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Fantasy Football: The A-team of Running Backs

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1A and 1B players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the elite guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at running back, with wideouts at quarterbacks to follow.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. At running back, that means a guy we expect to have fantasy production that equals at least 12 total touchdowns and at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage. The A-Team at running back includes players on Tiers 1A and 1B but not players we’re slotting on Tier 1C of our draft board at this point.

No-brainers

Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson enters our fantasy football preparation as our No. 1 overall player, in a close race over Adrian Peterson. He’s coming off a 2,006-yard rushing season that also included 500 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. And with LenDale White gone, Johnson may get a few more cracks in short-yardage, goal-line situations. The third-year back still has young legs, and so last year’s strong workload isn’t yet a cause for concern. It’s unreasonable to expect 2,000 rushing yards again, but 2,000 yards from scrimmage is a reasonable expectation for one of the league’s fastest players. And don’t worry about Johnson’s current contract dispute unless it lingers into August training camp. For now, Johnson’s the No. 1 pick.

Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson was more of a touchdown generator than Johnson last year with 18 journeys into the end zone, but his yardage total of 1,800 paled in comparison to Johnson’s ridiculous output. Peterson is still an elite back, and with Chester Taylor gone he might actually pile up more yards between the 20s this year. Rookie Toby Gerhart could take away a few goal-line opportunities, but that’s not a major fantasy concern. Peterson has had 1,600, 1,700, and 1,800 yards from scrimmage in his first three seasons, and he’ll be in that neighborhood again without question. Add in double-digit touchdowns, and he’s an easy call as a top-2 player in fantasy drafts this season.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo was always a fantasy producer, but last year for the first time he had the chance to be an unquestioned every-down back in Jacksonville because Fred Taylor was gone. Jones-Drew delivered 1,391 rushing yards, 374 receiving yards, and 16 total touchdowns to cement his status as an elite fantasy running back. He’s one of the few backs who doesn’t have to share more than about 20 percent of his carries, and that plus his proclivity for finding the end zone (54 offensive touchdowns in four seasons) makes him an incredibly safe bet at the top of fantasy drafts. Jones-Drew can’t run with Johnson and Peterson because he doesn’t have the top-end potential that those guys have, but he’s a great consolation prize if you end up with the third pick in the draft.

Close calls

Ray Rice, Ravens – In his second season, Rice broke out in a huge way with 1,339 rushing yards, 702 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That 2,000-yard output shot Rice to the top of the fantasy charts, and he’ll stay there this year. His touchdown potential is limited by the presence of Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain, both of whom are fine short-yardage backs. But Rice will continue to be the main yardage guy in Baltimore, and the Ravens’ run-first approach gives fantasy owners some assurance that Rice will be worth a top-5 draft pick even with McGahee and McClain around. Rice comes with a little risk, but in the end we’ll include him in Tier 1B as part of the A-Team.

Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore has a reputation of missing games, but he’s actually only been in street clothes for five games in the past four seasons. And when he plays, he produces, with 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Gore has only had one season in his four as a starter with more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage, and that came four years ago, and last year’s 13-touchdown season was his first double-digit campaign. But he’s a dependable producer who represents a safe pick in the first round. Don’t forget that the 49ers spent two first-round picks on offensive linemen in the draft to give their run game more punch this season in your evaluation. Gore doesn’t have the upside that Rice has, but he still makes the cut to be a Tier1B option. That puts him on the A-Team.

Just missed

Steven Jackson, Rams – After two years of missing a quarter of the season, Jackson played all but one game last year and returned to top-level production with 1,738 yards from scrimmage. Jackson did this on a terrible team, and while that limited his yardage total it scuttled his touchdown total so that he had just four. Jackson is an every-down back on a terrible team, and no matter what the Rams have added this offseason that hasn’t changed. So it’s unreasonable to expect Jackson to return to his elite level of 2005-06. You can count on Jackson for 1,500 yards, but the touchdown total will struggle enough to keep him in Tier 1C instead of on the A-Team.

Michael Turner, Falcons – After a massive 2008 season with 1,740 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns, Turner struggled with injuries last year and finished with 906 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games. He tried to come back from his injury before he was 100 percent, and that limited his effectiveness. The question is whether his high-volume 2008 season burned him out, or whether at age 28 Turner is starting to slip even though he didn’t have a ton of carries in his first four NFL seasons. Turner has the potential to force his way back onto the A-Team, but after his 2009 struggles we’re inclined to leave him on Tier 1C for now and see how our opinion changes through the rest of the offseason. He’s a borderline first-round pick in most leagues, but we’re not ready to include him among the elite.

Ryan Grant, Packers – After a sterling half-season as a starter in 2007, Grant has posted back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons to establish himself as a legitimate first-round option. Grant also had 11 touchdowns last season, making his five-TD 2008 campaign look more like a fluke than his eight-TD half season in 2007. Grant doesn’t have the top-end potential that Rice or Turner has, but he’s so dependable that he’s at least in the A-Team conversation. In the end, we’ll put Grant on Tier 1C instead of with the A-Team, but don’t overlook him as an option.

DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – Williams missed three games last year and split time with Jonathan Stewart, but he still piled up big numbers in one of the league’s most run-heavy offenses. Williams’ total of 1,369 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns is impressive even before you prorate it over a full 16-game season. Then when you realize that Jake Delhomme won’t be turning the ball over and over and over for the Panthers this year, Williams’ prospects look even better. While it’s pretty unlikely that Williams has another 20-touchdown season in him, even splitting time with Stewart doesn’t take totals like 1,500 total yards and double-digit touchdowns off the table. It’s more likely Williams lands in Ryan Grant land, but we’re at least toying with the idea of moving Williams up to the A-Team. For now, Tier 1C is a given.

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall didn’t take over as a starter until October, but he still piled up 1,108 rushing yards and 261 receiving yards to go with eight total touchdowns. The assumption is that with Willie Parker gone, Mendenhall will get a few more carries in the first half of the season, Mendenhall would move into the 1,500 total yard, 10-touchdown category. But we’re not as bullish on Mendenhall. We’ve never loved his straight-up running style, and his lack of breakaway ability means he usually has to be completely sprung free to break off a big gain. So we don’t see Mendenhall having the upside that others do. While some people have Mendenhall as a top-8 fantasy player this year, we’d feel a lot better about taking him in the 10-15 range, a la Ryan Grant. He’s in Tier 1C, not on the A-Team.

Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson missed three games at the end of the season last year, but through 13 games he piled up 1,362 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. Benson isn’t a dynamic runner, but in a run-first offense he figures to pile up a ton of yards once again. The lack of touchdowns is a minor red flag, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Benson land in the 1,200-yard range instead of the 1,500-yard promised land. But he’s at least worth mentioning in the A-Team discussion before we slot him comfortably at the bottom of Tier 1c.

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RP: Drafting NFL superstars – offense

Which positions in the draft give a team the best percentage chance of drafting a superstar? Let’s find out in this post about offense. (For drafting defensive superstars, check out this post.)

Last year leading up to the draft, we took on the project of analyzing which positions in the draft had the greatest boom and bust percentages in two posts (offense and defense). But as we did that project, we realized that there is another level we need to analyze. In the top 16 of the draft (top half of the first round), teams aren’t merely looking for good players – they’re looking for great players. So we are looking at superstar percentages by position this year.

Here’s the methodology: We looked back over the drafts from 1997 to 2008, analyzing the first 16 picks in each draft. We charted how many players were drafted at each position, and then we picked the guys at each position that have become superstars. We left out the 2009 draft, since it’s too soon to indicate that any of those players are superstars. After we make our calls about who the superstars are and find a percentage, we’ll list guys who we left off the borderline of superstars. We did this so that you can change percentages on your own if you disagree with a call about who’s a superstar and who’s not.

We also refigured the bust percentages from last year’s post on offense and included them below, for the sake of analysis.

Quarterbacks
Superstar percentage: 19 percent
Updated bust percentage: 31 percent (4 of 13)
Total picks:
21
Superstars: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning
Not-quite-superstars: Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper
What we learned: Do you have to take a quarterback at the top of the draft to find a superstar? Maybe not. The relatively low superstar percentage is in large part caused by the high bust percentage at the position, but the emergence of later draft picks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, and the undrafted Tony Romo as upper-echeleon quarterbacks makes the risk of taking a quarterback at the top of the draft even starker. The risk is high, and these stats suggest the reward isn’t really worth it. That won’t stop the Rams from pulling the trigger on Sam Bradford with the first overall pick this year, of course, but it’s another reason that we feel like Jimmy Clausen fits better after pick 20 than in the top 16.

Running backs
Superstar percentage:
39 percent
Updated bust percentage: 17 percent (2 of 12)
Total picks: 18
Superstars: Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Warrick Dunn, Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor
Not-quite-superstars: Jonathan Stewart, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones
What we learned: Not many running backs make their way into the top 16 of the draft – usually 1 or 2 per year – but those who end up going in that portion of the draft actually have a pretty good chance of becoming superstars. In an NFL world where running backs now are more likely to split time, running backs are even less likely to move into the top 16 of the draft. But C.J. Spiller, who perhaps projects in that area this year, could become a terrific complementary back. But it’s hard to see that as a path to superstardom, unless Spiller is as killer as Chris Johnson, which means the superstar percentage at this position is likely headed downward.

Wide receivers
Superstar percentage: 15 percent
Updated bust percentage: 40 percent (8 of 20)
Total picks: 27
Superstars: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt
Not-quite-superstars: Lee Evans, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
What we learned: At another risky position, the number of high draft picks who actually turn into superstars is pretty low. Of course, when guys like Fitzgerald or the Johnsons become superstars, they are true game-changers, but the list is so short that teams rightfully are wary. The questions about Dez Bryant this year (or Michael Crabtree last year) demonstrate this wariness. We’ll see if Bryant can move into the top 16 in the draft or if he’ll find himself outside the top half of the first round.

Tight ends
Superstar percentage:
20 percent
Updated bust percentage: 0 percent (0 of 4)
Total picks: 5
Superstars: Tony Gonzalez
Not-quite-superstars: Vernon Davis, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow
What we learned: Most of the tight ends who find themselves in the first half of the first round have turned into at least good players, although only Gonzalez truly crossed the threshold into superstardom. Still, getting an athletic freak like these guys at the top of the draft seems to be a good bet. It appears unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will find his way into the top-16 this year because of his 2009 injury, but these numbers still indicate that Gresham could have a significant impact.

