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FR: 2012 Franchise Players

Each year, we use Football Relativity as a tool to compare the class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy.

DEFINITIONS: Under the current rules, the franchise tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position as determined by a new, complicated formula. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team.

Saints QB Drew Brees, via si.com

On to the comparison. All players are non-exclusive franchise players except for the first entry, Drew Brees.

10 – QB Drew Brees, Saints – It’s amazing that the Saints couldn’t get a deal with Brees, who is an elite, championship-quality quarterback at the top of his game. But the team and Brees are so far apart on a long-term contract that they had to use the tag. That’s a good financial deal for the team in 2012 – the $15 million or so they’ll pay for the exclusive franchise tag is below market value for a quarterback of Brees’ caliber. But it keeps the Saints from tagging other free agents like OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston, and it could also make it harder to get Brees signed long-term down the line. Chances are the Brees waits till the last possible moment to sign the tender, since that’s the only way he maintains leverage – by missing offseason workouts. That’s not a good way to go into the offseason and try to bounce back from a painful playoff loss in San Francisco. The Saints may claim to be financially responsible, but it seems like they’re just being cheap.

9 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is by far the Ravens’ best offensive player, and they cannot afford to lose him. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine paying the freight for a long-term deal for a running back who has gotten as many carries as Rice has. But the Ravens need to follow the examples of the Vikings (with Adrian Peterson), the Panthers (with DeAngelo Williams), and the Texans (with Arian Foster) and keep Rice around for the long term. Baltimore has a strong front office, and so we can expect them to make a deal at some point this offseason. Until then, Rice stays put on a $7.7 million tag.

9 (con’t) – RB Matt Forte, Bears – Like Rice, Forte is a do-everything back who is the best offensive player for his team. And while Forte was injured last season, he returned to play in the Pro Bowl to prove he is healthy headed into free agency. Forte may be half a step behind Rice in terms of talent, but he is as productive and as essential. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears end up paying Forte over the long haul.

8 – WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson is one of the most unique players in the league. Few receivers have the pure speed that he has, and so few receivers can take the top off a defense like Jackson. But he’s also a prickly personality who probably needs to be a premium No. 2 receiver but who demands the attention, targets, and money of a No. 1 wideout. For those reasons, the Eagles may look to deal Jackson if the right offer comes along. If not, the Eagles will pay Jackson $9.4 million to keep him around for 2012, and that price, though steep, is still palatable. The resolution of this tag situation will be one of the most interesting sagas of the offseason.

7 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots – The Patriots found Welker as a restricted free agent and turned him into the league leader in receptions. He’s nearly unstoppable coming out of the slot, and at this point he is Tom Brady’s preferred target. Welker’s reliable presence has allowed the Pats to develop tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski into down-field targets, and that should take a little pressure off Welker. But until New England finds a true outside threat, Welker is still irreplaceable. That made it a no-brainer decision to put the tag on Welker and make sure he’s around in 2012.

6 – CB Brent Grimes, Falcons – Grimes has developed into the type of cornerback who gets the shutdown label. That’s been vital in Atlanta, who had sought to find that corner first by drafting DeAngelo Hall and then by paying Dunta Robinson. Grimes is now better than both of them, and that means the Falcons can’t afford to lose him. The $10.6 million franchise tag is pretty stiff, but it’s a price the Falcons can’t help but pay. If they want to move from being an annual playoff team to being a true title contender, they need to add players like Grimes, not lose them.

6 (con’t) – DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals – Campbell has developed into a top-flight 3-4 defensive end, and those guys are incredibly hard to find. So the Cardinals are willing to spend $10.6 million to keep Campbell around for 2012. Last year was Campbell’s best, as he had eight sacks, 11 passes deflected, and even blocked three field goals. He is now a core player for the Cardinals, and so tagging him is definitely worthwhile. Campbell did get the non-exclusive tag, but it’s unlikely he will get away for two first-round picks.

6 (con’t) – WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After signing CB Stanford Routt, it became obvious that the Chiefs would let CB Brandon Carr enter free agency and instead tag Bowe, who has produced big numbers as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Bowe isn’t always consistent, and he can even disappear at times, but his combination of size and speed is rare. With a new offensive system in place now that Todd Haley is gone, the Chiefs need to give Matt Cassel and company the best chance to succeed, and that means keeping Bowe in town, even if he’s not a perfect receiver a la Larry Fitzgerald. So the $9.4 million tag for Bowe is a necessary move, even if it seems too pricy.

