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Final tags: Raiders secure Wimbley, Dolphins surprise Soliai

The deadline for naming franchise players passed Thursday, and two more teams joined the party, as the Raiders tagged OLB Kamerion Wimbley and the Dolphins locked up NT Paul Soliai for the year. Below are some thoughts on these tags (along with the Raiders’ decision to lock up CB Stanford Routt before tagging Wimbley.) We’ll compare these two tags from the others this franchise season in a post over the weekend.

Kamerion Wimbley, via sfgate.com

OLB Kamerion Wimbley, Raiders (non-exclusive franchise tag) – The Raiders thought they would be able to keep Wimbley via a buy-back clause in his contract that would cost them $3.5 million, but the convoluted CBA rules invalidated that option. That was a boon for Wimbley, who instead scores a one-year deal worth more than $10 million. Wimbley, a former Browns first-round choice, saw his career revitalized by the move to Oakland this year, as he put up nine sacks, the most since his rookie season in 2006. Wimbley brings an outside pass rush for the Raiders that no one else on the roster can, which proves to be a nice complement to a solid defensive line featuring Richard Seymour and promising rookie Lamarr Houston. And since the Raiders locked up Seymour earlier this month and CB Stanford Routt just before the franchise tag deadline (both at franchise-player prices, by the way), the tag was free for Wimbley. Routt was actually a key guy for the Raiders to keep, since Nnamdi Asomugha will almost certainly be leaving via free agency. Routt rebounded in 2010 (much like Wimbley did) and played at a high level. Wimbley is happy to sign his 2011 tender, given what his contract status is. The Raiders stabilize their defense, although it comes at the cost of $10 million and the risk of losing TE Zach Miller via free agency.

Routt, by the way, got a massive deal – three years, $31.5 million, with $20 million guaranteed. Basically, he got paid as a franchise-tagged cornerback this year, with the Raiders getting the chance to keep him at equivalent prices the next two years. That’s the same approach the Raiders took with Seymour, but Routt’s performance has been much more up and down than Seymour’s. But Routt did have a sterling season in 2010, and he would have been paid handsomely on the open market. So with Asomugha on the way out, Routt had leverage that he was able to turn into a great contract.

NT Paul Soliai, Dolphins (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Soliai is probably the least heralded player on the franchise tag list, given that he only emerged as a starter in 2010. But the Utah product emerged as a big-time nose tackle with veteran Jason Ferguson out this year, And since 3-4 nose tackles are incredibly hard to find, Soliai was going to be a hot commodity on the open market. Soliai holds the point of attack well against the run and can be disruptive at times, which is why the Dolphins are giving him a raise from his $467,000 2010 salary to the $12.4 million franchise tag in 2011. Soliai is expected to sign his tender to lock in the deal that’s worth 29 times more than what he made last year.

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Suspensions come in threes

I’ve been on the road for most of the past two weeks, leading to limited posts. But now that I’m back and training camps are on the horizon, we’re about to hit high gear here on the blog. Keep visiting and join us!

Last week, two prominent NFL defenders were suspended, and another player facing a suspension decided to retire instead of sitting out the first eight games of the season. Below are thoughts on DE Johnny Jolly’s year-long suspension for Green Bay, OLB Leroy Hill’s one-game suspension for Seattle, and NT Jason Ferguson’s retirement in Miami. You can see how these suspensions compare to others for the opening of the 2010 season in this post, and you can see how Ferguson’s retirement compares to others in this post.

Jolly, who started as a defensive end and thrived as the Packers moved to a 3-4 defense last year, was suspended for at least the 2010 season by the league for violating the substance-abuse policy. Jolly is also engaged in a codeine-possession case in Texas. Jolly, a four-year veteran, emerged as a starter after being a sixth-round pick, and his size and sturdiness against the run made him a great fit for the Packers’ new scheme. But now, facing a suspension that indicates at least two positive tests, he’ll have to convince league officials to let him return to the NFL when he is first eligible to apply for reinstatement after the season. Reinstatement is not a guarantee, and that means Jolly is facing a steep uphill climb to make it back into the league. It’s a blow for the Packers to lose a starter in this manner, but with second-year man B.J. Raji and rookie Mike Neal added in the last two drafts to join Cullen Jenkins as 3-4 ends, there’s at least some depth at the position in Green Bay.

Hill, a starter for the Seahawks who signed a $6 million-plus one-year contract earlier this offseason, now faces a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy following a misdemeanor drug possession guilty plea. Hill’s absence could spell doom for him under a new coaching regime in Seattle under Pete Carroll, especially with David Hawthorne and Aaron Curry showing promise last year. Hill has been a good but not great player for the Seahawks, and with him facing further potential discipline stemming from a pending domestic-violence case, his future in Seattle is starting to look as cloudy as the Seattle sky usually does.

Ferguson, who was facing an eight-game suspension for his second violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, decided to retire after 13 years as a nose tackle. He was a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who became a Bill Parcells guy with the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Never a great pass rusher, Ferguson held his own at the point of attack and was the kind of pivot man who was easy to build a 3-4 defense around. That’s a good NFL legacy, even if it doesn’t come with gaudy numbers on the stat sheet.

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FR: 2010 suspensions

In this post, we compare the significance of the NFL suspensions that will play out as the regular season begins. The 10 level denotes the most significant league-issued suspensions, while the 1 level marks the least damaging. We’ll continue to update this post as more suspensions (perhaps including Minnesota’s Williams Wall) are announced.

10 – QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (4-6 games for violating league’s personal conduct policy) – One of the biggest stories of the offseason was Roethlisberger’s fall from grace following a second accusation of sexual impropriety. While Roethlisberger dodged prosecution in the Georgia case this year, just as he did in Nevada last year, his image was tarnished to the point that commissioner Roger Goodell levied a six-game suspension on the two-time Super Bowl winning QB. Roethlisberger becomes the best known and most important player to be benched by Goodell for tarnishing the NFL’s shield, and his absence (whether it stays at six games or is shortened to four) will severely inhibit the Steelers’ chances for a good start. In Big Ben’s absence, the Steelers will turn to second-year player Dennis Dixon or veterans Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich. None are good options for a multiple-game scenario.

9 – OLB Brian Cushing, Texans (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Cushing, the defending defensive rookie of the year, was flagged for four games for a performance-enhancing substance. He denies using steroids, as so many who are flagged for this offense do, and the fact that rumors about Cushing date back to high school make his denials seems hollow. But while this seems like a big deal, it won’t cling to his career over the long term. After all, who remembers that Julius Peppers got a similar suspension in a similarly fine rookie season? How many of us count Shawne Merriman among this offense’s alumni? It’s a shame that Cushing tested positive, because it does taint his fine rookie season. But our hunch is that five years from now, play and not positive tests will be what we think of when we consider Cushing. For the Texans, meanwhile, losing perhaps their most impactful defensive player is a blow. Houston finally broke the .500 barrier for the first time last season, and the offseason was designed to take the next step and make the playoffs. But without Cushing, impact defensive plays will have to come from DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams. Cushing’s versatility will be missed, and four games – including Houston’s home shot against the Colts – are more than enough to impede a playoff run before it even begins.

