting in a Week 17 championship game or who emerged out of nowhere in Week 16.

Tim Tebow

Quarterbacks

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – Freeman has emerged as a fantasy starter this year, and if you hadn’t noticed, Sunday’s five-TD performance against the Seahawks should have turned your head. He’s a top-10 fantasy quarterback both this year and next. Verdict: Applaud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer has had a solid fantasy season even though his on-field performance has been awful. But Sunday against the Chargers, he was truly good, throwing for 269 yards and four touchdowns while completing 16-of-21 passes. The fact that he put up such good numbers without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens was surprising, but the truth is that the Bengals are on their way to another late-season rush that means nothing. So if you want to ride Palmer next week against Baltimore, go ahead. Verdict: Applaud

Stephen McGee, Cowboys – McGee was pressed into action when Jon Kitna was injured on Christmas night, and he performed fairly well with 111 yards on 11-of-17 passing and one touchdown without an interception. If Kitna misses Week 17, McGee qualifies as a desperation play in two-QB or incredibly deep leagues because of Dallas’ strong receiving corps. We could see a two-TD game out of him as a starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Tebow, Broncos – In his first home start, Tebow ran for a touchdown (his fifth of the season) and threw for one. But the surprising stat was that he was able to shred the Texans’ admittedly sorry pass defense for 308 yards. Because of his rushing threat, Tebow is a startable fantasy player right now. His value is pinned to getting that rushing touchdown, but if you’re desperate, Tebow the Hero is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber had missed three games before returning on Christmas with a 58-yard game that included a touchdown. Barber still falls behind Felix Jones on the carries list in Dallas, but Marion the Barbarian is more likely to find the end zone than Jones. His return makes Tashard Choice irrelevant in fantasy terms, but that doesn’t mean we can trust Barber as a starter against the Eagles next week. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Filling in for Knowshon Moreno, Buckhalter had both a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. If Moreno is out next week, Buckhalter becomes a flex option, albeit one with some risk. Verdict: Applaud

Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Both Greene and Tomlinson scored touchdowns against the Bears. It was Greene’s second touchdown of the season (first since Week 5) and Tomlinson’s first rushing TD since Week 6. We noted a few weeks ago that Tomlinson has really been slowing down, and with the Jets clinching a playoff spot this week, you’d have to figure he gets a break next week vs. the Bills. Greene, meanwhile, had 70 rushing yards against the Bears and could be coming on. We’d much rather play Greene than Tomlinson next week, but it could be that the Jets give Joe McKnight a look to protect both guys. Avoid both next week. Verdict: A fraud for both

Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, Colts – The Colts brought Rhodes back off the UFL scrap heap two weeks ago, and this week Addai returned from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for more than a month. Those two returns have made Donald Brown irrelevant for fantasy owners, and while Addai scored a touchdown against the Raiders, Rhodes was the leading rusher with 98 yards on 17 carries. It’s impossible to tell how this will play out next week, which means you can’t start any of them. But Rhodes is worth a claim if he’s available in your league, because he could qualify as a desperation play. Verdict: A fraud for Addai, Applaud for Rhodes

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt was having a huge season until a Week 8 injury sidelined him for nearly five games. But since his return, Britt has had four catches in every game, and he followed up Week 15’s 128-yard performance with a four-catch, 89-yard game with a touchdown against the Chiefs. Despite the Titans’ lethargic play, Britt is a must-start guy right now. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Crabtree has had a disappointing season, garnering more than 61 receiving yards in just one game before his 122-yard performance against the Rams Sunday. Crabtree has talent, but the Smiths (Troy and Alex) at quarterback aren’t great, and so relying on him in any given week is just too much of a crapshoot. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox has emerged as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver this year, and he’s nearly over the 1,000-yard mark on the season. More importantly for fantasy owners, Knox scored two long touchdowns against the Jets, giving him five on the season. Four of those five have come in the last five games, which means Knox has reached must-start status next week against Green Bay. And don’t worry about weather – Jay Cutler has thrown well in bad weather against the Vikings and Jets the last couple of weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson rode an 80-yard touchdown catch to a big day against the Giants. But you can’t rely on him to repeat his 124-yard performance, because he clearly falls behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones in the pecking order. Verdict: A fraud