5 – S Michael Griffin, Titans – Instead of tagging CB Cortland Finnegan for $10.6 million, the Titans chose to keep former Pro Bowler Griffin around. The former first-round pick had his best season in 2010, and he has 17 picks in his five seasons. He’s a rangy player who helps corners like Finnegan play more aggressively by providing a safety net. That’s a worthwhile role, and it makes Griffin a solid investment at $6.2 million in 2012.

5 (con’t) – DE Cliff Avril, Lions – Avril is a developing player who had a career-high with 11 sacks in 2011. Obviously, he is benefitting from playing with a talented defensive line, but he has emerged as the best pass-rusher on the end over Kyle Vanden Bosch. Avril can be a core player, but the $8.8 million one-year tag is a little steep given his resume. Still, given the premium for pass rushers on the open market, it’s no surprise that the Lions used the tag to keep him around.

4 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson hit the free-agent market unfettered last year, but in the compressed offseason he didn’t get the kind of attention he wanted. After signing a one-year deal, Goldson now hits the market again, but this time the 49ers tagged him. He’s worth keeping for $6.2 million because he’s a big, rangy safety who hits. By tagging Goldson, the 49ers risk losing CB Carlos Rogers, who had a fine season last year. But Goldson’s tag is cheaper than Rogers’ would have been, and he’s been a key starter in San Francisco longer.

4 (con’t) – OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer, a former first-round pick, had a break-out season in 2009 but has leveled off a bit the last two seasons. He’s a good outside linebacker who can create pass rush across from DeMarcus Ware, but he’s not a dynamic player. The Cowboys need to ink Spencer to a long-term deal to lessen the $8.8 million tag he’s currently under, but they’re wise to keep him.

3 – S Tyvon Branch, Raiders – Branch is a solid starter for the Raiders, not a game-changing player. But after losing CB Stanford Routt to a salary-cap saving move earlier this offseason, and with FS Michael Huff perhaps headed for the same fate, the Raiders wanted some continuity in the secondary. Branch will now provide that at strong safety for a $6.2 million price tag. By tagging Branch, the Raiders opted to let RB Michael Bush hit the open market. Picking Branch over Bush (a part-time player who would have cost $7.7 million) was probably the right move for a team with serious salary-cap management issues.

3 (con’t) – DE Robert Mathis, Colts – The Colts franchised Mathis then quickly re-signed him just after the deadline. We discussed more about why this isn’t a great idea in this post. Still, Mathis is a quality player and a potent pass rusher, so he’s worth a contract to someone.

2 – TE Fred Davis, Redskins – Davis is a good player, but he’s not a franchise-caliber player. Plus, he served a four-game suspension under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy to end the 2011 season. But the recalculated franchise value means that tight ends are tagged at $5.4 million, and Davis is worth that. In fact, the Redskins might be better off paying him a one-year contract than investing long term in a guy who needs to answer character questions. Davis is a talented receiver, and with Chris Cooley breaking down due to injuries, he will definitely help. But if the tag was at the 2011 level that was $2 million higher, Davis would be hitting the open market. By tagging Davis, the Redskins are letting S LaRon Landry hit the market, which makes sense, because Landry would cost more and is injured too often.

2 (con’t) – PK Phil Dawson, Browns – Dawson will cost more than most kickers – $3.8 million vs. $2.6 – because he was franchised last year as well. He has proven to be a solid kicker in the unfriendly Cleveland weather, and the original Brown (at least Brown 2.0) is a fan favorite. At some point, the Browns will need to lock Dawson in on a long-term deal to keep him, but they’re willing to pay the freight year by year for now.

2 (con’t) – PK Matt Prater, Broncos – Prater has huge power in his leg, which makes him a perfect fit for the high altitude in Denver. He’s good at creating touchbacks and also dependable on long-distance field-goals. That makes him a valuable weapon, especially in the Tim Tebow era where first downs aren’t always easy to come by. The Broncos get to keep that weapon at a reasonable $2.5 million price.

2 (con’t) – PK Josh Scobee, Jaguars – Scobee isn’t well known, but he also has a big-time leg that shows itself on kickoffs and field goals. For a Jaguars team that isn’t always a big spender, paying the lowest franchise tag to keep a solid kicker in town makes sense. Tagging DE Jeremy Mincey would have cost much more but kept an impactful pass rusher, but Scobee is a guy the Jaguars need too.