Offensive linemen
Superstar percentage:
26 percent
Updated bust percentage: 12.5 percent (2 of 16)
Total picks: 23
Superstars: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Joe Thomas, Chris Samuels, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones
Not-quite-superstars: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jammal Brown, Jordan Gross, Tra Thomas, Bryant McKinnie, John Tait, Kyle Turley
What we learned: We noted last year that the vast majority of the offensive linemen picked in the top 16 are tackles, and many of those guys have made a huge impact at the position. While not all of them are true superstars, the trend is for these guys to become above-average starters if not borderline Pro Bowlers. We could have easily put three or four of the not-quite-superstars at this position into the superstar category, which would have made the superstar percentage at this position jump up. The bottom line is that offensive linemen are good bets at the top of the first round. So the teams that invest in Russell Okung, Bryan Bulaga, and Trent Williams (or any other lineman who sneak into the top 16) are making a very safe bet.

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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. Now we move to running backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

20 – Thomas Jones, Jets – It was surprising to hear during this week’s Jets/Patriots game that Jones had moved into the top 30 of all-time NFL rushers. That’s an impressive accomplishment, especially for a guy who struggled as a top-10 overall pick in his first stop in Arizona. But in subsequent stops in Tampa Bay, Chicago, and now New York Jones has proven he can produce. He’s an easy choice here over young whippersnappers Steve Slaton of Houston and Darren McFadden of Oakland. Other notable 20: Justin Forsett, Seahawks

21 – LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – LDT is no longer the dominant force he was in his prime years, but if one of the top 10 backs of all time is playing in the league, we have to give him the number nod, even over a stud like Frank Gore of San Francisco or a long-time producer like Fred Taylor of the Patriots. Other notable 21s: Mike Bell, Saints; Ryan Moats, Texans; Javon Ringer, Titans; Melwede Moore, Steelers

22 – Matt Forte, Bears – Forte had an outstanding rookie year last year, but this year he’s been stymied by a subpar offensive line. Still, he gets the nod at this point over Julius Jones of the Seahawks and Fred Jackson of the Bills. Other notable 22s: Peyton Hillis, Broncos; Jacob Hester, Chargers; Chris Brown, Texans; Clifton Smith, Buccaneers

23 – Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – Before suffering a season-ending injury, Brown was continuing to prove himself as one of the league’s top-10 backs. Throw in the fact that he can throw it out of the Wildcat, and Brown gets the nod over Marshawn Lynch of the Bills and Pierre Thomas of the Saints. Other notable 23s: Willis McGahee, Ravens; Shonn Greene, Jets

24 – Marion Barber, Cowboys – Marion the Barbarian isn’t having a dominant year, but he’s still a really good back. We have no choice but to give him the nod over comeback story extraordinare Cadillac Williams of Tampa Bay.

25 – Ryan Grant, Packers – While Reggie Bush’s 25 is a best selling jersey not just in New Orleans but league wide, Grant has been the more consistently productive back over the past three years. So we’ll give Grant the nod over Bush. Other notable 25s: Justin Fargas, Raiders; LenDale White, Titans; Garrett Wolfe, Bears; Jamaal Charles, Chiefs

26 – Clinton Portis, Redskins – Although he’s sidelined by a concussion at the home, Portis’ long and productive career makes him an easy choice here over promising rookie Beanie Wells of Arizona.

27 – Ray Rice, Ravens – Brandon Jacobs of the Giants has a bigger profile, and Larry Johnson of the Bengals has a longer career, but Rice is the best back wearing this number right now. Rice is a threat running and receiving, and he can move the chains as well as bust the big play. So he gets the nod over Jacobs, Johnson, and rookie Knowshon Moreno of the Broncos.

28 – Adrian Peterson, Vikings – This is a close call, because Peterson and Chris Johnson of the Titans – probably the two best backs in the league – both wear the same number. We’ll stick to conventional wisdom and lean toward Peterson in this close call. Otehr notable 28s: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers, Correll Buckhalter, Broncos; Felix Jones, Cowboys; Derrick Ward, Buccaneers; Maurice Morris, Lions

29 – Joseph Addai, Colts – Addai isn’t a great back, but he’s good both as a runner and a receiver when he’s healthy. With Leon Washington of the Jets hurt, Addai is an easy choice at this number. Other notable 29s: LeSean McCoy, Eagles; Michael Bush, Raiders; Glen Coffee, 49ers, Chester Taylor, Vikings

30 – John Kuhn, Packers – Green Bay’s fullback is the only notable back currently wearing 30. Thankfully, he has gotten into the end zone often enough to make this selection look respectable.

