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Sidney Rice: No longer hip

Sidney Rice, while a member of the Minnesota V...

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Amazingly, Brett Favre isn’t the biggest newsmaker in Minnesota right now. Earlier this week, WR Sidney Rice announced he had hip surgery, which will cost him about half the season and could still land him on injured reserve. In response to Rice’s injury, the Vikings signed Javon Walker and traded for Greg Camarillo. Below are some thoughts on Rice’s injury and the acquisition of Camarillo (we already wrote about Walker here), both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective.

Rice had a breakout season last year with Favre throwing the ball, catching 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. While Favre’s arrival certainly aided Rice’s development into a Pro Bowl selection, it was also the common third-year emergence for receivers like Rice who were high draft picks. (Rice was a second-rounder.) He’s big and has outstanding ball skills, which makes him a downfield threat despite marginal NFL speed. Rice’s size coupled with Percy Harvin’s breakaway ability would have given the Vikings a top-level receiving duo that’s also young, but now that Rice will miss much of the season, the Vikings don’t have a No. 1 receiver. Maybe Harvin can emerge, or maybe former high-dollar free-agent signing Bernard Berrian can recapture his promise. But neither Harvin nor Berrian has the size to be such a dependable threat as Rice.

After injuries benched Rice for half the season and put Harvin’s season in question, the Vikings  dealt for reinforcements. Camarillo, a former undrafted free agent, established himself as a solid receiving threat with 110 catches over his last two full seasons. While he has only averaged about 11 yards per catch during those two seasons, he’s a dependable possession receiver who provides depth for the Vikings and who may eventually fit into the slot if Rice and Harvin return. If nothing else, Camarillo’s acquisition ensures that the Vikings will still be able to run multi-WR sets effectively. In exchange for Camarillo, the Vikings sent Sapp to Miami. Sapp started a career-high seven games last year, and he’s proven to be a decent nickelback and special-teams player. Since Camarillo was likely losing prominence in Miami after the addition of Brandon Marshall and the development of Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline, it makes sense for Miami to get a solid role player in return for him.

For fantasy football purposes, Rice’s injury knocks him out of being a top-15 fantasy wideout and makes him a speculative pick who’s worth a roster spot in leagues with deep benches. He’s probably now worth a pick around No. 40 among wideouts. Harvin is a top-20 talent whose migraine problems make him a high risk/high reward pick, and Rice’s injury raises Harvin’s upside a bit. Berrian’s stock shoots up so that he is now draftable as a starter, while Camarillo is worth adding to draft boards among the top 200 overall. Most of all, these injury problems in his receiving corps limit Favre’s upside and knock him out of Tier 2 and onto the same level as risk/reward picks Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, and Kevin Kolb. At this point, expecting Favre to even approach his 33-TD season of a year ago is foolhardy.

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FR: Preseason trades

In this post, we’ll compare the significance of trades made during training camp and the remainder of the preseason. We’ll update this post throughout the preseason. For earlier analysis of post-draft trades, check out this post.

10 – 49ers trade DT Kentwan Balmer to Seahawks for 2011 6th-round pickBalmer left the 49ers during training camp, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to make the opening-day roster. So San Francisco was fortunate to get a sixth-rounder in exchange for the 2008 first-round selection. Balmer never really fit in as a defensive end in San Fran’s 3-4, and so a new start in a 4-3 defense could be a benefit. And having a believer like former 49ers GM Scot McCloughan in Seattle’s front office won’t hurt either. For the Seahawks, Balmer is a low-cost gamble on a former top prospect, and that’s one way for them to upgrade a talent base that is sadly lacking.

9 – Seahawks trade DE Lawrence Jackson to Lions for 2011 6th-round draft pick – Jackson, a former first-round pick, apparently didn’t fit the Seahawks defensive system under new head coach Pete Carroll despite the fact that Jackson played for Carroll at USC. Jackson played in every game during his two years in Seattle and started 24 of them, but he had just 61 total tackles and 6.5 total sacks. With this trade, the Seahawks replaced the sixth-rounder they traded away for Kentwan Balmer, and basically state they’d rather have Balmer than Jackson. But Jackson’s talent is worth a shot for Detroit, which needs playmakers who can get after the passer. Perhaps Jackson serves as an understudy for former Seahawks LB Julian Peterson, who is Detroit’s jack-of-all-trades and pass-rushing linebacker. Even if it doesn’t work out, the deal makes sense as the Lions seek to continue to upgrade their talent level with a former hot prospect.

