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Pick ’em – Super Bowl 46

After a mediocre season of NFL picks and a 5-5 playoff run, it’s time for our Super Bowl 46 pick. Let’s break down the game as we do.

Tom Brady will be the key to a Patriots win in Super Bowl 46, via cbsboston.com

The question that has stayed at the forefront of our minds over the past two weeks is which team is best at something. While many of the matchups seem to favor the Giants, we believe the Patriots will throw the ball better than the Giants do anything. So the question is whether the Pats’ success in the passing game – which we believe will happen, at least to some degree – will overcome its shortcomings elsewhere.

So while Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and company may harass Brady, and while Eli Manning to Victor Cruz may find room in the Patriots secondary, the key to the game will be Brady finding Wes Welker and his two tight ends. The big plays in the Patriots passing game will mean more than the sacks from Big Blue or the Giants’ offense.

That will lead to a Patriots win. That’s not the popular pick – the bets in Vegas are leaning toward the Giants, and the majority of analysts we hear lean toward the Giants as well. But we’re going to go with the Patriots to win and cover the three-point spread.

New England 28, New York Giants 20

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Football Relativity: Wild-card weekend

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. But this week, we go from comparing all 32 teams to focusing on the 12 playoff teams. All of these teams were at the 7 level or higher last week.

Broncos QB Tim Tebow makes his playoff debut this week, via orlandosentinel.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers closed out the season with a win even after sitting QB Aaron Rodgers and CB Charles Woodson, among others. At 15-1, Green Bay is not a perfect team, but they have a dynamic offense and a defense that causes turnovers. We’ve seen in recent years that this is a potent combination in the postseason. Green Bay may not be built to win a slugfest, but there aren’t many teams that could force the Packers into that kind of game.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints – The Saints closed with a flourish to finish 13-3, but it wasn’t enough for them to get a bye week. The Saints are nearly the Packers’ equal, and are built in much the same way. But the path New Orleans will have to take – a home game against a dangerous Detroit offense, followed by a road trip to San Francisco – may be too much. We see the Saints winning this week (something like 45-31), but we’re not sure they’ll even get to Green Bay for a rematch of Week 1.

The Ravens, meanwhile, earned a bye by locking down the AFC North. That’s key, because it takes away the possibility of laying an egg in the first round. We rate the Ravens above the Patriots because we like their ceiling more, but Baltimore hasn’t always been the most consistent team. But we can certainly see them gearing up for two big games and making it to the Super Bowl.

8 – New England Patriots – The Patriots earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but their defense once again showed major holes against Miami in Week 17. New England won’t be able to survive against Baltimore or Pittsburgh if they fall behind early like they have in the last two weeks. But we’re not sure those problems can be solved during a single bye week.

7 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are unlike any of the other top teams in the NFC and maybe even in the league in that they’re built around an elite defense. If they can turn their divisional-round game (likely against the Saints) into a slobberknocker, they might be able to get a playoff win. But Alex Smith, Frank Gore and company don’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Saints and Packers and Patriots. The 49ers simply aren’t good enough on red-zone offense to make a long playoff run.

6 – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are an odd team. They have the look of a contender, since they are coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season and have a championship pedigree. But it will be interesting to see if the Steelers really are at that level. While the offense has incredible punch with WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, we don’t think the Steelers can beat the Patriots or Ravens on the road. But they should have enough firepower to get through a trip to Denver this week.

5 – New York Giants, Detroit Lions – We put these teams above other wild-card weekend participants because of ceiling. The Lions have a high ceiling because of offensive firepower. The defense can’t stop the pass, which is a bad omen heading into a game against the Saints, but if the Lions somehow create a few turnovers, they could outscore the Saints.

The Giants, meanwhile, looked like a team that’s finally getting healthy against the Cowboys. With playmakers like WR Victor Cruz on offense and DE Jason Pierre-Paul on defense, the Giants can put together a peak performance. We see them winning this week against Atlanta, and if so they’ll challenge the Packers because they always seem to rise to the occasion.