Andre Roberts, Cardinals – Roberts, a rookie out of The Citadel, had just 15 catches on the season before his five-catch, 122-yard breakout against the Cowboys that included a 74-yard touchdown. But somehow, Roberts went off while Larry Fitzgerald had just one catch and Steve Breaston and Early Doucet had none. That has all the looks of a one-week fluke that fantasy owners should ignore. Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Simpson, Bengals – With Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco out, Simpson broke out with a six-catch, 124-yard day against the Chargers that included two touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Simpson and Jordan Shipley are featured again next week as the Bengals figure out whether they can move on from the diva receivas in 2011. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Jared Cook, Titans – Cook, the Titans’ No. 2 tight end, had 96 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs. The Titans seem to want to get a better look at Cook and Craig Stevens right now, but Bo Scaife is healthy, which means you can’t rely on any of the Tennessee tight ends. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 13

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

Quarterbacks

Tarvaris Jackson

 

Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings – Jackson stepped for the injured Brett Favre and had a typical T-Jax game – throwing two touchdown passes but also turning the ball over three times, including one for a pick-6. Jackson has talent, and he has a talented corps of receivers to target. But if your league docks for turnovers, Jackson is too much of a risk to play. Still, in large leagues Jackson is worth a pickup this week, because if he takes over for Favre permanently (always a question), he’s going to get the Vikes in the end zone fairly frequently. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Schaub, Texans – Schaub threw for 337 yards and two scores against the Eagles, marking just his fourth 300-yard game of the season. Schaub has been a fantasy disappointment this year after playing his way up to elite status last year, but he has thrown multiple TD passes in three of the last four games. More importantly, the schedule really opens up for Schaub over the last four games against the so-so Ravens pass defense and the abysmal Titans, Broncos, and Jaguars secondaries. It’s time to reinstate Schaub as a starter. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Michael Bush, Raiders – Bush led the Raiders in carries with 25 (to Darren McFadden’s 19) and ran for 95 yards and a score against the Chargers. Obviously, the Raiders’ lead opened the door to plenty of carries for both backs, but most weeks McFadden is the preferable option. Bush is a potential flex play, but little more. Verdict: A fraud

Tashard Choice against the Colts, via espn.com

Tashard Choice, Cowboys – With Marion Barber out, it was Choice, not Felix Jones, who got the call against Indy. He responded with a 100-yard outing that included a touchdown. Barber could return next week, and if he does Choice loses fantasy relevance, but if Barber is inactive Choice is an intriguing option as an under-the-radar play. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Over the last two weeks, Jacobs has looked to have a lot more pop running the ball than he did early in the season. That’s something fantasy owners needed to notice. Jacobs is now a must start, and if you put him in your lineup for his 103-yard, two-touchdown day (that came on just eight carries), you were rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

Javarris James, Colts – James had just 18 yards on six carries, but he did score two touchdowns against the Cowboys. He actually led the Colts in carries (to 5 for Donald Brown and 4 for Mike Hart). But you can’t count on James to get in the end zone once, let alone twice. You can’t start any of these Colts backs. Verdict: A fraud

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks – Lynch’s tenure in Seattle has been a fantasy disappointment, so his three-TD game against the Panthers came out of nowhere. But given Lynch’s game stats, you simply can’t rely on him as a fantasy starter, even after Sunday’s solid game. Verdict: A fraud

James Starks and Brandon Jackson, Packers – In the Packers’ win over the 49ers, it was Starks, not Brandon Jackson, that got the majority of the work. Since Jackson’s value is completely tied to workload, his four-carry day is a major red flag. You cannot start him next week. Starks, who had 18 carries for 73 yards, is worth a pickup, because if he gets that much work every week he’ll find the end zone in Green Bay’s prolific O. Verdict: Applaud for Starks, A fraud for Jackson