8 – Eagles trade OG Stacy Andrews to Seahawks for 2011 seventh-round pick – The Eagles imported Andrews from Cincinnati at big money last season to stabilize their offensive line and help his brother Shawn Andrews rebound from depression. But Shawn Andrews was cut this offseason, and Stacy’s performance didn’t match up to his price tag. So in their continuing effort to get younger, the Eagles shipped Stacy to the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle, Stacy Andrews could become a starter at guard or even right tackle for a team that needs OL help. In Philly, the Eagles will rely on recent acquisition Reggie Wells to start until youngsters emerge.

7 – Dolphins trade WR Greg Camarillo to Vikings for CB Benny Sapp – After injuries benched Sidney Rice for half the season and put Percy Harvin’s season in question, the Vikings (who had already lost WR Jaymar Johnson for the season) dealt for reinforcements. Camarillo, a former undrafted free agent, established himself as a solid receiving threat with 110 catches over his last two full seasons. While he has only averaged about 11 yards per catch during those two seasons, he’s a dependable possession receiver who provides depth for the Vikings and who may eventually fit into the slot if Rice and Harvin return. If nothing else, Camarillo’s acquisition ensures that the Vikings will still be able to run multi-WR sets effectively. In exchange for Camarillo, the Vikings sent Sapp to Miami. Sapp started a career-high seven games last year, and he’s proven to be a decent nickelback and special-teams player. Since Camarillo was likely losing prominence in Miami after the addition of Brandon Marshall and the development of Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline, it makes sense for Miami to get a solid role player in return for him.

7 (con’t) – Seahawks trade CB Josh Wilson to Ravens for conditional 2011 fifth-round draft pick – Wilson started 24 games in Seattle over the past two years, but he wasn’t able to lock down a starting job under the new Pete Carroll regime. So instead of keeing Wilson as a nickelback, Seattle traded him to Baltimore for a conditional fifth-round pick. After losing Domonique Foxworth, the Ravens need a ton of quarterback help, and Wilson (who went to Maryland in college) is at least a starting-quality guy.

7 (con’t) – Ravens trade WR Mark Clayton and an undisclosed draft pick to Rams for undisclosed draft pick – Clayton, a former first-round pick whom the Ravens expected to develop into a No. 1 receiver, never supplanted Derrick Mason in Baltimore, and this offseason Baltimore brought in Anquan Boldin and then T.J. Houshmandzadeh at receiver. So Clayton heads to St. Louis, where he will step in for the injured Donnie Avery and give Sam Bradford an NFL-quality receiver. Clayton hasn’t been great, but he has a 67-catch season and three other 40-catch seasons on his resume, which makes him a more qualified veteran than any other guy on the Rams’ roster.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs trade S Jarrad Page to Patriots for undisclosed draft choice – Page, a four-year vet who missed two-thirds of last season with a calf injury, refused to sign his restricted free-agent tender with the Chiefs  until the last minute because he wanted out of town. Finally, the Chiefs made a deal to send the three-year starter to New England for a late-round draft pick. Page becomes a senior member of the Patriots’ young secondary, and he could become a factor at strong safety for the Pats. It’s worth it for a contender like the Pats to add a veteran like Page if they think he can help, even in a minor role.

6 – Cardinals trade OG Reggie Wells to Eagles for 2011 6th-round pick – Wells, who has started all 16 games at guard for the Cardinals in five of the last six years, now moves to the Eagles to provide depth in case OGTodd Herrmans and C Jamaal Jackson struggle to return to form after injuries or even to start in place of the since-traded Stacy Andrews. Paying a sixth-rounder for him is a good investment for the Eagles. Wells lost his spot in Arizona after the Cardinals added Alan Faneca last year and Rex Hadnot this offseason and after Deuce Lutui returned as a restricted free agent. The move saves the Cardinals $2.6 million.

6 (con’t) – Cowboys trade WR Patrick Crayton to Chargers for 2011 seventh-round pick – Crayton is a dangerous punt returner and a decent receiver, but with Miles Austin’s emergence and Dez Bryant’s arrival in Dallas, his playing time was going, going, gone. He requested a trade or his release, and the Cowboys finally got a little something in the form of a seventh-round pick from the Chargers in exchange for Crayton. For the Bolts, it’s a good deal because it provides more protection against Vincent Jackson’s holdout. Crayton will fit in nicely as a third receiver behind Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee.

