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Panthers/Rams Thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Given the paucity of top-level matchups this week, we turned our attention to St. Louis, because we wanted to see with our own eyes how the Rams’ rebuilding project is going. The Rams continued their strong home play in their 20-10 victory over the Panthers. St. Louis is now 4-4, including a 4-1 record at the Edward Jones Dome. We’ll focus our on-field thoughts on the Rams, since the Panthers are completely out of any sort of contention, but we will include some Panthers thoughts for fantasy football owners.

Rams LB James Laurinaitis returns an interception. Photo via espn.com

On-field perspective
*Sam Bradford is obviously the keystone of the Rams’ reclamation project, and he looked good in this game. He completed a high percentage of passes (25-of-32), and he avoided throwing an interception for the third straight game, although most of his throws were short passes or checkdowns. Part of the reason for that is that the Rams lack real breakaway receiving threats after injuries sidelined WRs Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton, while part of it is to protect Bradford and keep his confidence high. But Bradford did flash a big arm on a 33-yard out pattern to Brandon Gibson, and as he gets more comfortable at the NFL level we should see more intermediate and long passes from him. For now, though, the Rams have to be happy with Bradford’s development over the first half of his first season.
*The Rams’ defense is also developing impressively. Second-year MLB James Laurinaitis (pictured) had both an interception and a sack while also doing his normal yeoman work as a tackler.
*We were also impressed by fourth-year SS Craig Dahl, who forced a fumble and made his share of plays in coverage. Dahl, like fellow safety James Butler and DT Fred Robbins, played for Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo when he was a coordinator for the Giants, and they are helping Spagnuolo instill his kind of defense. With those vets and talented plays like DE Chris Long, CB Ron Bartell, and S O.J. Atogwe, the Rams have the building blocks for a solid defense.
*You have to love Steven Jackson’s willingness to play for the Rams despite a broken finger. Jackson is a tough runner and proved to be a tough player in this one. While Jackson only ran for 58 yards, his toughness and leadership are beyond question, and they left an impression on a young team that still has a chance in the mediocre NFC West.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Jackson is the only Ram who’s a consistent starter for fantasy purposes. If we had to choose a second option, we’d go with WR Danny Amendola, who had six catches and a touchdown. Amendola is an underneath option, which is why he averaged less than five yards a catch in this game, but he’s a decent bet to get in the end zone for the Rams, as he has two games in a row. Gibson, who had six catches for 67 yards, probably has the most potential of the current Rams’ wideouts, and he may be worth a speculative claim at this point.
*Bradford, meanwhile, is not a fantasy option despite throwing two touchdowns in this game. Because his yardage totals are so low, he’s very TD dependent, and the 20 points St. Louis scored in this game will likely be the normal output. In a keeper league, claim away, but for this year Bradford will find it hard to crack the top 20 among fantasy QBs.
*For the Panthers, Jonathan Stewart had a chance to prove his fantasy mettle with DeAngelo Williams sidelined, but Stewart struggled, averaging just over two yards per carry and finishing with just 38 yards from scrimmage. If Stewart can’t perform with Williams out, fantasy owners really don’t need to expect him to provide much if anything once Williams returns. After this game, we feel comfortable saying that Stewart is droppable in normal sized leagues of 12 teams or less. Given the Panthers’ struggles, WR Steve Smith is the only player worth being a fantasy starter, at least until Williams gets healthy.

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Who’s rebuilding, who’s reloading? NFC edition

As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the NFC edition; click here for the AFC edition.

NFC East

Dallas is reloading – After their first playoff win in nearly 15 years, the Cowboys kept the band together for the most part. They cut OT Flozell Adams and S Ken Hamlin, but both players had hit steep declines. The draft class starred Dez Bryant, who will add a receiving weapon for an offense that emerged last year, and ILB Sean Lee, who could plug in if Keith Brooking starts to struggle. The Cowboys believe their time is now, and last year’s results were good enough that such a strategy is sound. Verdict: Right approach

New York Giants are reloading – The Giants started to fall off the table last year, both on defense and on the offensive line. But instead of starting a major overhaul, the Giants are trying a patchwork approach. The biggest changes are at safety, where C.C. Brown is out, and Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant are in. First-round DE Jason Pierre-Paul is a developmental prospect who should spice up a pass rush that struggled last year, and second-round DT Linval Joseph shores up the interior. It seems like the Giants’ team that won the Super Bowl is getting old, though, and we have to wonder if more aggressive changes were in order. Verdict: Wrong approach

Philadelphia is rebuilding – The Eagles, despite making the playoffs again last year, went on a major rebuilding effort in the offseason in an effort to set themselves up not just for 2010 but for the first half of the new decade. So Kevin Kolb replaces Donovan McNabb, LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell replace Brian Westbrook, and LB Ernie Sims and DE Darryl Tapp add to a defense that gave up CB Sheldon Brown and LB Will Witherspoon. Then the draft added a ton of players like DE Brandon Graham and S Nate Allen who could develop into building blocks. This is rebuidling on the fly, and the Eagles seem to be doing it well. While it may lead to a slight step back this season, it sets them up to continue being a model franchise. Verdict: Right approach

Washington is rebuilding – Now that the Mike Shanahan era has begun, the Redskins are doing a full overhaul on the roster. QB Donovan McNabb is the marquee signing, but guys like DT Maake Kemeoatu and OG Artis Hicks are significant as well. Washington didn’t have a ton of draft picks, but OT Trent Williams should become a building block. The Redskins added a bunch of veterans to try to speed the rebuilding process, especially on offense, and time will tell if that’s the right approach, but Washington needed change on offense badly. Verdict: Right approach 

NFC North

Chicago is reloading – The Bears were hamstrung into their reloading strategy by a couple of factors. First, Lovie Smith is on the hot seat, and so he needs to win now. Also, last year’s Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades took Chicago’s first two draft picks and forced them into the free-agent market for most of their help. Drafted S Major Wright could help immediately, but the big help will come from imports DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor. Given the situation the Bears had entering the season, they took the only tack they could. Verdict: Right approach

Detroit is rebuilding – The Lions continued to tinker with the back end of the roster and strategically add key pieces. In free agency, they brought in Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson to help Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford thrive. That strategy is no coincidence. Jahvid Best and Tony Scheffler also become offensive weapons who should make life easier for Stafford. Detroit has really upgraded its roster over the past few years, and while they’re still behind, respectability is on the horizon. Verdict: Right approach

Green Bay is reloading – The Packers continued their build-through-the-draft strategy, which means that they’re always adding players around the edges and keeping the core intact. The Packers again this year don’t have any significant free-agent additions, so it’s up to draftees Bryan Bulaga, Mike Neal, and Morgan Burnett to provide a talent infusion. But because the Packers have built so well through the draft for so long, this strategy can now sustain itself. Verdict: Right approach

Minnesota is reloading – The Vikings haven’t gotten much help through free agency, aside from CB Lito Sheppard, but this final-four team was close enough that a few tweaks could be enough. The Vikes had better hope this is true, because a draft class headlined by Chris Cook isn’t exciting, although Toby Gerhart and Everson Griffen could find roles. Verdict: Right approach

NFC South

Atlanta is reloading – The Falcons made one of the big strikes of free agency by adding CB Dunta Robinson, who addresses a position of need for a team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time. First-round LB Sean Witherspoon adds a jolt to the defense as well. Those additions, combined with the fact that Atlanta hasn’t lost any significant players, will keep the Falcons in the hunt. Verdict: Right approach