31 – Jamal Lewis, Browns – Lewis isn’t the back he once was, but the former 2,000-yard rusher has had a terrific career. He’s the clear choice at this number over rookie Donald Brown of the Colts. Other notable 31s: Rock Cartwright, Redskins; Jason Wright, Cardinals

32 – Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – Jones-Drew has moved seamlessly from being a part-time back to a full-time guy this year while still producing big numbers in terms of yardage and touchdowns. That gives him the nod over Cedric Benson, who is having a terrific season with the Bengals. Other notable 32: Jerious Norwood, Falcons

33 – Michael Turner, Falcons – The Burner has been incredibly productive since joining the Falcons in 2008, and that makes him the best back wearing 33 over pass-catching specialist Kevin Faulk of New England and short-yardage specialist LeRon McClain of Baltimore. Other notable 33: Justin Griffith, Seahawks

34 – Ricky Williams, Dolphins – Ricky wins the battle of the Williamses over DeAngelo Williams of Carolina based on Ricky’s longer career track record of production. Both are outstandingly talented backs. Other notable 34s: Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers; Kevin Smith, Lions; Tim Hightower, Cardinals; Ovie Mughelli, Falcons; Sammy Morris, Patriots

35 – Jerome Harrison, Browns – It’s slim pickings at this number, so we have to give the nod to Harrison, who has had a moment or two as Jamal Lewis’ backup. Other notable 35s: Owen Schmitt, Seahawks; Dan Kreider, Cardinals; Chad Simpson, Colts

36 – Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook, who has been a terrific multipurpose back for many years now, is the easy choice at this number. He’s a truly great player. Other notable 36: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals

37 – Jason McKie, Bears – McKie, the Bears’ fullback, gets the nod here over recent Bengals signee Fui Vakapuna, another fullback. Neither will make fans forget a great fullback wearing 37 – Larry Centers of the Cardinals.

38 – Samkon Gado, Rams – Gado has had a few moments in the league, so although he’s just a backup in St. Louis now, we opt for him over Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi and injured Dolphins back Patrick Cobbs.

39 – Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson plays for a terrible team, but he remains a terrific bellweather back for St. Louis. He gets the nod over the declining Willie Parker of Pittsburgh and the inconsistent Laurence Maroney of the Patriots. Other notable 39: Madison Hedgecock, Giants

40 – Brian Leonard, Bengals – As we get into the 40s, we’ll have a harder time finding backs wearing these numbers. Leonard, the Bengals’ do-everything back is the only notable runner wearing 40.

41 – Lorenzo Neal, Raiders – Neal has long been one of the league’s best blocking fullbacks, but his career is winding to a conclusion, which is why he’s bounced around in recent years.

42 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots – The law firm, as Green-Ellis is called, has done a good job when called on by the Patriots. Other notable 42s: Tony Fiametta, Panthers; Mike Cox, Chiefs; DeShawn Wynn, Packers

43 – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles, the mite-sized, dynamite-powered Chargers back, gets the nod here over underrated Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver.

44 – Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw, once the speedy portion of the Giants’ RB trio, has emerged as the team’s best runner this season. He gets the nod over a batch of fullbacks here. Other notable 44s: Heath Evans, Saints; Luke Lawton, Raiders; Vonta Leach, Texans; Moran Norris, 49ers, Jason Snelling, Falcons; Mike Karney, Rams

45 – Mike Sellers, Redskins – In a batch of fullbacks, Washginton’s Sellers gets the nod because of his short-yardage acumen and special-teams impact. Other notable 45s: Ahmard Hall, Titans; Brad Hoover, Panthers; Jerome Felton, Lions

46 – Ladell Betts, Redskins – Betts is the only notable back wearing 46. Thankfully, he’s a solid player who has produced when he has gotten the chance to fill in for Clinton Portis.

47 – Lawrence Vickers, Browns – Vickers, a fullback, is the only notable NFL back wearing 47 right now.

48 – None – Poor Stephen Davis. (We went to the same high school.) No current back is making his former number 48 proud.

49 – Tony Richardson, Jets – Richardson has long been one of the league’s better fullbacks, and he now plies his trade with the Jets after stints in K.C. and Minnesota. He’s the only back currently wearing 49.

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Applaud or a Fraud – Emerging Running Backs

Yesterday, we went back through our preseason top-35 running back rankings to determine whether fantasy owners should applaud these backs or consider them frauds going forward. You can read that post here.

In this post, we’re going to look at running backs outside of the preseason top-35 and determine whether we should applaud these backs or consider their numbers fraudulent. Read the individual reports to see whether the verdicts mean you should start a player, hold him on your bench, pick him up, or drop him. We’ve listed these players alphabetically.

Mike Bell, Saints – Bell burst onto the scene in Week One when Pierre Thomas was hurt, and over the first two weeks he had 229 rushing yards and a touchdown. But he has missed the last two games with injury, and Thomas has reestablished himself as the main back in New Orleans. Bell will be a role player when he returns to action, and that limits his fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw is now a solid No. 2 behind Brandon Jacobs in New York, and that will get him 12-15 carries a game. But Bradshaw’s not a touchdown threat unless he breaks a long run. So his current average of 66 yards per game is probably all you can expect from him. That’s OK No. 3 fantasy back production, but it’s not starter worthy. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter had a good start to the season with 363 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in the first four games of the season. But he will miss the next two games with injury, and that will give rookie Knowshon Moreno a chance to seize more carries in Denver. Despite his solid numbers thus far, Buckhalter isn’t more than a bye-week fill-in going forward for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Tashard Choice, Cowboys – Choice started the season as the Cowboys’ No. 3 back, but injuries first to Marion Barber and then to Felix Jones have given him chances. He has 215 yards from scrimmage thus far with one touchdown, showing that he’s good enough when he gets the ball in his hands. As long as Barber is healthy, Choice isn’t really a starter, but he’s worth hanging onto in most leagues because you never know if Barber and Jones will stay healthy. Verdict: Applaud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones has had solid numbers as a change-of-pace back and an injury fill-in thus far, but he missed the Week 4 game vs. Denver and will miss some more time with a knee injury. So despite his 232 yards from scrimmage, he’s droppable in fantasy leagues right now. Verdict: A fraud