9 (con’t) – WR Vincent Jackson, Chargers (3 games for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Jackson, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, has emerged as a No. 1 receiver for the Bolts over the past couple of years. The former second-round pick out of Northern Colorado has become Philip Rivers’ No. 1 option, and he had a career-high 68 catches for 1,167 yards in 2009. But even as his role has increased, Jackson has kept his big-play potential, and his whopping 17.2 yards per catch average in 2009 actually matched his career number. But Jackson has also had two DUI convictions, and his guilty plea in February in the second case is what opened the door to league discipline. He’ll miss three games, which is a big blow to the Chargers, who don’t have another receiver nearly as accomplished as VJax. But it may not be as big of a deal to Jackson, a restricted free agent who has refused to sign his tender and has threatened to hold out through the 10th game of the season. Now a holdout may actually seem more palatable, since he’ll already miss three game checks whether he signs or not. This wasn’t the NFL’s intent, but since he can serve his suspension while holding out, the league might have actually motivated Jackson to stay out of Charger land a little longer.

8 – DE Johnny Jolly, Packers (at least a full season for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Jolly, who started as a defensive end and thrived as the Packers moved to a 3-4 defense last year, was suspended for at least the 2010 season by the league for violating the substance-abuse policy. Jolly is also engaged in a codeine-possession case in Texas. Jolly, a four-year veteran, emerged as a starter after being a sixth-round pick, and his size and sturdiness against the run made him a great fit for the Packers’ new scheme. But now, facing a suspension that indicates at least two positive tests, he’ll have to convince league officials to let him return to the NFL when he is first eligible to apply for reinstatement after the season. Reinstatement is not a guarantee, and that means Jolly is facing a steep uphill climb to make it back into the league. It’s a blow for the Packers to lose a starter in this manner, but with second-year man B.J. Raji and rookie Mike Neal added in the last two drafts to join Cullen Jenkins as 3-4 ends, there’s at least some depth at the position in Green Bay.

7 – WR Santonio Holmes, Jets (4 games for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Holmes was flagged by the league for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, and that no doubt had something to do with his trade from Pittsburgh to the Jets. On the field, Holmes is emerging into a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but the problems he’s had off the field could curb his potential. Now Holmes will have to prove his worth to the Jets in just 12 games and earn a new contract as he enters the last year of his deal four games late.

6 – none

5 – RB LenDale White, Broncos  (4 games for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – White had two good years out of four in Tennessee, but the Titans tired of his weight problems and attitude issues and dealt him to Seattle during the draft to move up a few spots in the fourth and sixth rounds. That light price in itself was a sign, but it appeared that White would be able to live up to his potential with his former college coach Pete Carroll. But when White was flagged for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, which will shelve him for the first four games of the season, the Seahawks decided White wasn’t worth the hassle and released him. White has talent, but if Carroll, under whom White thrived at USC, doesn’t see White as worth a roster spot, then it’s possible that no one else will either. White now faces a huge crossroads, and if he doesn’t dedicate himself to performing on the field, he may not make the team in Denver, where he signed late in training camp.

4 – NT Jason Ferugson, Dolphins (8 games for a second violation of league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – The Dolphins re-signed Ferguson for 2010 even though he’ll miss the first half of the season for his second violation of the performance-enhancing substance policy. (The first happened in 1999.) Ferguson, who’s also seeking to recover from a November knee injury, decided in July that he would retire rather than face rehab plus a suspension.

4 (con’t) – OLB Gerald McRath, Titans (4 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – McRath emerged as a starter by the end of his rookie season, and the fourth-round draft pick had at least six tackles in each of the last three games. He had a shot to beat out David Thornton to become the starting strong-side ‘backer, but this suspension likely means the Titans will hold onto Thornton for one more year. This suspension is a blow for a Titans defense that is looking to get younger and more athletic.

4 (con’t) – OLB Leroy Hill, Seahawks (1 game for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Hill, a starter for the Seahawks who signed a $6 million-plus one-year contract earlier this offseason, now faces a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy following a misdemeanor drug possession guilty plea. Hill’s absence could spell doom for him under a new coaching regime in Seattle under Pete Carroll, especially with David Hawthorne and Aaron Curry showing promise last year. Hill has been a good but not great player for the Seahawks, and with him facing further potential discipline stemming from a pending domestic-violence case, his future in Seattle is starting to look as cloudy as the Seattle sky usually does.

4 (con’t) – DT Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons (1 game for violating league’s substance-abuse policy) – Babineaux drew a one-game suspension from the league following a marijuana possession arrest. Losing him for one game hurts, because he’s started every game for the last two years and been a penetrating presence. He had six sacks last year, which is a lot for a defensive tackle. Babineaux will return in Week Two, but his absence will hurt Atlanta quite a bit in its opener at Pittsburgh.

4 (con’t) – CB Aqib Talib, Buccaneers (1 game for violating league’s personal-conduct policy) – Talib, who started 15 games in his sophomore season last year, will sit one game as punishment for an incidient in which he punched a cab driver. The former first-round pick has promise, but off-field questions continue to circle and tarnish his potential.

3 – OL Quinn Ojinnaka, Patriots (1 game for violating league’s personal conduct policy) – Ojinnaka drew a one-game suspension after a 2009 arrest for simple battery against his wife that apparently was resolved. Ojinnaka started five games last year, and New England traded for him during the preseason to help with depth at its injury-plagued guard position.

3 (con’t) – DT Hollis Thomas (8 games for a second violation of league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Thomas, who played for the Panthers last season, had a previous violation of the performance-enhancing-substance policy in 2006, which is why his current suspension is eight games. It may be academic, because Thomas, a 13-year veteran, hasn’t signed anywhere yet . But he may still be good enough to at least be a part-time run-stopping tackle who could have been a late addition for someone were this suspension not looming.

3 (con’t) – TE Shawn Nelson, Bills (4 games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy) – Nelson had 17 catches as a rookie last season, as he started 12 games for the Bills. Now he will miss the first four games of the season after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. That’s a blow for a Bills offense that needs playmakers wherever it can find them.

2 – FB Luke Lawton, Raiders (2 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Lawton has two games remaining on his suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy last year. He has just five carries in five years but sees regular action in two-back sets. However, Oakland’s signing of Rock Cartwright could fill Lawton’s spot not just for the first two games but more permanently.

2 (con’t) – WR Ed Gant, Cardinals (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Gant, who spent his first pro season on Arizona’s practice squad, got flagged for violating the league’s performance-enhancer policy. The suspension makes Gant’s road to a roster spot almost insurmountable.

2 (con’t) – LB Robert James, Falcons (4 games for violating league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – James, a 2008 fifth-round draft pick who spent the last two seasons on injured reserve, will miss four games for violating the leagues’ performance-enhancer policy. That makes his uphill road to a roster spot even steeper.