Carolina is rebuilding – While the Falcons haven’t lost that much, Carolina purged a ton of veterans – losing Julius Peppers in free agency, trading Chris Harris, and cutting longtime stalwarts Jake Delhomme, Maake Kemeoatu, Na’il Diggs, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover. Carolina is going young, which also means going cheap. So Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen will battle at quarterback, and the defensive line will look completely different. The Panthers played well after a slow start, and so this step back hurts fans, but it’s better to rebuild a year early than a year late. Verdict: Right approach

New Orleans is reloading – The Super Bowl champs are trying to get back, and so they added Alex Brown to replace the disappointing Charles Grant and re-signed Darren Sharper to another one-year deal. They lose some important players like Mike Bell, Jamar Nesbit, and Scott Fujita, but none of those were core players, and that means the Saints should be in the mix yet again. Verdict: Right approach

Tampa Bay is rebuilding – The Buccaneers need a ton of help, and they’re aware of those needs. The draft brought DT help in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price and WR help in Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. That’s not all the help the Bucs needed, but those two positions are now in development, as is quarterback with ’09 first-rounder Josh Freeman. The Bucs still have several more trouble spots to address, but at least they’re checking a few spots off the to-do-list. Verdict: Right approach

NFC West

Arizona is rebuilding – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but they’ve undergone a pretty significant roster change this offseason. Gone are stars Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle. In are QB Derek Anderson, who will compete with Matt Leinart, and OGs Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot, who will help the Cards move toward more of a run-first approach. On defense, rookies Dan Williams and Daryl Washington provide reinforcements. Arizona is trying to remake its image further, and it’s necessary with Warner’s quick release now in retirement. Verdict: Right approach

St. Louis is rebuilding – The Rams are in the midst of serious roster overhaul, and first overall pick Sam Bradford is at the center of it. To help Bradford, fellow rookies Rodger Saffold and Mardy Gilyard come aboard as well. In free agency, the Rams mainly played around the margins with guys like Na’il Diggs, Hank Fraley, and Fred Robbins, hoping these vets can keep them competitive as they develop younger talent. As bad as the roster was in St. Louis, rebuilding wasn’t a choice – it was a necessity. Verdict: Right approach

San Francisco is reloading – Mike Singletary has kept the Niners on the fringe of contention lately, and now the Niners are going for the jugular. First-round OTs Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati add the kind of physical nastiness that Singletary wants from his line, while Taylor Mays and Navarro Bowman add speed to the defense. Free-agent signee Travis LaBoy and trade acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. are the kinds of role players a team on the verge likes to add to keep moving forward. Alex Smith will have to come through for this to be the right approach for San Francisco, but we can understand why the Niners are making their bets this way. Verdict: Right approach

Seattle is rebuilding The Seahawks seemed to get old suddenly over the past two years, and new head coach Pete Carroll has been incredibly proactive in trying to reverse that trend. Rookies Golden Tate, Earl Thomas, and Russell Okung could all start immediately, as the Seahawks try to replace the departed Nate Burleson, Deon Grant, and the retired Walter Jones. Most of all, the Seahawks tried to set up their future at quarterback by paying handsomely for Chargers third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst. It remains to be seen whether the Seahawks have picked the right guys in their rebuilding project, but for now we can at least give them credit for having a clear picture of just how bad the roster was. Verdict: Right approach

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FR: First week signings

The opening week of free agency wasn’t quite as frenetic as usual, but there was still a ton of news that emerged. So we decided to compare the impact of each team’s signings using Football Relativity, with 10 being the team that helped itself the most and 1 being a team that barely made a ripple. This post covers signings between the opening of free agency on March 5 until March 10, when the secondary market began to form.

Note that trades are not reflected in the comparison. We compare all 2010 offseason trades, including Anquan Boldin, Antonio Cromartie, Corey Williams, Kerry Rhodes, and more, in this growing post.

10 – Bears (add UFA DE Julius Peppers, UFA RB Chester Taylor, and UFA TE Brandon Manumaleuna) – The Bears, who don’t have a pick until the third round of this year’s draft, went whole hog in free agency and came up with their top three targets. The prize, of course, is Peppers, who’s still an elite pass rusher at age 30 and will make a huge difference for Chicago. The Bears had a bunch of so-so rushers but no studs, so Peppers provides that top-end rush and should help guys like Alex Brown be more productive across from him. Sure, Peppers isn’t always completely into games, but he still performs at a high enough level that he will help. He’s overpaid with $40 million guaranteed in the first three years of his six-year deal, but the Bears had to overpay to lock him up. That made it worth it. On offense, Chicago added Taylor, who’s a solid all-around back who complemented Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. Now Taylor will earn more of a 50-50 split with Matt Forte, and Taylor’s pass-catching skills look to be a fit in Mike Martz’s new offensive scheme. Taylor is 30, which makes a three-year deal with $7 million guaranteed and $12.5 million total a little dicey, but he has always been a part-time player, which could extend his career a bit. Manumaleuna is a block-first tight end who better fits the new Martz scheme, which isn’t always great at protecting the passer. He got a five-year deal and $6 million in guaranteed money. Chicago’s spending spree is out of character, but the pressure is on head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo, and with no draft picks free agency was the only way to infuse talent into a mostly mediocre roster.

9 – Dolphins (added UFA LB Karlos Dansby, kept UFA QB Chad Pennington and UFA NT Jason Ferguson) – Dansby was one of the big prizes on the free agent market, and his bruising style on the inside is a great fit for the physical 3-4 style the Dolphins use. Dansby can support against the run and drop in coverage effectively, and he’ll make a big play too, as he did against the Packers to win a memorable playoff overtime thriller. He becomes the heartbeat of Miami’s defense with his five-year, $43 million deal that includes $22 million in guaranteed money. Pennington nearly left Miami because the Dolphins wouldn’t give him a no-trade clause, but the team gave him a one-year $2.5 million with a $1.5 million trade kicker in case he has to relocate during the season. Pennington becomes the mentor and understudy to emerging young starter Chad Henne, and he’ll be one of the best backups in the league at an incredibly fair price. Ferguson is a solid nose tackle who fits Bill Parcells’ scheme like a glove, but he will miss the first eight games of the 2010 season on a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Still, he could provide a late-season spark, and playing half a year may actually keep him healthy.

9 (con’t) – Giants (add S Antrel Rolle and QB Jim Sorgi) – Rolle broke free from the Cardinals for money reasons, not performance reasons, and coming off his first Pro Bowl he broke the bank with a five-year, $37 million deal that will pay him $22.5 million over the first three years. Rolle is a physical freak, and he developed into a playmaker once he moved from cornerback to free safety. He fills a huge need for the Giants, who fell apart in the back end last year after Kenny Phillips got hurt. With Rolle and Phillips, safety becomes a strength for the Giants, who need to get back to playing defense at an elite level to return to contender status. Sorgi, who was released by the Colts, will compete with Rhett Bomar to back up Eli Manning.

8 – Falcons (add UFA CB Dunta Robinson, kept UFA CB Brian Williams, UFA QB Chris Redman, and UFA LS Joe Zelenka) – The Falcons’ secondary was a huge problem last year, especially after Williams went down with a season-ending injury. So it’s no surprise the Dirty Birds broke the bank to add Robinson from the Texans on a six-year, $57 million contract with $25.5 million in guaranteed money. Robinson is a talent, but his performance isn’t always consistent. Still, the former first-round pick is well above the league average, and he was undoubtedly the best corner on the open market. Keeping Williams on a one-year deal adds some veteran stability across from Robinson and gives the Falcons more depth. Redman got a two-year, $5.6 million contract to remain as Matt Ryan’s backup. Redman has resuscitated his career in Atlanta and proven he’s a good emergency fill-in and short-term option. Zelenka came in at midseason last season as a fill-in long snapper and did a decent job. It’s always good to see a fellow Demon Deacon get a gig.