Wide receivers

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver had just six catches between Week 7 and Week 12, in large part because of injury, but he rebounded with four catches for 73 yards and a score against the 49ers. That’s a great sign that Driver is back and ready to contribute for fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem hasn’t been a fantasy force for much of the year, but he has started to deliver in recent weeks. He’s had 50-plus yards three weeks in a row, including Sunday’s three-catch, 106-yard day against the Bengals Sunday. Plus, he has three TDs in the last three games. If you’re looking for receiver help, Meachem is an acceptable flex option for the first time all season. Verdict: Applaud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – In his third game of the season after offseason knee injury, Rice had his first big game, combining with Tarvaris Jackson for five catches, 105 yards, and two touchdowns. That’s a great sign of Rice’s health. He should be ready to be a fantasy factor for owners patient enough to hold on to him (or savvy enough to grab him off the waiver wire in time). Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne remains a No. 1 fantasy receiver, and he delivered with a 200-yard game (on 14 catches) against Dallas. That put him over 1,100 yards for the season. His TD numbers are a little light, but you can still count on Wayne. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Vernon Davis against the Packers, via espn.com

 

Vernon Davis, 49ers – Davis has had a disappointing year, and entering Sunday’s game he hadn’t produced much since Troy Smith took over at quarterback for the Niners. But he busted out for four catches, 126 yards, and a touchdown against the Packers. It’s too soon to return Davis to the TE elite, but at least he rewarded owners who have stuck with him all season. Verdict: A fraud

Cameron Morrah, Seahawks – Morrah, who was filling in for the injured John Carlson, had three catches for 69 yards against the Panthers. He became the only big-receiver option for the Hawks after in-game injuries to Mike Williams and Ben Obamanu. Without those circumstances going forward, it’s hard to see Morrah doing much, but if Carlson is out next week, Morrah could suffice as a Hail Mary play for owners in mega-deep leagues. Verdict: A fraud

Benjamin Watson, Browns – Watson had his best game of the season with 10 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. He’s been a solid producer all season who is a nice fallback option for owners who find their tight end out for a week. Keep him high on your list of fill-ins. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 12

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

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

Jay Cutler against the Eagles

Quarterbacks

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

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

Toby Gerhart

Running backs

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

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

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

Jacoby Ford

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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November 29, 2010 · 5:36 pm

Thanksgiving Leftovers – Saints/Cowboys, Patriots/Lions, Jets/Bengals

Most weeks, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. But this week, we’re going to present our thoughts on all three Thanksgiving Day games. After we feature the Saints’ 30-27 victory over the Cowboys, the Patriots’ 45-24 win over the Lions, and the Jets’ 26-10 victory over the Bengals, we’ll throw in some Fantasy Football perspective for dessert.

Malcolm Jenkins (27) chases down Roy Williams to make the biggest play of the day. Via espn.com

 

Saints/Cowboys thoughts
*The premiere individual play of Thanksgiving Day was Malcom Jenkins’ forced fumble against Roy Williams late in the fourth quarter. Willams broke free in the secondary with the Cowboys’ leading by four, but Jenkins caught up and ripped the ball out to force a fumble that set up the Saints’ game-winning drive. While some outlets blasted Williams for a boneheaded play,Williams didn’t make a bad play; Jenkins made a great one. There’s an important difference.  So it’s hard to blast Williams for the loss.
*The Cowboys fell behind early 17-0 but rallied, which shows that Jason Garrett has added quite a bit of fight to a team that would have rolled over in that situation a month ago. Despite losing a fourth-quarter lead, that’s a good sign.
*While the Cowboys showed some fight, they had a bunch of mistakes – seven fumbles (even though only two were lost) and an interception. It’ll be interesting to see if Garrett and the coaching staff can eliminate mistakes down the stretch.
*The Saints won largely because they could make deep plays against the Cowboys’ struggling secondary. Devery Henderson’s 57-yard catch set up the first touchdown, and Robert Meachem’s 55-yard streak down the right sideline set up the game-winning score. Drew Brees threw beautiful passes in both situations, and without both plays, the Saints would have been sunk.