4 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are a good team but not a great team. They can beat lesser teams, but they really haven’t risen to the occasion to beat a better team at any point this year. That’s enough for a playoff berth, but it’s not enough to advance now that the postseason has arrived. We see them being one-and-done again this year.

3 – Houston Texans – The Texans aren’t the team they could have been without major injury problems, but they still have enough upside to get a home win this weekend. Who knows who will play quarterback, but with a strong running game and an attacking defense should be enough for a feel-good moment in the franchise’s first playoff game.

2 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are a junior version of the Panthers, beating lesser teams but never rising to the occasion against a better opponent. They even lost to the T.J. Yates-led Texans a month ago. Credit to Cincinnati for making it to the good level in QB Andy Dalton’s rookie year, but the run ends this week.

1 – Denver Broncos– The bloom seems to be off the Tim Tebow rose after a three-game losing streak, but the real problem is that the defense has also declined. We believe Tebow has shown enough to earn an offseason of development as the starting quarterback, but that doesn’t mean we expect him to overcome the Steelers this week. At least Broncos fans get to enjoy the buildup to a home playoff game.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Jaguars/Giants thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. We already focused on the Thanksgiving Day games; now we turn our attention to the Giants’ 24-20 come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars.

The Jaguars, who had won three straight coming into the game, seemed to have this game under their control until a third-quarter interception gave the Giants new life. The win was huge for the Giants, who broke a two-game losing streak and some of the echoes of their recent late-season swoons, and it’s a big lost opportunity for the Jaguars as they try to unseat the Colts in the AFC South. After an extended look at the Jaguars, we don’t know if they’re a good team, but we’re certain they’re an above-average squad that has the potential to win nine games or more.

Mario Manningham scores for the Giants, via espn.com

On-field Perspective
*The Giants were playing without WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, but they still got big plays in the passing game from Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss. Eli Manning has a knack for making big plays in the clutch, and his two second-half TD passes were another example of that. Manning isn’t always clockwork efficient, but he tends to make the right play in the clutch, which is a great trait for a quarterback.
*The Giants didn’t create a massive pass rush for most of the game, although Justin Tuck and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul made some big plays late when the Giants started blitzing heavily. Still, the lack of a consistent pass rush is a question mark, since the Giants’ strong suit is supposed to be its front four. That question mark looms even larger because, by and large, the Giants weren’t able to exploit a Jaguars line playing without both starting tackles.
*Jaguars QB David Garrard is not a consistent passer, but he remains a threat to make plays with his legs, as he did on his incredible second-quarter touchdown. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, Garrard’s consistency waned in the second half, as an errant throw led to a Mike Sims-Walker bobble, which led to a Terrell Thomas interception. Garrard finished just 20-of-35, and he may have suffered a wrist injury on the final drive.
*Jacksonville has a fairly deep receiving corps, but Sims-Walker is inconsistent, and Mike Thomas’ only breakaway play was brought back by a penalty. We wondered why the Jaguars claimed ex-49er Jason Hill on waivers, but given Hill’s size we wonder if they’re trying to replace or at least inspire Sims-Walker to play with more consistency and reliability. MSW had a three-drop game in this one, and that kind of effort from him is far too familiar for the Jags.
*While the Jaguars’ passing game wasn’t sterling, their running game was. Maurice Jones-Drew (21 carries, 113 yards) kept the Jags in front of the chains, and backup Rashad Jennings (7 carries, 53 yards) did a good job, especially in the first half. Both guys are assets.
*As for the Giants’ runners, Brandon Jacobs (14 carries, 87 yards) looked better in this game than we’ve seen him in a while. Still, Ahmad Bradshaw (49 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards) is the breakaway threat who can also move the chains for the Giants, and despite his fumbling issues, we believe he should be getting more carries.
*Antrel Rolle was one of the Giants’ high-profile defensive additions in the offseason, but he was unnoticeable against the run and in pass coverage in this game. He did make a couple of nice plays on the blitz, including one shared sack with Tuck, but the Giants need more out of Rolle given his high price tag.
*Ross Tucker praised Jaguars rookie DT Tyson Alualu’s play, but no other Jaguars defenders really popped off the screen. The most impressive was probably LB Justin Durant, who had seven tackles and two passes defensed and was the one Jaguar we saw winning plays.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*Despite this game, we don’t believe that Jacobs is anything more than a flex option going forward. His 87-yard performance is pretty much the apex of what you can expect from him yardage-wise given Bradshaw’s consistency.
*Garrard isn’t consistent enough to trust as a fantasy QB. He has the potential to have big games, but he’s also going to hang around in this area (162 passing yards, 41 rushing yards, rushing TD) too often to help you win.
*Manningham is a fantasy starter as long as Smith and/or Nicks is out. Right now, he’s the only Giant wideout you can trust in your lineup.

