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Pre-camp signings

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

New Titan Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

The NFL free-agent market opened with a flurry, and in this post we’ll try to make sense of it all. We’ll discuss all the major signings between the resumption of play and the August 4 date on which veteran signees could begin practicing. 

Panthers (keep DE Charles Johnson, RB DeAngelo Williams, and OLBs Thomas Davis and James Anderson; add NT Ron Edwards, PK Olindo Mare, QB Derek Anderson, TE Ben Hartsock, LB Omar Gaither and Safeties Kevin Payne and Sean Considine) – We discussed Johnson in this post and Williams in this post. Davis is a major impact player who has fought major knee injuries the last few years. While he wasn’t technically a free agent, the team had agreed to either re-sign him or cut him. So Davis got a five-year deal. So did Anderson, who stepped into the starting lineup when Davis was out last year and played quite well. He got a five-year, $22 million contract with an $8.5 million signing bonus. Anderson’s emergence will let the Panthers move Jon Beason back to middle linebacker, and it will give Carolina a powerful LB corps. Edwards fills a major need for the Panthers, who had terrible defensive tackle play last year. That’s why they gave him a solid three-year, $8.25 million deal. Even though the Panthers run a 4-3, they traditionally put one of their tackles right over the center, so Edwards fits in as he moves over from a 3-4. The Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million deal with a $4 million signing bonus. Mare has been terrific the last three years inSeattleafter a mid-career lull, and he’s got a powerful leg on kickoffs. That gives him an edge over Panthers fan (and owner) favorite John Kasay, who’s remained good on field goals into his 40s but who can’t kick off reliably anymore. Anderson, who played for new Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, comes on board as the veteran quarterback who can start Week One if Cam Newton isn’t ready. Hartsock, an ex-Cardinal, got a two-year deal to replace Jeff King as a reliable blocking tight end. Payne, who sat out last year, was a decent starting safety in Chicago and should be worthy of a roster spot. He may have to beat out Considine, a decent safety and strong special-teamer, to win that spot. The Panthers also extended the contract of Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason. Gaither busted out as a starter in Philadelphia last year, but he’s pretty good insurance against another Thomas Davis injury at strong-side linebacker. Like Considine, Gaither played for new Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Philadelphia.

Eagles (add CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, QB Vince Young, OG Evan Mathis, RB Ronnie Brown, OT Ryan Harris, DTs Derek Landri and Anthony Hargrove, S Jarrad Page, TE Donald Lee, and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins) – We discussed the major Asomugha move in this post. Jenkins moves over from Green Bay for a five-year, $25 million deal to provide a pass-rush push inside. He was one of the best defensive linemen on the market, and the Eagles adding him is a big upgrade. Jenkins played in a 3-4 last year, but he’s played in a 4-3 as well, which speaks to his versatility. Babin, who was a first-round pick in Houston once upon a time, bounced around the league (including Philadelphia) before having a breakout season in Tennessee last year. His DL coach with the Titans, Jim Washburn, is now in Philadelphia, so it makes sense that Babin would follow him to the City of Brotherly Love. Babin got a five-year deal worth up to $28 million (but with just $6 million guaranteed) to help the Eagles ramp up their pass rush. Young, who was released by the Titans, gets a one-year deal to back up Michael Vick. Despite his off-field reputation, he’s a pretty good insurance policy for the Eagles, and they could revive his career. Mathis looks to be a backup in Philadelphia, but he’s been a pretty decent starter at guard in the past. That’s a nice addition for depth. Brown may be starting the downhill part of his career, but he provides nice insurance behind starting RB LeSean McCoy. Harris was a good starter at right tackle at times in Denver. He adds depth but could challenge holdover Winston Justice for a starting shot. Landri and Hargrove add depth at a thin position. Landri probably fits better as a spot player; Hargrove can provide some interior pass rush. Page adds depth at safety, which is a young position on the roster. Lee is a blocking tight end with experience in the West Coast offense. Higgins has good return skills but will have trouble cracking the Eagles’ deep WR rotation.

Jets (keep WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie, OT Wayne Hunter, PK Nick Folk, CB Donald Strickland, Safeties Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, and QB Mark Brunell; add WR Plaxico Burress and S DaJuan Morgan) – We discussed Holmes’ signing and how it establishes him as a No. 1 receiver in this post. Cromartie was the consolation prize after the Jets missed out on Nnamdi Asomugha. Cromartie isn’t the shut down corner that Asomugha or Darrelle Revis is, but he’s good enough to make it hard on opposing quarterbacks. Plus, he’s dangerous if he ever gets the ball in his hands. He got a four-year, $32 million deal. Hunter, who filled in for an injured Damien Woody at right tackle last year, got a four-year, $13 million deal to take Woody’s place permanently now that Woody has retired. Folk performed well in his first year as a Jet and got a one-year deal to return. Strickland, Pool, and Smith are solid players who fit in well in the team’s DB rotation. Smith and Pool fit in as starters; Strickland a nickel back. Morgan adds depth at the position. Burress got a one-year, $3 million contract to replace Braylon Edwards as a starter across from Holmes. It’s a bit of a gamble for the Jets to rely on Burress, who has missed the last two seasons because of his legal problems, but if he’s the same player he was with the Giants he’ll be a nice addition. Brunell came back after being cut.

Chargers (add ILB Takeo Spikes, OLB Travis LaBoy and WR Laurent Robinson; keep S Eric Weddle, OT Jeromy Clary, TE Randy McMichael, S Bob Sanders, OLB Antwan Barnes, NT Jacques Cesaire, and QB Billy Volek) – Spikes, who played for new Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in San Francisco, is a solid veteran who is still a reliable run-down tackler. He’ll be a good fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, even if his three-year, $9 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus is a little rich given his age. LaBoy is another vet who is a solid but unspectacular outside linebacker. He’s shown pass rush ability in the past, but not in recent years. Weddle was the Chargers’ biggest free agent, and they paid big money to keep him – a five-year, $40 million contract with a $13 million signing bonus and $19 million guaranteed that his agent claimed as the richest contract ever for a safety. Weddle may not be the best safety in the league, but he’s very good. His range at free safety is remarkable, and his presence allows the Chargers more flexibility in pass coverage. They simply couldn’t afford to lose him. Clary got a four-year deal to continue to play right tackle, even though his pass blocking has been suspect. McMichael provides insurance against Antonio Gates injury, while Sanders brings a veteran influence and hard hitting to the strong safety position if he can stay healthy. Barnes bounced around last year but finally found a home that matches his pass-rush skills in San Diego. Cesaire has started at nose tackle the last couple of years and played well. His return stabilizes the front line, because he does a nice job against the run. Volek is a solid veteran hand backing up Philip Rivers. The Chargers know he can be a solid short-term replacement if Rivers were to get injured. Robinson has been hurt a lot, but he’s big and fast. If healthy, he could help replace Malcom Floyd.