2 (con’t) – CB Cary Williams, Ravens (2 games for violating league’s personal-conduct policy) – The Ravens claimed Williams off waivers late last season, and he has a chance to make the team as a backup defensive back and special-teamer this season. But a two-game suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy hurts his chances to make the team. The Ravens knew of this issue when they claimed Williams, but it’s uncertain whether they’ll stick with Williams through this suspension.

1 – OT Ryan Tucker (8 games for a second violation of league’s performance-enhancing substance policy) – Tucker, most recently a Brown, was flagged eight games for his second performance-enhancing substance positive test, but the veteran opted to retire instead of play a half season at age 35. He hadn’t been on the field since 2008.

1 (con’t) – WR Maurice Purify, Bengals (1 game for violating league’s personal-conduct policy) – Purify, who played five games as a rookie last year, got a one-game suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy. Purify faced an uphill battle to make the Bengals roster even before the suspension.

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FR: 2010 retirements

Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Walter Jones...

Image via Wikipedia

We thought we’d play relativity with the various NFL retirements of the 2010 offseason. We’re comparing them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2010 season.

10 – OT Walter Jones, Seahawks – Jones, who played his entire 12-game career with the Seahawks, didn’t play at all in 2009, which is an unfortunate end for a great career. This mountain of a man was an elite cornerstone left tackle for almost all of his career, making nine Pro Bowls and earning first-team All-Pro honors four times. He had the incredible size that made him a quality run blocker for backs like Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander and the athleticism to protect the quarterback’s blind side as well. That made Jones an all-decade pick for the 2000s along with Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, and Willie Roaf. Jones and Pace were incredibly similar players, while Ogden had a little more height and athleticism. But those three are the Hall of Fame level offensive tackles from the last 10-12 years, and Jones was the best of them. When Jones played next to Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks had by far the best left side of the offensive line in the league, and had Hutchinson stayed in Seattle, that duo would have made a dent in the all-time side-by-side protector pairs. Jones was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft, and he got the franchise tag on multiple occasions, and all that goes to show that Jones truly was a franchise-making player for the Seahawks.

9 – QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals – Warner leaves the NFL at the top of his game. His career has as much distance between the peaks and valleys as just about anyone in the league. He was undrafted and had to go to the Arena Football League to earn a shot in St. Louis because of an injury to Trent Green. He then became a two-time MVP with the Rams, leading the high-octane “Greatest Show on Turf” offense to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi trophy. But a broken hand hampered him and sent him to the bench in St. Louis in 2002 and then for good in 2003, leading to a lull in his career. He went to the Giants as a placeholder for rookie Eli Manning and then went to Arizona, where he had two so-so seasons as a part-time starter before hitting his stride again late in 2007. But he ended his season with two fantastic seasons in ’08 and ’09, leading Arizona to two NFC West titles, four playoff wins, and the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. Warner has the three biggest passing-yardage games in Super Bowl history and leaves with a sterling reputation for clutch play. The question as Warner leaves is not whether he had a great career; that is certain. It’s whether he’s a Hall of Famer. His unlikely and unique career path makes that a huge question that will likely be debated for many years. He’s not a first-ballot guy, but he may well make it to Canton because his best was truly at the elite level. But his storybook career deserves admiration, and it was fun and fascinating to watch.

8 – OLB Derrick Brooks, Buccaneers – Brooks didn’t play last year, which is the only reason he isn’t even further up this list. But the current ESPN commentator, who played his entire 14-year career in Tampa Bay, retires as the preeminent Tampa-2 outside linebacker of his time. In an era where most teams played the 4-3, Brooks was the best weak-side linebacker, making 11 Pro Bowls and earning six first-team All-Pro honors. He was the heart and soul of Bucs defenses that were among the league’s best under coordinator Monte Kiffin for years and years. Even better, he was a prince of a guy, spending and raising a ton of money that helped teenagers in the Tampa area get better educated and experience life-changing trips to Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and even Africa. On a defense that also starred Warren Sapp and John Lynch, we believe Brooks was the best of the bunch. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

7 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins – Samuels made six Pro Bowls over his 10-year career with the Redskins, but after suffering a stinger five games into the ’09 season, he decided he wasn’t healthy enough to keep playing. Samuels wasn’t the top left tackle of the 00s decade – he fell behind Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, and even Orlando Pace – but he was on the next level down as a quality Pro Bowler who was reliable season after season. He started all 141 games he played, and before his ’09 injury he had missed just eight games over nine seasons. He had a great run in Washington and will be missed by the Redskins organization.

7 (con’t) – MLB Zach Thomas, Dolphins – Thomas, who signed a one-day contract with Miami so he could retire as a Dolphin, was an undersized middle linebacker who fell to the fifth round of the 1996 draft because teams were skeptical if he was big enough to make an impact in the NFL. But this smallish linebacker made a huge impact during his 12-year career with the Dolphins, which included five All-Pro nods and seven Pro Bowl berths. Thomas was a tackling machine who made the all-decade team for the 2000s and ended up being the perfect middle ‘backer for the Tampa 2, 4-3 defense that was so prevalent through the decade. Thomas was cut when the Dolphins moved to a 3-4 under Bill Parcells, and he started one season in Dallas before being cut there. Thomas is a borderline Hall of Fame player who made the most of his chance and his ability – and who should be thankful that he landed in the perfect situation for a player with his skills.

7 (con’t) – WR Isaac Bruce, Rams Bruce was traded to the Rams so that he could retire with the team for which he holds records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. As part of the Greatest Show on Turf, Bruce was an elite receiver who produced time after time after time, including the go-ahead touchdown in St. Louis’ Super Bowl 34 victory. He made four Pro Bowls in his 16-year career and totaled 1,024 catches for more than 15,000 yards. Bruce falls just below the cut of Hall of Famers, but he was an elite receiver in his prime and continued to produce for a long and storied career that Rams fans will always celebrate and remember.

7 (con’t) – C Kevin Mawae, Titans – Mawae had three acts to his career – four solid years in Seattle, then eight elite years with the Jets, and then four more solid years in Tennessee. He made eight Pro Bowls, including six straight as a Jet and both of the last two years for the Titans. He was a physical center who provided good line leadership yet held his own. Plus, he was dependable, missing just 13 games over the last 15 years. He also served as the president of the NFL Players Association, so he’ll maintain a high profile over the coming year in that role. Mawae didn’t quite play at a high enough level to be a Hall of Fame center, but he was one of the best offensive linemen of the past decade, and that’s an accomplishment worth commemorating.

6 – DE Patrick Kerney, Seahawks – Kerney never got the publicity of the great defensive ends of his day, but he had a very solid career with Atlanta and Seattle. He made two Pro Bowls, one with the Falcons and one with the Seahawks, and had double-digit sacks in four of his 11 seasons. Kerney finished with 82.5 career sacks, and he was also sturdy enough against the run to be a solid two-way player. Kerney still had something left, but he leaves while still a solid contributor. He’s a loss for the Seahawks.