Julius Jones, Seahawks – Jones is the best back Seattle has, which isn’t saying much. But he has been a decent fantasy performer thus far with 316 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns. That makes Jones a solid No. 3 fantasy back or flex option, which is a nice find, and we can assume that he’ll have similar fantasy value moving forward. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower has held off Beanie Wells for the Cardinals’ starting RB job, and he’s produced 279 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. He’s not a great fantasy back, but as long as he holds this role he’ll be a flex option or No. 3 back in most leagues. That’s decent value. Verdict: Applaud

Willis McGahee, Ravens – McGahee has been the biggest surprise for fantasy owners this year with seven touchdowns in the first four games. It will be hard for McGahee to continue this torrid TD pace, but you should be starting him until he starts to go through an extended scoring drought. Ray Rice is the better overall back, but McGahee’s production is impossible to ignore. Verdict: Applaud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – After doing next to nothing in the first three games of the year, Mendenhall went crazy in Week 4 against San Diego with 165 yards and two touchdowns. But he has just 210 rushing yards total, and when Willie Parker returns Mendenhall shouldn’t be in your fantasy lineup. He’s only valuable as a Parker handcuff, not as a part-time player on his own. Verdict: A fraud

Darren Sproles, Chargers – With LaDanian Tomlinson out for one week and hobbled for a couple others, Sproles has stepped up with 287 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. But now that Tomlinson is coming back, Sproles becomes a feature player. Sproles will probably end up with around 800 yards from scrimmage and six TDs, and that’s not enough to make him a starting-caliber player unless Tomlinson gets hurt again. So we’ll turn a thumbs-down on him continuing his current level of production. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Taylor, Patriots – Taylor has had one 100-yard game, but other than that he’s been a role player in the Pats’ RB-by-committee approach. The problem with Taylor for fantasy owners is that it will be all but impossible to figure out when his chances will come. That makes him hard to start despite his still-existent talent. Verdict: A fraud

Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – Coming back from an atrocious knee injury, Williams has burst back on the scene with 272 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in four games. Williams has established himself as the best back in Tampa Bay, and that role will allow him to be a fantasy contributor as a flex option or No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – I was surprised to see Williams end up on this list, but he’s legit with 310 yards from scrimmage and three TDs. The fact that both Williams and Ronnie Brown continue to produce shouldn’t surprise us, because that’s the Dolphins’ formula to win. That means Williams will be a decent No. 3 back in all fantasy leagues going forward. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Old running backs

As we continue our fantasy football coverage, we wanted to put the microscope on some of the older running backs available. Several long-time fantasy stalwarts either turned 30 before the season or will do so during the season. We’re going to compare these 30-plus backs via a Football Relativity poll, with 10 being the best of these backs and 1 being the fantasy irrelevants. We’ll make notes throughout the poll of how these levels compare on a full fantasy draft board.

One other note: We’ve covered some of these backs in former posts. For those backs, we have compared them on the scale and linked to what we’ve written about them previously. You can read all of our fantasy football coverage by going through the category listing for the blog.

10 – LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers (age 30) – We discussed Tomlinson in this post on potential first-round running backs.

9 – Brian Westbrook, Eagles (age 30) – We discussed Westbrook in this post on potential first-round running backs.

*The players above this level are potential first-round picks and No. 1 running backs

8 – Thomas Jones, Jets (age 31) – Jones didn’t have more than 627 yards rushing in any of his first four seasons of the league, but he has been over 900 years since, including four straight years of at least 1,100 yards. Last year, he was a huge fantasy factor, rushing for 1,300 yards and scoring 15 total touchdowns. Jones did this even with Leon Washington around as a triple threat who took away some carries. The Jets will likely rely on Jones heavily again this season, given the fact that the Jets appear to be going with rookie Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback. New York also drafted Shonn Greene, but the rookie from Iowa will likely be more of a factor in 2010 and beyond than this year. Washington and Jones both had some contractual issues this year, so Greene might have been an insurance policy against a holdout. Regardless, that leaves Jones as a tremendously reliable No. 2 running back in most leagues whom you can count on for 1,100 yards and at least 7 touchdowns as well. He’s just getting better with age.

7 – Larry Johnson, Chiefs (turns 30 in November) – I was down on Johnson last year, and he’s still a guy I’m a little hesitant on. But Johnson, despite missing four games last year, had 874 rushing yards and five touchdowns, which projects out to quality numbers for a No. 2 running back. Johnson is no longer a fantasy stud, but he’s still a factor. He’s worth a look around pick 40 in most drafts. (We also dealt with Johnson in this post.)

7 (con’t) – Jamal Lewis, Browns (age 30) – Lewis just barely broke the 1,000-yard barrier last year, and he only scored four touchdowns. But he seems to be holding up OK given his age and the pounding he has taken. Last year’s numbers are probably predictive of what he is now – he has averaged about 3.5 yards per carry in three of the past four years, but in those years he still has accumulated at least 900 yards. Moreover, the Browns still don’t have a replacement who can really challenge Lewis for carries. So while Lewis isn’t exciting, he’s still a borderline No. 2 fantasy back who is worth starter consideration in most leagues.