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Mathias Kiwanuka and other Week 8 Transactions

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. 

Mathias Kiwanuka of the Giants

The biggest name to cross the transactions wire this week was Giants DE Mathias Kiwanuka, who was officially ruled out for the season with a herniated disc in his neck. Kiwanuka had four sacks in the first four games playing as a defensive end this season before his injury, and the former first-round pick has also played outside linebacker in the past. That kind of versatility has made him especially valuable to Big Blue, and it may make him an attractive option to 3-4 defenses in free agency this offseason. Luckily for the Giants, they can use rookie Jason Pierre-Paul as the primary backup to starting DEs Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, which should allow the front four to remain a strength for perhaps the NFC’s best team.

Now for the other transactions of the week…

DeMeco Ryans

Texans (add DT Damione Lewis, put LB DeMeco Ryans on IR) – Ryans is a vaccuum cleaner of a middle linebacker who cleans up everything in the middle. Houston will really miss him now that he’s out for the season with an Achilles injury. Lewis is a veteran DT who can occasionally create pressure up the middle.

Jaguars (add OT Erik Pears, put OT Eben Britton on IR) – Britton, one of two rookie tackle starters for the Jags last year, has emerged into a promising right tackle, but he’ll now miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Pears adds depth, but the Jags will struggle to replace Britton.

Rams (add S Michael Lewis) – Lewis, who was benched in San Francisco and then asked for his release, lands in St. Louis. He’s a nice veteran but not nearly the playmaker he once was. Still, he’ll add some veteran wiles and should get on the field at an injury-plagued position for St. Louis.

Buccaneers (cut TE Jerramy Stevens) – Stevens, a former first-round pick in Seattle, was released after another arrest this week. He’s a talent but has never come close to living up to his ability at any of his NFL stops.

Chiefs (add LB Mark Simoneau) – Simoneau is a solid linebacker who has been really banged up in recent years, but he could help the Chiefs if he stays healthy enough to get on the field over the rest of the year. Now that the Chiefs are a contender, adding a vet like Simoneau makes sense.

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

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

NFC East

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

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

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

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

NFC North

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

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

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

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

NFC South

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

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

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

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

NFC West

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2010 NFL Draft Review

After putting out first-round thoughts on the draft and comparing the veteran players traded during the festivities, we now want to take time to compare each team’s draft class to each other. Because draft grades are just as useless as power rankings, we’re going to do this the Football Relativity way. We’ll compare each team’s haul to the others, with the best hauls at 10 on the scale and the worst haul at 1.

Note: This year’s draft classes are more bunched than usual, because there weren’t many teams that drafted exceptionally poorly this year.

10 – Rams – St. Louis had no choice but to draft a quarterback first overall, and Sam Bradford was a great one to take. It’s still a risky proposition, especially given the Rams’ lack of offensive line and receiver experience, but Bradford is the kind of guy who should succeed. Adding OT Roger Saffold in the second round will help Bradford. Saffold, Jason Smith, and Jason Brown are a good start on the core of a line that succeeds. Fourth-round WR Mardy Gilyard and TEs Michael Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onubun add to the depth of targets for Bradford as well. Third-round CB Jerome Murphy is the only real defensive help the Rams added, although seventh-round George Selvie could emerge as a situational pass rusher. But the Rams had to draft Bradford and get him some help, and they did a good job of executing that plan.