1 – PK Mike Nugent, Bengals – The recalculated franchise values made it almost a bargain to keep a kicker with a one-year franchise tag at $2.6 million, which is a bit below the market value of a top kicker. That led the Bengals to lock in Nugent, the former Jet who has done a nice job of stabilizing the kicking position since moving to Cincinnati. The Bengals may be better off letting Nugent play under the tag in 2012 and trying to lock in a long-term deal for 2013 and beyond than doing the long-term deal now, since Nugent is coming off a great year but has shown inconsistency in the past.

1 (con’t) – P Steve Weatherford, Giants – Weatherford had a nice season moving across the hall in the Meadowlands from the Giants to the Jets, and his NFC championship game performance against the 49ers was spectacular. He isn’t a Shane Lechler/Andy Lee level of punter, but for a one-year, $2.5 million price tag, he’s a worthwhile investment. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants seek to lower that cap number by investing in Weatherford for the long term, or whether they wait for him to prove it once again.

1 (con’t) – PK Connor Barth, Buccaneers – Barth has emerged as a solid kicker in his 2 1/2 years in Tampa Bay, and his 26-for-28 field-goal performance in 2011 was terrific. But he’s not a kickoff specialist – Michael Koenen does that for the Bucs – and he’s not an elite long-distance kicker a la Scobee or Prater. Still, given the low franchise-tag number for kickers, you can’t criticize the Bucs for buying a little certainty for $2.5 million.

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Filed under Crazy Kicker of the Week, Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency

FR: 2011 In-season Suspensions

Each season, we use our Football Relativity tool to compare the impact and importance of suspensions around the NFL. We covered preseason suspensions in this post; now, it’s time to look at in-season suspensions. We compare them using our Football Relativity tool, in which 10 signifies the most damaging suspensions and 1 the least damaging. We’ll update this post throughout the 2011 regular season.

Bengals RB Cedric Benson, via bengals.com

10 – DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions (2 games for stomping a Packers player in Week 12) – On Thanksgiving Day, Suh’s temper got the best of him as he stomped Packers OG Evan Dietrich-Smith. That led to a two-game suspension for the star defensive tackle, right in the midst of Detroit’s playoff push. It was a stiff punishment for on-field action, but Suh’s growing litany of over-aggressive or dirty play made the suspension necessary.

9 – OLB James Harrison, Steelers (1 game for helmet-to-helmet hit) – Harrison has often run afoul of the league’s player-safety initiatives, and when he lowered a head-to-head hit on Browns QB Colt McCoy in Week 13, his past misdeeds caught up to him. So Harrison was suspended for Pittsburgh’s Week 14 game in San Francisco, a 20-3 Steelers lost.

8 – OT Trent Williams and TE Fred Davis, Redskins (4 games each for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy) – Two of the Redskins’ best four players sat out the final four games of the season after failing a post-lockout drug test. The fact that they got an extra strike under the substance-abuse policy and still got caught is a bad sign for Washington in 2012 and beyond, but by the time the suspensions came down, the season was already a lost cause for the Redskins. In that sense, it’s a break for Washington to get these suspensions out of the way so that both players can start 2012 fresh – if they behave.

7 – RB Cedric Benson, Bengals (1 game for violating the league’s personal conduct policy) – Originally, the league levied a three-game suspension on Benson, but on appeal it was reduced to one game plus a one-game-check fine. Benson, the Bengals’ lead running back, had two misdemeanor assault cases during the 2011 offseason. It’s a blow to the Bengals, who rely heavily on Benson and who won’t have him in Week Eight at the Seahawks. But the loss is not nearly as big as it could have been.

6 – Vikings CB Chris Cook (2 games by team) – Cook was suspended by the Vikings for Weeks 7 and 8 after a domestic assualt felony charge. Cook, who has had legal problems before, started getting paychecks again in Week 9, but the team excused him from practice and games while the charge was resolved. That’s a strong tactic to take with the former second-round pick.

5 – none

4 – Giants DT Jimmy Kennedy (4 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Kennedy signed with the Giants in August to add depth at a banged-up position, and through the first four games of the season he did pretty well with that. But this suspension (which the Giants reportedly knew was possible when they signed him) takes Kennedy out of the lineup for four games starting in Week 6.

4 (con’t) Rams WR Austin Pettis (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substances policy) – Pettis was suspended for the last two games of 2011 and the first two games of 2012 for violating the league’s PED policy. Pettis had 27 catches in his rookie season, and missing two games of 2012 makes this suspension a little harder to take.

3 – Dolphins CB Vontae Davis (1 game by team) – Davis was suspended for Week 9 after reportedly showing up to practice hung over, although the Dolphins didn’t officially release the reason for the benching.