8 (con’t) – Lions (add UFA WR Nate Burleson and WR Bryan Clark, UFA DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, and CB Jonathan Wade; kept UFA OT Jon Jansen, UFA TE Will Heller, and UFA LB Vinny Ciurciu) – The Lions didn’t get as crazy as their NFC North rivals in Chicago, but Detroit tried to take another step forward in adding talent to their roster. Burleson, who got $11 million guaranteed in a five-year, $25 million deal, was up and down in Seattle, but at his best he’s a really nice No. 2 receiver. The Lions plan to put Calvin Johnson and Burleson in as their starters with Bryant Johnson at No. 3 to help Matthew Stafford continue to develop. On defense, the Lions add Vanden Bosch, who played for head coach Jim Schwartz’s defenses in Tennessee and should be a good leader for a young unit. Vanden Bosch may not produce commensurate with his four-year, $26 million contract that pays $10 million in 2010, but he will play hard and set a tone for a defensive line that also added DT Corey Williams via trade and that should be adding a big-time rookie force at tackle in either Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh. The Lions still have a long way to go, but it looks like they have a plan now under Schwartz, and that’s a positive sign. Detroit also maintained some depth by re-signing Jansen, Heller, and Ciurciu to short-term deals. None are core players, but they all filled roles acceptably last year and helped to shore up the bottom of Detroit’s roster. Wade, a former Ram, and Clark, a former Buccaneer, were not tendered as restricted free agents by their teams but still might provide an upgrade at the bottom of the Lions’ roster.

8 (con’t) – Jaguars (added UFA DE Aaron Kampman and UFA WR Kassim Osgood; kept UFA OG Kynan Forney and RFA DT Atiyyah Ellison) – The Jags have spent a ton of high draft picks on defensive ends lately, but they haven’t been able to generate a pass rush. So they sign Kampman, who thrived in Green Bay until the Pack switched to a 3-4 defense. Kampman, who got $11 million guaranteed in a 4-year, $26 million deal, is coming off a knee injury, but he has 54 career sacks and is known for his high motor. The Jags are hoping not only that Kampman performs but also that his example inspires Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey to prepare better. Osgood is a special-teams ace who longs for a chance to play receiver, and the Jaguars are thin enough there that Osgood could find a role behind Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas. His deal is worth $6.675 million over three years, but the deal has up to $4 million in incentives if Osgood thrives on offense. Ellison, a backup defensive tackle, signed his restricted free agent tender, and Forney returns as a backup as well.

7 – Broncos (added UFA DE Justin Bannan, UFA DE Jarvis Green, NT Jamal Williams, and RB J.J. Arrington; kept UFA OG Russ Hochstein and UFA WR Brandon Lloyd) – Bannan was a solid backup 3-4 end in Baltimore who looks to have the ability to move up to a starter level, and he’ll get the chance to do so in Denver. He’s solid against the run and holds blockers well to allow others to pass rush. That could make him a good complement to Green, who is more of a pressure producer as a backup 3-4 end. Both guys improve the Broncos’ defense, which started hot last year but fell apart as the season progressed. Green got a four-year deal worth a maximum of $20 million with $7.5 million paid in the first two years, while Bannan got a five-year deal worth $22 million with $10.5 million guaranteed. Williams was released by the Chargers after a great career there, and if he can stay healthy he still should be an effective nose tackle on run downs. He got a three-year deal worth $16 million with $7 million in guaranteed dough. Bannan, Green, and Williams may give the Broncos an entire new starting defensive line, which will really help the depth of that unit and shore the Broncos up against the run. Hochstein came over with Josh McDaniels from the Patriots last year, and he ended up starting 10 games at guard. He’ll remain as a veteran presence on a very solid line. Lloyd is a fourth receiver who may step up if Brandon Marshall departs. Arrington signed with the Broncos last offseason but wasn’t healthy after microfracture surgery. Denver released him then, but obviously still wants to see if Arrington can provide the spark he gave the Cardinals during their Super Bowl run a couple of seasons ago.

6 – Chiefs (added RB Thomas Jones, UFA DT Shaun Smith, and UFA WR Jerheme Urban; kept UFA LB Mike Vrabel, UFA WR Chris Chambers, and RFA RB Jackie Battle) – Jones ran for 1,400 yards with the Jets last year, but the team decided to save money and feature youngster Shonn Greene instead. Now Jones lands in Kansas City, where he will be used in tandem with Jamaal Charles, last year’s breakout runner. Jones is a great teammate who is still pretty productive on the field, and his presence will help to keep Charles healthy, which may help Charles maintain his effectiveness through the Chiefs’ rebuilding project and into what the team hopes is a renaissance. By giving Jones a 2-year, $5 million contract with another half-million in incentives, the Chiefs get the right to use up the rest of the juice in Jones’ legs, while Jones gets a chance to go out on his own terms. It sounds callous, but that’s as much of a win-win as a 30-plus running back can get in the NFL nowadays. Smith is a talent who can rub organizations the wrong way, but he’s big enough to play as a 3-4 end, which is a plus. Urban played for Chiefs head coach Todd Haley in Kansas City and is talented enough to be a solid No. 3 receiver for the Chiefs behind Chambers and Dwayne Bowe. Vrabel, brought in last year to help the Chiefs change their culture, will return on a one-year deal worth $3 million in salary and roster bonuses. After starting 14 games last year, Vrabel looks to play a key role this year as well. Chambers, a late-season waiver pickup, thrived after coming to Kansas City, and the Chiefs rewarded him with a three-year, $15 million contract with $5.9 million in guaranteed money. He’ll be Matt Cassel’s deep threat. Battle played just five games last year but should provide depth and special-teams ability.

6 (con’t) – Bengals (added UFA WR Antonio Bryant; kept UFA DT Tank Johnson) – It seems like Johnson’s repeated transgressions are ancient history, as he found a home in Cincinnati and had a really good ’09 season at the heart of the Bengals defense. Johnson turned around his career to the point that the Bengals gave him a four-year contract. While there will always be a risk associated with Johnson, rightly or wrongly, because of his history, the Bengals simply couldn’t afford to lose such a good player. Bryant is a big-time talent who has had some terrific seasons, most recently in 2008 in Tampa Bay, but who has also been a problem child at times. Cincinnati has had some success with this type of player, and in terms of talent Bryant was the best available wideout. He has the speed to open up the field across from Chad Ochocinco and the ability to become the kind of playmaker the Bengals lacked on the outside last year. Bryant got a four-year deal worth $28 million, which is really good receiver money, but that’s probably a number the Bengals had to get to in order to seal the deal.

5 – Patriots (kept franchise UFA NT Vince Wilfork, UFA CB Leigh Bodden, UFA LB Tully Banta-Cain, UFA OG Stephen Neal, and UFA RB Kevin Faulk; add LB Marques Murrell) – Wilfork is an elite run-stuffing nose tackle, and that makes it no shock that the Patriots franchised him. So it’s no surprise that they locked him with a deal reportedly worth $40 million over five years. He’s a key cog in making the Pats’ D work. Bodden revitalized his career in New England with a solid year at corner. His more physical style fits the Pats’ scheme, and after looking around on the market he got a solid deal to stay – four years, $22 million, with $10 million guaranteed. Banta-Cain broke out with a 10-sack season in ’09, which made him desireable on the open market. The Pats rewarded him with a three-year, $13.5 million deal that will pay him $7 million in 2010 and that includes an addition $4.5 million in upside. He’s a bit player, not a core player, but his performance was good enough to be rewarded. Neal remained a starter in New England, and the Pats keep him on a two-year deal. Neal’s a strong player who’s good in the run game, and he was one of the better guards available on the open market, so it behooved the Pats to keep him. Faulk has been with the Pats for his entire 11-year career, and he continues to be a solid third-down back. He’ll return for yet another season and seems to want to retire as a Pat. Murrell wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent by the Jets, but he’s a solid special-teams player, which will give him a shot to make the Pats’ roster.