6 (con’t) – OT Jon Runyan, Chargers – Runyan played most of his career for the Titans and Eagles before making a cameo with San Diego last year. He only made one Pro Bowl, in part because he was a mauling right tackle instead of a left-side pass blocker, but he was an asset to many very good lines. He played in two Super Bowls and one Pro Bowl, and when he moved to the Eagles in 2000 he became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league at the time. He earned his money, starting 190 straight regular-season games along with all 18 postseason games he played during that span. Microfracture surgery after the 2009 season basically signaled the end of Runyan’s productivity, and now he’s trying to make an impact in the political arena as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the third district of New Jersey. No matter where his political career goes, Runyan leaves the NFL as a terrific long-time starter who made his mark during his 14-year career.

6 (con’t) – OT Tra Thomas, Chargers – Ironically, Runyan’s fellow tackle with the Eagles for most of the decade of the 2000s also retired as a Charger. Thomas, who played in Philly for 11 years starting most of those years at left tackle and making three Pro Bowls in the process, was a stalwart of those teams as a big yet still fairly nimble left tackle who protected Donovan McNabb’s blind side. After 11 years as an Eagle, Thomas was a part-time starter in Jacksonville last year, and San Diego brought him in as a fill-in for holdout Marcus McNeil this season. But Thomas decided he had hit the wall, and he hung up his cleats during training camp, ending a fine NFL career.

6 (con’t) – CB Samari Rolle, Ravens – Rolle only made one Pro Bowl, but he was a long-time asset at corner for the Titans and the Ravens. During his best years, he was a No. 1 caliber corner who was both physical and fast. He was a big reason the Titans made the Super Bowl, and he also played on some of the great Ravens defenses of the last decade. He won’t make the Hall of Fame, but Rolle leaves knowing he made the most of a fine NFL career.

5 – RB Deuce McAllister, Saints – McAllister is the quintessential Bayou boy after playing collegiately at Ole Miss and putting in his entire nine-year career with the Saints. When he entered the league, he played behind Ricky Williams, but after Williams left New Orleans Deuce ran loose for 1,000 yard seasons in four of the next five years. With the arrival of Reggie Bush, McAllister’s role began to diminish, and he was cut by the team before the ’09 season. But once the Saints made the playoffs, the team signed McAllister for a game, let him serve as a captain in the playoffs vs. Arizona, and then let him retire with the team. That means McAllister leaves as part of a Super Bowl winning team. That’s a fitting legacy for one of New Orleans’ favorite sons who had 6,000 rushing yards and made two Pro Bowls for the team. He was well worth the first-round pick the Saints spent on him.

5 (con’t) – WR Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers – Muhammad entered the NFL back in 1996 for Carolina, and he played all but three of his 14 NFL seasons with the team. In his first tenure with the team, he emerged as a No. 1 receiver, and in 2000 he tied for the league lead in catches with 102. In a classic diva receiva moment, Muhammad used a 15-catch game in Week 17 to tie for the league lead, but it came in a 52-9 loss to the Raiders. After the game, Muhammad said of his accomplishment, “I guess you could say, in all the rubble today, a flower grew.” If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve with early newspaper deadlines, Muhammad would have been pilloried in the press the next day. But that moment doesn’t define Muhammad’s legacy. Instead, his willingness to block and to mentor Steve Smith in Carolina makes a lasting impression, to go with 860 catches for more than 11,000 yards. Muhammad was also a key player on Super Bowl teams for both Carolina and Chicago, and he still holds the record for the longest reception in a Super Bowl with an 85-yarder. Muhammad made two Pro Bowls, and although he won’t make the Hall of Fame, he’ll go down in history as one of the first great Panthers. That’s not a bad legacy to leave.

5 (con’t) – WR Joe Horn, Saints – When I think of Horn, I don’t think of his infamous cell-phone touchdown celebration. I don’t even think of him as a Saint, which is what he was for his four Pro Bowl berths. (That’s why it was fitting that Horn re-signed with New Orleans for a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Saint.) Instead, I think back to my days at Pro Football Weekly and editing rosters. Part of our job for the PFW Preview magazine each year (which is still one of the best) was to edit the rosters down to fit. Some players would get their own lines; others would be relegated to a paragraph at the end. Horn started his career in the paragraph after coming to the Chiefs out of the CFL – he played for Shreveport and Memphis during the CFL’s ill-fated U.S. expansion era. And when Horn moved up to his own line on the roster, his alma mater – Itawamba J.C. – stuck out like a sore thumb. Considering that beginning, Horn’s rise to prominence in New Orleans is nothing short of shocking. Horn fought for his NFL chance and made the most of it once he grasped it, surpassing 600 career catches and 8,700 receiving yards and scoring 58 touchdowns. Horn earned a well-deserved spot in the Saints Hall of Fame, and as he retires we should celebrate his determination to establish himself as an NFL star.

5 (con’t) – CB Aaron Glenn, Texans – Glenn, who made three Pro Bowls in his 15-year career, made his retirement official with a ceremonial Texans contract in July. He had not played since 2008. Glenn, a former first-round pick, had eight good years with the Jets and then moved on the Texans, making the final of his three Pro Bowls there. He also played for the Cowboys, Jaguars, and Saints. Glenn was a good cover corner who held up against the pass despite being just 5-foot-9, and it’s fitting that he gets a head-nod as he retires. And getting it in Texas, where he played both professionally and in his college career in Texas A&M, is fitting.

4- OLB Bertrand Berry, Cardinals – Warner wasn’t the only Cardinal to announce his retirement after the team’s playoff loss to the Saints. The last couple of years, Berry has been a featured pass rusher for the Cards, but throughout the years he has been a starter for the Cards and Broncos after starting his 12-year career with the Colts. Berry finished his career with 65 sacks, including two double-digit seasons in 2003-04 with Denver and Arizona. That’s a pretty good career for a guy who was cut after three seasons with the Colts and forced to go to Canada looking for a gig. Playing nine more productive years in the league after that kind of setback speaks to Berry’s work ethic and perseverance, and he leaves as a guy who continued to produce until the end of his career.

4 (con’t) – PK Jason Elam, Broncos – Elam played most recently for the Falcons, but he signed a one-day contract with Denver before he retired so he could retire with the team for which he played 15 of his 17 seasons. Elam made three Pro Bowls and was on two Super Bowl-winning teams, and he also tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in 1998. Denver made Elam a third-round pick back in 1993, which is a high price for a kicker, but Elam proved to be worth that and far more during his long and fine career.

4 (con’t) – NT Jason Ferguson, Dolphins – Ferguson, who was facing an eight-game suspension for his second violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, decided to retire after 13 years as a nose tackle. He was a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who became a Bill Parcells guy with the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Never a great pass rusher, Ferguson held his own at the point of attack and was the kind of pivot man who was easy to build a 3-4 defense around. That’s a good NFL legacy, even if it doesn’t come with gaudy numbers on the stat sheet.