6 (con’t) – Broncos trade CB Alphonso Smith to Lions for TE Dan Gronkowski – The Broncos gave up their 2010 first-round pick to take Smith, but they gave up on the diminutive but speedy cornerback after just one year. Smith was a big-time playmaker in college, but in 15 games as a rookie he broke up just three passes for the Broncos. Still, he’s got talent, and the Lions are so talent-poor at cornerback that Smith is a good acquisition. Smith could eventually fit in as a nickelback for a solid defense. In exchange, the Broncos get Gronkowski, one of three NFL-playing brothers. Dan had just one catch as a rookie after being a seventh-round pick last year. He’s little more than a role player, and not nearly enough of a player to salve the sting of the wasted Smith pick in Denver.

6 (con’t) – Jaguars trade S Reggie Nelson to Bengals for CB David Jones and a conditional draft pick – Nelson, a former first-round pick, started his career well in Jacksonville, but after his first year or two he fell out of favor especially because of his subpar tackling skills. But Cincinnati loves to take chances on talent, and Nelson still has that. In exchange for Nelson, the Jags pick up a developmental cornerback in Jones who could make the roster and a conditional draft pick.

5 – Broncos trade RB J.J. Arrington and conditional 2011 draft pick to Eagles for LB Joe Mays – Arrington, who was a key contributor to Arizona’s Super Bowl team two years ago but who didn’t play last year, moves from Denver, where he was behind Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, to Philly, where there appeared to be a clearer shot to a third-down role behind LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell. However, Arrington was released at the final cutdown. That means that the Eagles will get a 2012 sixth-round pick in exchange for Mays. The timing of the trade was a bit unlucky for the Broncos, because Moreno and Buckhalter got hurt on the first day of training camp just after the trade, which caused Denver to add LenDale White and Justin Fargas for RB depth. Mays was just a special-teamer in Philly, but Denver needs depth at linebacker in its 3-4 system, so he becomes a candidate for playing time there.

5 (con’t) – Vikings trade QB Sage Rosenfels and RB Darius Reynaud to Giants for 2011 fifth-round draft pick and conditional 2010 draft pick – Rosenfels, whom the Vikings traded for last offseason to compete with Tarvaris Jackson before Brett Favre was in the picture, was a waste as a No. 3 quarterback. He’s not the most consistent player around, but while he makes mistakes, he has starting experience and a good arm and can provide a nice spark as a backup. The move also allows the Vikings to keep rookie Joe Webb as a developmental No. 3 quarterback. The Giants, who lost free-agent signee Jim Sorgi to a training-camp injury, didn’t trust youngster Rhett Bomar and so they traded a fifth-rounder for Rosenfels. It’s a solid move for a team that fancies itself a contender. The Giants also gave up a conditional draft pick in 2012 for Reynaud, a running back and return man who has spent the last two years in Minnesota.

4 – Falcons trade OL Quinn Ojinnaka to Patriots for an undisclosed 2011 draft pick – The Patriots face an offensive-line depth issue with Logan Mankins holding out and Nick Kaczur injured, and so they traded for Ojinnaka, a fifth-year player who has played both at guard and tackle for the Falcons. The Patriots have an idea of what they’re getting, because they recently held a series of practices with the Falcons and got an up-close look at Ojinnaka. Ojinnaka is good enough to be a backup at several positions, and he can start in a pinch, so it’s a worthwhile investment for the Patriots – even though Ojinnaka faces a one-game suspension to start the season.

3 – Lions trade OT Tyler Polumbus to Seahawks for undisclosed 2012 draft pick – Detroit took advantage of its waiver-claim priority to claim Polumbus, who started half a season in Denver last year. The claim ended up netting them a draft pick when they sent Polumbus to the Seahawks, where he will be reunited with offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who was in Denver in Polumbus’ rookie year. It’s good transaction math for Detroit, and Polumbus helps a Seattle team that needs tackle depth because of rookie Russell Okung’s ankle sprain.

3 (con’t) – Redskins trade CB Justin Tryon to Colts for an undisclosed 2011 draft pick – Tryon, who had spent two years with the Redskins, starting two games, moved to Indianapolis on cut-down day in exchange for a draft pick. Tryon’s a nice prospect with good speed but below-average size at 5-foot-9, but Indy’s defense makes use of corners of that size.