*The players above this line are every-week starters in most league formats

6 – none

– Sammy Morris, Patriots (age 32) – If you weren’t a Morris owner last year, you probably don’t realize that he had 700 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s great production for a No. 3 running back. This year, with Fred Taylor now around, you have to figure Morris’ numbers will go down. But we’d still take Morris ahead of Taylor or Laurence Maroney, and that makes Morris a solid backup option with starter potential in most fantasy leagues.

5 (con’t) – Chester Taylor, Vikings (turns 30 in September) – Taylor won’t get all that many carries with Adrian Peterson in town, but he is a quality back who makes the most of the carries and catches he does get. Last year he had 798 yards in 146 touches and tallied six total touchdowns. That makes Taylor a solid backup, and if Peterson ever gets hurt, Taylor immediately becomes a big-time fantasy starter.

4 – Correll Buckhalter, Broncos (age 30) – We discussed Buckhalter in this post on players on the move.

4 (con’t) – Fred Taylor, Patriots (age 33) – We discussed Taylor in this post on players on the move.

3 – Ricky Williams, Dolphins (age 32) – After two years with only one NFL game, Williams returned last year and proved that he can still play. He totalled 878 total yards and five touchdowns sharing time with Ronnie Brown. Some of those numbers will decrease this year, because the addition of rookie Pat White will take away some carries. But Williams will still do enough to be draftable in most fantasy leagues. A projection of 600 yards and four touchdowns is reasonable, and that’s not bad. Plus, if Ronnie Brown gets dinged up, Williams becomes a legitimate starting option. He’s still someone who needs to be in the top-100 on your draft board.

*The players above this line are draftable in most 10-to-12-team leagues. The players below this line are generally not draftable but are worth monitoring during the season.

2 – Maurice Morris, Lions (turns 30 in December) – We discussed Morris in this post on players on the move.

2 (con’t) – Dominic Rhodes, Bills (age 30) – We discussed Rhodes in this post on players on the move.

1 – Edgerrin James, free agent (age 31) – James got cut by the Cardinals and doesn’t currently have a job. If he does land a gig, the way he ran in the postseason shows he has some juice left. Watch the transactions list and be ready to add James to your draft board if he signs.

1 – Warrick Dunn, free agent (age 34) – Like James, Dunn was released in the offseason. But his numbers last year – 786 rushing yards with a 4.2 yards-per-carry average, along with 47 catches – show that he still has the legs to be relevant. So he’s a guy to remember if he signs somewhere before or even during the season.

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Fantasy Football: Players on the Move

This post is dedicated to assessing the fantasy value of players who have moved to new teams in the offseason. With these players, we’ll decide whether their numbers will rise, sink, or float (stay the same). If I forgot anyone, let me know and we’ll include them in comments.

We’ve already delved into the fantasy futures of several moving players at the top of the draft board. Here’s some linkage you can use to read about…

WRs Terrell Owens and T.J. Houshmandzedah are discussed here
TEs Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow are discussed here
QB Matt Cassel and RB Derrick Ward is discussed here
And every pertinent fantasy rookie is discussed here
Outside of Football Relativity, this site is a good list of all fantasy-relevant free-agent movement

For all of our fantasy football coverage, click on the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler finally came into his own, at least from a fantasy perspective last year. He posted 4,256 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, with 2 rushing touchdowns thrown in as a bonus. Now that he’s in Chicago, those numbers can’t stay the same. He simply doesn’t have the same weapons in Chicago that he had in Denver. While Chicago’s tight ends, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, are above average, the receiving corps is not. Maybe Cutler’s old college teammate Earl Bennett will emerge, and maybe return guru Devin Hester continues to develop as a receiver and becomes a true No. 1. But there aren’t enough targets there for Cutler to throw for 4,000 yards again. So Cutler’s fantasy numbers will sink to the point that he looks much, much better as a backup with upside than he would as a guy you’re depending on to start in your lineup. Verdict: Sink

QB Byron Leftwich, Buccaneers – Leftwich rebuilt his reputation, which had been tarnished as he lost starting jobs in Jacksonville and then Atlanta, by serving as a backup in Pittsburgh and filling in well in spot duty a couple of times. He looks to be the opening day starter in Tampa, but don’t bank too much on that. The Bucs like Luke McCown and gave him a decent offseason contract, and at some point rookie Josh Freeman will get a look – the question is how long that look will be. Leftwich is a marginal fantasy backup who likely won’t surpass 20 touchdown passes. So take this rise with three grains of salt. Verdict: Rise

QB Kyle Orton, Broncos – Amidst all the attention paid to Cutler’s move to Chicago, we tend to overlook Orton’s new home in Denver. Orton actually had a decent year in Chicago last year when he finally established himself as a starter for the first time since his extended rookie-year fill-in performance. He threw for almost 2,900 yards and 18 touchdowns (with three rushing TDs thrown in) despite having an extremely laughable cast of receivers. He’ll have better targets in Denver, from Brandon Marshall to Eddie Royal to Tony Scheffler. If Marshall leaves, this recommendation loses its punch, but for now Orton could near a top-15 quarterback status and could actually outperform Cutler from a fantasy standpoint. Verdict: Rise