Redskins (keep WR Santana Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Philip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, and S Reed Doughty; add DT Barry Cofield, DE Stephen Bowen, CB Josh Wilson, WR Donte Stallworth, QB Kellen Clemens, and OL Chris Chester)We discussed Moss in this post. Cofield was one of the big prizes of the free agent market, and might have been the best defensive tackle available. But it’s odd for Cofield, who thrived in a 4-3 last year, sign to play in a 3-4 in Washington. Maybe he will provide the Redskins a lot of scheme flexibility, but there’s a strong chance he’ll end up being a square peg trying to fit a round hole. That’s not what you want in a guy you’re giving a six-year megacontract. Bowen, who got a five-year, $27.5 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus, is a perfect fit for the system. He’ll step in as a solid five-techinique defensive end, and he’ll really improve the front. With Bowen and Cofield, the Redskins have taken a nice step forward up front. Wilson is a much better fit. He had a nice year in Baltimore last year, and he should provide an upgrade over the departing Carlos Rogers across from DeAngelo Hall. Wilson signed for a reasonable deal as well – three years, $13.5 million with $6 million in guarantees. We discussed all of these defensive additions in this post. Stallworth, who signed a one-year deal, adds depth to a receiving corps that is young aside from Moss. He’s likely a No. 4 receiver at best, but he still does have downfield speed. Clemens never made much of an impact as a second-round pick with the Jets, but like John Beck at one point he was a hot prospect. Clemens likely fits in as a No. 3 QB. Chester, who has been starting at guard for the Ravens, comes over to address a big need on the interior of the Redskins line. He got a five-year contract worth up to $20 million. Brown got a five-year deal to return and play right tackle. He didn’t have his best year last year, but he’s talented enough to play left tackle or right. Buchanon adds depth at corner, but he will miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension. Golston is a decent backup lineman. Doughty adds depth at safety.

Seahawks (add WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OG Robert Gallery, DTs Alan Branch and Ryan Sims, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, and PK Jeff Reed, ; keep DT Brandon Mebane, CB Kelly Jennings, RB Michael Robinson, LB Leroy Hill and DT Junior Siavii) – Once Santonio Holmes re-signed with the Jets, Rice was the best receiver on the market, and Seattle stepped up to sign him to a five-year, $41 million deal with $18.5 million guaranteed. Rice fought injuries last year, but he showed in 2009 that he can be an elite downfield receiver because of his great size and ball skills. His presence will let Mike Williams settle in as a solid No. 2 receiver and shore up a trouble area. Miller, who was a fine receiving tight end in Oakland, wasn’t at a position of need, but his talent was strong enough that the Seahawks gave him a big deal (five years, $34 million, with $17 million guaranteed). He’s a big-time receiving threat. The question is who will get Rice and Miller the ball. The Seahawks couldn’t come to a deal with Matt Hasselbeck, and to replace him they brought in Jackson on a two-year, $8 million deal that basically puts him on equal footing with Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson fell far out of favor with the Vikings last year, but he played well down the stretch in 2008 before Brett Favre hit town. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was with the Vikings at that point, so he knows Jackson’s ability and potential. Still, Jackson will have to grow more consistent and protect the football if he is to knock off Whitehurst and seize the starting job. Gallery was a bust as a tackle, but he’s played well as a guard. Former Raiders head coach Tom Cable is now in Seattle, so he must trust that Gallery can add veteran experience to an offensive line that’s young at tackle with Russell Okung and James Carpenter. Branch was a disappointment in Arizona, but he is huge and moves well, so the Seahawks will try to unlock his potential. Branch got a two-year, $8 million deal with $4 million guaranteed. Mebane was a huge retention for the Seahawks. He was one of the top defensive tackles on the market and had several suitors. Now he returns to create havoc up front. Having a wide body like Branch alongside could allow Mebane to penetrate even more. Robinson is a backup running back who is a decent receiver as well.  Hill had played well for the Seahawks in the past, but off-field issues have limited his impact in recent years. Still, he has talent. Siavii adds depth inside. Sims and Wilkerson provide depth. Reed replaces the departed Olindo Mare. Jennings is a good but not great corner who’s probably better suited to play in a nickel set than as a starter.

Titans (add QB Matt Hasselbeck, LB Barrett Ruud, DT Shaun Smith and TE Daniel Graham; keep OG Leroy Harris, FB Ahmard Hall, and DEs Jacob Ford and Dave Ball) – The Titans stole Hasselbeck away from the Seahawks with a multiyear deal. The move will allow the team to develop rookie Jake Locker slowly, and and it will also help the Titans compete in the short term. Hasselbeck should have the personality to mentor Locker, but he’ll have to play better than he has the past 2-3 years if he is to really make the Titans contenders. Still, the team needed a veteran QB, and Hasselbeck was the best available. Smith has a reputation of crossing the line, but he played well for the Chiefs last year. He’s capable of starting and holding his own. Ruud, who was a tackle machine in Philadelphia, isn’t the thumper that departing MLB Stephen Tulloch is, but Ruud brings more athleticism to the position. The Titans will be able to play a little differently with him in town. Harris got a two-year deal to return as a starting guard, but he needs to continue to develop into that role. Graham is a solid blocking tight end with some receiving skills who will help to replace Bo Scaife. Hall is a solid blocking back who had options elsewhere but returned. Ball and Ford are not world-beaters, but they’re at least rotation-quality defensive ends who can hold up on run downs. Neither is going to create a ton of pass rush, though.

Texans (add CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning FB Lawrence Vickers, and P Brad Maynard; keep WR Jacoby Jones, OT Rashad Butler, QB Matt Leinart, and DT Damione Lewis) – The Texans have a lot of talent, but secondary play was their tragic flaw last year. They addressed it with two big signings. Joseph, regarded as the second-best corner on the market, got a monster five-year, $48.75 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus to be the lead corner. He played really well in Cincinnati, and he’ll be a huge upgrade. Manning, a versatile player who struggled to find just the right fit in Chicago, comes in to play free safety. He has immense talent if the Texans can figure out where to play him. Manning got a four-year, $20 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. Jones got a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million in guarantees in the hopes that he’s ready to fulfill his vast potential and emerge as a starter opposite Andre Johnson. The skills are there; the question is whether Jones can unlock them. Butler started four games at tackle as a fill-in last year. Leinart got a two-year, $5.5 million deal with $3.75 million guaranteed, which means the Texans expect him to compete with Dan Orlovsky for the backup spot behind Matt Schaub. Lewis got a one-year deal to play in Houston’s new 3-4; he played in a similar scheme in New England. Vickers, an ex-Brown, replaces Vonta Leach as a blocking fullback. Vickers isn’t as good as Leach, but he’s pretty good. Maynard started to fall off last year, but the vet may find punting easier in warm Houston than it was in cold Chicago.

Ravens (keep OG-OT Marshal Yanda, CB Chris Carr and LB Prescott Burgess; add FB Vonta Leach and S Bernard Pollard) – Yanda, who for years was a solid guard for the Ravens, moved out to right tackle last year and continued to play well. His strong play led to a strong market for his services, but the Ravens stepped up to keep Yanda with a five-year, $32 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus. Yanda is dependable, and his versatility will help him continue to make an impact through the length of the deal. That should make this a good deal for the Ravens. Burgess fits in as a backup outside linebacker. Carr is a solid nickelback who got a four-year deal to return. That’s important, especially after the Ravens lost two secondary starters – Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson – via free agency. Leach got a three-year, $11 million deal to replace LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee in the fullback role. Leach isn’t a great runner, but he’s a terrific blocker and will help Ray Rice tremendously in that role. Pollard is a great in-the-box safety who isn’t great in coverage. His skills mirror Dawan Landry, so he’s a decent replacement despite being older.