Wes Welker breaks free against the Lions. Via espn.com

 

Patriots/Lions thoughts
*The Patriots’ offense doesn’t miss Randy Moss at all. Tom Brady threw four TD passes, two each to Wes Welker and Deion Branch, in a complete dissection of Detroit’s mediocre secondary. And the Patriots’ running game looked good with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Those two runners, though unheralded, bring more punch and explosiveness than veterans Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk did at the beginning of the year.
*I felt bad for former Wake Forest star Alphonso Smith, whom the Patriots absolutely abused throughout the game.  Smith, a former second-rounder, has been a nice addition for the Lions since they dealt a former seventh-rounder (Dan Gronkowski) for him before the season, but this game showed that Smith is a nickelback, not a starting corner.
*While the Patriots’ offense was strong, it was interesting to hear Brady talk after the game about how strong the Lions’ defensive line is. Rookie Ndamukong Suh was especially forceful, recording a sack and wreaking even more havoc. But it was Patriots CB Devin McCourty, not Suh, that was the best first-round rookie on the field. McCourty has developed into an asset for the Patriots’ defense. Now they just need to find a corner who can thrive across from him.
*The Lions went for a touchdown on fourth down (much like the Cowboys did against the Saints). It was the kind of decision that a playoff team can’t make, but for a team trying to establish an identity, we like the move. Jim Schwartz doesn’t have the defense he hopes to one day, but we like the team and the culture he’s building in Detroit.

Santonio Holmes, via espn.com

Jets/Bengals thoughts
*Brad Smith isn’t on the top 10 list of Jets you would expect to single-handedly win a game for the team, but he did just that against the Bengals. His 53-yard run and 89-yard punt return were the two biggest plays of the game. Smith is a niche player, but the Jets know that he can help them from time to time if given enough chances. He certainly did Thursday night.
*The Bengals’ offense just isn’t strong enough to hang with a solid team like the Jets. Carson Palmer threw for just 135 yards, and he threw two interceptions, including a key red-zone turnover in the second quarter. Given the targets Palmer has, he simply must do more to keep his team in games.
*The Jets did a good job defenisvely in the game, although they didn’t make a ton of big impact plays. If the Jets continue to get efforts like that one, they will get enough offense from their running game and the Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes combo to be solid playoff contenders.
*While there’s a lot to dislike about the Bengals, we’re bullish on the future of rookie WR Jordan Shipley, who had a TD in this game. Shipley is a Wes Welker type of player who should really make an impact for Cincy in future years. The other hat tip we have is for Bengals NT Domata Peko, who plays hard and makes an impact despite his low profile.

Fantasy Football perspective
*New Orleans RB Chris Ivory scored two touchdowns against the Cowboys, but he likely won’t be a fantasy factor as Reggie Bush starts to get reintegrated into the offense and Pierre Thomas returns. We hope you took advantage of Ivory’s role when he had it, because he won’t be much more than a short-yardage back (at best) going forward.
*Felix Jones had just 44 rushing yards for the Cowboys, but he also had seven catches for 69 yards. Since Jason Garrett took over, Jones has had at least 86 yards from scrimmage in each game. That makes him a fantasy flex play. However, the fact that the Cowboys continue to use Marion Barber and Tashard Choice over Jones on the goal line keeps Jones from being more of a factor.
*Jahvid Best was active but did not play for the Lions, which opened the door for Maurice Morris to score two touchdowns. It’s hard to rely on Best at this point given his injury problems, but Morris is the definition of a journeyman back. Don’t get too excited about his performance.
*With Matthew Stafford out, Shaun Hill remains a decent fantasy option. He threw for 285 yards and a touchdown in this game, and he’s good enough to take advantage of Detroit’s solid cadre of targets.
*While Brad Smith scored twice against the Bengals, he’s not a consistent enough producer to be worth a fantasy football roster spot.