10 (con’t) – Bengals – Cincinnati loves pure talent, and they have built a reputation on picking the most talented guys despite any outside concerns. So first-round TE Jermaine Gresham’s 2009 injury or second-round DE Carlos Dunlap’s legal issues weren’t enough to dissaude Cincinnati. If those picks work, both guys have the talent to become premium players at their positions. Third-round CB Brandon Ghee (of Wake Forest) is a super-talented guy as well who didn’t always play up to that level, but he could become a top nickel back. Jordan Shipley could fit perfectly as a slot receiver, and he and Gresham have the potential to inject quite a bit of pizzazz into a passing game that sputtered down the stretch last year. Even sixth-rounder Dezmon Briscoe has top talent at wideout. There’s a lot to like in this class, even though the Bengals’ mindset comes with more risk than most teams prefer.

10 (con’t) – Ravens – Baltimore traded out of round one, but it still got a premium player in LB Sergio Kindle, the kind of versatile player the Ravens know how to feature. Baltimore also got two defensive tackles in Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones who have worlds of talent. Both come with some risk, but if one of the two turns into a stud, it’s worth the second- and fifth-rounders Baltimore spent at the position. If both shine, this draft becomes stellar. TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta could be a pass-catching duo for years as well. This is a very good draft in terms of value that has big-time upside at the nose tackle spot. That’s not a bad result after trading out of the first round.

9 – Eagles – Philly had a ton of picks, and they used some of them to trade up to No. 13 to take DE Brandon Graham. The Eagles have had a lot of success with an undersized pass rusher in Trent Cole, but they’ve been missing a running mate for Cole for a while. Third-round DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and fifth-round DE Ricky Sapp, another undersized guy, should help at the position as well. Second-round S Nate Allen has athleticism and could eventually fill the role vacated last year by Brian Dawkins. Fifth-round WR Riley Cooper could fit as a dependable fourth wideout, and seventh-round DT Jeff Owens has a lot of talent if not performance. And fourth-round QB Mike Kafka will have a chance to develop into Kevin Kolb’s backup. Philly had a lot of picks, and as usual they made the most of them. Graham’s probably the only guy with the ability to become a superstar, but the Eagles definitely found plenty of reinforcements.

9 (con’t) – Seahawks – The draft fell Seattle’s way, and Pete Carroll’s new regime took advantage by taking OT Russell Okung and S Earl Thomas in the first round. Both are premium players who significantly upgrade problem areas. Second-round WR Golden Tate also addresses a problem area, but he’s more of a No. 2 option on a good NFL team than a 1. Still, he’ll contribute. DE E.J. Wilson (fourth round) and SS Kam Chancellor (fifth round) will have opportunities to start if they outperform their draft position, and sixth-rounder TE Anthony McCoy is a talent who Carroll knows from USC and trusts despite off-field issues. Seattle did the right thing in the first round, and that talent infusion is just what a roster that got old quick needed.

8 – Buccaneers – Tampa entered the draft with a bunch of problem areas, but they leave with two fewer. At defensive tackle, first-rounder Gerald McCoy and second-rounder Bryan Price should become a talented tandem that anchors the defense for the next 5-8 years. And at receiver, the Bucs added premium talents in second-rounder Arrelious Benn and fourth-rounder Mike Williams. If those four players pan out, the draft was a success for the Bucs. Throw in third-round CB Myron Lewis, who could eventually replace Ronde Barber, and sixth-round OLB Dekoda Watson, and Tampa looks to have gotten a bunch of help with its selections.

8 (con’t) – Cardinals – Arizona entered the draft needing to add some young talent to its 3-4 front seven, and they did just that. NT Dan Williams was a boon at pick 26 in the first round, and OLB Daryl Washington will bring some pass-rush potential in the second round. OLB O’Brien Schofield, a first-round talent who suffered an injury in the Senior Bowl, could prove to be worth the wait as a fourth-rounder. Third-round WR Andre Roberts won’t have much pressure on him immediately, but he could develop much as Steve Breaston and Early Doucet have the last couple of years in Arizona. All in all, it was a solid job for Arizona.