Rams (add S Quintin Mikell, OG Harvey Dahl, WR Mike Sims-Walker, DTs Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, CB Al Harris, LBs Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga, and RBs Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams) – The Rams had to cut FS O.J. Atogwe back before the lockout because of a huge escalator, and that was a huge loss. To replace him, they broke the bank for Mikell, an eight-year vet who has emerged as a top safety the last year or two. Mikell got a four-year deal worth $27 million with $14 million guaranteed, so he’ll need to continue to play at an elite level to be worth the price. But his presence will help the Rams defense continue to grow. Dahl is a good guard in large part because of his physical, borderline-dirty style of play. He’ll add an edge up front for a Rams line that features young OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold and C Jason Brown. They could become one of the best front fives in the league now that Dahl’s in town on a four-year deal. Sims-Walker is a big receiver who’s more talented than any on the Rams’ roster. Since Mark Clayton isn’t yet healthy enough to play, MSW could be the Rams’ No. 1 option. Bannan, who got a three-year deal, is a versatile lineman who got cut after a scheme change in Denver. He can be a decent backup inside or outside. Muir, who got a one-year, $1.85 million deal, is in the same boat. Both add good depth. Harris got a one-year deal to see if he can resuscitate his career. He adds veteran wiles at least. Diles is an athletic weak-side linebacker. Poppinga can play outside as well. Norwood and Williams add depth at a position that was razor thin behind Steven Jackson last year. Both are great on third-down; the question is whether one or both can stay healthy.

Jaguars (add MLB Paul Posluzny, OLB Clint Session, S Dawan Landry, CB Drew Coleman, and OG Jason Spitz) – The Jaguars made their splash by signing two linebackers to fix a trouble spot. Posluszny, an ex-Bill, got a six-year, $45 million contract that includes $15 million in guarantees. Posluszny is an athletic player who fits best in a 4-3 like the Jaguars run, not in the Bills’ 3-4. He’s a reliable tackler who also has the athletic ability to get deep in coverage, and he fills an area that was a problem for Jacksonville last year. The price was high, but the fit seems right for the Jaguars. Session, an ex-Colt, got a five-year deal worth $30 million with $11.5 million in guarantees to play on the weak side. He’ll add even more ranginess to the group. After building the defensive line through the draft the last few years, the Jaguars hope Posluszny, Session, and holdover Daryl Smith are ready to make the front seven formidable. Landry got a five-year deal to address safety, which was another big trouble area. Landry’s better in run support than coverage, but he’s a lot better than what Jacksonville had at the position. Coleman, who got a three-year, $7.4 million deal, is better playing in the slot than outside, but he will help a trouble area. We discussed all of these Jaguars defensive moves in this post. Spitz will get a chance to start a left guard.

Colts (keep QB Peyton Manning, PK Adam Vinatieri, S Melvin Bullitt and RB Joseph Addai; add QBs Dan Orlovsky and Nate Davis, LB Ernie Sims, DE Jamaal Anderson, and DT Tommie Harris) – Manning, who was the franchise free agent for the Colts, had some tense moments of negotiation but eventually re-signed for a massive five-year, $90 million deal. He tried to take a little less money to make room for the Colts to re-sign some key players such as Addai, who is still the best back the Colts have despite his age and fragility. Vinatieri got a three-year deal to remain as the Colts’ dependable clutch kicker. Bullitt, who missed most of last season, also got a three-year deal. He’ll be in the mix to start at safety. After Orlovsky was cut by Houston, he quickly got a new gig in Indy. He’ll be an upgrade at backup quarterback. Davis, a bust as a 49ers draft pick, gets a two-year deal in Indy to compete with Curtis Painter for the No. 3 job. We discussed the Colts’ additions of three former first-rounders – Harris, Sims, and Anderson – in this post.

Falcons (add DE Ray Edwards; keep OT Tyson Clabo, OG Justin Blalock, and OLBs Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson) – Edwards, the second-best defensive end on the market behind Charles Johnson, got a solid but not earth-shattering deal to come to Atlanta – five years, $30 million with $11 million guaranteed. He’ll add pass rush and allow the Falcons to use John Abraham more strategically. That kind of pass rusher was one of the biggest needs for the Falcons, and Edwards was one of the best available. That’s a win for the Dirty Birds. Atlanta fought off a major challenge from the Bills to keep Clabo, who provides physical play at right tackle. The Falcons, who had three OL starters hitting free agency, gave Clabo a five-year, $25 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed to stay. Blalock got a six-year, $38 million deal to return at left guard. Clabo and Blalock will stabilize a run game and give the Falcons more flexibility with their other guard spot. Nicholas has emerged as a quality outside ‘backer for a Falcons defense that is strong at that left. He got a five-year, $17.5 million contract that includes $7 million in guarantees to stay and help the Dirty Birds get over the hump. Peterson, who plays at the other outside linebacker spot, returns as well. He’s got a ton of experience and still drops into coverage pretty well.

Cowboys (keep OT Doug Free, DEs Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, OL Kyle Kosier, and S Gerald Sensabugh; add DE Kenyon Coleman and S Abram Elam) – The Cowboys had to cut a bunch of salary just to get under the salary cap, but they kept cutting to make sure they could keep Free, who emerged as a starting left tackle last year. Dallas fought off Tampa Bay by signing Free to a four-year, $32 million contract with $17 million in guarantees. If Free develops into an above-average left tackle, he’ll be worth that deal, and he’s young enough to do so. That makes this a wise investment for Jerry Jones. Kosier is a versatile player who can start inside. He got a three-year, $9 million deal. Spears got a five-year, $19.2 million deal to stay and play defensive end. He became a priority when Stephen Bowen went to the division rival Redskins. Hatcher got a $2.5 million signing bonus on a three-year, $6 million deal to help out in the defensive end rotation as well. To add depth after Bowen’s departure, the Cowboys brought in Coleman, a veteran who played for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Cleveland. Elam is another Cleveland import. He’ll team with Sensabaugh, who played well in Dallas last year, to improve Dallas’ safety situation. Both Sensabaugh and Elam got one-year, $2.5 million contracts.

Steelers (keep CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay, OT Willie Colon, OG Jonathan Scott, NT Chris Hoke, RB Melwede Moore, PK Shaun Suisham and P Daniel Sepulveda; add TE John Gilmore) – Taylor, regarded as one of the best corners on the market, stays in Pittsburgh on a four-year deal. His physical style fits the Steelers’ system well, and the system keeps him from being exposed in coverage. He wouldn’t fit any other scheme as well. Gay isn’t as good as Taylor, but he’s been a decent starter for the Steelers. Suisham stepped in for Jeff Reed last season and did a nice job for the Steelers. Colon has battled injuries the last two years, but he has played well when healthy at left tackle. Pittsburgh’s counting on him to man the position at a high level, because they cut Flozell Adams and Max Starks as they gave Colon a five-year, $29 million deal. Scott adds solid depth at several positions. Sepulveda returns to punt for Pittsburgh once again. He’s been effective when healthy. Hoke and Moore are key players at their positions. Gilmore helps to replace departed backup TE Matt Spaeth.