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Cowboys/Giants Thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week we focused on the Jason Garrett bowl, as the Cowboys took advantage of their fresh start with a 33-20 win in the Meadowlands.

Dez Bryant's TD catch, via espn.com

On-field perspective
*Who knows if Jason Garrett brought a fresh perspective to the Cowboys, but the fact that the Cowboys got off to a quick start made a huge difference. Dallas was able to build on its early success, and once they took a 20-point lead, they never lost it. We’ll have to see if the Cowboys can bounce back from a deficit, but this was a good start for Garrett.
*The Cowboys’ defense was far from special, going without a sack. But the Cowboys had two picks, including one that Bryan McCann returned for a touchdown. Paul Pasqualoni’s new defense focuses more on a zone defense, which should help Dallas’ sorry secondary, but giving up 373 passing yards isn’t exactly a rousing start. Dallas still has issues despite the win.
*The Cowboys’ offense worked better, although that might have been a statement on the Giants than a Jon Kitna success story. Kitna thew for 327 yards with just 13 completions, but he made big plays to Felix Jones, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and even Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett. The best sign was that five different Cowboys went for 25-plus-yard plays. If the Cowboys can use all their weapons, they’ll start to get out of the hole they dug themselves.
*The Giants, meanwhile, never rebounded from their slow start. Despite big passing numbers, Eli Manning didn’t keep the offense moving consistently, and the receivers didn’t help him because of drops. But the biggest problem came on two fourth-and-1 plays in the fourth quarter on which the Giants failed (punting once into the end zone and getting Brandon Jacobs stuffed on another). A first down in either situation would have helped the Giants cut a 13-point deficit into a one-score situation, but the Giants failed both times.
*Bryant is a phenomenal player, and he’ll soon beat out Williams and Austin to be the Cowboys’ prime target – even though Williams and Austin are both playing on huge contracts. Drafting Bryant was a great move, but Jerry Jones complicated things by giving Austin a huge contract just before the season. Austin’s a good player, but he’ll be making way too much money to be Bryant’s complement.

Fantasy Football perspective
*We covered Jon Kitna, Mario Manningham, and Felix Jones in this week’s Applaud or a Fraud (which we posted early). Check out our thoughts there.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 10

Each week, we pore through the box scores to analyze fantasy football performances and tell you whether to applaud them or whether to consider them a fraud. With each verdict, we’ll make sure you know exactly what it means.

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – As the Chiefs fell behind 42-10, Cassel was freed to throw like crazy, and the results were 469 passing yards and four touchdowns. That’s certainly not representative of Cassel’s normal opportunities, and it’s foolish to expect big numbers from Cassel going forward. Verdict: A fraud 

Matt Ryan of the Falcons, via espn.com

David Garrard, Jaguars – It’s been kind of quiet, but for the second straight game Garrard went crazy. He’s now thrown for 602 yards and six TDs over the past two games, so if you’re looking for a quarterback, it may be time to ride the hot hand with Garrard. Verdict: Applaud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – After two horrendous games as a starter, Kitna went crazy against the Giants, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns despite completing only 13 passes. Maybe the Jason Garrett era will be kinder to Kitna, but we wouldn’t count on it. For now, keep Kitna out of your starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Ryan continued his stellar play at home, throwing for 316 yards and three TDs against the Ravens. At this point, if he’s at the Georgia Dome, he should be in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Mike Goodson, Panthers – With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both out, Goodson broke out for a 100-yard game against the Buccaneers. His role going forward this season is uncertain, but if you’re desperate for RB help Goodson is worth a claim just in case the Panthers give him a longer look. Verdict: Applaud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson had a monster game against the Lions, scoring two touchdowns and piling up 170 yards from scrimmage. He’s undoubtedly the best running back Buffalo has, and while he won’t always have matchups as attractive as Detroit, he’s still good enough to be a top-25 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – While we don’t believe Kitna’s a good bet, it seems plausible that Jason Garrett’s goal as a head coach will be to feature Jones more in the offense. Jones had 136 yards from scrimmage against the Giants, including a 71-yard touchdown catch. At this point, we’d recommend starting Jones next week to see if this is the start of a trend. Verdict: Applaud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno ran for 106 yards and had 50 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Broncos’ blowout of the Chiefs. While Moreno doesn’t normally get that many rushing yards, he usually has enough receiving catches to make him a borderline top 20 running back. As long as he stays healthy, he should be starting for you. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Tough day at the office for Tennessee's Randy Moss