4 (con’t) – WR Ike Hilliard, Giants – Hilliard, who last played in 2008, spent 11 seasons in the NFL, the first seven with the Giants after the team picked him in the first round of the 1997 draft. Hilliard then had a nice second act to his career with Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Hilliard was never a No. 1 receiver, but he was productive in tandem with Amani Toomer for many years, and he ends his career with 546 catches for nearly 6,400 yards with 35 touchdowns. That’s a nice return of investment for the first-rounder the Giants spent on him.

4 (con’t) – DE Aaron Schobel, Bills – Schobel, who played his entire nine-year career in Buffalo, played every game in all but one of his seasons and provided a sturdy presence against the run and some pass-rush as well. He had his fourth double-digit sack season in 2009 with 10 and finished his career with 78.5, averaging about nine sacks a year. He also made two Pro Bowls. He was still good enough to play, although he didn’t want to continue in Buffalo’s new 3-4 system, but Schobel decided to retire instead of chase the dream elsewhere.

4 (con’t) – DE Leonard Little, Rams – Little spent his entire 12-year career with the Rams, piling up 87.5 sacks. While he is primarily known for a drunk-driving incident in his second season that killed a woman, Little remained a Ram throughout his career. He was on the Rams’ Super Bowl winner in 1999 and made a Pro Bowl in 2003, which was one of his double-digit sack seasons. he didn’t play in 2010 and let the Rams know in December that he was hanging up his cleats after a solid career.

3 – OT Brad Butler, Bills – Butler missed all but two games of the ’09 season with an ACL injury, but he had started the previous two years at right tackle. Now, at age 26, he’s decided to leave the NFL via retirement so he can pursue his passion for public service. It’s unusual to see a starting-caliber player leave NFL money behind so early, but you have to admire Butler’s desire to do something to help communities and individuals with his life. His former teammate, SI’s Ross Tucker, said that the retirement wasn’t really a shock for those who knew Butler. And for the Bills, this is a blow, because Butler was one of the few veterans slated to return to the offensive line for 2010.

3 (con’t) – P Jeff Feagles, Giants – Feagles played every game for 22 seasons as a punter for the Patriots, Eagles, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Giants, and to the end he remained a terrific directional punter if not a power leg. Feagles had enough leg to keep punting, but 22 years is enough, especially after finally claiming a Super Bowl with a Giants a few years ago. Feagles wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he made two Pro Bowls (including one in his 21st season) and had a fine career.

3 (con’t) – WR Eddie Kennison, Chiefs – Kennison, who didn’t play last season, signed a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Chief. The 13-year vet had more than 8,300 receiving yards in his career, and his two thousand-yard seasons came with the Chiefs in ’04 and ’05. For a guy who said he wanted to retire back in 2001 in Denver, Kennison’s five years with the Chiefs were a nice renaissance. The former first-round pick by the Rams lived up to that draft billing and had a good career, and it’s nice to see he gets a pat on the back as he hangs up the cleats.

3 (con’t) – WR David Patten, Patriots – Patten started his pro career in the Arena League, but he fought his way onto the Giants and into a 12-year career. His best days came with the Patriots’ three Super Bowl winners. He even became an NFL oddity by throwing a touchdown, receiving a touchdown, and running for a score in the same game back in 2001. Patten finishes his career with 324 catches for 4,715 yards and 24 catches, and Bill Belichick’s respect, which says even more about the way Patten prepared and played.

3 (con’t) – LB Mark Simoneau, Chiefs – Simoneau, who played nine years with the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints, was trying to come back after missing the 2009 season with injury, but after just one game in 2010 his body proved it couldn’t handle the game anymore. Simoneau started four seasons with the Saints and Eagles, and he won a Super Bowl ring on injured reserve for the Saints last season.

2 – P Craig Hentrich, Titans – Hentrich hung up his cleats after an injury-plagued 2009 season that capped off his 17-year career. But on the whole, it was a good run for Hentrich, who punted for the Packers and then Tennessee in his career. He won a Super Bowl with Green Bay and then went to Tennessee as a free agent. He made two Pro Bowls as a Titan and won Pro Football Weekly’s Golden Toe award in 1999 (I actually wrote the story on that award). Tennessee found a solid replacement for Hentrich during the season in Brett Kern, and that makes this a good time for a good guy to end a really good career.

2 (con’t) – OT Ryan Tucker, Browns – Tucker had a solid career with the Rams, where he started on the 2001 Super Bowl losing team, and then the Browns, but he played just one game in 2008 and missed the ’09 season with injury. If that wasn’t enough to show him the end of the road had come, the 8-game suspension he would have to serve for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy a second time most likely did. It’s an inglorious way to end a 12-year career.

2 (con’t) – WR-ST Sean Morey, Seahawks – Morey, who signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, made his living as a special-teams dynamo. He made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and was on a Super Bowl champ in Pittsburgh and a runner-up in Arizona. The Ivy Leaguer had just 11 career catches, yet he played seven full seasons after playing just two games between 1999 and 2002 at the start of his career. That’s a big statement on his value. Morey retired because of repeated concussions, and any player who has struggled with concussions needs to read what Morey told Peter King.

2 (con’t) – WR David Tyree, Giants – Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl 42 is one of the iconic catches in NFL history, and it was also the last grab of Tyree’s career. Better known as a Pro Bowl-level special teams player, Tyree played five seasons for the Giants before an injury shelved him in 2008. He returned to play 10 games on special teams for the Ravens last year, but Tyree wasn’t signed in the offseason and so he signed with the Giants to retire with the team. He’ll be a Giants legend for one play, and that’s not a bad legacy to leave with.

2 (con’t) – RB Glen Coffee, 49ers – Coffee, a third-round pick in 2009’s draft, had a nice career at Alabama and appeared to be a nice backup option to Frank Gore last season. That’s an important role, because Gore has missed a handful of games in his career. Glen got a cup of coffee as a starter early last season when Gore missed Weeks 4 and 5, but he ran for just 128 yards on 49 carries. On the season, he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, and he faced a challenge from rookie Anthony Dixon and holdover Michael Robinson for the backup RB role this year. But during training camp, Coffee decided that he wanted to move on from football. It’s a blow to the 49ers to have a young contributor hang up his cleats, and it raises questions about whether something in San Francisco drove the 22-year-old away.

1 – TE Casey Fitzsimmons, Lions – Fitzsimmons played seven seasons for the Lions, and although he rarely started, he had developed into a second tight end who could make some plays in the passing game and hold his own as a blocker. But concussions led the team to recommend that Fitzsimmons retire, and so he chose to end his career before his play dictated doing so.

1 (con’t) – OLB Jeremy Thompson, Packers – Thompson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, suffered a neck injury in a December practice that will force him to retire. The Wake Forest product played in 15 games, starting three, in his two years with the Pack and had just nine tackles from scrimmage.

1 (con’t) – LB John DiGiorgio, Bills  – DiGiorgio played three seasons in Buffalo, including one as a starter, but he suffered a severe knee injury in Week 7 in 2008 and hasn’t been able to recover. He’s retiring as a result.