8 (con’t) – Patriots – New England entered with a ton of picks (as usual), and they used them to pick up an extra second-rounder for next year (as usual). But they also drafted a bunch of reinforcements for a team that needs young playmakers. We’re all about second-round TE Rob Gronkowski, who can be a game-changer if he keeps his back healthy, and fourth-round TE Aaron Hernandez adds even more talent to a position that was depleted of talent by free agency. Florida LBs Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes also add depth to a position that had gotten old and then gotten worse in recent years. They’re not the new Bruschi and Vrabel, but they’ll help. First-round CB Devin McCourty addresses a need area as well, and WR Taylor Price adds youth to a unit that is painfully thin behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. We’ll see if any of the late-round guys are able to force their way onto the roster, but simply based on the first four rounds the Patriots did a good job.

7 – Saints – New Orleans drafted at the end of each round, but they did a good job of extracting value out of their draft spots. In the first round, CB Patrick Robinson was the last of the top tier of corners, and he comes to an area that was average but not much better last year. Adding Robinson also gives the Saints the ability to move ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins over to safety, which adds depth there as well. Second-round OT Charles Brown was too much of a value to pass up, and third-round TE Jimmy Graham is a developmental prospect who some scouts believe could emerge into the best tight end of this class. Fourth-round DT Al Woods also contributes to a need area. Aside from Graham, there’s not massive upside in this group, but there’s a lot of talent in key places, and that’s more than a Super Bowl champ usually gets from spot 32 in each round.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs – We’re not quite as ga-ga over the Chiefs’ class as some are, but there’s no doubt that a lot of help is on the way to K.C. First-round S Eric Berry is a true impact player, and he’ll start from day one. Second-round CB Javier Arenas is probably a No. 2 corner because he doesn’t have outstanding size, but he’s a starter. Dexter McCluster, drafted as a slot receiver at the top of the second round, needs to prove he’s as dependable as Wes Welker, but he does have the ability to break big plays. McCluster’s size, though, makes us worry about his ability to absorb the massive hits over the middle. OG Jon Asamoah and TE Tony Moeaki, both third-rounders, could step into the lineup as well. K.C. killed the first three rounds, but the thing that will determine if this draft is good or great is McCluster’s contribution. If he’s a role player, K.C. did well; if McCluster becomes a star, this class becomes epic.

6 – Texans – Some have doubted Houston’s decision to pick CB Kareem Jackson over Kyle Wilson in the first round, but Jackson fits the Texans’ scheme perfectly because it’s so much like Alabama’s. So he fills a major need, as does banger RB Ben Tate in the second round. TEs Garrett Graham in the fourth round and Dorin Dickerson in the seventh provide insurance in case Owen Daniels struggles to return from his knee injury, and LB Darryl Sharpton is small but still a tackling machine. Plus, Trindon Holliday provides value as a returner in the sixth round. This isn’t the sexiest draft class, but it seems positioned to help a team on the cusp finally break into the playoffs.

6 (con’t) – Giants – Big Blue took a big swing in the first round with DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who has more talent than any end in the draft but very little experience. That leads to questions, but the upside looks really good for New York. Adding Pierre-Paul and second-round DT Linval Joseph may seem repetitive given the Giants’ roster of D-linemen, but the defense struggled last year, and so the status quo wasn’t acceptable. Third-round S Chad Jones was productive and could develop further, and fourth-round MLB Phillip Dillard could step in for Antonio Pierce at least on first and second downs. Seventh-round punter Matt Dodge will compete to replace the retiring Jeff Feagles as well. The Giants got help in this draft and admitted that the defense which was once a strength really needed to be addressed.

6 (con’t) – Panthers – Regardless of what their plan was, the Panthers couldn’t resist pulling the trigger on QB Jimmy Clausen with their first pick at 48th overall. Clausen, who became the quarterback taken earlier by Carolina than anyone since Kerry Collins was the franchise’s first-ever draft pick, has the chance to be a long-term solution at a position where the Panthers have never had a premium player. If that happens, this draft was a huge success. Carolina addressed needs with third-round WR Brandon LaFell and sixth-round DE Greg Hardy, and both guys could find significant roles as rookies. Fourth-round OLB Eric Norwood is one of our favorites, and although he doesn’t really look the part he makes a ton of plays. The big question mark in this class is Armanti Edwards, who will go from being a small-school quarterback to an NFL wildcatter/slot receiver/punt returner. Maybe he can fill that role, but they price Carolina paid – next year’s second-rounder – to take Edwards at the end of the third round was simply too much for a specialty-type of player.