3 (con’t) – Seahawks OG John Moffitt (4 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy) – Moffitt, who started nine games at right guard as a rookie before going on injured reserve, was suspended for four games during his recovery. Moffitt is a key player, but the suspension only cost him money, not playing time. Still, it puts him on notice for future infractions.

2 – Colts OG Jaimie Thomas (4 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy) – Thomas is on injured reserve, so this suspension doesn’t impact the Colts much. But it does cost Thomas four game checks. Thomas played in eight games in 2010.

1 – S Brandon Underwood (2 games for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy) – The ex-Packer was given a two-game suspension even though he wasn’t on an NFL roster. So Underwood didn’t lose any money, but he hasn’t found a job since the suspension ended either.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Suspensions

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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Rise/Sink/Float – QBs in new places

As we continue our fantasy football preparation for 2010, we’re going to analyze players with new teams and predict whether their 2010 numbers will rise above, sink below, or float alongside their 2009 production. In this post, we cover quarterbacks. We’ll cover running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends in subsequent posts.

Donovan McNabb, Redskins – McNabb has never reached the Peyton Manning/Tom Brady level of elite fantasy quarterbacks, but for most of his career he’s been a productive fantasy starter. But now that he’s moved from Philly to D.C., that status is endangered. He doesn’t have nearly the targets in Washington that he did with the Eagles, and that should limit his big-play potential. There’s no DeSean Jackson type of threat in D.C., and the Santana Moss/Devin Thomas/Malcolm Kelly/Mike Furrey collection outside is among the NFL’s most pedestrian groups. McNabb will have to rely on tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis heavily, and that’s not the path to fantasy greatness. And even though Mike Shanahan is a QB-friendly coach, he’s not above McNabb’s former playcaller Andy Reid in that regard. Throw in the fact that McNabb has missed at least two games in four of the last five seasons and that he hasn’t produced at an elite fantasy pace since 2006, and what you have is a player on a minor decline going to a far less favorable situation. That means McNabb is no longer a dependable fantasy starter in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Sink

Jason Campbell, Raiders – Campbell was dealt out of Washington when McNabb entered the scene. He lands in Oakland, where at least he’ll be a starter. But once again, Campbell faces learning a new offensive system. Coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense seems to fit Campbell’s skills a little better than what he had with Jim Zorn last year, so that’s a minor plus. And Oakland’s collection of receivers, while not a name group, has some promising young players in Louis Murphy, Zach Miller, and Chaz Schillens. Former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey will need to emerge to give Campbell a true breakout threat, but there’s at least a chance of that happening. At the least, Campbell is a more professional QB than JaMarcus Russell and a more talented QB than Bruce Gradkowski, and that should help his receivers’ numbers and development. Last year was Campbell’s third as a starter and his first with 20 TD passes, and he threw for a career-high 3,600 yards as well. We don’t see Campbell moving into the top 10 of fantasy quarterbacks, but he’ll at least stabilize his numbers at last year’s level, and our hunch is that he might show enough of a tick forward to make himself a dependable fantasy backup. Verdict: Rise

Jake Delhomme, Browns – Delhomme hadn’t been a fantasy starter in recent years, but he remained fantasy relevant until last season’s total collapse in Carolina. He lost his starting job and got cut, and he landed in Cleveland as a stop-gap option. But don’t be fooled into taking Delhomme, even as a fantasy backup. Signs still point to the fact that he’s completely lost it, and even if he hasn’t Cleveland’s motley crew of receivers isn’t going to provide the opportunity for him to be even a decent fantasy fill-in. You’d be much better served taking a shot on a prospect who has a shot of taking over a starting job than spending a late draft pick on Delhomme. His stock is just as dead in the water as it was last year. We give him a float because he’s still sunk. Verdict: Float

Derek Anderson, Cardinals – Anderson, the former Browns starter, had a fantasy superstar season back in ’07, but his inconsistency cost him his job with the Browns. Now he moves on to Arizona, where he’ll back up Matt Leinart as training camp opens. Since Leinart hasn’t proved much in the NFL, Anderson could emerge as a starter, and he’d be interesting in that role with Arizona’s talented group of receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Early Doucet. That makes Anderson worth a flier as a backup quarterback in large leagues (more than 12 teams), just in case he overtakes Leinart early in the season. That hope means Anderson’s stock is actually a bit higher than it was in the doldrums in Cleveland last year. Verdict: Rise

Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks – Whitehurst has never thrown an NFL pass, but he got a big contract after the Seahawks paid a pretty penny (at least in terms of draft picks) to acquire him from the Chargers. Matt Hasselbeck is still the starter in Seattle, but Whitehurst now looks to be the QB of the future there. That puts him on the fantasy radar. The former Clemson QB isn’t draftable except in mega-leagues where No. 2 QBs become handcuffs for their teams, but the fact that Whitehurst is worth noticing indicates a small rise in his value. Verdict: Rise

Marc Bulger, Ravens – Bulger had been battered over the years as a Rams starter, and his play quickly fell off as a result. Now he gets a chance to lick his wounds in Baltimore as Joe Flacco’s backup. That’s a good role for him, because if he’s pressed into action it will come behind a much better offensive line with an improved group of targets that includes Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason. Bulger isn’t draftable in fantasy leagues, but if he gets on the field because of a Flacco injury, he becomes a decent fantasy fill-in. He’s still around the 35th best fantasy quarterback entering the season, as he was last year, but this time there’s upside involved. Verdict: Float

A.J. Feeley, Rams – Feeley hasn’t been on the fantasy radar since his starting stint in Miami back in 2004. And even though he’s the ostensible starter in St. Louis entering the season, he’s not fantasy relevant now. Sam Bradford looms, and the Rams don’t have nearly enough weapons to make Feeley worth a second glance by fantasy owners. His fantasy stock continues to float along at the worthless level. Verdict: Float

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 14

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Orton, Broncos – Orton bounced back from so-so play of late to produce 277 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts. But that doesn’t mean he’s a reliable fantasy starter down the stretch. You can put Orton as a borderline top-15 guy, but that means he shouldn’t be starting for you except in a big league or an emergency. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Reggie Bush, Saints – Bush will never be a dominant running back, but he’s an incredible receiver out of the backfield or the slot. So his six-catch, 46-yard, two-touchdown game against the Falcons is no fluke. Now that Bush is healthy, he will once again have a significant enough role in the Saints’ potent offense to be a solid fantasy flex option. Verdict: Applaud

Jamaal Charles. Chiefs – Few backs are hotter right now than Charles, who ran for 136 yards and a score against the Bills. It’s a little nerve-wracking to rely on a player on such a bad team, but Charles is proving he’s a worthy fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Josh Cribbs, Browns – Cribbs has well-known chops as a dynamic return man, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of offensive work. But against the Steelers, Cribbs (a former college quarterback) scampered for 87 yards on eight carries out of a Wildcat formation. For the season, he’s averaged 7.3 yards per carry, so if he gets more chances at the end of the season he should be a fantasy producer. That makes him worth a flier in leagues of 12 teams or more, just in case the Browns decide that Cribbs is their best chance to squeak out a couple of wins down the stretch. Verdict: Applaud

Quinton Ganther, Redskins – Ganther is now the Redskins’ starting running back after a slew of injuries, and he delivered fantasy owners 50 yards and a touchdown this week. While that’s not a great game, it’s enough to make him a decent flex option, even for fantasy owners in the playoffs. Verdict: Applaud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Marshawn Lynch ran for 84 yards against the Chiefs, but Jackson got eight more carries (for a total of 20) and ran for 99 yards. It’s now safe to say that Jackson is the Bills’ top fantasy back; however, that leaves him as an emergency fantasy starter but nothing more. Verdict: A fraud

Chris Jennings, Browns – Last week, we called Jerome Harrison a fraud, and against Pittsburgh this week Harrison got just nine touches while the rookie Jennings ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. This week we’re telling you that Jennings isn’t an answer for your fantasy team either. Unless you’re desperate for a runner in a league of 16 teams or more, Jennings isn’t even worth a waiver claim. Verdict: A fraud

Willis McGahee, Ravens – McGahee scored two more touchdowns against the Lions, and he also rushed for 76 yards. While most of those yards came in garbage time of a 48-3 blowout, McGahee’s proclivity to find the end zone makes him an acceptable flex option. He’s not an exciting guy to start, but he is a playoff flex option for fantasy owners. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Moats, Texans – In the fantasy minefield that is the Houston backfield, Moats was this week’s beneficiary of the Steve Slaton injury. But while Moats’ 43-yard, one-TD game was a Texans’ best as well as a decent result for fantasy owners this week, there’s no way we can read Gary Kubiak’s mind and predict whether Moats will get the call again next week. So just stay away. Verdict: A fraud