1 (con’t) – LS Mike Schneck, Falcons – Schneck made one Pro Bowl in his 11-year career with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Atlanta, which makes him at least worth noting.

1 (con’t) – OT Matt McChesney, Broncos – McChesney started his career in 2005 as a defensive lineman, then moved to the offensive line to try to continue his career. But of all things, a golf-course injury ended his career when his surgically repaired ankle was run over by a golf cart. He played a total of four NFL games for the Jets and Dolphins and was expected to contend for a roster spot in Denver this year.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2010 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Tim Tebow and the value of intangibles, the Jimmy Clausen conundrum, how killer C.J. Spiller is, whether it was worth it for the teams that traded out of the first round this year, the guys we like (Jermaine Gresham on offense and Sergio Kindle and Eric Norwood on defense), and our research on what offensive positions and defensive positions are most likely to produce a superstar at the top of the draft.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Rams – QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
The Rams have passed on quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan the past two years, and so it’s no surprise that St. Louis has one of the most desperate quarterback situations in the league. With Marc Bulger now gone, St. Louis needs a quarterback to build around. Plus, with new ownership coming in this offseason, having a franchise quarterback that will sell tickets and, more importantly, hope is a good business strategy. So for all the off-the-field reasons, Bradford makes sense. But does he make sense on the field? We say yes. Bradford is tall (6-foot-4), and he’s put on enough wait in the offseason to make you believe he can stand up to a pounding. He can really throw the ball well despite his ’09 injuries, and he can pair in St. Louis with OLT Jason Smith (last season’s No. 2 overall pick) to begin to build a core on offense. And while the rest of the offensive line and the receiving corps is still painfully thin, Bradford can lean on Steven Jackson in 2010 to keep from being completely shell-shocked. The Rams have to take a quarterback soon to begin the building process, and Bradford checks all the boxes for a franchise-type guy. Taking a quarterback in the top 3 is always a risk, but Bradford is a risk the Rams simply must take.

2. Lions – DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Suh is quite possibly the best player in this year’s draft, and the Lions can afford to take him because they already have taken their shot at a quarterback by picking Matthew Stafford last year. With Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions have the makings of promise on offense, and now it’s time to start building on defense. Last year’s draft yielded two above-average defensive starters in OLB DeAndre Levy and S Louis Delmas, and Suh will become a playmaker on the interior of the defensive line. Suh can stuff the run, but even more he can penetrate into the backfield and create havoc as well. That combination is rare, and it’s what makes Suh such a great prospect for the Lions. He’ll roar in Detroit.

3. Buccaneers – DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
McCoy is above Suh on some draft boards, and the Oklahoma product has a more flash-forward style than Suh. That makes many scouts imagine McCoy as a new-era Warren Sapp, a three-technique defensive tackle that puts the teeth in the Tampa-2. Not nearly as many teams run that 4-3 zone-coverage scheme anymore, but the Buccaneers still do, and McCoy can make that scheme work. That, plus the fact that the Bucs drafted QB Josh Freeman in the first round last year, and plus the fact that the Bucs’ offensive line is at least average with a young player in Donald Penn at left tackle, makes whoever’s left between Suh and McCoy the logical and smart choice for Tampa Bay. McCoy could make an instant impact for the Bucs, and this franchise needs impact at any position in the worst way.

4. Redskins – OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma
After trading for Donovan McNabb, it’s obvious that the Redskins’ biggest need is now at left tackle. Chris Samuels is gone, and if Washington doesn’t get some help there, McNabb won’t make it through the season. So the question isn’t position but player for the Redskins. Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung is solid, but his upside is perhaps capped a bit. Other linemen like Williams and Anthony Davis of Rutgers are more talented and promising but far less consistent. Ultimately, the choice will come down to Okung and Williams, and we’ll break from the pack and pencil in Williams at this spot. Shanahan’s best offenses in Denver were stout at left tackle with Gary Zimmerman and Ryan Clady, and we should see the new Redskins boss take the same approach in Washington now. And since he trusts his coaching staff to get the most out of linemen, he’ll peg the third Oklahoma Sooner in the top four of this year’s draft.

5. Chiefs – S Eric Berry, Tennessee
Last year, the Chiefs reached to take a top-15 prospect in DE Tyson Jackson at No. 3 overall, and that leads some prognosticators to suppose that they’ll reach again to take Bryan Bulaga of Iowa at No. 5 this year. But since the Chiefs have a young left tackle in Branden Albert, we’re going to project that they’ll look for help at another position. That approach would lead the Chiefs to grab the best available player, and that’s Berry. Berry didn’t pop off the screen in Monte Kiffin’s cover-2 defense last year, but he was a standout the year before in a more traditional scheme. In Berry, Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel would get a Rodney Harrison-type of impact player in the defensive backfield. K.C. needs playmakers on defense, and Berry can be that splashy player who makes workmanlike guys like Jackson more effective.

6. Seahawks – OT Russell Okung, Oklahoma State
Like the Redskins, the Seahawks lost their long-time left tackle to retirement this offseason when Walter Jones came to the end of the road. So Seattle needs to fill that hole in this draft when it has two first-round picks. Perhaps the Seahawks chance it and wait till No. 14 to see if Davis or Bruce Campbell or even Bulaga is around, but the wisest course of action is to take the sure thing in Okung here and then find a playmaker like C.J. Spiller or Derrick Morgan at 14. Okung can be an anchor for Pete Carroll’s offense, and those guys simply don’t grow on trees. Seahawks fans should hope that Carroll, who’s calling the shots after being out of the NFL for more than a decade, realizes that and fills his massive OLT need ASAP.

7. Browns – RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
This is where the draft could get crazy quick. Berry is the guy who makes the most sense for the Browns, but if he goes off the board, then Cleveland will face some choices. Bryan Bulaga, the last of the three elite offensive tackles, doesn’t make sense, because Cleveland already has Joe Thomas. The Browns could look at a defensive playmaker, but neither Derrick Morgan nor Jason Pierre-Paul really fits the 3-4 system they run, and it’s too early for guys like Rolando McClain or Dan Williams who do fit. So we’ll give the Browns the best playmaker on the board in Spiller, who would add an element of explosiveness to Cleveland’s offense that isn’t there at this point. That explosiveness is the Browns’ biggest need, and Spiller’s the option most likely to provide it. Spiller is a safer bet than wideouts Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, but like those players he can bring a jolt into the passing game. Plus, Spiller would be a huge upgrade at running back over Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, and his former college teammate James Davis, and he will help journeymen quarterbacks Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace have a far better chance of success in 2010. The Browns may pick a quarterback, but they seem more likely to do at the top of the second round than at this spot. Holmgren has made this kind of pick before, taking Shaun Alexander in the first round in 2000 with Seattle, and so we’ll make the unconvential call that leaves Spiller wearing an orange helmet in the pros just as he did in college.