Chiefs (add WR Steve Breaston, NT Kelly Gregg, ILB Brandon Siler and RB LeRon McClain; keep DE Tamba Hali, C Casey Wiegmann, WR Terrance Copper, S Jon McGraw, and CB Travis Daniels) – Breaston showed promise in Arizona, especially when now Chiefs head coach Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator there. He comes in to provide a complement to Dwayne Bowe as first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin develops. Breaston got a five-year deal that includes $9 million in guaranteed money. Gregg, who played for the Ravens, has been a solid plugger up front who frees the players around him to make plays. He’s a nice replacement for the departed Ron Edwards and could be an upgrade if he can maintain his past performance. Siler is a solid inside linebacker who will help against the run. McClain can play tailback but probably fits in better as a versatile fullback. Hali, the Chiefs’ preeminent pass rusher and franchise player, got a long-term deal – 5 years, $60 million with $35 million guaranteed. It’s a high price, but Hali has earned it. Wiegmann, who has played more than 10,000 consecutive snaps since 2001, got a one-year, $2.25 million contract to remain K.C.’s starting center. Copper, McGraw (who got a one-year deal), and Daniels all add experienced depth, which is key after a no-minicamp offseason.

Bengals (add DE Manny Lawson, QB Bruce Gradkowski, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nate Clements, and OG Max-Jean Gilles; keep RBs Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard and S Gibril Wilson) – Lawson is a talented pass rusher who doesn’t have many sacks but still makes an impact. He could spring to life replacing Antwan Odom. He’s certainly worth a one-year, $3 million deal. Gradkowski, who had some success as a starter in Oakland, comes to Cincinnati to be the placeholder until rookie Andy Dalton is ready. Gradkowski played for Jon Gruden in Tampa, so he’ll be comfortable in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s system. He was the right fit to be the Bengals’ Week 1 starter. Howard got a two-year, $6.5 million deal to move over from Oakland and step into the starting lineup. Clements, who never lived up to his massive contract in San Francisco, returns to Ohio (where he played college football) to replace Johnathan Joseph in the starting lineup. Gilles is a massive player who can play either guard spot or even fill in at tackle. He got a one-year, $1.15 million deal. Benson has had off-field problems, but he’s been a decent back for the Bengals. The question is whether his career is on the decline given his age. Leonard, who got a two-year deal, is a versatile back who can run, catch, and block. He’s a key contributor to the Bengals’ offense. Wilson was a starting safety last year. He’s OK but not great.

49ers (keep QB Alex Smith, DE Ray McDonald, and C Tony Wragge; add C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, S Madieu Williams, PK David Akers and OLB Antwan Applewhite) – In one of the worst kept secrets of the lockout, Smith got a one-year, $5 million deal to be the 2011 starter and placeholder for Colin Kaepernick. McDonald got a much bigger deal to provide sturdy play up front – five years, $20 million with $7 million guaranteed. McDonald pushes the pocket more than most think. Wragge, who got a one-year deal, provides depth at center after the loss of David Baas to the Giants. But Goodwin, who came over from the Saints for a three-year, $10.9 million deal with $4 million in guarantees, should become the starter at the pivot. Rogers, an ex-Redskin, takes over for Nate Clements. Rogers has hands of stone, but he’s pretty good in coverage and may be an upgrade over Clements. Williams fills in at safety, which is a position full of question marks right now. Akers, a long-time Eagle, comes to town to replace injured kicker Joe Nedney, who was cut. Akers has a ton of experience if he can keep his skills intact. Applewhite moves over from San Diego to add depth at an outside linebacker spot that’s been hit hard by free agency.

Buccaneers (keep OLB Quincy Black, OG Davin Joseph, and OT Jeremy Trueblood; add P Michael Koenen) – Black, who is the best playmaker among the Bucs’ linebackers, got a big-time deal to stay – five years, $29 million, with $11.5 million guaranteed. He’s playing the weak-side spot that Derrick Brooks made so many plays in for so many years. Joseph is a talented guard who struggled a bit last year but had a Pro Bowl season in 2009. He got a big deal – 7 years, $52.5 million with $19 million guaranteed – to continue to anchor the Bucs’ line. Trueblood is a marginal starter at right tackle, but he still got a two-year deal to ensure continuity on the line. Koenen comes over from Atlanta on a major deal – six years, $19.5 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – to replace Adam Podlesh. Koenen’s also great on kickoffs.

Giants (add C-OG David Baas, P Steve Weatherford, QB David Carr, TE Ben Patrick, and DT Gabe Watson; keep RB Ahmad Bradshaw, OT Shawn Andrews, OG-OT Kevin Boothe, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, and WR Michael Clayton) – After purging three starting offensive linemen, the Giants started the rebuilding process with Baas, who proved with San Francisco that he can be an effective starter at center as well as guard. Boothe got a two-year deal to provide depth at tackle, and he may get a chance to start at left guard. Kiwanuka is a versatile player who has contributed both at defensive end and at strong-side linebacker. With Osi Umenyiora threatening a holdout, the Giants couldn’t afford to let Kiwanuka leave. Weatherford, an ex-Jet, is an upgrade over last year’s punter for the Giants. Plus, he has experience kicking in the Meadowlands. Bradshaw tested the market but stayed in Big Blue with a four-year, $18 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. He’s the best back the Giants have. Patrick is a solid blocker but not much of a receiver. Watson and Clayton were high picks who disappointed elsewhere but still have talent. Andrews, who had been cut, returns and could start again. Carr returns as Eli Manning’s backup after a year in San Francisco.

Saints (add RB Darren Sproles, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Fabian Washington, and OTs Alex Barron and George Foster; keep WR Lance Moore, OTs Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, LBs Scott Shanle and Danny Clark, Safeties Roman Harper and Chris Reis, and CB Leigh Torrence, add LB Will Herring) – After trading Reggie Bush, the Saints signed Sproles, who proved in San Diego that he can be a game changer as a returner, runner and receiver if used correctly. The Saints’ RB depth should let them feature the diminutive Sproles without wearing him out. If they can do that, the four-year, $14 million deal with $6 million guaranteed will look like a bargain. Franklin came to town on a one-year deal that significantly upgrades the Saints’ front line. (We’ll analyze that addition further soon.) Harper got a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed to return as the starting strong safety. He’s been a very solid player for New Orleans. Moore, an ideal slot receiver, got a five-year deal to stay in New Orleans. He can be a real X-factor for the offense, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him. Bushrod has started at left tackle for the last two years for the Saints and has held up OK. He had other options in free -agency but wanted to return to New Orleans on a two-year deal. Torrence is a backup corner and special-teams ace, as is Reis, a backup safety. Herring, an ex-Seahawk, adds depth at linebacker, in addition to solid contributors Shanle (two years, $4 million) and Clark. Washington adds depth to help replace the departed Usama Young. Strief is a solid swing tackle, but he’ll have to beat out former first-round picks Barron and Foster to keep his job. Barron and Foster have been disappointments elsewhere.

Bills (keep CB Drayton Florence; add S Brad Smith, LB Nick Barnett, and QB Tyler Thigpen) – Florence played well for the Bills last year, his first in Buffalo. His reward is a three-year, $15 million deal. Thigpen started for the Chiefs in 2008, but his skills fit a Pistol offense that few teams use. Bills head coach Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator during Thigpen’s best NFL season, so he will be able to make the most of the QB’s skills if Ryan Fitzpatrick gets hurt or falters. This is a good match of player and coach for a backup quarterback. Smith, an ex-Jet, got a four-year, $15 million contract. He can make an impact as a slot receiver, option quarterback, and kick returner, which creates a lot of options for the Bills. Let’s just hope having Smith run the Pistol isn’t one of them. Barnett, who was cut by the Packers, will help replace Paul Posluszny. Barnett, who’s more physical than Posluszny, should fit the 3-4 defense better than the former Bill did. Barnett got a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.