5 (con’t) – Colts (kept UFA LB Gary Brackett, added UFA OG Andy Alleman) – Brackett made it to the open market, but the Colts ponied up $12 million guaranteed in a five-year, $33 million deal to keep their defensive captain. Brackett is a horse for the course – he excels at middle linebacker in the Colts’ scheme but might not fit many other systems. The Colts perhaps could have gotten him a hair cheaper, but owner Jim Irsay made keeping Brackett a priority, and in an uncapped year that approach works. Alleman has bounced around, but he’s big and versatile enough to be a backup at all three interior positions or even start in place of the recently released Ryan Lilja. The Colts moved so quickly to add him that you have to figure they saw something in him.

5 (con’t) – Packers (kept UFA OLT Chad Clifton and RFA S Nick Collins) – The Redskins took a big run at Clifton, but he ended up sticking around in Green Bay for $20 million over three years with $7.5 million guaranteed. That’s a premium price for an older player, but Clifton is still an effective (if not overpowering) blind-side protector. Given the beating Aaron Rodgers took over the first half of last season, losing Clifton would have been a huge detriment to the Pack’s playoff hopes. Collins, the Packers’ Pro Bowl safety, signed his restricted free agent tender.

5 (con’t) – Texans (add UFA OG Wade Smith; kept UFA WR Kevin Walter and UFA P Matt Turk) – Walter was perhaps the best wideout to hit the open market, and he got a serious look from the Ravens before Baltimore pulled the trigger on the Anquan Boldin deal. So Walter went back to the Texans to be Andre Johnson’s running mate. Walter got a five-year deal worth $21 million with $8 million guaranteed, which is a nice haul for a No. 2 receiver. That makes sense, because Walter excels in that role. Turk is in his 40s, but he had a nice year for the Texans, and they rewarded him with a one-year deal worth $1.85 million with $400,000 in signing bonus. That’s a nice but not ridiculous deal for a solid punter. Smith, who was a Chief last year, is versatile enough to start at guard or center or even fill in at tackle. The Texans believe he can be an interior starter for them, which is why they gave him a four-year, $12 million deal with $6.25 million guaranteed.

4 – Browns (added UFA OT Tony Pashos and UFA LB Scott Fujita, kept UFA S Ray Ventrone, renegotiated KR Josh Cribbs) – The Browns looked to add solid veterans by paying Fujita $14 million, $8 million of it guaranteed, over three years and giving Pashos $10.3 million over three years. Fujita is a good leader who played pretty well as an outside ‘backer in New Orleans’ 4-3 but may move inside in the Browns’ 3-4. His leadership outpaces his play at this point in his career, but Fujita is still OK. Pashos can play right tackle or even move inside to guard if the Browns spend the seventh overall pick on a premium tackle. He’s not great, but he’s physical enough to get the job done on a line that has premium players in Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, and Eric Steinbach.  Ventrone is a backup and special-teamer who got a three-year, $2.2 million deal. The Browns also tied up a huge loose end by finally getting a long-term deal done with Cribbs, their stud kick returner who’s getting a bigger and bigger role on offense. Cribbs will now get $7 million guaranteed as part of a three-year, $18 million deal.

4 (con’t) – Redskins (added UFA OT Artis Hicks, UFA TE Sean Ryan, and NT Maake Kemeoatu; kept UFA C Casey Rabach, UFA DE Phillip Daniels, UFA OT-OG Mike Williams, and RFA LB Lorenzo Alexander) – Hicks is a versatile offensive lineman who can play either tackle or guard position, and his versatility makes him a nice addition. The Redskins, who have huge offensive line needs, could try Hicks at left tackle if they don’t draft one early, but if they do Hicks will find a starting spot elsewhere. For a three-year, $9 million deal with $3 million guaranteed, that’s a find. The Redskins also kept Rabach, a solid center, on a three-year deal worth $12.3 million, and brought back former draft bust Mike Williams on a three-year deal. The moves don’t make the Skins’ O-line elite, but they do provide some solidfying pieces that will look good if the Skins get Russell Okung or another prospect at the top of the draft. Alexander got a three-year deal worth up to $3.8 million with a $1.1 million guarantee to serve as a backup outside linebacker and special-teamer. Daniels got a two-year deal worth $2.16 million to be a backup defensive end in Washington’s new 3-4 scheme. Kemeoatu, who was cut by the Panthers, is coming off an Achilles injury, but when healthy he’s a run clogger big enough to play nose tackle in the Redskins new 3-4. With a two-year, $7 million deal, Kemeoatu becomes a price-friendly option at nose tackle, which is really a position of scarcity. Ryan is a block-first tight end who provides depth behind Chris Cooley and Fred Davis.

3 – Titans (add LB Will Witherspoon) – Witherspoon, who was cut by the Eagles, got a three-year, $11 million deal with $5 million guaranteed to come to Tennessee. He’s a weak-side linebacker who’s good in coverage and still has pretty good range, and he can play in the middle in a pinch as well. His arrival may mean that Keith Bulluck’s long and storied Titans career is over.

3 (con’t) – Eagles (added CB Marlin Jackson; kept RFA FB Leonard Weaver and RFA WR Jason Avant) – Weaver was a nice surprise as a fullback for the Eagles last year, making plays in the run game and the passing game. His bruising running style will be a nice complement to LeSean McCoy as the Eagles begin a new era in the backfield sans Brian Westbrook. The deal Weaver got – three years, $11 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – shows that Weaver will be more than a traditional fullback going forward. Avant, who emerged as a solid No. 3 receiver, got a five-year deal worth $18 million with $8 million in guarantees as the Eagles try to keep their young trio of receivers – Avant, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin – together to bridge from the Donovan McNabb era (whenever it ends) to the Kevin Kolb regime. Jackson never panned out as a first-rounder in Indianapolis, but the Eagles believe he can make the move from corner to free safety to solve a spot that has been a problem since Brian Dawkins left. It’s a low-cost move worth $2 million this year but potentially worth $6 million over two years if Jackson becomes a quality starter.

3 (con’t) – Steelers (kept UFA S Ryan Clark; added UFA S Will Allen, UFA WR Arnaz Battle, OT Jonathan Scott, and WR Antwaan Randle El) – Clark was one of the underrated prizes of the free-agent class, and Pittsburgh couldn’t afford to lose him. Keeping the big-hitting complement to Troy Polamalu is a boon for the Steelers, and the four-year, $14 million contract isn’t prohibitive. The Steelers also added Allen from the Buccaneers as a backup safety on a three-year, $4.5 million deal with a signing bonus of $975,000. Allen gives insurance against Polamalu’s injury history and also could plug into a nickel corner role. At receiver, Pittsburgh added Battle, a rangy receiver and special-teams ace from the 49ers, and brought back Randle El, who thrived as a slot receiver in Pittsburgh before becoming a big-money bust in Washington. Battle got a three-year, $3.975 contract with a $975,000 signing bonus, and Randle El got a three-year deal as well. Those two signings, along with the presence of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, could mean the release or trade of former second-round pick Limas Sweed. Scott played under new Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler in Buffalo the last two years, but he didn’t get a tender offer from the Bills. Given the Steelers’ lack of O-line depth, he could stick in Pittsburgh.