RB Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter had been a backup in Philly since 2001, and despite some repeated injuries that halted his career, he emerged as a solid backup and fill-in for Brian Westbrook. Last year, he had almost 700 yards from scrimmage and a total of four touchdowns. In Denver, he looks to be the main backup to rookie Knowshon Moreno. Watching the system that new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels used in New England, you would guess that he would use more than one back, which could open the door to Buckhalter. Moreno’s far and away better, and he’s likely going to be a fantasy stud, but it’s still going to be possible for Buckhalter to repeat his ’08 performance in his new home. Verdict: Float

RB Maurice Morris, Lions – Like Buckhalter, Morris was a long-time backup (he had been in Seattle since 2002) who used free agency to break free. Morris looks to be the main backup to Kevin Smith now in Detroit. While Morris never had a great season, he had at least 500 rushing yards in each of the last three seasons. He scored two touchdowns last year as well, both as a receiver not a rusher. Morris is no starter, as he proved when he couldn’t usurp Julius Jones in Seattle, but he’s not a terrible backup. Still, behind a rebuilding Detroit offensive line, it’s hard to see Morris reaching 500 yards for a fourth straight season. Verdict: Sink

RB Dominic Rhodes, Bills – The Bills added Rhodes, who had a renaissance in Indy last year, after they found out that Marshawn Lynch was going to be suspended for three games to open the season. But don’t overvalue Rhodes because of that. Fred Jackson, not Rhodes, still looks to be Lynch’s No. 1 backup and early-season replacement. And remember too that Rhodes was not productive in his only other season away from Indy, a forgettable ’07 campaign in Oakland. There’s no way Rhodes nears his totals of 840 combined yards and 9 touchdowns from ’08. Verdict: Sink

RB Fred Taylor, Patriots – Taylor spent 11 years in Jacksonville and is probably the Jaguar franchise’s greatest player ever. He has more than 11,000 career yards, and has had seven 1,000 yard seasons. But last year, as Maurice Jones-Drew emerged as a true star, Taylor lost carries, and he ended up with 556 rushing yards and just one touchdown. In New England, Taylor will share carries again, but he certainly should get more chances than he had last year in Jacksonville. Don’t expect too much, but closer to 700 yards and 3-4 touchdowns is a reasonable projection for Taylor. Verdict: Rise

RB Leonard Weaver, Eagles – Weaver is kind of an unsung guy, but he had carved out a role as a fullback and short-yardage guy with the Seahawks. He moves to a similar offense in Philly, where Weaver should share the backfield often with Brian Westbrook. Weaver’s numbers – 250 total yards with two touchdowns – aren’t a fantasy factor, but if you’re looking for a emergency fill-in (and it has to be a major emergency), Weaver will be on the field enough that he could grab a cheap touchdown. Verdict: Float

RB Jason Wright, Cardinals – With Cleveland, Wright was a fantasy sleeper last year after a sneakily productive 2007 season, but he never got many chances behind Jamal Lewis last year. Wright ended up with less than 250 total yards from scrimmage and just one touchdown. In Arizona, his role will be the third-down role that J.J. Arrington held last season. Rookie Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower won’t give Wright many carries, but the fact that Wright has 20 catches in each of the last two years shows that he has at least a little value. Don’t expect too much, but in mega-sized leagues Wright belongs on your draft board. Verdict: Float

WR Laveranues Coles, Bengals – Coles, who was a long-time contributor with the Jets and the Redskins, moves to Cincinnati this year to replace T.J. Houshmandzedah as Chad Ochocinco’s running mate. While Coles is a vet, he’s still pretty productive – he had 70 catches for 850 yards and 7 touchdowns last year. Those numbers will be hard to match in Cincinnati, given Ochocinco’s presence. But Houshmandzedah always had good fantasy numbers, and that means that Coles has an opening. His numbers will dip a little, but he’s still a borderline fantasy starter in all but the smallest leagues. Verdict: Sink

WR Ronald Curry, Rams – Curry has loads of talent and potential, and the former college quarterback (and point guard) had three 50-catch seasons in Oakland. Now he’s in St. Louis, after signing with Detroit and then being traded to the Gateway City. Curry had just 19 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns last year, and in St. Louis he looks to be a starter, which can’t help but increase his fantasy value. So while Curry isn’t going to go much past 40 catches in a moribund offense (or maybe even 30), his fantasy numbers were buoyed by his late-July trade. Verdict: Rise

WR Bobby Engram, Chiefs – Engram is an underappreciated receiver, but over his 13-year career he has 645 total catches and 79 touchdowns. After a huge ’07 campaign in Seattle, injuries limited in 2008 to 47 catches for 489 yards, and he didn’t score. Now he moves to Kansas City, where he looks to be a solid third-down option for Matt Cassel. Dwayne Bowe and the emerging Mark Bradley are still above Engram in K.C.’s pecking order, but Engram should find a nice role with the Chiefs. His catch numbers will decline, but he’ll get in the end zone a time or two to create equilibrium in his fantasy numbers. Verdict: Float