Leonard Weaver, Eagles – Weaver is a fullback in the West Coast offense, which traditionally has been a four-TD for the season role. Weaver has scored two weeks in a row, and he’s getting a few more touches (at least seven the last four games). So if Brian Westbrook stays hurt, Weaver will actually sneak into the top 40 of fantasy running backs. That makes him an option in supersized leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Wide Receivers

Greg Camarillo, Dolphins – Camarillo had seven catches for 110 yards against the Jaguars, but don’t read too much into the game. Davone Bess was the Dolphins’ stud receiver last week, and Ted Ginn Jr. is still around. None of them is good enough to maintain that kind of production regularly enough for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, Bears – Knox had five catches for 83 yards and a score against the Packers, while Aromashodu had six receptions for 72 yards and a TD. Those numbers were inflated because Devin Hester was out, and that means Aromashodu has no fantasy relevance going forward. Knox, meanwhile, is a top-40 wideout but shouldn’t start for your team except in a dire emergency. Verdict for both Bears: A fraud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks scored his sixth touchdown of the season against the Giants during a 110-yard game. While Nicks has gotten much of his production in garbage time, he seems to be growing into a bigger role with the Giants, and that makes him a fantasy option despite his rookie mistakes. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith’s fantasy value has been depressed all season by crappy quarterback play, but Matt Moore is at least capable of finding Smith downfield. That led to a two- catch, 83-yard day against the Patriots, and it also included a touchdown. While you can’t feel 100 percent comfortable starting Smith, he’s still good enough to be a top-24 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson found the end zone against the Texans, but he had just three catches for 24 yards. Carlson was a top-12 tight end entering the season, but he’s barely top 20 at the position now. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Davis, Redskins – Davis had just three catches against the Raiders, but he amassed 50 yards and scored two touchdowns on those grabs. Davis now has four touchdowns in the last three games, and that means he should be in a lot more fantasy starting lineups at this key point in the season. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 12

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Boller, Rams – As you look for fantasy fill-ins, Boller is a name that tends to get overlooked. But after throwing for 282 yards and a score against the Seahawks, you should at least notice. Boller is going to have the Rams’ job for at least a couple more weeks, so if you’re desperate, Boller is worth a claim to be a backup. He’s not going to produce as much as Vince Young, but he will surpass guys like Dennis Dixon and Matt Leinart. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – This is a bit of a strange call, but Fitzpatrick has provided a spark for the Bills since interim head coach Perry Fewell inserted him in the lineup two weeks ago. Fitzpatrick threw for a touchdown a ran for another this week, and he seems to be good for at least a score a week. That makes him definitely worth a claim and perhaps even worth a start in multi-QB leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Chris Redman, Falcons– Redman was pressed into action when Matt Ryan was hurt in the first quarter of Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay. He responded with 243 passing yards and two touchdowns. If Ryan is out, Redman has enough weapons to be a top-18 fantasy quarterback on a weekly basis. He’s the fill-in you want, not Matt Leinart or Dennis Dixon. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans– Young had a huge day with 387 passing yards, including a last-minute game-winning drive. But he only threw for one touchdown, which continues the pattern he’s established since he returned to the lineup. That lack of TD passes keeps Young from being a fantasy starter. He’s good depth, and if you’re missing a starter like Kurt Warner, Matt Ryan, or Ben Roethlisberger, Young can be an emergency option. But he’s not a guy you should be looking to start. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Fred Jackson, Bills – With Marshawn Lynch out, Jackson blew up with 73 rushing yards, 43 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. But Lynch should return soon, and that means that Jackson simply won’t get the opportunities to remain a significant or consistent fantasy producer. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – In a week where Ahmad Bradshaw was out, against a Denver defense that had been gashed on the ground in recent weeks, Jacobs put up just 27 yards on 11 carries. He’s not a reliable fantasy starter at this point. We figure he’s outside the top 20 fantasy backs, which is a disappointment for a guy who was a first- or second-round pick in most leagues. But it’s time to deal with reality and be willing to put Jacobs on the bench when the matchup dictates. Verdict: A fraud

Larry Johnson, Bengals – Johnson rewarded the Bengals for his second chance by running for 107 yards on 22 carries against Cleveland. But even during the performance, Move the Sticks (a Twitter-based scout) was commenting on how slow Johnson looked. That means that Johnson isn’t worth a run against a better defense. That scouting report, plus the imminent return of Cedric Benson, means that Johnson isn’t a top-40 back going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones broke a 46-yard touchdown this week against Oakland and finished with 68 rushing yards. That performance was a window into Jones for fantasy owners. While Jones is capable of busting a big play, he doesn’t do it often, and unless he does his fantasy value is extremely limited. He’s outside the top 35 at running back from a fantasy perspective and isn’t worth a roster spot in leagues of 10 teams or less. Verdict: A fraud

LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – If you were watching the ticker, you might have seen that Tomlinson scored twice against the Chiefs. But don’t miss the fact that he also averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on 13 totes. He also had just one five-yard catch. While LDT is starting to find the end zone more often, he’s far from the force he used to be. You should still beware. Verdict: A fraud

Wide Receivers

Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin had yet another huge game on Thanksgiving, posting seven catches for 145 yards and a score. Consider that star turn a reminder that Austin is now a top-10 fantasy receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt caught the game-winning touchdown for Tennessee against Arizona, and he also had his best game of his rookie season with seven catches for 128 yards. Britt has now scored two straight weeks, and he seems to have a pretty good rapport with Vince Young. Don’t get carried away, but if Britt is on your league’s waiver wire he’s now worth a claim. He seems to be emerging late in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver is almost 35 years old, but he continues to post monster numbers year after year. His 142-yard performance against Detroit, which included a touchdown, goes to show that he’s still a top-15 fantasy wideout after all these years. He should be in your starting lineup in ink. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – The star rookie had his first 100-yard game of the season against the Bears, notching 101 yards and a score on six catches. As Harvin becomes more a part of the offense, he becomes a starting-quality fantasy receiver. He’s moved within the top 30 of fantasy receivers, and his uphill climb might still have heights to attain. Verdict: Applaud

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Considering that most leagues saw Johnson drafted as a top-10 receiver (if not higher), it seems crazy to consider benching him. But with Matthew Stafford banged up and Johnson not at full strength either, right  now it’s foolish to consider Johnson as a legit top-10 fantasy wideout. His two-catch, 10-yard day against Green Bay was redeemed a bit by a touchdown grab, but it’s still a sign of trouble. Megatron is still in the top 20 of fantasy wideouts, but you have to at least look at your other options before starting him. So we can’t rate Johnson as a top-10 guy anymore. Verdict: A fraud

James Jones, Packers – Jones had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day. It was his fourth touchdown of the year, all of which have come after Green Bay’s Week 5 bye. In large leagues (16 teams or more), Jones is not a bad fifth receiver, but he still doesn’t have much relevance for fantasy owners other than that. Verdict: A fraud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Don’t look now, but T.O. is on a roll in Buffalo. He has scored in two straight weeks and has at least 78 yards from scrimmage in his last four games. He’s finally back to being an every-week starter in just about every fantasy league. If you kept him, your patience is being rewarded, and if you claimed him or traded for him, your gamble is paying off. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Fred Davis, Redskins – With Chris Cooley’s significant injury now looking to be a season-ender, Davis is worth a second look. He had four catches and a touchdown against the Eagles, and he’s had at least four catches in three of the past five games. If you’re scrambling for a tight end, Davis is a decent option at this point in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – The only redeemable thing about the Raiders’ offense from a fantasy perspective right now is Miller, who had five catches for 73 yards against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Miller has had at least 50 yards receiving in five of his last seven games, which makes him a startable option in leagues of 12 teams or more. He doesn’t score enough to be an elite fantasy tight end, but he’s raised himself up to option status. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten has seen his production lag this year, but he busted out with a 107-yard game against Oakland on Thanksgiving despite being a game-time decision to play. That’s a positive sign for owners who were wavering about whether to keep starting the former fantasy stalwart. The answer is that yes, you should leave Witten in your weekly lineup. Verdict: Applaud

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Jersey Numbers: Tight Ends

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

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

We started this project with wide receivers in this post. Now we move to tight ends. In general, tight ends wear numbers between 80 and 89, but several also wear numbers in the 40s.

40 – Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings – It’s hard to tell whether Kleinsasser is a true tight end or more of a fullback/H-back, but he plays on the line enough to earn the nod here. Kleinsasser doesn’t get the ball much, but he remains a solid blocker deep into a solid career.

41 – Spencer Havner, Packers – OK, so Havner is the only tight end wearing 41. But we have to give a few props to a player who was playing linebacker until about three or four weeks ago and now suddenly has three touchdowns in the past two games.

44 – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark is probably the best receiving tight end in the league at the moment. He’s not just reliable – he’s explosive down the middle of the field. He’s emerged as the complement to Reggie Wayne in the Colts’ prolific passing game, and Clark is just now hitting his prime.