2 – Rams (added UFA DT Fred Robbins and UFA QB A.J. Feeley; kept RFA S Craig Dahl and RFA TE Daniel Fells) – Robbins played for Steve Spagnuolo with the Giants, so it’s no surprise that he got the call to come to St. Louis for up to $12 million over three years. Robbins is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher inside, but he played well for Spags before. Feeley got $6 million plus escalators over two years, which is above-average backup money. But if the Rams draft a quarterback as expected, Feeley may be a place-holding starter as 2010 opens. Dahl is a backup who plays well on special teams. Fells made a few key plays last year and got a deal potentially worth $1.5 million if he shines this year.

2 (con’t) – Ravens (kept UFA WR Derrick Mason and RFA DT Lamar Divens) – Mason was the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver last year, but with Anquan Boldin coming over via trade he’ll move a peg down the hierarchy. But that may be the best for both Mason and the Ravens, since at age 36 he’s slowed just a bit. Mason is still a solid receiver, especially on shorter routes, and he’ll be a reliable option across from Boldin who teams will still have to account for. That’s worth a 2-year, $8 million deal with $3.5 million paid in the first year. Divens is a backup defensive end who could get more run with the departure of Justin Bannan.

2 (con’t) – 49ers (added UFA QB David Carr; kept UFA LB Matt Wilhelm) – Carr revitalized his career a bit as a backup with the Giants, and the Niners opted to add him to replace Shaun Hill behind Alex Smith. Carr got a two-year deal worth $6.25 million with $1.87 million in incentives. That gives San Fran two former No. 1 overall picks at quarterback. Wilhelm bounced around a little during last season but became a useful backup and special teamer for the Niners once he arrived by the bay.

2 (con’t) – Bills (kept UFA S-LB Bryan Scott; added UFA OT Cornell Green) – Scott, a former safety, was pressed into duty as a starting outside linebacker last year, and he held up pretty well despite being undersized. Having started both at strong safety and outside linebacker makes him valuable to the Bills, who trust him enough to put him on the field. So they’ll pay him $3 million over two years (a little over the minimum) to keep him around. Green, who once upon a time won a Super Bowl ring with the Buccaneers, started as a Raider last year but was penalty-prone. Still, given how young the Bills’ line is, getting any help – especially at the penurious price of $9 million over 3 years – is a bit of a positive sign.

1 -Cardinals (kept UFA TE Anthony Becht and RFA TE Stephen Spach) – Becht was a first-round pick once upon a time, but he’s bounced around a lot in recent years. He found a home in Arizona, though, starting 10 games last year as a blocking tight end. He’ll return on a one-year, $950,000 deal to continue opening holes for a Cardinals offense that appears to be shifting more and more toward the run game. Spach is also a quality blocker who has a little more juice in the passing game. They form a serviceable but not spectacular duo.

1 (con’t) – Chargers (kept UFA TE Kris Wilson and UFA DE Alfonso Boone; claim RB Marcus Mason on waivers) – Wilson became more valuable to San Diego when Brandon Manumaleuna left for Chicago. He’s a block-first tight end who complements Antonio Gates nicely, and at $1.7 million over two years, he’s barely making above the minimum. Boone is a solid backup in the Bolts’ 3-4 and knows Ron Rivera’s system well. So his two-year deal provides stability among the reserves for San Diego. Mason was a Redskins backup who has a bit of promise but didn’t fit the system Mike Shanahan is bringing to Washington.

1 (con’t) – Raiders (kept OT Khalif Barnes) – The Raiders did not tender Barnes a contract as a restricted free agent, so the one-year contract to which they signed him is probably at a cheaper level than the tender would have been. Barnes, a former Jaguars starter, played in two games and started just two last year. Still, he has physical ability, and that always makes the Raiders drool.

1 (con’t) – Saints (kept UFA S Pierson Prioleau, UFA C Nick Leckey, and UFA CB Leigh Torrence) – Leckey, Torrence, and Prioleau signed one-year deals to return as backups for the Saints. Prioleau was the team’s top tackler on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Jets (kept UFA TE Ben Hartsock) – Hartsock, who came to the Meadowlands from Arizona last offseason, did a good job as the Jets’ best blocking tight end. He provides a nice complement to receiver extraordinaire Dustin Keller last year.

1 (con’t) – Vikings (added PK Rhys Lloyd; kept UFA S Benny Sapp) – Lloyd, who wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent by the Panthers, is a kickoff specialist who will take some pressure off of Ryan Longwell, now age 36. Sapp is a nickel back who started seven games in relief last year. He’s a nice extra piece to have, but he shouldn’t be a core starter.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (added WR Wallace Wright) – The Panthers are in cost-cutting and age-cutting mode, but they did add Wright, who didn’t get tendered by the Jets as a restricted free agent. Wright is a special-teams dynamo who had 45 tackles in the last two seasons.

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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

As the free-agent market opens (midnight eastern Friday morning), I thought I’d list the cream of the crop (as I see it) at every position. I’m not a scout, so I probably am leaving some people out, but here’s a pretty good list by position. I’ve only included players that are unrestricted on the market, so that eliminates all the restricted free agents as well as the franchise players.

Quarterback – Chad Pennington (Mia.), Jake Delhomme (Car.) – Pennington is the only quarterback in the market I’d consider as an option for a training-camp competition, because he’s consistent and accurate, but Delhomme could find a similiar role.

Running back – Thomas Jones (NYJ), Chester Taylor (Minn.), Ladell Betts (Wash.) – At age 32, Jones shouldn’t get a long-term deal, but he’s a fine option for 2010. Taylor is a good fit in two-RB sets because he’s a good blocker and receiver who can also carry the load when necessary. Both are better at this point than recent releases and fellow over-30 running backs LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Jamal Lewis. Betts becomes an under-the-radar choice as a No. 2 back after being released by the Redskins.

Wide receiver – Antonio Bryant (TB), Derrick Mason (Balt.), Kevin Walter (Hou.), Nate Burleson (Sea.), Terrell Owens (Buff.), Torry Holt (Jax.), Kassim Osgood (S.D.) – Bryant is wildly inconsistent, but he’s the only guy in this group with the potential of being a No. 1 receiver. Mason is still a dependable guy who fits as a No. 2 receiver, and Walter can make some plays in that kind of role as well. Burleson is a little too up-and-down to be a No. 2, but he is a nice option. Owens’ skills are declining to the point that he’s barely a No. 2., and the same is true for Holt. Osgood, a special-teams ace, never got much run at receiver for the Chargers, but he’s big and fast, which may lead someone to give him a chance he hasn’t yet had in the NFL.

Tight end – Ben Watson (NE), Brandon Manumaleuna (SD) – Watson is inconsistent, but he can be a passing-game threat. Manumaleuna is a big, sturdy blocking tight end who would fit as a nice piece with Mike Martz’s new Chicago system or perhaps a Wildcat team.

Center – Kevin Mawae (Tenn.), Casey Rabach (Wash.) – Mawae and Rabach are both veterans who still perform acceptably but won’t get long-term deals. Still, a team with a short-term need has options.