8. Raiders – DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
Everyone seems to think the Raiders are going to do something crazy at this pick, and that’s certainly possible after last year’s Darrius Heyward-Bey fiasco. But last year, we heard of the Raiders’ love for HeyBey well before the draft, and there’s not similar buzz this year. So we’ll give Oakland a more conventional guy in Morgan, who’s the most complete 4-3 defensive end in this draft class. Morgan isn’t superfast, but he can get into the backfield and also hold up against the run. In a lot of ways, he’s like Richard Seymour, whom the Raiders traded their 2011 first-rounder for and then used the franchise tag on. The Raiders have a need at offensive tackle, but Bryan Bulaga isn’t their cup of tea, and it doesn’t seem that Al Davis has fallen for inconsistent specimens Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis. And while the Raiders could use a quarterback, the Raiders’ maven has refused to give up the ghost with JaMarcus Russell yet. That leads us to defense, where Morgan is a great fit.

9. Bills – QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
We’ve already discussed how we’re not huge Clausen fans, but he’s clearly a notch above other quarterback prospects like Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow. And given that quarterback is the Bills’ glaring need, it will be hard for them to pass up on Clausen here. Buffalo could still use a tackle like Bryan Bulaga or a pass rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. But most of the time, when a team has a desperate quarterback need, and there’s a quarterback available in the first round, the team can’t stomach the idea of passing on the chance to get him. So Clausen is the pick.

10. Jaguars – CB Joe Haden, Florida
The Jaguars would probably prefer to trade out of this spot, in part because they want to replace their traded first-round pick and in part because they have a hard time cutting the check for a top-10 selection. But in this spot, they have a chance to address their pressing need for secondary help. While Earl Thomas fits a more glaring position need at safety, Haden’s the better prospect by a fair amount. Haden could team with Rashean Mathis to stabilize Jacksonville’s secondary and set the rest of the defense up for success. Haden’s stock dropped a bit after a slow 40 time at the combine, but he’s a really good player who will play up to this lofty draft position. He’d be a win for the Jags at this point.

11. Broncos (from Bears) – WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
The Broncos under Josh McDaniels have become a tricky team to predict, because McDaniels is so confident in his abilities as an evaluator and coach that he’ll do the unconventional. He traded Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and last year in the draft he took Knowshon Moreno in the first round even though he had added several running backs in free agency. With Marshall gone, the Broncos need a No. 1 receiver, and while Dez Bryant is the consensus No. 1 wideout Thomas might be the Broncos’ choice. Bryant is a more complete player than Thomas, and he was more accomplished at the collegiate level. Plus, Thomas suffered an offseason injury that limited his workout time. But Thomas is a physical freak with amazing speed, and while he’s raw he can develop into the kind of breakout receiver that Marshall was for Denver. We think the wiser pick would be for the Broncos to upgrade their 3-4 defense as they continue to build personnel for that defense, but while Dan Williams or Rolando McClain would fit, we believe McDaniels will get his way and get another exciting tool for his offense. So we’ll reach a bit with the Broncos and project Thomas here.

12. Dolphins – NT Dan Williams, Tennessee
After acquiring Marshall, the Dolphins can now go big by upgrading their defensive line. And that leads them to Williams, who is sturdy enough to play on the nose in the 3-4. That’s a rare trait, and we saw with B.J. Raji last year that nose tackles are premium players who shoot up the board in the draft. Williams could replace Jason Ferguson, an aging player who will miss the first eight games of the season under league suspension, and help to stabilize a Dolphins’ defense that slipped a bit last year after solid play in 2008. Bill Parcells loves big players, and they don’t come bigger than Williams in this year’s draft class.

13. 49ers – DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida
Pierre-Paul is a boom-or-bust type of prospect, but the upside is so huge that a team in the teens like the 49ers will feel compelled to pull the trigger and take him. Pierre-Paul has the size to play defensive end in the 4-3 and the speed to play from a two-point stance in the 3-4, and that versatility could allow him to become a Terrell Suggs type of player in the best-case scenario. The 49ers have a sturdy defense, but they lack the pass-rush pop that JPP could provide. With Mike Singletary at the helm, the 49ers also may figure they have the coaching to make the most of talented players, with Vernon Davis’ emergence last year as proof positive. This would be a risk, but with two first-round picks, the 49ers should take a shot this year to add a premium talent with at least one of them. And that points to JPP with one of their first two picks.

14. Seahawks (from Broncos) – WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
The Seahawks are bereft of playmakers, and so with one of their two picks they have to get some explosiveness. That could mean a pass rusher, but in this scenario the value is with Bryant, an elite talent who will need a little TLC to develop. Pete Carroll can provide that kind of atmosphere, and if he does Bryant could really thrive. He could become a No. 1 receiver who can make big plays down the field while also providing a dependable option on third downs. And while there are concerns about Bryant’s background and upbrining, he’s not a bad guy. Instead, like Michael Oher last year, he came from such a bad situation that his maturity process will naturally be slower. But a former college coach like Carroll can really help Bryant, and the payoff would be huge. This is probably about the best situation for Bryant off the field, and he would really fill a need for the Hawks on the field.

15. Giants – MLB Rolando McClain, Alabama
The Giants have gotten old quickly both on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. So there are a lot of ways that Big Blue can go at this spot. A lineman like Bryan Bulaga, Mike Iupati, or Maurkice Pouncey would make a ton of sense, but we’ll project them to look at the other side of the ball and add a defensive leader instead. McClain is not an elite athlete, but he’s an incredibly heady player who leans into a leadership role. He would immediately step into the MLB spot vacated in New York when Antonio Pierce was released in the offseason. This would be a need pick, but the Giants have a lot of needs if they want to keep their window of opportunity open in the next couple of years. McClain can contribute right away and help them do just that.

16. Titans – DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
After losing Kyle Vanden Bosch and bidding adieu to Jevon Kearse in the offseason, the Titans have a pressing need for a pass rusher. Thankfully for them, they also have one of the best defensive line coaches in Jim Washburn, who has helped guys like Kearse and Albert Haynesworth – both picked around this spot in the first round – emerge into prime-time players. Our hunch is that the Titans give Washburn another swing this year, and given the way the draft has gone Graham is the best prospect available to them. Graham is a DE-OLB tweener who might fit a 3-4 defense more quickly, but his pass rush skills are valuable in any system. If the Titans take Graham (or any other defensive lineman), the player should consider himself lucky to be able to work under such good coaching. We trust the Titans to make the most of this pick.

17. 49ers (from Panthers) – OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
After taking a pass rusher with their first pick, we have the 49ers flipping to the offensive line with their second pick. Bulaga, who some are pointing to as a potential top-5 pick, would be great value here. Bulaga isn’t a premier left tackle, but he can play there in a pinch, and he could settle in at right tackle and thrive. Bulaga plus Joe Staley would give the 49ers bookend tackles that will stabilize their line and help the offense grow. Another offensive lineman like Maurkice Pouncey or Mike Iupati would make sense too, but our hunch is that the Niners won’t pass on Bulaga twice.