3 (con’t) – Ravens trade DE/OLB Antwan Barnes to Eagles for 2011 seventh-round pick – The Eagles, who have been adding pass-rushers all offseason, got another one in Barnes. Barnes played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Baltimore, and that experience will allow him to bring a new dimension to the Eagles’ defense. They’ve liked Barnes for a while, according to Mike Lombardi. Philly has made several small trades this offseason, so dealing a seventh-rounder for a player they expect to make the roster seems like a good investment. For the Ravens, instead of cutting Barnes, they add a seventh-rounder that will help make up some of the draft picks they’ve dealt in search of a cornerback.

2 – Eagles trade FB Charles Scott to Cardinals for CB Jorrick Calvin – After the Cardinals lost FB Nehemiah Broughton for the season for a knee injury, they traded for Scott, a rookie out of LSU who played tailback in college but will have to move to fullback in the NFL. In exchange, they gave Philadelphia the player taken immediately after Scott in the sixth round of April’s draft – CB Jorrick Calvin out of Troy. Calvin has a chance to make the Eagles as a kick returner and extra DB.

2 (con’t) – Cowboys trade OT Pat McQuistan to Dolphins for undisclosed draft pick – McQuistan is a big, burly tackle who joined the Cowboys when Bill Parcells was in charge but never started a game in four seasons. He became expendable in Dallas as Doug Free developed and Alex Barron arrived. Now he moves to Parcells’ new home in Miami, where he will back up OTs Jake Long and Vernon Carey.

2 (con’t) – Eagles trade LB Tracy White to Patriots for conditional 2012 draft pick – The Patriots stockpile draft picks, but they used one to get White, a special-teams ace. The Eagles pick up an extra pick for a player who wasn’t going to make their roster.

1 – Ravens trade QB John Beck to Redskins for CB Doug Dutch – Beck, who was once a second-round pick in Miami under head coach Cam Cameron, tried to rebuild his career with Cameron (now an offensive coordinator) in Baltimore. But when Marc Bulger came in to be Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, Troy Smith beat Beck out for the No. 3 QB job. He moves to Washington, where he will try to usurp Rex Grossman as Donovan McNabb’s backup or at least win a roster spot as a No. 3. In return for Beck, the Ravens get Dutch, a practice-squad cornerback last year who may have a chance to make the roster at a very shallow position for the Ravens.

1 (con’t) – Redskins trade FB/TE Dennis Morris and a condiational pick to Rams for DE/OLB Hall Davis and a conditional pick – Morris wasn’t going to make the Redskins’ roster, so they traded him to the Rams in exchange for Davis, another rookie who will get a shot at outside linebacker in the Redskins’ 3-4. Morris was a sixth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech in April’s draft; Davis was a fifth-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette. Davis was immediately cut in Washington, so St. Louis won’t be seeing the conditional pick coming its way.

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Miami’s Marshall plan

Another day, another wide receiver trade as the Broncos finally peddled disgruntled but talented wideout Brandon Marshall to the Dolphins in exchange for second-round picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Below are some thoughts on the trade; you can see how it compares to other offseason deals in this again-updated post.

Marshall is as talented as any receiver in the league, but Denver tired of his petulant behavior and finally cut ties. Marshall’s troubles are connected to but not totally explained by his desire for a new deal, and with $24 million guaranteed in his new five-year, $50 million contract. If that’s the case, the Dolphins will be thrilled. They’re counting on Marshall to be a no-doubt No. 1 receiver, the kind of player the Fins haven’t had since Paul Warfield. At age 26, Marshall is entering his prime, and few receivers in any era have had three straight 100-catch seasons as Marshall has. Marshall gives young Miami QB Chad Henne a target that will speed his development, and Marshall’s presence will help guys like Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo move into roles that better suit their talents. On the field, this is a home run for Miami that moves the Dolphins toward contender status in the AFC East and beyond. Marshall just has to behave off the field. For Denver, getting two second-round picks for Marshall is fair value in today’s market. (For instance, the Ravens paid less to get Anquan Boldin.) Denver wanted to get rid of Marshall’s troublemaking, but they will struggle to replace his talent. Losing Jay Cutler and Marshall over the past two years has taken much of the explosiveness out of Josh McDaniels’ offense, and no scheme will completely replace it. Now guys like Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, and Kenny McKinley must emerge. Maybe one of those guys will be a revelation, but we doubt it. If Denver adds a draft pick like Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, this deal will make more sense. Until then, we can’t call it addition by subtraction.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 14

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

Quarterbacks

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

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide Receivers

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

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

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

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

Tight Ends

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 9

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well.