WR Jabar Gaffney, Broncos – Gaffney, who never realized his potential as a second-round draft pick in Houston, carved out a solid role as a third receiver in New England. He surpassed 35 catches and 400 yards in each of the last two seasons, combining for seven touchdowns in those two seasons. Now he moves with former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to Denver, and it appears that Gaffney will have a similar role in Denver to the one he had in New England. While Gaffney is good enough to carve out a role behind Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, his quarterback isn’t good enough to keep Gaffney’s numbers at the same level. Unless Marshall leaves Denver or holds out, Gaffney’s catch total is bound for the 20s, not the 30s. Verdict: Sink

WR Joey Galloway, Patriots – Galloway has played 14 years, but last season broke his string of three straight 1,000-yard campaigns. But last year, because of injuries, he had just 13 catches for 138 yards. Those numbers are bound to go up now that he’s in New England; the question is how much. Randy Moss and Wes Welker are still the top dogs among New England’s receiving corps, and Greg Lewis will make a few big plays, but Galloway should eventually establish himself in three-receiver sets and end up replicating what Jabar Gaffney brought to the Patriots over the past two years – 35 catches, 400-plus yards, and 3-4 touchdowns. Verdict: Rise

WR Torry Holt, Jaguars – After a Hall-of-Fame caliber career in St. Louis, Holt moves to Jacksonville to lead a young (check that; it’s a preemie) receiver corps in Jacksonville. With Mike Walker and three rookies as his competition, Holt is the unquestioned alpha dog in Jacksonville. So the question is whether Holt can match his ’08 numbers – 64 catches, 796 yards, and three TDs – in his new home. It’s hard to project more from Holt, but similar numbers are achievable. Holt is now a No. 3 receiver in most leagues, so don’t overrate him, but don’t be scared to consider him useful. Verdict: Float

WR Bryant Johnson, Lions – The Lions added Johnson and Dennis Northcutt (and for a while, Ronald Curry) in an effort to find a running mate for Calvin Johnson. Bryant Johnson, who never really lived up to his billing as a first-round pick back in Arizona, still has had between 40 and 49 catches in each of the last five seasons. That seems about right for him in Detroit, but with a rookie quarterback looking to get most of the snaps this season, Johnson’s other numbers – 546 yards and three touchdowns – seem a little high. Something like 40-400-2 looks right, and that’s enough of a dip that we need to note it. Verdict: Sink

WR Greg Lewis, Patriots – Lewis is no better than the fourth receiver in New England, which is similar to the role he ended up with in Philly. Lewis is the kind of player who will break open deep every third game and catch two of those three bombs. That’s not going to be enough to give him fantasy relevance in ’09 unless Randy Moss gets hurt. Lewis had 19 catches for 247 yards and a touchdown last year, and he’ll be hard pressed to even match those catch and yardage totals this year. Verdict: Sink

WR Brandon Lloyd, Broncos – Lloyd is on his fourth team, moving on after an average season in Chicago in ’08. The Broncos signed him after Brandon Marshall began making noise about wanting a trade. Lloyd is only the third-best Brandon in the Broncos’ receiving corps (behind Marshall and Stokely), and he won’t come close to his 26-catch, 364-yard, two-touchdown season unless Marshall prompts a deal or holds out. Verdict: Sink

WR Dennis Northcutt, Lions – Northcutt went to Jacksonville in ’08 to be the leader of the Jaguars’ receiving corps, but he managed just 44 catches for 545 yards and two touchdowns as he saw Mike Walker and Matt Jones surpass him in the pecking order. Now Northcutt moves to Detroit via trade, where he will combine with Bryant Johnson to try to complement Calvin Johnson. Northcutt has never impressed me, and so I think Bryant Johnson will end up doing more than Northcutt. That spells sink to me. Verdict: Sink

WR Nate Washington, Titans – Washington was a big-dollar signing by the Titans, who see him as a starter across from Justin Gage. He emerged as a solid deep threat and third receiver in Pittsburgh last year, catching 40 passes for 631 yards and three touchdowns. Washington should be able to step up to a starting role in Tennessee, and even though the Titans’ offense isn’t pass happy, that would mean more catches – 50-to-60 – and a few more yards. He won’t be able to keep his yards-per-catch average above 15 as a starter, but he will be more productive. All that will make him a borderline fantasy starter in most leagues, with the possibility of upside that could make him even more of a fantasy factor. Verdict: Rise

TE Chris Baker, Patriots – Baker, a long-time Jet, saw his playing time taken away in the Meadowlands because of Dustin Keller, and so he has moved on to New England. He’ll be contending with Benjamin Watson and ex-Buc Alex Smith for catches in New England, and that means he definitely won’t be the threat he was in ’06 and ’07. We don’t even see Baker matching his ’08 numbers of 21 catches for 194 yards. Verdict: Sink

TE L.J. Smith, Ravens – After a long career in Philly, Smith moves to Baltimore, where he looks to serve as a backup and safety net for Todd Heap, who has been injury prone in recent years. That means that Smith, who has been a borderline fantasy starter at tight end for many years, is less than that this year. His numbers will fall from his 37-catch, 298-yard, three-TD level of last year, but he’s worth watching in his new home, especially if Heap gets hurt. Verdict: Sink

PK Mike Nugent, Buccaneers – Nugent lost his job to Jay Feely last year after a training-camp injury. Now he moves to Tampa, where he will try to beat out Matt Bryant for a starting job. The guess here is that Nugent takes that job, but even if he does we don’t see him as a 100-point kicker. That would make Nugent a bye-week fill-in, not an every-week option. Verdict: Rise

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