 

Mario Manningham, Giants – Manningham moved into the starting lineup with Steve Smith out, and he delivered 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. As long as Smith is out, Manningham is a worthy flex play in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had just a single catch for 26 yards against the Dolphins, and he was only targeted four times (vs. 9 each for Bo Scaife, Nate Washington, and Justin Gage). Moss is bench-worthy until he proves to have a better role in the Tennessee offense. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas has been a consistent factor for the Jaguars, averaging four catches a game, and he finally broke through with eight catches for 149 yards and a score against the Texans. That included the game-winning 50-yard catch at the gun on an incredible Hail Mary. While this was Thomas’ first 100-yard game in his career, he’s been more consistent as a fantasy producer than better known teammate Mike Sims-Walker. Thomas is a guy worth a look as a third receiver in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter had six catches for 90 yards and a score against the Jaguars, but that doesn’t mean he’s back to his 2009 form. He still has just 28 catches on the season, which means his fantasy production is highly dependent on finding the end zone. We can’t recommend him as anything more than an emergency starter. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Anthony Fasano, Dolphins – Fasano had five catches for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Titans, putting up big numbers despite the fact that the Dolphins had to turn to their third QB by the end of the game. While these numbers are impressive, there are other tight ends (including the next guy in this post) that we’d turn to before we stuck Fasano in the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – Gresham had nine catches for 85 yards and a score against the Colts, keeping his solid rookie season on pace. Gresham now has three scores on the year, and he has 40 catches on the season. Given the massive TE injuries, Gresham has moved into the top-15 at the position for fantasy purposes. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Jaguars – The other Zach Miller (not the Raiders’ TE) had four catches for 79 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown. But he’s behind Marcedes Lewis on the Jags’ depth chart, and he’s not a fantasy factor. Don’t get confused by the names or this week’s numbers. Verdict: A fraud

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Cowboys Wade out, but still in deep end

Coach Phillips

Image by jason.s via Flickr

I like Wades. I have a nephew named Wade who’s a trip. My hometown has an unbelievable meat-and-three diner called Wade’s. I like wading in a creek or on the edge of the ocean. And, though I’ve never met him, I like Wade Phillips. He’s a fine defensive coordinator and has been at least a decent head coach in four stops with an 82-61 record. Wade Phillips is a likeable guy. But Wade Phillips’ team, the Dallas Cowboys, have gone into the abyss this season.

So Wade Phillips is out – fired as the Cowboys’ head coach by Jerry Jones on Monday. Phillips is the sacrificial lamb for a team that has completely imploded with sloppy play, dropped passes, and unmet potential. Given Dallas’ abysmal play – throughout the season and especially in Sunday night’s 45-7 embarrassment in Green Bay – Phillips simply had to go. Something had to change if the Cowboys wanted to get anything positive out of the second half of the season, and that something is Phillips.