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Cassel threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully tried to rally against the Jaguars. This is the kind of game that makes Cassel a decent fantasy backup, and his instant rapport with Chris Chambers is encouraging. But Cassel still is no better than the 15th best fantasy quarterback. If a quarterback between 15 and 20 on the chart helps you, Cassel’s your guy. But we can’t recommend him as more than that. Verdict: A fraud

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – In his first career start, the rookie Freeman led the Buccaneers back to a 38-28 victory over the Packers. And while he completed just 14-of-31 passes, he ended up with three touchdown passes plus a two-point conversion. That’s more than fantasy owners can expect from Freeman on a weekly basis, but the fact that he showed he can do it makes him worth a pickup in leagues where any starting quarterback has value. If you’re in a 16-team league or a league in which you can start two quarterbacks, Freeman is worth a waiver claim. But your league has to be that big for a pickup to be worth it. That’s why we’re not clapping at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford threw two first-quarter touchdowns against Seattle, but he ended up with a rather pedestrian game with 203 passing yards and those two scores. Plus, he had five interceptions, which really hurts in many fantasy leagues. The best news is that Stafford is showing he is healthy. But as of now, it’s still hard to see Stafford contributing for fantasy owners unless they’re in a league in which starting two quarterbacks is a good option. Verdict: A fraud

Pat White, Dolphins – You might have noticed that White had 45 rushing yards against the Patriots out of the wildcat formation. But he had just one pass attempt, which was incomplete. My guess it that White got so much use because he was drafted to take the Wildcat to the next level specifically against the Patriots, which is why he got so much work in this particular game. But that view means that White has little to no value for fantasy owners going forward, even in leagues that feature multiple quarterback starters. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Ladell Betts, Redskins -After Redskins starter Clinton Portis suffered a concussion in the first quarter, Betts stepped in and had 15 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. If Portis is sidelined, Betts is a borderline top 20 fantasy back, which makes him a starter in most leagues. That means that Betts is unquestionably worth a pickup if he’s available in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – With Larry Johnson suspended, Charles was supposed to be the Chiefs’ answer at running back. But while he averaged six yards per carry, he had just six carries and 36 rushing yards. That was half of the carries that Chiefs running backs got, in large part because the Chiefs fell so far behind so early. Charles is still the Chiefs’ best answer at running back, but that doesn’t mean he’s a legitimate answer for your fantasy team. He’s not a top-30 back. Verdict: A fraud

Ahman Green, Packers – Green had 45 rushing yards in Green Bay’s shocking loss at Tampa Bay, and he did it on just six carries. That’s enough to tell us that he’s now the primary backup to Ryan Grant. But Green isn’t worth a pick up unless you have Grant on your roster and want some insurance. Green is just too old to be a major fantasy factor at this point unless Grant gets hurt and the Packers run out of options. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney had another good game with 82 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and he did it in a close game. He’s now had a touchdown in three straight games and appears to be emerging as the Patriots’ No. 1 running back once again. That’s enough to make him a flex type of play in 10- or 12-team leagues. Maybe, just maybe, Maroney will once again live up to the fantasy hype he had two or three years ago. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Moats, Texans – After his huge game in Week 8, Moats won a starting role in Houston. But Moats didn’t deliver on his shot, rushing for just 38 yards on 16 carries and fumbling once at the goal line. He did have a short receiving touchdown, and Moats got more work than Steve Slaton, but he looks more like a flex option than a surefire starter. Verdict: A fraud

Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – Ward has been one of the biggest fantasy disappointments at running back this season, and although he had a receiving touchdown against Green Bay, he still had just five rushing yards on four carries. So don’t let his 54 receiving yards fool you. Ward’s still not a guy that fantasy owners can count on. Verdict: A fraud

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – Wells got some extended work in Arizona’s blowout win over Chicago, and he paid off with 72 rushing yards on 13 carries. But Wells is still behind Tim Hightower in the Cardinals’ pecking order, and that means that Wells remains outside the top 30 at running back. So for now, Beanie has to remain on the bench in your fantasy league. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears – As the Bears flung the ball around in an ultimately unsuccessful comeback attempt, Bennett piled up 93 receiving yards on seven catches. Bennett is having a decent year, but he’s still outside of the top 50 fantasy receivers when you look at the rest of the year. Unless you’re in a mega-sized league of 16 teams or more, it’s not worth owning Bennett despite this solid game. Verdict: A fraud