45 – Leonard Pope, Chiefs – The former Cardinals starter landed in K.C. this year with a new jersey number. Pope has never played up to his immense physical gifts, but he is still a threat simply because of his size and speed.

46 – Daniel Fells, Rams – Fells is the only tight end wearing 46, but like Havner he has three touchdowns on the season. Of course, one came on a fake field goal, and the other two came from Kyle Boller in one game on the same play call, but three is three. Other notable 46: Delanie Walker, 49ers

47 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley is hurt at the moment, but he has proven to be a terrific pass catcher in Washington in recent years despite playing with subpar quarterbacks throughout his tenure. He’s also a serviceable blocker and a fan favorite because of his outsized personality. He’s one of the few home-grown players who has really paid off for the Redskins. Other notable 47s: Jeff King, Panthers, Billy Bajema, Rams; Travis Beckum, Giants; Gijon Robinson, Colts

80 – Bo Scaife, Titans – Scaife is the Titans’ most important receiver because he has great size and provides a great interior target. Tennessee recognized his value when it tagged Scaife as its franchise player this past offseason. That’s enough reason to give Scaife the nod at 80 over Zach Miller of the Raiders, who’s a great young receiver. Other notable 80: Derek Schouman, Bills

81 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Before he suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, Daniels was the most productive tight end in the league. That marked the third straight season he was one of the league’s most dangerous targets. That’s enough to earn him honors for this number over Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe, who has blossomed as a receiving threat the last two seasons. Other notable 81s: Dustin Keller, Jets; Joey Haynos, Dolphins

82 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten isn’t having his most sterling of seasons, but he has long been one of the league’s two or three elite receiving threats from the tight end position. He may be the receiver Cowboys opponents need to concentrate on stopping most. He’s an All-Pro level tight end, which puts him above young studs Kellen Winslow of the Buccaneers and Greg Olsen of the Bears at this number. Other notable 82s: Alex Smith, Eagles; L.J. Smith, Ravens

83 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a tall target who can really catch the ball, and that makes him a great mid-field target in a Pittsburgh offense where ball control is still important. Miller is also having a bit of a bounce-back year numbers-wise, which makes it even easier to give him the nod at 83 over the declining Alge Crumpler of Tennessee. Other notable 83: Jeff Dugan, Vikings

84 – Benjamin Watson, Patriots – The Patriots have never seemed completely satisfied with Watson, a former first-round pick, at tight end, but Watson continues to put up good touchdown numbers. He also has the longest touchdown reception in Patriots playoff history, a 63-yarder against Jacksonville in the 2005 season. So he gets the nod over Randy McMichael of the Rams, who has had some decent seasons, and rookie first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions. Other notable 84: Robert Royal, Browns

85 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates, who didn’t play football but basketball in college, has been one of the preeminent receiving tight ends in the league over the past decade or so. Injuries have slowed him a step or two, but he’s still really good. One day, Vernon Davis of the 49ers will claim this number, but that won’t happen until Gates retires. Other notable 85: David Thomas, Saints

86 – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap is another tight end having a renaissance year this season, reminding all of us how good of a receiver he has been in his career. Like Heath Miller, his size is his biggest asset as a receiver. Other notable 86s: Donald Lee, Packers; Fred Davis, Redskins; Daniel Coats, Bengals; Chris Baker, Patriots

87 – Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a good game or two before this season, but he has seized his opportunity this season and established himself as a better-than-average receiver at tight end already. He brings an explosiveness to the position that the Eagles never got from L.J. Smith. Other notable 87: Kellen Davis, Bears

88 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – T-Gon is another of the classic tight ends of this era, and like Gates he had a basketball background. Gonzalez is still a prolific receiver, and his veteran presence has made the Falcons’ offense much more dangerous. He’s clearly the choice here over Jeremy Shockey of New Orleans and many others. Other notable 88s: JerMichael Finley, Packers; Tony Scheffler, Broncos; Dante Rosario, Panthers; J.P. Foschi, Bengals; Desmond Clark, Bears

89 – Daniel Graham, Broncos– This is a close call between Graham, who’s known more for his blocking than for his receiving, and young tight ends like Kevin Boss of the Giants, John Carlson of Seattle, and Marcedes Lewis of the Jaguars. We’ll give Graham the nod based on the longevity of his career and his blocking prowess. Other notable 89s: Will Heller, Lions; Sean Ryan, Chiefs; Matt Spaeth, Steelers; Ben Patrick, Cardinals; Shawn Nelson, Bills

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