The firing doesn’t get the Cowboys out of the deep end. Dallas still has a ton of problems – a running game that has been bad because of backs, Marion Barber and Felix Jones, who have lost their burst; a backup quarterback in Jon Kitna who turns the ball over way too much; an offensive line that just isn’t any good; a secondary that is playing far below its previous level, especially CB Mike Jenkins; receivers like Miles Austin and Roy Williams who have talent but not consistency; and on and on. Despite solid talent, the Cowboys don’t have performance. Ultimately, Jerry Jones blamed Phillips for that, and coaches have to be responsible. It’s their job to coax results out of talented players. Phillips didn’t do that this year. But the players have to face the fact that they’re 1-7 because they have played poorly. It’s their fault just as much as Phillips’ fault.

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, once a golden boy but now a whipping boy for his play-calling, now gets an eight-game look as a head coach. This may be his one chance to prove he can be an NFL head coach. Garrett needs to show head-coach skills in organization, game-planning, and overall approach to get a job, if not in Dallas than elsewhere in the NFL. If not, he’ll be an interim head coach who likely has to go elsewhere to be a coordinator again. It’s smart of Jones to put pressure on Garrett by appointing him, and not a retread like Dave Campo or Paul Pasqualoni, as interim head coach. The season is already sunk in the deep end; instead of trying to salvage a few wins, getting a good read on Garrett’s capability is evaluation that helps the Cowboys make a plan moving forward.

The Cowboys aren’t getting out of the deep end in 2010, and our predicition is that Garrett isn’t the one to lead them back to dry land, much less the Promised Land. The one beacon of hope for the Cowboys is that players will get the message from this firing that they must do better. If that doesn’t happen, the Cowboys will be sinking instead of swimming in the future just as as they are last year – only Wade Phillips won’t be around to be the fall guy next time.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 5

Which fantasy football standouts from Week 5 do you need to trust, and which performances should you write off as flukes? Each week we answer these questions by going through these performances and deciding whether to applaud or whether it’s a fraud. As always, with each verdict, we’ll give context for what it means.

Donovan McNabb against the Packers. Via espn.com

Quarterbacks

Donovan McNabb, Redskins – McNabb threw for 357 yards against the Packers, but it came with just one touchdown. McNabb has put up good yardage numbers, but his lack of touchdowns keeps him from being a top-12 quarterback for fantasy purposes – especially once bye weeks finish. He’s a spot starter, nothing more. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Michael Bush, Raiders – With Darren McFadden sidelined, Bush ran for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers, and added 31 yards for good measure. It goes to show that Bush is talented. However, McFadden’s early-season success means that Bush isn’t simply going to take over the job. Fantasy players need to watch the situation to see how it plays out. Verdict: A fraud

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – We discussed why Charles is the only Chief you should be starting in our Chiefs/Colts post. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Hart, Colts – We covered Hart in our Chiefs/Colts post and shared how he could be an option for your lineup next week. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jackson, Packers – Jackson ran for 110 yards and had 25 receiving yards against the Redskins, but a 71-yard run accounted for more than half of his production. Jackson simply isn’t a special back, which means his fantasy value comes from his exceptional opportunity in Green Bay with Ryan Grant out. That means Jackson is a flex play but nothing more. If you blew your waivers budget grabbing Jackson, you need to be making other plans. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones had 109 rushing yards against the Titans, marking his first breakout game of the season. He also had 15 carries, while Marion Barber had six and Tashard Choice none. We’re not ready to mark this as Jones’ ascension to a fantasy starter, but it’s worth watching. Verdict: A fraud

Malcom Floyd against the Raiders. From espn.com

Wide receivers

Danny Amendola, Rams – Amendola had 12 catches for 95 yards against the Lions, and more importantly, Mark Clayton was injured, leaving Amendola as the Rams’ best receiving option. That makes Amendola worth a roster spot in 12-team leagues. Consider claiming him this week. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – We covered Bowe in our Chiefs/Colts post and shared why you shouldn’t start him. Verdict: A fraud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Crabtree has had a disappointing season, but he looked like a No. 1 receiver in the making against the Eagles. That’s a first sign of progress for Crabtree this season, and a hopeful sign for fantasy owners who have been waiting on him to deliver. Verdict: Applaud