Greg Camarillo, Dolphins – Camarillo is the Dolphins’ version of Wes Welker lite, and against the real Welker he had a decent game with five catches for 71 yards. Camarillo isn’t a guy with much fantasy upside, but if you need a fill-in to get you 50 yards or so he’s a decent bet. That’s not worth a waiver claim in most leagues, but if you’re desperate Camarillo is a name to know. Verdict: A fraud

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – Chambers, who was cut by San Diego earlier this week and then claimed on waivers by the Chiefs, broke out in his first game with K.C. He caught two second-half touchdowns and finished with three catches for 70 yards and those two scores. I don’t know if you can count on Chambers to be a consistent fantasy threat going forward, but he’s worth a claim this week so that you’re in position to see if he does. Claim him on a flier because there’s just enough of a chance that he might actually produce in his new home. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Hill, 49ers – Jason who? Hill, who had no catches this season and only two catches in his three-year career entering Sunday’s game against the Titans, had four catches for 50 yards with two touchdowns in that game. That looks like the epitome of a fluke. Hill should still be behind Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, and Josh Morgan in the Niners’ WR pecking order, and San Fran doesn’t throw enough to support a fourth receiver as a fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter, Texans – Both Jones and Walter finished the game with 67 receiving yards, Jones on four catches and Walter on five. It’s so hard to separate which of these two if Houston’s No. 2 receiving target now that Owen Daniels is out that you can’t start either guy with confidence. For now, Jones and Walter need to stay on your bench until we figure out which one is going to be the more dependable fantasy producer. Verdict: A fraud

James Jones, Packers – Jones is generally the Packers’ No. 4 receiver, but he moved up a slot with Jordy Nelson out. That enhanced role showed, as Jones had four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against the Packers. Jones probably won’t deliver anything close to this on a regular basis, but he is capable of producing numbers every once in a while. Jones is a decent Hail Mary-type of player if you’re stuck, but with bye weeks all but done you likely won’t be in that much of a pickle. That means that Jones is worth leaving on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Lance Long, Chiefs – Chambers wasn’t the only Chiefs wideout to break out with a big game. Lance Long, who was with head coach Todd Haley in Arizona, had eight catches for 74 yards. Long isn’t a top-40 receiver, but in large leagues he’s worth a claim because he may be a guy the Chiefs want to take an extended look at the rest of the season. That could add to his fantasy value quite a bit. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem had a big game against Carolina, catching five passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. With Lance Moore continuing to battle injury problems, Meachem is developing into the Saints’ No. 2 wide receiver behind Marques Colston. Meachem had been a bust in his first two seasons, but he’s starting to contribute, and he’s moved into the top 40 among fantasy wideouts. Even better for fantasy owners, Meachem has a chance to continue moving forward. He’s got upside, and that makes him worth a claim if he’s still on your league’s waiver wire. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker has emerged as Jacksonville’s top receiver, and he is delivering big fantasy numbers as a result. His huge day Sunday against the Chiefs – six catches, 147 yards and a touchdown – is just a reminder that you should be starting Sims-Walker if you have him. Here’s the rule – if a Jaguar has a hyphenated last name, he should be in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Greg Olsen, Bears – In one league Sunday, I had to put Olsen in my lineup as a wide receiver/tight end at the last minute because Donald Brown and Anquan Boldin were both inactive after being questionable. That worked out, as Olsen exploded with three touchdowns among his five catches for 71 yards. Part of that was because the Bears were being blown out and therefore in throw-it-around mode, but it goes to show Olsen’s ability as a receiver. Maybe this will spark Olsen the rest of the season. At the very least, it rewards Olsen owners who have been patient. Mark Olsen down as a top-15 tight end right now and hope that this positive trend continues. He’s back to being a guy you should think hard about starting on a weekly basis. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions – Pettigrew caught a touchdown in the first quarter against Seattle and finished with a supersolid seven-catch, 70-yard game. He’s moving into the top 16 to 20 tight ends, which is putting him in starting range in large leagues. There still may be better options on your league’s waiver wire, but owners no longer need to be afraid of Pettigrew’s rookie status. He can contribute to your team. Verdict: Applaud

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Filed under Applaud/A Fraud, Fantasy Football, Football Relativity

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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