6 (con’t) – Jets – As usual, the Jets didn’t have quantity picks, but given the offseason additions they made via trade and free agency, a bunch of sixth- and seventh-rounders wouldn’t have made the team anyway. But the guys the Jets got are key. First-round CB Kyle Wilson becomes a nickel back immediately, and if he plays well the Jets may let Antonio Cromartie leave via free agency after the season. Wilson also provides insurance against the Big Apple eating Cromartie up and spitting him out. Second-round OG Vladimir Ducasse will get the chance to replace the released Alan Faneca at left guard immediately. Ducasse has all the physical tools, but he’s taking a big leap up in competition from UMass. The Jets dealt most of their remaining picks to pick RB Joe McKnight in the fourth round as the slash-and-dash complement to Shonn Greene. Maybe McKnight can fill Leon Washington’s shoes, but McKnight wasn’t a consistent force at USC. Fifth-round FB John Conner will probably spend 2010 learning from Tony Richardson before replacing the long-time fullback soon after. McKnight and Ducasse are risks, but if they pan out the Jets will be thrilled with this four-person draft class.

6 (con’t) – Broncos – Denver’s draft is a story of a bad strategy executed well. Trading back into the first round for a quarterback is the strategy that fails, and we have major reservations about Tim Tebow’s throwing motion. That’s a double whammy. But the trading Denver did turned a second-round pick into the first they used on Tebow and turned a fourth-rounder into a third. So while we can’t support Josh McDaniels’ infatuation with Tebow, the rest of the draft went well. WR Demaryius Thomas fits what Denver needs, and he and third-rounder Eric Decker could become the outside receiving combo to spur McDaniels’ offense. OG Zane Beadles and  C J.D. Walton will continue Denver’s transformation to a more physical offensive line than the nimble zone-blocking scheme Mike Shanahan used there. Fifth-round CB Perrish Cox is a terrific talent with off-the-field question marks, but at that spot he’s a risk worth taking. So while we will continue to beat the drum against the Tebow pick, on the whole we respect what McDaniels and his crew did with this draft class.

6 (con’t) – Lions – Detroit didn’t have a ton of picks because they traded lots of lower-rounders for veterans who can help now, and we approve of that strategy. We’re also all for Detroit’s no-brainer decision to take DT Ndamukong Suh second overall. But the more we think about Jahvid Best, the more we think he was a little bit too much of a luxury for a team that’s still in the rebuilding process. That pick may have come a year too early, and Best’s durability questions may mean he’s not around when the Lions actually get good. Fourth-round OT Jason Fox and seventh-round DE Willie Young are good developmental prospects, and third-round CB Amari Spievey addresses a need area. The Lions are moving the right direction, but our questions about Best keep us from really raving about this draft class.

6 (con’t) – Browns – Cleveland needed a major talent infusion in this draft, but they didn’t get all that they needed. CB Joe Haden in the first round was probably as good as Cleveland could get at No. 7, and he’ll help. Second-round Montario Hardesty was a helpful pick in the second round, and Mike Holmgren has a way of turning mid-round QBs like Colt McCoy into starters or future draft equity. G Shawn Lauvao could emerge as a starter out of the third round, and sixth-round DE Clifton Geathers has the size to become a factor in a 3-4. But ultimately, Cleveland will need second-round S T.J. Ward to outperform his pre-draft rankings for this draft class to truly make the kind of impact the franchise needed.

5 – 49ers – The 49ers played the personality game in the draft by using two first-round picks to cement their offensive identity as a tough run-first team. OT Anthony Davis is gifted but not always dedicated, but Mike Singletary has broken through such veneers before. OG Mike Iupati is more likely to help right away as a mauler, especially in the run game. The Niners then took SS Taylor Mays in the second round and ILB Navarro Bowman in the third, both of whom should help to reinforce a defense that’s on the rise. There’s not eye-popping performance in this draft, but the Niners did fine as they continue to become the kind of team they want to be.