Guard – Bobbie Williams (Cin.), Rex Hadnot (Cle.), Stephen Neal (NE), Keydrick Vincent (Car.) – Williams is a big guard who’s good in the run game and OK in pass protection. At age 33, he’s not in his prime, but he’s got a few good years left. Vincent, who started the last two years in Carolina, is a similar player whose performance is a tick below that of Williams. Hadnot isn’t great, but he’s still a good player who is an acceptable NFL starter. Neal is undersized compared to the other massive guards in this group, but he’s still an above-average player as well. None of these guys will get overpaid, but a couple of them at least should get multi-year deals.

Offensive tackle – Mike Gandy (Ariz.), Chad Clifton (GB), Barry Sims (SF), Tra Thomas (Jax.) – There’s little to no tackle help to be found, as Clifton and Thomas are on their last legs and Sims is a fill-in at best. Gandy is probably the best option. He’s started at left tackle for the Cardinals the last three years, and while he’s better in the run game than in pass protection, he gets by. And at age 31, he’s still an acceptable starting option going forward.

Kicker – Neil Rackers (Ariz.), Shayne Graham (Cin.) – Neither Rackers nor Graham had his best year, but both have been solid in recent campaigns. They could provide an upgrade for teams with inconsistent young kickers. Cundiff

Defensive ends (4-3) – Julius Peppers (Car.), Aaron Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tenn.), Charles Grant (NO), Adewale Ogunleye (Chi.), Leonard Little (STL), Tyler Brayton (Car.), Ryan Denney (Buff.)  – This is perhaps the most stacked position in free agency, and Peppers of course is the class of the group. Although he’s 30, he’s still a premium pass rusher, and as a player who has been known for so-so effort, he could be reinvigorated by a change of venue. He’ll get the biggest deal in this free agent market. For teams that miss out on Peppers, Kampman and Vanden Bosch are nice options. Both still have a little pass rushing juice and are sturdy vs. the run. Grant never lived up to his potential as a first-rounder, but he has talent and could get a look as a fresh-start candidate. Ogunleye is a formerly productive pass rusher who has moved into the solid but unspectacular part of his career, while Little is probably just a situational pass rusher at this point. Brayton is a solid run-stopper but not much of a sack man. Denney is like Brayton but even older.

Defensive ends (3-4) – Dwan Edwards (Balt.), Justin Bannan (Balt.), Jarvis Green (NE), Vonnie Holliday (Den.) – The Ravens reportedly want to keep both Edwards and Bannan, who are key rotation players on their front 3, but it’s likely that at least one of those guys will get a big deal elsewhere. Edwards could be one of the big winners in this free-agent market. Green and Holliday are veterans who are solid 3-4 ends and great options for teams looking to fill a rotation spot.

Defensive tackles (4-3) – Tank Johnson (Cin.), Damione Lewis (Car.), Jimmy Kennedy (Minn.), Fred Robbins (NYG) – Johnson is well known for his legal problems, but he was on his best behavior last year in Cincinnati, and he played well too. He’s the best 4-3 tackle on the market by far. Kennedy, a former bust with the Rams, showed some flashes as a backup tackle who can slash into the backfield on occasion. Robbins is more of a fill-in who could fit as a fourth tackle at a veteran minimum salary. Lewis, a late cut, is a pretty productive slashing tackle but is more effective as a backup than a full-time starter.

Nose tackles (3-4) – Jason Ferguson (Mia.), Hollis Thomas (Car.), Maake Kemeoatu (Car.), Jamal Williams (SD) – All of these guys are long in the tooth, but they can plug the nose. With so many nose tackles franchised this year, this is a scarce position, and that may help their marketability. Kemeoatu is the youngest of the group, but he’s coming back from a major Achilles injury. Williams and Ferguson are more accomplished, but health and age are big concerns.

Outside linebackers (3-4) – Joey Porter (Mia.), Jason Taylor (Mia.), Tully Banta-Cain (NE), Derrick Burgess (NE) – The outside pass rushers are all veterans. Porter had 26.5 sacks over the past two years and is still a quality pass rusher. Taylor has slipped a little below that level, but he’s still a quality situational rusher. Banta-Cain had just 12.5 sacks in his first six seasons, but he had 10 for the Patriots last year in what was either a breakout season or a fluke. Some team may outbid the Patriots hoping for the former. Burgess is the consolation prize in this group.

Linebackers – Karlos Dansby (Ariz.), Gary Brackett (Ind.), Keith Bulluck (Tenn.), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Scott Fujita (NO) – Dansby is another prize in this market. He’s a 3-4 inside backer who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the 4-3, and he’s a playmaker with great range at both spots. He’ll get a huge deal somewhere. Brackett is more of a system player, but he’s an impactful 4-3 middle linebacker despite being undersized. Bulluck has been a terrific weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 for many years, but at his age he’s starting to slip. Still, he’s a good starting option who would also be a great leader. Fujita isn’t the athlete Bulluck is, but he’s also a starting-quality player. Pierce has been a top 4-3 middle ‘backer, but injuries are a huge concern. But if he can pass a physical, he can help a team.

Cornerbacks – Dunta Robinson (Hou.), Leigh Bodden (NE), Lito Sheppard (NYJ), William James (Det.) – Robinson has talent, but his production last year didn’t match his franchise-player salary. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he is a talent who will make good money. Bodden had a solid year with New England, repeating some of the success he had in Cleveland. His year in Detroit was a bust, but on the whole he’s proven his worth. James is a veteran who’s good enough to start, although he’ll need help over the top. Still, corner desperate teams could do worse than James. Sheppard is a talent who thinks more of himself than his play merits, but he’s still a top-3 cornerback for most teams if he’s willing to take a role instead of star.

Safeties – Antrell Rolle (Ariz.), Ryan Clark (Pitt.), Darren Sharper (NO), Mike Brown (KC), Jermaine Phillips (TB) – Rolle is a big-time play maker with great range and great size who is hitting the market because his contract is outsized. But he’s one of the few impact players on the market, and that should lead to a pay day. Clark is a big-hitting strong safety who has limited range but still has made big plays for the Steelers in recent years. Sharper had a big impact on the Saints in ’09, but his age makes a long-term contract unwise. Still, Sharper can help. If a team is looking for veteran wiles but can’t get Sharper, Brown and Phillips are options.

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Linemen

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 and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post. Now we move to defensive linemen, who can wear numbers in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 90s, with the 90s by far the most popular and populated numbers. If a number is omitted, it’s because no defensive lineman who has played this season wears those digits.

54 – Quentin Groves, Jaguars – Groves has been a bust after being a second-round pick by the Jaguars back in 2008, going without a sack this year after notching just 2.5 in 16 games as a rookie. But since he’s the only defensive lineman wearing No. 54, he gets the nod.

55 – John Abraham, Falcons – Abraham is an impactful pass rusher who has five career 10-sack seasons, including a career-high 16.5 last year. He has just 3.5 sacks this season but is still a strong pass-rush threat. Other notable 55s: Darryl Tapp, Seahawks

57 – James Wyche, Jaguars – Wyche made his NFL debut last week vs. the Texans after spending two seasons on the Jaguars’ roster. But like his teammate Groves, he’s the only defensive lineman currently wearing his number.

58 – Trent Cole, Eagles – Cole has developed into a strong pass-rushing threat off the edge for the Eagles. He has 44 career sacks, including 9.5 so far this year. He is also one of the best defensive ends in the league in terms of solo tackles. First-round pick Aaron Maybin of the Bills, another 58 who has yet to record a sack in his rookie season, hopes to one day be the kind of impact pass rusher that Cole is.