18. Steelers – OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
The Steelers have a pressing offensive line need, especially on the inside, so taking Iupati would be a nice fix. Iupati is probably going to project more as a mauling guard than a nimble-footed tackle at the NFL level, but he has enough chance of playing outside that he’ll find himself a first-round pick. Some have compared Iupati to Steve Hutchinson, which is incredibly high praise, but if Iupati can be 75 percent of what Hutchinson is, he’ll be a great mid-first-round pick.

19. Falcons – S Earl Thomas, Texas
Thomas is a terrific safety, but the fact that he’s undersized could put a cap on his draft stock. Still, Thomas is likely to step in and be an immediate starter and asset at safety, even for a quality team like Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to upgrade their defense, and Thomas or his Texas teammate Sergio Kindle would do just that. A pass rusher would look good too, but it appears unlikely that one of the premium guys will slip this far. So we suggest that the Falcons will draft for value and happily grab Thomas.

20. Texans – RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State
The Texans are on the cusp of breaking into the playoffs, and the one piece they’re missing is a top-flight running back. Mathews is just that. He has size and speed and explosiveness, and scouts drool about all he can bring to a team. Maybe the Texans should be looking at a cornerback to replace Dunta Robinson, but our hunch is that Gary Kubiak and his staff will look for an over-the-top guy like Mathews instead of trying to fill in a gap somewhere.

21. Bengals – TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
The Bengals haven’t had a top-flight tight end in what seems like forever, but given their new run-first bent on offense, it makes sense for them to add a counter-punch option like Gresham. We’ve made our respect for Gresham known, and we think he can be a great mid-field option between Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant. If Gresham can step in and make an impact in the passing game, the Bengals’ good offense could get a little bit better and make Cincy a playoff contender once again.

22. Patriots – OLB Jerry Hughes, TCU
It’s always hard to predict what the Patriots will do, but with a first-rounder and three second-rounders this year, New England needs to add some pass-rush punch. Hughes can do just that. He’s more of a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defense end, but he can get to the quarterback, and Bill Belichick is certainly smart enough to maximize the skills of a player like Hughes who has strengths but is a fit in only certain schemes. New England could easily go in another direction, but a high-character guy like Hughes seems like the kind of guy that Belichick would invest a pick in.

23. Packers – OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
The Packers made a great transition to the 3-4 defense last year, thanks in large part to rookies B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and Brad Jones. Suddenly, the Packers look set on defense, and that means it’s now time to turn their attention to their offensive line. That unit was awful last year until Mark Tauscher returned from retirement and Chad Clifton recovered from injury, but those veteran tackles aren’t going to last forever. So picking a high-upside player like Davis makes sense. Green Bay won’t need Davis immediately, and they can wait and hope that Davis’ work ethic catches up to his talent as he interns under Clifton and Tauscher for a year.

24. Eagles – C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
There are myriad rumors about who the Eagles want and how they want to trade up, but here’s the bottom line – since Andy Reid came to town, the Eagles almost always go big with their first-round pick. And when you survey the offensive and defensive linemen available at this point, Pouncey is the best. Pouncey’s gotten a lot of pub in the weeks leading up to the draft, and some have speculated that he’s going to go in the teens, but it’s hard to see a center/guard who’s good but not great going that high. Instead, this spot seems about right. Our guess is that Philly would be happy to add Pouncey to stabilize the interior of a line that slipped a bit last year.

25. Ravens – DE Jared Odrick, Penn State
The Ravens rarely swing and miss in the draft, even when they draft for need. So even though we think they’ll address their defensive line depth with this pick, they won’t reach. Instead, they’ll stay put and grab Odrick, who’s probably the prototypical 3-4 end available this year. With Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards leaving via free agency, the Ravens need depth there, and Odrick can provide the kind of solid play that allows Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to get aggressive on the pass rush. Odrick would be a great fit in Baltimore.

26. Cardinals – OLB Sergio Kindle, Texas
The Cardinals have lost a ton of front-seven players over the last two seasons, and now it’s time to replenish the cupboard. Kindle is the kind of versatile player who can do the things Karlos Dansby did, plus provide a pass-rush punch. He’d be a great complement to Joey Porter and could emerge into a team leader in the vein of Dansby. We’ve made our affinity for Kindle known, and Arizona would be a place for his promise to shine.

27. Cowboys – DE Tyson Alualu, California
Alualu is a fast-rising prospect, in large part due to his ability to play defensive end in the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys are stocked across the board, so they can afford to look for the guy they like the best, and Alualu’s size and tenacity fits. He can plug in and play the five-technique to allow DeMarcus Ware and the emerging Anthony Spencer to continue to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

28. Chargers – CB Kyle Wilson, Boise State
It only makes sense for San Diego to spend its first-round pick to replace Antonio Cromartie, whom they traded in the offseason. Since none of this year’s cornerback class behind Joe Haden is great, our guess is that several of them will end up clumped at the end of the first round and beginning of the season. Wilson is a solid player who had a good Senior Bowl week and also a solid college career. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he’s good enough to thrive in a pressure defense like San Diego runs.

29. Jets – OLB Sean Witherspoon, Missouri
The Jets have been among the most aggressive teams in the offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to fill some of their biggest needs. That puts them in position to draft the best player left. A tackle like Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis may make sense to eventually replace Damien Woody on the right side, but our guess is that Rex Ryan tries to reinforce his defense. Witherspoon is a standout player who has enough pass-rush pop to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he’s also good in coverage. That kind of versatility will make Ryan drool in the war room and could land Witherspoon with Gang Green.

30. Vikings – CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama
The Vikings have a loaded roster, but the one place where they can use an upgrade is in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty from Rutgers would be one option, but we’ll point instead to Jackson, who is a proven player from a top-notch program who can step in and serve as a quality starter for the Vikes, and therefore help them continue to move forward in the NFC. While some prognosticators have the Vikings pulling the trigger on Tim Tebow here, we think more immediate help is in the offing.

31. Colts – OT Vladimir Ducasse, Massachusetts
Colts president Bill Polian made no secret about the fact that he was unhappy with the play of his team’s offensive line in the Super Bowl, and as proof of that conviction he cut starter Ryan Lilja soon after. So it makes sense that Indy will spend its first-rounder on a lineman. We’re projecting Ducasse over Roger Saffold or Charles Brown, but any of those players would make sense for Indy as it attempts to keep its Peyton-powered offense running smoothly.

32. Saints – TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
The defending Super Bowl champions could use help at safety from a guy like Taylor Mays or at cornerback from a guy like Patrick Robinson, but our hunch is that Sean Payton gets some more help for his high-powered offense. Gronkowski is a dynamic tight end who’s even more physical than Jeremy Shockey. The Saints used several different tight ends last year in Shockey, Darnell Dinkins, David Thomas, and Billy Miller, so we can see that it’s a big part of their offense. Gronkowksi could usurp one or even two portions of that role and make the Saints even more explosive. That sounds to us like the kind of approach Payton would want.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, preja vu

FR: First week signings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency

Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Linemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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