5 (con’t) – Packers – Green Bay gumped into OT Bryan Bulaga with the 23rd overall pick, and so they got a good player at a position of real need. We still see Bulaga as a better right tackle than left tackle, but since the Packers have needs at both spots Bulaga makes a ton of sense. S Morgan Burnett in the third round is a fine player who will fit the defense well. We’re not as confident about second-round DE Mike Neal, but if he can serve as a reserve he’ll help. The Packers didn’t have many gaping holes, and so if Bulaga and Burnett end up as starters this draft will end up being more positive than negative.

5 (con’t) – Dolphins – Miami’s draft, which focused on defense except for one pick, wasn’t high-profile, but  first-round DE Jared Odrick and second-round OLB Koa Misi should add depth to the front seven immediately. They fit what Miami’s trying to do on defense. Third-round OG John Jerry is a physical blocker who’ll fit Miami’s personality as well. Miami was on its own agenda in this draft, but the Dolphins know what they want, and that usually leads to drafts yielding players.

4 – Colts – Indy’s drafters know exactly what kind of players they want, and first-round DE Jerry Hughes fits the Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis mold. But second-round MLB Pat Angerer seems stuck behind Gary Brackett, who just got a new contract, and the Colts didn’t get any offensive line help besides fourth-round OG Jacques McClendon. Third-round CB Kevin Thomas should break into the rotation, and the Colts do better than any other team in the undrafted rookie market. So this rookie class could end up looking better than the draft list does at first glance.

4 (con’t) – Steelers – Many observers were hoping for an eye-popping draft from the Steelers in light of the Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger issues. But Pittsburgh instead focused on its normal solid, long-range planning. First-rounder Maurkice Pouncey will be a long-term starter at center or guard, and third-round WR Emmanuel Sanders will have a chance to step in as a third receiver now and emerge as a starter once Hines Ward is gone. Pittsburgh added three outside linebackers for its 3-4 zone blitz in Jason Worilds, Thaddeus Gibson, and Steven Sylvester, even though it has two established starters at those positions. Fifth-round CB Crezdon Butler addresses more of a need area. In four years, we’ll look back at this draft as helpful, but in 2010 there’s not an impact.

4 (con’t) – Raiders – Oakland didn’t bomb this draft as it has in past years, but the question is whether the Raiders got the massive amount of help that they need. LB Rolando McClain in the first round is a good leader, but he’s probably more of a two-down player than an every-down contributor. He’ll help, but he’s not a top 10 talent. Second-round DT Lamarr Houston was a terrific value pick who will help, and promising OTs Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell in the third and fourth rounds each has potential to emerge as a top-level left tackle. If one of those guys lives up to his potential, this draft class will look a lot better, but can you trust the Raiders to develop talent that this far away from contribution? Fourth-round WR Jacoby Ford and fifth-round CB Walter McFadden should help in limited roles. Oakland did OK, but this draft isn’t the kind that will put them over the top.

4 (con’t) – Titans – In the first round, Tennessee took DE Derrick Morgan, a solid player at a big-time need position. He’ll probably have a career closer to Kyle Vanden Bosch than Jevon Kearse, but that’s still a big plus. Second-round WR Damian Williams could eventually pair with Kenny Britt to give Tennessee a solid receiver duo, but Williams is unlikely to help a ton this year. Third-round LB Rennie Curran is productive but undersized, and the Titans need more CB help than fourth-rounder Alterraun Verner can provide. This is a solid class, but we don’t sense a ton of upside with the group.

3 – Cowboys – Jerry Jones fell in love with Dez Bryant, and when Bryant started falling down the board, Jones jumped up to grab him. If Bryant can develop into an elite receiver, this will be a memorable move, but it does come with some risk. The fact that Miles Austin developed into an elite receiver last year makes the move curious as well. Fourth-round safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah is another risk because he comes from a small school, but he has all the physical tools and mental toughness he needs. Second-round ILB Sean Lee should become Keith Brooking’s replacement before long. This class is long on superstar potential but short on sure things.