60 – Joe Cohen, Lions – Cohen, a first-year player out of Florida, is a backup defensive tackle who has seen action in five games this season. He gets the nod over injured Panthers rookie Corvey Irvin.

61 – Gerard Warren, Raiders – Warren, in his ninth year, never lived up to the billing he had as the third overall pick in the 2001 draft. But he has been a starter every year of his career but one, and now serves as a run-stuffing defensive tackle for Oakland. Other notable 61: Derek Landri, Panthers

64 – Kedric Golston, Redskins – Golston, in his fourth year with the Redskins, is a solid rotation defensive tackle. That’s something every team needs a couple of. Other notable 64: Antonio Dixon, Eagles

66 – DelJuan Robinson, Texans – Robinson, a third-year defensive tackle out of Mississippi State, played in all 16 games last year and has seen action in seven contests this season. He’s the only defensive lineman wearing 66 who has seen action this year.

68 – Jonathan Fanene, Bengals – One of the most surprising stat lines I uncovered in researching this project was the season Fanene is having for the Bengals. He has five sacks, two passes defensed and a interception (which he returned for a touchdown). That’s a huge step forward for a player who had just one sack in his first four seasons. Other notable 68: Eric Foster, Colts

69 – Jared Allen, Vikings – This was an easy call. Allen is one of the league’s best pass rushers, with 12.5 sacks thus far this season and 70 in his six-year career. He’s just entering his prime, which means he’ll give the Vikings many more sacks to come. Other notable 69s: Leger Douzable, Rams; Anthony Hargrove, Saints; Henry Melton, Bears; C.J. Mosley, Browns; J’Vonne Parker, Broncos

70 – Kendall Langford, Dolphins – Langford is a second-year starter at defensive end in Miami’s 3-4 system. He has 3.5 career sacks, which is enough to give him the nod at this number over long-time backup DT Alfonso Boone, now with the Chargers. Other notable 70: Mike DeVito, Jets

71 – Kroy Biermann, Falcons – Biermann, a second-year defensive end for Atlanta, is coming into his own as a pass-rushing specialist. He has five sacks this season. So we give him the nod over Kendrick Clancy of the Saints, who has started three of the past four seasons but has played just two games this year. Other notable 71s: Lionel Dotson, Dolphins; Gary Gibson, Rams; Israel Idonije, Bears; Alex Magee, Chiefs; Ahtyba Rubin, Browns; Dave Tollefson, Giants

72 – Osi Umenyiora, Giants – Umenyiora isn’t having his best year after missing the entire ’08 season with a knee injury, yet he still has five sacks and is still a dangerous pass rusher. Osi has 46.5 career sacks and has performed at a level far above what we’ve yet seen from 2008 top-five draft picks Chris Long of the Rams and Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs, who also wear 72. Dorsey is at least among the leading tacklers on the defensive line. Other notable 72: Stephen Bowen, Cowboys

73 – Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings – Kennedy was once the 12th overall pick, but his career has been disappointing. Now in his seventh season, he’s nothing more than a rotation defensive tackle for the Vikings. But since he’s the only notable defensive lineman wearing 73, he gets props here. Sometimes the world ain’t fair.

74 – Jacques Cesaire, Chargers – Cesaire, now in his seventh season with the Chargers, has started 11 games this season as a 3-4 defensive end, taking over the spot that Igor Olshansky vacated. He’s been a solid hand for the Bolts for many years now.

75 – Vince Wilfork, Patriots – Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles around, and he’s going to be rewarded for his ability (and his girth) as a free agent this season. He has started regularly since his second season, and he is now one of the few impact players left on the Patriots defense. He’s made one Pro Bowl. Other notable 75s: Jovan Haye, Titans; Turk McBride, Lions; Juqua Parker, Eagles; Hollis Thomas, Panthers; Matt Toeaina, Bears

76 – Jamal Williams, Chargers – Williams played just one game this season before injuries shelved him, but for many years he was the preeminent 3-4 nose tackle. He made three bowls and was the heart of several terrific Chargers defenses. Other notable 76: Chris Hoke, Steelers

77 – Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins made the transition from a dominant tackle in a 4-3 defense with Carolina to being a stud nose tackle in the Jets’ 3-4. He played in just six games this season before getting hurt, so he’ll have to be content with four Pro Bowl appearances for now. He gets this nod over his brother Cullen, a defensive tackle for the Packers. Other notable 77s: RaShon Harris, Steelers; Matt Shaughnessy, Raiders

78 – Jacob Ford, Titans – Ford hasn’t yet broken through as a defensive end starter in Tennessee, but he has provided solid pass-rush skills in his two seasons. He has 3.5 sacks this season after notching seven as a rookie. Other notable 78s: Alan Branch, Cardinals; Tony McDaniel, Dolphins

79 – Ryan Pickett, Packers – Pickett was a bit of a disappointment as a first-rounder in St. Louis, but he’s found a home in Green Bay. In fact, Pickett’s ability to move from a defensive tackle in the 4-3 to playing on the nose in a 3-4 has been a key in Green Bay’s relatively seamless transition between those defensive schemes. Other notable 79s: Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins; Raheem Brock, Colts; Ropati Pitoitua, Jets; Sammie Lee Hill, Lions; Red Bryant, Seahawks; Marcus Thomas, Broncos

90 – Julius Peppers, Panthers – This is an incredibly close call for Peppers, who has all the talent in the world and has turned it into 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this year. Among the top competition is Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, who has seven sacks and is among the leading DL tacklers in the league; Mario Williams of Houston, a talented pass rusher; solid run-defending DE Chris Kelsay of Buffalo; and top-flight NT Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys. Other notable 90s: Ryan Baker, Dolphins; Desmond Bryant, Raiders; Adam Carriker, Rams; Colin Cole, Seahawks; Kenyon Coleman, Browns; Fred Evans, Vikings; Jarron Gilbert, Bears; Darren Howard, Eagles; Grady Jackson, Lions; Jeremy Jarmon, Redskins; Jevon Kearse, Titans; Travis Kirschke, Steelers; Daniel Muir, Colts; Kenny Peterson, Broncos; DeMario Pressley, Saints; Trevor Pryce, Ravens; B.J. Raji, Packers; Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons; Pat Sims, Bengals; Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers; Julius Williams, Jaguars

91 – Will Smith, Saints – This was another tough call, as Justin Tuck of the Giants is well known for his ability to be a force both at end and at tackle. But Smith is having a terrific season with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles, so we’ll give him a slight nod over Tuck. Ray Edwards of the Vikings (6.5 sacks) is the sleeper candidate here, and Pittsburgh DE Aaron Smith woudl be if he were healthy. Other notable 91s: Everette Brown, Panthers; Chris Clemons, Eagles; Ronald Fields, Broncos; Robert Geathers, Bengals; Justin Harrell, Packers; Tommie Harris, Bears; Derrick Harvey, Jaguars; Kenny Iwebema, Cardinals; Rob Jackson, Redskins; Spencer Johnson, Bills; Jason Jones, Titans; Leonard Little, Rams; Ray McDonald, 49ers; Brandon McKinney, Ravens; Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Chargers; Amobi Okoye, Texans; Sione Pouha, Jets; Myron Pryor, Patriots; Brian Schaefering, Browns; Trevor Scott, Raiders; Stylez White, Buccaneers