Vikings (keep PK Ryan Longwell and OT Ryan Cook; add WRs Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, DL Remi Ayodele, and OT Charlie Johnson)– Longwell has been a reliable kicker for the Vikings, so they anted up to keep him with a four-year, $12 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Jenkins, who got a three-year deal, never lived up to his status as a first-round pick in Atlanta, but he has great size and speed and is a willing blocker. He won’t replace Sidney Rice, but he’s going to get a chance to. At the least, his presence will allow the Vikings to continue to play Percy Harvin in the slot. Aromashodu showed some promise with the Bears, but he fell out of favor last season and was not tendered a free-agent contract. Still, his ability and size makes him worth a shot for the Vikings, especially since their biggest target, Sidney Rice, left in free agency. Ayodele did a nice job as a rotation player for the Saints. He’ll provide depth behind the Williams wall and help to fill in during their suspensions. Johnson and Cook add depth at offensive tackle, and Johnson may start after Bryant McKinnie’s release.

Cardinals (add OGs Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack, LB Stewart Bradley, WR Chansi Stuckey, CB Richard Marshall, and TE s Todd Heap and Jeff King) – Colledge, who was a starter for the Packers, moves over to provide help at a big trouble spot. He’ll also take over some of the veteran leadership role that the retired Alan Faneca had last year. Womack, an ex-Brown, is versatile enough to fill in at guard or tackle. He’s an ideal sixth lineman. Bradley is a big, physical inside linebacker who has seen his skill sapped by injuries the last two years. Still, he’s worth a look to see if he can return to form. Stuckey adds depth at receiver after the departure of Steve Breaston. Marshall’s 2010 season wasn’t good, but in previous years he was a good starter for the Panthers. He will get a chance to start in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and on a one-year deal he’s a nice addition. Heap, a longtime Raven, got a two-year deal to return to Arizona, where he played his college ball. Heap will add an element that hasn’t been in the Cardinals passing game in past years. King, a solid blocker who also has good receiving skills, becomes the tight end complement for Heap and rookie Robert Housler in Arizona. King got a one-year deal.

Browns (add S Usama Young, RB Brandon Jackson and CB Dmitri Patterson; keep PK Phil Dawson,  TE Evan Moore and DE Jayme Mitchell) – Dawson, a reliable kicker who was the Browns’ franchise player, signed for the guaranteed one-year tender of about $3 million. Young, an ex-Saint, can play corner but likely fits in as a starting free safety with the Browns. He brings ability and locker-room leadership to the mix. Patterson, an ex-Eagle, was exposed as a starter last year, but he’s good enough to be a nickel back, and he fills a need position. Moore emerged as a good pass-catching tight end last year and could earn a bigger role. Jackson got a two-year, $4.5 million contract. He fits in as a good third-down back for the West Coast offense, although he showed last year he’s not a starting caliber back. Mitchell didn’t play much after coming over via trade last year, but the Browns see him as a starting tight end in their new 4-3 defense. He got a two-year deal.

Packers (keep PK Mason Crosby, WR James Jones and FB John Kuhn) – The Packers re-signed Crosby, who has been a solid kicker even in bad winter weather, to a five-year deal. Jones was looking to move up the depth chart by moving in free agency, but he didn’t find a deal to his liking. His return means the Pack remains incredibly deep at receiver. Kuhn is a blocking full back who can catch and can run in short yardage. He fits the Packers better than any other team, and so re-signing makes sense.

Raiders (keep OLB Kamerion Wimbley, S Michael Huff, OT Khalif Barnes, C Samson Satele, OG Justin Smiley, OLB Jarvis Moss and LS Jon Condo; add QB Trent Edwards and OT Stephon Heyer) – Wimbley, the Raiders’ franchise player, had his best season since his rookie year last year, but that doesn’t mean his massive five-year, $48 million contract with a whopping $29 million guaranteed is a good deal. That deal was necessary so that the Raiders didn’t take the full brunt of the franchise tag this year. Huff had a breakout year at safety last year, but he didn’t find big money on the open market. The Raiders happily took him back. Barnes got a one-year deal to return as a starter at tackle while youngsters at the position develop. Moss, whom the Raiders picked up off the scrap heap last year, was a first-round bust in Denver, but he has enough pass-rush ability to be a solid backup at a one-year, $1.25 million price. Condo is a dependable long-snapper for the Raiders’ elite specialists, so he’s worth keeping around. Edwards comes to town as Jason Campbell’s new backup. Satele, Smiley, and Heyer (who got a one-year, $1.7 million deal) add depth at offensive line, and a couple of the trio could end up starting.

Dolphins (keep DE Tony McDaniel; add ILB Kevin Burnett, OLBs Jason Trusnik and Jason Taylor, QB Matt Moore, DT Ronald Fields and OT Marc Colombo) – With trade negotiations for Kyle Orton falling apart, the Dolphins added Moore, who was a bust as a starter in Carolina last year but who might be good enough to keep Chad Henne on his toes. Moore’s no Orton, but he should be an average backup. McDaniel got a two-year deal to remain as a backup defensive lineman. Trusnik, most recently with Cleveland, is a solid outside linebacker and special-teams player who provides quality depth behind Koa Misi and Cameron Wake. Trusnik got a two-year deal as well. Taylor does as well, returning to the team he has spent most of his career with for the third time. Taylor can still make a play or two as a featured pass rusher. Burnett got a big deal – five years with $10 million in guarantees – to replace Channing Crowder at inside linebacker. Burnett’s more athletic (and less annoying) than Crowder. Fields is an inside plugger who can back up Paul Soliai. Colombo has ties to Tony Sparano from the Dallas days, and it appears the Dolphins are moving Vernon Carey inside so that Colombo can start at right tackle. But Colombo didn’t really hold up at the position last year, so that plan seems risky.

Bears (add P Adam Podlesh, TE Matt Spaeth, WRs Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, RB Marion Barber, DE Vernon Gholston, DT Amobi Okoye, and C Chris Spencer; keep DT Anthony Adams and LB Nick Roach) – After cutting stalwart Brad Maynard, the Bears brought Podlesh over from Jacksonville on a five-year deal worth more than $10 million. The Bears traditionally have among the best special teams in the league, so adding Podlesh’s stronger leg to the mix will make a difference. Spaeth, an ex-Steeler, replaces blocking TE Brandon Manumaleuna. He’s not as bulky but is a better receiver out of short-yardage sets. Williams was a bust in Dallas, but he had his best season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in Detroit. He’s a worthwhile gamble, especially since the Bears don’t have a receiver with his kind of size. Hurd is a nice depth signing at wide receiver; he’d be a quality fourth option at the position. Adams got a two-year deal to return as a solid tackle who can play over the center. He’s solid and allows the guys around him to make plays. Barber got a two-year, $5 million deal to add some physicality to the running game. The question is whether injuries limited him in Dallas, or whether his career is winding down. Gholston and Okoye, both disappointments as first-round picks, are rebuilding projects for Rod Marinelli, considered one of the best defensive line coaches around. Both got one-year deals, and if Marinelli turns them into forces, it will be a huge win. Roach got a two-year, $4.5 million deal to return as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. After failing to come to a deal with long-time center Olin Kreutz, the Bears added Spencer on a two-year deal. The former first-round pick was never great in Seattle, and his style is more finesse than physical. But O-line coach Mike Tice is one of the best in the league, so he might be able to get a little more out of Spencer’s talent.