3 (con’t) – Bears – Chicago came into this draft short-handed after the trades for Jay Cutler and the late Gaines Adams, but the Bears made the most of the picks they have. Safety was a crying need, and so getting Major Wright in the third round was a huge win. Fourth-rounder Corey Wootton has a ton of talent if he can fully recover from a 2008 ACL injury, and QB Dan LeFevour was the kind of developmental prospect who’s worth a sixth-round shot. Chicago did little to address its offensive line problems, but that’s the price you pay for trading draft picks for vets.

3 (con’t) – Redskins – Washington didn’t have second- or third-round picks, so the franchise didn’t get the quantity of help it needed. But it got high-quality help in first-round OT Trent Williams, who Mike Shanahan believes can become his new Ryan Clady. Fourth-round ILB Perry Riley could step into Washington’s new 3-4 defense, and seventh-round offensive linemen Erik Cook and Selvish Capers have a chance to make it at a major problem area.

2 – Bills – The Bills looked for thrills by taking C.J. Spiller at nine, and although he didn’t fit a specific need, he was probably the best player available. For a team bereft of talent, that’s important. Buffalo then focused on filling its new 3-4 defense with NT Torell Troup and DE Alex Carrington. If those two guys become starters, this draft will look good for the Bills, but neither was the best prospect on the board when he was picked. Maybe the Bills found a diamond in the rough in sixth-round OLB Arthur Moats or Danny Batten, and that would help the front seven as well. This draft ended up being pretty risky for Buffalo, and when the top player wasn’t at a need position, that’s a scary proposition.

2 (con’t) – Chargers – San Diego gave up its second round pick to shoot up the first round draft order and take RB Ryan Mathews at 12. Mathews is a good player at a need area, and San Diego often moves way up to get guys they want, but that strategy hasn’t always worked well before. So the Chargers need Mathews to deliver, and they need to find plenty of help from later-round picks. Third-round ILB Darrell Butler could emerge as a starter, but the key guy might be fifth-round NT Cam Thomas, who has the talent to step into Jamal Williams’ old spot if he can stay motivated. Jonathan Crompton, a sixth-rounder, replaces Charlie Whitehurst as the Chargers’ developmental quarterback. We don’t love the top of this draft, but we get the feeling the later rounds will pay off for the Bolts.

2 (con’t) – Falcons – Without a second-round pick, Atlanta’s draft class looks a little thin, but first-round LB Sean Witherspoon and third-round DT Corey Peters are big helps to a defense that needed reinforcements. Atlanta tried to play the value game with interior offensive linemen Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley in the middle rounds, and if both emerge as starters in the next two years, this draft will end up being a win. For now, though, we’re uncertain.

1 – Vikings – Minnesota traded out of the first round, and at No. 34 they took 6-foot-2 cornerback Chris Cook. Back when I covered the Panthers, CB Eric Davis once said, “Do you know what you call a 6-2 corner? A safety.” And for the most part, ED’s wisdom has borne out. That makes me skeptical of Cook and his prospects for truly becoming an elite corner. Trading up for RB Toby Gerhart at the end of the second round was strange too, because he’s not different enough style-wise from Adrian Peterson to complement the standout back. Those were Minnesota’s only two picks in the first two rounds, which limits the impact of this class. Fourth-round DE Everson Griffen is a talent who had off-field questions but was worth a shot where the Vikes got him, and fifth-rounder Chris DeGeare was a college tackle at Wake Forest who has a shot to make it as a guard. But on the whole, this class leaves us with many more questions than answers.

1 (con’t) – Jaguars – People have pounded on Jacksonville for taking DT Tyson Alualu at 10, and they didn’t maximize the value of that pick. But our sense is that Alualu will be a good player. The problem is that, at 10, Jacksonville needed a great player. Third-round DT D’Anthony Smith seems to be the brawn to contrast Alualu’s inside quickness, but some have pointed to Smith as a reach. Since those were Jacksonville’s only two picks in the first four rounds, it doesn’t look as though Jacksonville reaped a ton of immediate help from the draft.

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