92 – Albert Haynesworth, Redskins – Haynesworth doesn’t get to pile up numbers, but no one wreaks more havoc from the inside than Haynesworth does. That’s why the Redskins made Haynesworth the highest-paid defensive player in the league in the offseason. With Cleveland NT Shaun Rogers hurt, Haynesworth is the easy choice. Haloti Ngata of Baltimore, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends, deserves mention as well. Other notable 92s: Cliff Avril, Lions; Remi Ayodele, Saints; Ron Brace, Patriots; Chauncey Davis, Falcons; Ryan Denney, Bills; Shaun Ellis, Jets; Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers; Wallace Gilberry, Chiefs; Damione Lewis, Panthers; Vaughn Martin, Chargers; Brandon Mebane, Seahawks; Rob Meier, Jaguars; Jayme Mitchell, Vikings; Dre Moore, Buccaneers; Frostee Rucker, Bengals; Richard Seymour, Raiders; Jeff Zgonina, Texans

93 – Kevin Williams, Vikings – This was an exceedingly close call between Williams, the disruptive Vikings defensive tackle, and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, a preeminent pass rusher. Freeney outpaces Williams in sacks this year 10.5 to 6, but the fact that Williams is one of the top sackers from the tackle position gives him the edge in what amounts to a coin flip. These two are a step above other candidates like Tennessee DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jets DE Marques Douglas, who is second in tackles among defensive linemen this season. Other notable 93s: Jay Alford, Giants; Tim Bulman, Texans; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Luis Castillo, Chargers; Phillip Daniels, Redskins;  Nick Eason, Steelers; Dwan Edwards, Ravens; Chris Ellis, Bills; Demetric Evans, 49ers; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Thomas Johnson, Falcons; Tommy Kelly, Raiders; Trevor Laws, Eagles; Bobby McCray, Saints; Roy Miller, Buccaneers; Adewale Ogunleye, Bears; Greg Peterson, Jaguars; Craig Terrill, Seahawks; Tank Tyler, Panthers

94 – Aaron Schobel, Bills – The crop of defensive linemen at 94 is a little thinner, but Schobel is a solid choice. He has seven sacks this year yet is also solid against the run. We’ll give him the nod over Vikings NT Pat Williams, who is the big run-stopper who allows Kevin Williams to attack more aggressively. Other notable 94s: Victor Adeyanju, Rams; Jason Babin, Eagles; Ervin Baldwin, Colts; Justin Bannan, Ravens; Copeland Bryan, Lions; Charles Grant, Saints; Marcus Harrison, Bears; Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; Peria Jerry, Falcons; William Joseph, Raiders; Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants; Louis Leonard, Panthers; Sen’Derrick Marks, Titans; Anthony Montgomery, Redskins; Kyle Moore, Buccaneers; Jarvis Moss, Broncos; Jeremy Navarre, Jaguars; Domata Peko, Bengals; Cory Redding, Seahawks; Antonio Smith, Texans; Justin Smith, 49ers; Randy Starks, Dolphins; Ty Warren, Patriots;  Jarius Wynn, Packers

95 – Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons – While 94 is a gaunt number for defensive linemen, 95 is straight slim pickings. So we go with Babineaux, a solid defensive tackle who has 5 sacks this season. Other notable 95s: Victor Abiamiri, Eagles; Anthony Adams, Bears; Tim Anderson, Cowboys; Rocky Bernard, Giants; Shaun Cody, Texans; Jared DeVries, Lions; Ron Edwards, Chiefs; Jason Ferguson, Dolphins; Howard Green, Jets; Orien Harris, Bengals; William Hayes, Titans; Chris Hovan, Buccaneers; Lawrence Jackson, Seahawks; Ricky Jean-Francois, 49ers; Charles Johnson, Panthers; Fili Moala, Colts; Darrell Reid, Broncos; Clifton Ryan, Rams; Junior Siavii, Cowboys; Montavious Stanley, Jaguars; Kyle Williams, Bills; Chris Wilson, Redskins

96 – Tyler Brayton, Panthers – This is another group of slim pickings, to the point that Brayton’s 37 tackles and four sacks are enough to give him the nod. That’s one more tackle and the same number of sacks as Chicago’s Alex Brown. Other notable 96s: Kentwan Balmer, 49ers; Barry Cofield, Giants; Tim Crowder, Buccaneers; Keyunta Dawson, Colts; Andre Fluellen, Lions; Cornelius Griffin, Redskins; James Hall, Rams; Ziggy Hood, Steelers; Tim Jamison, Texans; Travis Johnson, Chargers; Terrance Knighton, Jaguars; Mike Montgomery, Packers; Brian Robison, Vikings; Paul Soliai, Dolphins; Marcus Spears, Cowboys; Kevin Vickerson, Titans

97 – Kelly Gregg, Ravens – This is more like it – a number filled with quality players. The best of the bunch is Gregg, the run-stuffing nose tackle for Baltimore who is currently sixth among defensive linemen in tackles. His ability to take on defenders and stuff inside runs allows the rest of the Ravens to run free. He gets the nod over Packers DE Johnny Jolly, who is by far the leader among defensive linemen in passes broken up with eight, and periennially solid pass rusher Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks. Other notable 97s: Mark Anderson, Bears; Tony Brown, Titans; Brodrick Bunkley, Eagles; Jeff Charleston, Saints; Jarvis Green, Patriots; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys; Reggie Hayward, Jaguars; Jason Hunter, Lions; Trey Lewis, Falcons; John McCargo, Bills; Phillip Merling, Dolphins; Frank Okam, Texans; Bryan Robinson, Cardinals; Darell Scott, Rams; LeKevin Smith, Broncos; Hilee Taylor, Panthers; Jimmy Wilkerson, Buccaneers; Renaldo Wynn, Redskins

98 – Robert Mathis, Colts – Mathis doesn’t get as much pub as his teammate Dwight Freeney, but he’s nearly as devastating as a pass rusher. Mathis has 9.5 sacks thus far this season, tied for fourth among defensive linemen. So he gets the nod over Cleveland DE Robaire Smith, who leads the league in tackles among defensive linemen; up-and-coming Saints DT Sedrick Ellis; and Steelers NT Casey Hampton. If Bengals DE Antwan Odom hadn’t gotten hurt after six games, he would have more than eight sacks and would have certainly claimed this honor. Other notable 98s: C.J. Ah You, Rams; Jamaal Anderson, Falcons; Dave Ball, Titans; Connor Barwin, Texans; Landon Cohen, Lions; Dusty Dvoracek, Bears; Letroy Guion, Vikings; Nick Hayden, Panthers; John Henderson, Jaguars; Curtis Johnson, Cowboys; Ryan McBean, Broncos; Mike Patterson, Eagles; Nick Reed, Seahawks; Jay Richardson, Raiders; Fred Robbins, Giants; Ian Scott, Chargers; Ryan Sims, Buccaneers; Kelly Talavou, Ravens; Gabe Watson, Cardinals

99 – Andre Carter, Redskins – Carter, a former top-10 pick, is kind of a forgotten guy, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league. He has nine sacks, which places him sixth among defensive linemen, and is fourth among defensive linemen in tackles. When you think about how solid the Redskins’ defense is, you have to give Carter much of the credit. So he gets the nod over solid Bills DT Marcus Stroud. Other notable 99s: Gaines Adams, Bears; Chris Canty, Giants; Greg Ellis, Raiders; Atiyyah Ellison, Jaguars; Vonnie Holliday, Broncos; Antonio Johnson, Colts; Tank Johnson, Bengals; Brett Keisel, Steelers; Maake Kemeoatu, Panthers; Igor Olshansky, Chargers; LaJuan Ramsey, Rams; Derek Walker, Seahawks; Vance Walker, Falcons; Dewayne White, Lions; Corey Williams, Browns; Mike Wright, Patriots

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