Lions (add CB Eric Wright, LBs Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, and WR Rashied Davis; keep QB Drew Stanton, CBs Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, OL Dylan Gandy, LB Bobby Carpenter, and PK Dave Rayner) – Wright has played pretty well in Cleveland, and he got a one-year deal to address a huge need area for the Lions. Wright’s at least good to be a top three corner. Houston returns as a starter. He was Detroit’s best corner last year, and he’s good enough to be a solid starter. Detroit couldn’t afford to lose him. Durant, an ex-Jaguar, got a two-year deal to upgrade the linebacking corps that was such a problem last year. Tulloch will be an even bigger upgrade; he was hoping to hit it big in free agency but took a one-year, $3.25 million deal to reunite with Jim Schwartz. The Lions will be glad he did, because he’s a big-time thumper at middle linebacker. Davis, an ex-Bear, is a fine special-teams cover player who can contribute at wideout in a pinch. Stanton, a former second-round pick, played well in relief last year and provides a solid backup option. McDonald played in six games, starting two, as a backup corner last year. Rayner filled in for long-time kicker Jason Hanson after Hanson got hurt; now Rayner has a chance to steal away Hanson’s job. Gandy got a two-year deal. Carpenter returns to add LB depth.

Broncos (add RB Willis McGahee, WR David Anderson, TEs Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario, and DT Ty Warren) – McGahee, who had been released by the Ravens, got a four-year, $9.5 million deal to come in as Knowshon Moreno’s backup. It’s a ridiculous deal for an older running back who hasn’t shown much pop in recent years, and the fact that it takes away from Moreno’s carries makes it even worse. Anderson, who was released by the Texans, adds depth at wide receiver. Fells (an ex-Ram) and Rosario (an ex-Panther) have shown pass-catching potential, but neither has been consistent. Still, they should help the passing game. Warren, whom the Patriots cut after he failed a physical, got a two-year, $10 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed to help the Broncos move to a 4-3. Warren and trade acquisition Brodrick Bunkley now form the center of that defense. Warren has been great at points in his career, but he must prove he is now healthy enough to still play well. Still, he’s a nice and necessary addition for Denver.

Patriots (keep OT Matt Light, RB Sammy Morris and RB Kevin Faulk) – Light returns to play left tackle, but now he’s a place holder until Nate Solder is ready. Still, he provides good insurance for the Pats on Tom Brady’s blind side. Morris, a versatile back who takes snaps at tailback and fullback, re-signed on a one-year deal. Faulk, who missed much of last season due to injury, returns as the Patriots’ do-everything back. But with the emergence of young backs, Faulk could face an uphill battle for a roster spot.

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Why Santonio Holmes didn’t set the market for wide receivers

Santonio Holmes will remain a Jet thanks to a five-year, $50 million deal that includes $24 million in guarantees. But the massive deal won’t set the market for other wide receivers like Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Randy Moss, and James Jones. Find out why in my latest National Football Authority post.

Santonio Holmes, via nypost.com

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Super Bowl 45 thoughts

Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews celebrate, via foxsports.com

Here are thoughts breaking down the Packers’ 31-25 victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl 45.

*Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the surgeon he had been at other points in the playoffs (most notably against the Falcons), but he had a terrific game with 304 passing yards and three touchdowns. His 24-of-39 performance would have been even better without at least 5 drops by Packers wideouts, which says even more about how Rodgers played. Rodgers made the leap this year, and the playoffs affirmed that he’s among the league’s best this year.
*Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, threw two interceptions that his team couldn’t overcome. The first pick, which Nick Collins returned to a touchdown, wasn’t entirely Big Ben’s fault, since he couldn’t get anything on the throw due to pressure from Howard Green. But the second pick was into double coverage. Both picks resulted in Green Bay TDs, so it’s fair to say that Ben’s failings were part of the reason the Steelers lost.
*Not to toot our own horn, but our pre-game pick ’em post was eerily accurate. The running game wasn’t really a factor on either side of the ball, although both James Starks (11 for 52) and Rashard Mendenhall (14 for 63) ran OK. Mendenhall’s fumble, however, was another key mistake. But the crucial matchup of the game was the fact that the Steelers couldn’t stop the Packers’ four-WR set. Rodgers consistently found Jordy Nelson (nine catches, 140 yards, TD, plus three drops), and Greg Jennings (4-64-2) made a few huge plays, and the formation kept Troy Polamalu in coverage, which limited his impact. On the other side, the Steelers got some big plays from Mike Wallace (9-89-1), but the Packers were able to clamp down on the Steelers, especially early. Only after Charles Woodson suffered a broken collarbone and Sam Shields had to leave for a while with an injury did the Steelers really gash the Pack through the air.
*The defenses didn’t cause a ton of havoc on either side. The Steelers got decent pressure on Rodgers, and more importantly kept him inside the pocket, but they got just three sacks. (Lamarr Woodley did continue his streak of having a sack in every postseason game he’s played.) The Packers had just one sack from Frank Zombo, but they did knock down a few passes on the line. Clay Matthews, the chief mischief-maker, spent as much time spying on Roethlisberger as actually blitzing, which is part of the reason why Ben had just one run for a first down. (Props to Troy Aikman, by the way, for pointing out the Matthews spy strategy early on.) But the Packers’ defensive line didn’t make an impact aside from Green’s big play.
*Mike Lombardi of the NFL network always refers to missed field goals as turnovers, and Shaun Suisham’s shanked 52-yarder in the third quarter was an unforced turnover. Suisham has never been a consistent kicker, so the idea of having him try a 50-plus field goal in a key spot was wrong-headed by Mike Tomlin. It cost the Steelers at least 22 yards (and maybe 30-35 yards) of field position, and also let the Packers out from under the thumb at a time when they were really struggling. It didn’t turn the game, but it was a major miscalculation.
*The Packers had a ton of drops. Nelson had three, including two that would have been for huge gains. James Jones dropped a potential touchdown – he’s had a ton of big drops in the postseason – and showed why, despite his speed and potential, he’s a No. 3 receiver and a starter. Still, Jones had five catches for 50 yards and made an impact after Donald Driver left the game with a foot injury.
*Unsung heroes: Antwaan Randle El had a huge 37-yard catch, another first-down catch, and a run for a two-point conversion for the Steelers, which was huge after rookie Emmanuel Sanders had to leave the game with a foot injury. Bush of the Packers was forced into more coverage responsibility after Woodson’s injury, and he had a big hit on Roethlisberger and added an interception early on without giving up a ton of big plays. Desmond Bishop of the Packers was all over the field, finishing with eight tackles and three tackles for loss, along with a fumble recovery. He was far more of a factor than A.J. Hawk, and given the fact that he started the year behind Nick Barnett, Bishop’s development was a huge factor. And C Doug Legursky, who replaced Maurkice Pouncey at center for the Steelers, held up just fine. He never got bowled over in pass protection, and the Steelers actually got him out in space to block a few times too (including the first two plays of the game).
*Thanks for reading all season. We more than doubled last year’s readership, and we’re thankful. But just because the season’s over, don’t stop visiting. We’ll be up and at it for the rest of the week, breaking down the Hall of Fame election, tracking franchise player tags, and commenting on the Titans’ coaching hire, among other things. For the latest, check back at www.footballrelativity.com or follow on Twitter for post updates and more discussions.