Malcom Floyd, ChargersFloyd broke the two-century mark with eight catches for 213 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders. With Vincent Jackson’s holdout looking like a long-term issue, Floyd is undoubtedly the Chargers’ No. 1 wideout, and he should end up as a top 20 fantasy receiver. That means Floyd’s a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Stevie Johnson, Bills – Johnson had two touchdowns against the Jaguars, and he’s established himself as the Bills’ No. 2 receiving threat. He’s worth picking up in larger leagues, but the Bills’ overall struggles mean that Johnson doesn’t have a ton of value in normal-sized leagues. Remember that Lee Evans, the No. 1 wideout in Buffalo, isn’t really worth starting in most leagues before you pull the trigger on adding Johnson. Johnson’s a talent, but his situation isn’t great. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Lloyd, Broncos – Lloyd had another huge game against the Ravens with 135 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He’s never produced at this level before, but at this point fantasy owners absolutely must start him every week. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Separating RB teammates

Ricky Williams

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 As we prepared our Fantasy Football draft board, we cross-checked our list against others around the web, and we noticed that we had a contrarian view of how fantasy numbers of NFL teammates at running back will compare. So in this post, we’re going to break down several of these teammate situations to explain our thinking – and hopefully give you a leg up in your draft process.

(By the way, our Draft Board broke all sorts of traffic records for the blog. Thanks to everyone who checked it out, and welcome back. Hopefully you’ll find more useful fantasy insights and NFL analysis throughout the 2010 season.)

Giants – Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Brandon Jacobs – Most fantasy analysts are pointing to Jacobs as the best fantasy option in New York, hearkening back to Jacobs’ solid 2008 fantasy season. But the reality is that Bradshaw was the best back in blue last year, averaging a yard per carry more than Jacobs. And even though he’s smaller than the bullish Jacobs, Bradshaw outscored Jacobs 7 touchdowns to 6. Jacobs appears to be wearing down, while Bradshaw seems to be emerging as a running threat. Our sense is that Bradshaw will take over the starting job this year and be on the good side of a 60-40 carries split, which will mean Jacobs’ fantasy stake will depend totally on touchdowns. We’d take Bradshaw as a top-25 running back, but Jacobs is a low-upside No. 4 back on our board. Bradshaw’s the better bet, and it’s not close.

Dolphins – Ricky Williams vs. Ronnie Brown – Most evaluators include both Williams and Brown among the top 25 at running back, but most of them favor Brown over Williams. We don’t, and here’s why. Williams had better yards-per-carry and yards-per-catch averages than Brown, and his fantasy numbers were less dependent on scoring than Brown’s were. Williams is also a better receiver than Brown. We expect Williams to end up with about 1,200 yards from scrimmage, while Brown will end up with about 1,000. Unless Brown outscores Williams by a bunch, Williams will be the more valuable fantasy back.

Cowboys – Marion Barber vs. Felix Jones – Barber outgained Jones 932-685 last year, even though Jones averaged 1.3 yards per carry more last season. Barber also had 14 more catches than Jones. A little bit of those accumulated differences is due to the fact that Jones missed two games, but he’s missed games in both of his pro seasons. Barber (who missed one game himself) has proven to be a consistent producer of both yardage and touchdowns over his career, and he’s a much surer bet than Jones. Jones will have bigger games than Barber, but Barber’s season-long production makes him a more valuable fantasy option.

Browns – Jerome Harrison vs. Montario Hardesty – Fantasy pundits are all over Harrison after he piled up 561 yards and five touchdowns in the final three weeks of the season last year. But we’d encourage you to slow your roll on Harrison. He was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on the season before those games (against the Raiders, Chiefs, and Jaguars, not one a top-level defense) and hadn’t scored a touchdown on 88 carries. We’d rather bet on rookie Montario Hardesty, who had a good career at Tennessee, than on Harrison coming anywhere close to replicating his out-of-character end-of-season stats. So we have Hardesty as a No. 3 fantasy back and Harrison as a No. 4.

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