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Pick ’em – Super Bowl 45

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Clay Matthews in 2009

It’s finally time for us to make our Super Bowl pick. We’ve already previewed who we think the playmakers will be and played out the storylines. So let’s engage in some preja vu and tell you not only who will win but how the game will be won.

*Neither team will be able to run the ball all that well with their running backs. We see Rashard Mendenhall fighting for 55 yards or so on like 17 carries, and we suspect Aaron Rodgers may outrush any Packers back – James Starks, Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn, and company. The running game is not going to be what decides the game.
*A huge question is whether either offensive line can effectively block their opponents. The Packers’ line isn’t great, and rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga has given up his fair share of sacks this season. So we believe James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley will get a few hits in on Rodgers. But we have the same doubts that the Steelers can block Clay Matthews coming off the corner as well as B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins inside. The Maurkice Pouncey injury really hurts the Steelers here, because the Pack’s playmaking interior players will be troublesome throughout the game. Still, though, since both teams can create pressure, the big plays out of the pass rushes should basically even out.
*So where do we find a big advantage? It’s in coverage. The Packers have three terrific cornerbacks in Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields, and Shields’ emergence will be a key in keeping Mike Wallace from breaking free deep in the secondary. We believe the Packers can keep Ben Roethlisberger and company from throwing the ball all over the place. But we don’t have the same confidence about the Steelers. Troy Polamalu is a great player, but he’s better freelancing than in coverage, and the Packers can force Polamalu into coverage by using a four-wide receiver set. Ike Taylor can be trouble blitzing off the corner, but he’s not an elite cover corner either. The same is true from Bryant McFadden. We just see Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson breaking free more than once. If the Packers can keep the Steelers blocked for the most part, or if Rodgers can keep the chains moving with his legs when pressured, then Green Bay will eventually beat the Steelers through the air. And that’s where the game will be won.

So our pick is Green Bay 28, Pittsburgh 24

Conference championships: 2-0 both straight up and against the spread
Playoffs: 5-5 both straight up and against the spread

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Playmakers

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, as we begin to preview the Super Bowl, we try to anticipate which players will become the big-play makers of the big game. (You can see last year’s post here, and the Super Bowl 43 edition here.) As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

If you think we missed someone, add a comment and where you think that Packer or Steeler fits in.

10 – QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – This is Rodgers’ chance at the spotlight, and we believe he’s up to the challenge. Given the state of the Packers’ running game, the Packers’ chances rest on their quarterback, which means that he’s the man on the spot. He can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he has done just that in his playoff drive this season. Does he have one more game left?

9 – QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace, Steelers – Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings, but no MVP trophies, which is a little odd for a quarterback. You can’t say he’s played poorly, because he led a game-winning drive two years ago and hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. But Roethlisberger has set up Holmes and Hines Ward for Super Bowl MVP honors. So while Big Ben will play a huge role, the pattern indicates that if the Steelers win, it will be a receiver who gets the award. Our money is on Wallace, who has perhaps the best deep speed in the game. Wallace has been the focus of defenses in the playoffs thus far, but the Packers let Johnny Knox and Devin Hester break free deep in the NFC championship game, and if they can do it, Wallace can too. If the Steelers win, it’ll be correlated to a big game from Wallace.

8 – OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, Steelers – Harrison made a huge play in the last Super Bowl with an epic 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. And Harrison remains a huge force getting to the quarterback. But Woodley, who has compiled a sack in each and every postseason game in his career, will get to Rodgers at least once, and so he’s just as high on the list as Harrison. These two outside ‘backers will need to force at least one turnover for the Steelers to win.

7 – CB Charles Woodson, Packers – Really, we could have said pick a Packer corner, because both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have been game MVPs for the Pack in the playoffs this year. But Woodson is a big-time player who can emerge on the biggest stage, and as one of the few Packers with Super Bowl experience, he won’t be afraid of the stage.

6 – RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall may have had the best game of his career against the Jets in the AFC championship game, and if he plays that way again, he can carry the Steelers to a win. Running against the Packers will be tough, but Mendenhall showed against the Jets that he might just be up to the challenge.

5 – OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – Matthews is the Packers’ star on defense, but after a ridiculous start to the season his playmaking has been a bit more sporadic this season. The matchup seems to favor Matthews against subpar Steelers tackles, but if the Steelers gear up their protection to stop Matthews, someone else will need to step up and pressure Big Ben. And even if Matthews can get to Roethlisberger, can he bring him down? Roethlisberger is basically as big as Matthews, and he’s perhaps the league’s toughest QB to bring down.

4 – WR Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings may be the most overlooked No. 1 receiver in the league, but he certainly deserves the accolade. He’s good enough to carry the team, but he has so much help at receiver that defenses can’t focus on him. Jennings could have a breakout game a la Larry Fitzgerald two years ago that turns him from very good player to national star.

4 (con’t) – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers – Polamalu is one of the most popular and well-known Steelers, and he claimed defensive player of the year honors (over Matthews) this week. But his play of late hasn’t been dominant, and the fact that the Packers can spread the field with four receivers could force Polamalu into coverage instead of letting him freelance as he usually does. That will limit Polamalu’s impact in this game.

3 – TE Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a supersolid tight end who can help out blocking Matthews and company but also serve as a possession receiver or even a threat to get down the seam for a big play. The Packers have struggled against tight ends this year, and that could set Miller up for success on Sunday.

2 – WR Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson is the Packers’ fourth receiver, but he has been a popular target for Rodgers in the postseason, and we think he’s behind only Jennings in terms of the Packer wideouts we see making big plays this weekend. Of course, Rodgers will look for vet Donald Driver and the inconsistent but talented James Jones as well, but we can see Nelson piling up 70-80 yards or more on multiple receptions.

2 (con’t) – DLs B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins, Packers – The Packers’ defensive line doesn’t get a ton of publicity – or at least it didn’t until Raji broke free with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears. But while Raji has been a dominator inside, Jenkins stepped up in the playoffs, and he’s just as likely to make the big play as Raji against the Steelers.

1 – ILBs Desmond Bishop, Packers, and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers – Bishop and Timmons have both had terrific seasons for their respective teams, but they don’t make the flashy plays that their defensive teammates do. But both guys are tackling machines, and if they can strip the ball on a tackle or pick up a fumble and return it for a score, they could find themselves joining unlikely Super Bowl MVPs like Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson.

1 (con’t) – DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – We’ve been pounding the drum on how well Hood has been playing throughout the postseason, and if he does that again he’ll have a shot at raising his profile and making a splash on the biggest stage. In fact, we believe it’s more likely that Hood will make a big play than his D-linemates Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel doing so.

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NFC Conference Championship Thoughts

B.J. Raji celebrates his interception for a TD

We’ll look back at the two conference championship games individually. First up, the rivalry game in the NFC, in which the Green Bay Packers advanced to the Super Bowl with a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.

*Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the superhuman that he had been in the first two playoff games, but he did enough to get the job done for the Packers. He threw two interceptions (detailed below), and while he didn’t throw a TD pass, he did throw for 244 yards and run for 39 yards and a score. And now Rodgers is a Super Bowl quarterback, with the chance to rightly join the game’s elite with a win in two weeks.
*Obviously, the big headline from this game from the Bears’ perspective is the Jay Cutler knee injury. He had to leave the game early in the third quarter due to an injury that he didn’t remember, and the Bears soon had to turn to third-stringer Caleb Hanie after Todd Collins reminded everyone he was not only old but ineffective. It’s not a good performance by Cutler, who was just 6-for-14 for 80 yards, including an interception late in the second quarter that cost the Bears a scoring chance. The fact that Cutler left the game will obviously be the cause of much consternation from Bears fans, but the fact that Cutler didn’t have his helmet after being pulled may indicate it wasn’t his decision. Regardless, it wasn’t a franchise quarterback performance from a QB for whom the Bears paid a premium.
*Hanie played well in relief of Cutler and Collins, leading the Bears’ first scoring drive thanks to a beautiful 32-yard pass to Johnny Knox that set up Chester Taylor’s one-yard TD run. He also threw a great pass to Earl Bennett that turned into a 35-yard touchdown. Hanie finished the game with 153 yards passing, and definitely provided a spark. But Hanie also threw a Cutler-esque interception to B.J. Raji, a nose tackle who had dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. Raji took the ball 18 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7, and that touchdown proved to be the difference. And Hanie’s fourth-down interception to Sam Shields cemented the game for the Packers.
*The Packers got off to a quick start with three 20-yard-plus passing plays, all to the same spot on the field. Rodgers picked on the seam in the zone behind the undersized Tim Jennings and in front of safety Chris Harris, who was playing despite a hip injury suffered last week. Those three plays – two to Greg Jennings and one to Jordy Nelson – set up Rodgers’ one-yard TD run for the game’s first score. The Packers exploited that spot at least three more times for big gains throughout the game. It was clear early on that they wanted to test Harris to see just how soft that spot in the zone would be.
*The Packers have stars on defense like Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, but it was the lesser known guys that really starred in this game. Cullen Jenkins produced a ton of pressure, especially early, notching half a sack and two tackles for loss. Nickelback Shields had a sack and forced fumble on Cutler to stop one drive in the second quarter, and then he picked off Cutler to stop the Bears’ last drive before the half and picked off Hanie to salt away the game in the final minute. And Desmond Bishop was also a nice factor for the defense with eight tackles, including a key tackle for loss on the next-to-last Bears snap of the game. Those performances show just how deep the Pack is.
*For the Bears, the defensive star was no surprise – Brian Urlacher. Urlacher piled up stats in several categories – a sack, a tackle for loss, and an interception near the goal line to stop a Green Bay scoring pass – and seemed to be the guy stepping up to make big plays over and over again. Julius Peppers didn’t fill up the stat sheet nearly as much, notching just two tackles, but he provided pretty consistent pressure and drew a holding penalty that was as good as a sack. However, Peppers also got a 15-yard personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Rodgers.
*James Starks had a good game for the Packers, but the best running back on the field was Matt Forte. Forte thrived throughout the game, despite Chicago’s QB problems. Starks ran for 74 yards and a touchdown, while Forte ran for 70 yards and had 90 receiving yards on 10 catches.
*The Bears’ lone glimmer of hope in the first half came on a fluky play, when Donald Driver bobbled a low pass, and then Lance Briggs caught the carom off Driver’s foot for an interception. The play, which was reminiscent of how Seattle’s Mike Williams caught his second touchdown against Chicago’s Charles Tillman in the divisional round, gave Chicago a chance at a two-minute drive, but Cutler threw an interception to quell that rally. Still, the deflection was Rodgers’ first interception this postseason.
*It’s hard to imagine a team having a better fourth receiver than Nelson, who had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta and followed it up with another big day against the Bears with four catches for 67 yards against the Bears. Rodgers has a lot of trust in Nelson, even though he’s down the depth chart from Jennings, Driver, and James Jones.

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Pick ’em – Divisional round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We’ll try to rebound from a below-par first weekend with this week’s picks.

Hines Ward and the Steelers take on the Ravens once again

Pittsburgh -3 vs. Baltimore – The Steelers and Ravens resume their physical and aggressive series with a game at Heinz Field. And while the overall series has been even recently, the truth is that the Ravens’ last two wins came only when Ben Roethlisberger was out. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers are on a winning streak against Baltimore, even though most of the games have been close. That’s what we expect in this one. The Steelers’ defense, while not at full strength, will have Troy Polamalu back, and he’s the biggest difference maker on either team, even over Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And the most dynamic offensive player on either team, even above the great Ray Rice, is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch this season. So despite the Ravens’ fine performance last week, and despite Joe Flacco’s strong postseason record away from Baltimore, the Steelers are the pick. Pick: Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13

Atlanta -3 vs. Green Bay – The Packers are the trendy pick to win the NFC at this point after their win in Philadelphia last week. And while that win was terrific, it’s not like it was a blowout. Green Bay missed a key opportunity for a touchdown when James Jones dropped a beautiful Aaron Rodgers pass just before the half, and it took two missed field goals and a late interception to seal the game. Maybe Green Bay would be a realistic favorite if they still had guys like JerMichael Finley and Nick Barnett on the field, but the truth is that Green Bay isn’t good enough to dominate anyone. And it may have been forgotten during the bye week, but the Falcons are a fine team. They have a strong running game, a ridiculously good receiver in Roddy White, and a defense that can both stop the run and create pressure with John Abraham. The Falcons don’t have many weaknesses, and their strong play is even better in the Georgia Dome. We’ll buck the trend and stick with the home team in this one. Pick: Atlanta 24, Green Bay 20

Chester Taylor and the Bears host the Seahawks

Chicago -10 vs. Seattle – The Seahawks took off last week in an upset win thanks to a career performance from Matt Hasselbeck and a top-flight game plan from Pete Carroll and his staff. The question is whether they can replicate that kind of performance two weeks in a row. Yes, the Seahawks won in Chicago earlier this year, but in that game the Bears went 0-12 on third-down conversions and played without Lance Briggs. The Bears have picked up their play offensively in the second half of the season, protecting Cutler better and becoming more efficient. This isn’t the same team the Seahawks beat. Most of all, the Bears’ defense has played well all season, and we think they can stop Hasselbeck, Marshawn Lynch and company. We have no question the Bears can win the game, and we’ll put them past the double-digit spread as well. Pick: Chicago 31, Seattle 17

New England -9 vs. N.Y. Jets – Rex Ryan and the Jets have been talking big all week, but the last time they faced the Patriots they got blitzed 45-3. The Jets are better than that, but we still expect the Patriots to knock them off again. Tom Brady has been spectacular all season, and even more so since the Randy Moss trade. That trade completely changed how the Jets defend the Pats, because Darrelle Revis can’t sit on Moss all game. Now the Patriots’ passing game is versatile enough to avoid Revis without losing much of and edge. Plus, the Patriots run the ball better than they have in five years thanks to Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets’ running game looked good this past week at Indianapolis, but QB Mark Sanchez was far too inconsistent. He’s going to have to raise his game for the Jets to have a chance, and we don’t think he can be explosive enough to keep the Jets close to the Pats on teh scoreboard. Pick: New England 35, N.Y. Jets 20

Last week: 1-0-1 college, 1-3 pro, 2-3-1 overall
Season: 55-62-3 college, 56-65-5 pro, 111-127-8 overall

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