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Pre-camp signings

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

New Titan Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week 3 Transactions

New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk

Image via Wikipedia

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. There are a ton of RB moves this week, so we’ll feature those first and then add other positions below.

RB transactions

Falcons (put RB Jerious Norwood on injured reserve, sign RB Gartrell Johnson) – Norwood, the Falcons’ third-down back, suffered a torn ACL against the Cardinals and will miss the rest of the season. Jason Snelling, Michael Turner’s backup, is a quality second back, so Norwood’s loss isn’t as devastating as it could have been. Johnson, an ex-Giant, provides depth behind Snelling.

Saints (sign RB Ladell Betts, cut RB DeShawn Wynn) – Wynn beat out Betts in training camp for a roster spot with the Saints because Wynn is more useful on special teams. But after Reggie Bush suffered a knee injury that will cost him six weeks or so, the Saints brought back Betts, who’s the better runner. He’ll back up Pierre Thomas.

Redskins (cut RB Larry Johnson, sign RB Chad Simpson) – Johnson, a free agent signee in the offseason, never got up to speed with the Redskins, and so Washington finally cut the declining back. Simpson is a smaller back who adds return skills as a backup.

Patriots (put RB Kevin Faulk on injured reserve) – Faulk (pictured above) suffered a catastrophic knee injury in Week 2 vs. the Jets and will miss the season. The Pats have a deep stable of backs, but none of them has the versatility that Faulk, the ultimate third-down back, brought.

Eagles (add RB Joique Bell) – While cutting Hank Baskett (see below), the Eagles added Bell from the Bills’ practice squad.

Other transactions

Texans (add OT Ephraim Salaam) – After Duane Brown’s suspension, the Texans brought back Salaam for tackle depth. Salaam hasn’t started since 2007, but he knows the Texans’ system and provides veteran depth in case Rashad Butler can’t hold up.

Ravens (cut S Ken Hamlin) – The Ravens brought in Hamlin to help provide depth in Ed Reed’s absence, but Hamlin’s performance has really dropped off from his Seattle and Dallas days. With CB Cary Williams coming back from suspension, the Ravens decided Hamlin wasn’t worth a roster spot anymore.

Vikings (add WR Hank Baskett) – Baskett, cut by Philadelphia earlier in the week, goes to Minnesota as a big, lanky receiver. Baskett doesn’t have great speed, but at least he’s a big target who helps fill in for Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, who’s again fighting migraines.

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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

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

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post. Now we move to running backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Panthers/Falcons thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week Two game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Falcons won 28-20 in the Georgia Dome.

On-field
*The Falcons continue to show that they’re a solid team across the board. Even though Michael Turner hasn’t yet had a huge game, the offense is moving well.The addition of Tony Gonzalez has been absolutely huge, because he gives Matt Ryan another elite-level target along with Roddy White. That mitigates the fact that Atlanta’s other receivers are average.
*Even without Jerious Norwood for most of the game, Atlanta’s running game was terrific. Jason Snelling stepped right in with 47 yards from scrimmage, including a TD catch, while Turner got stronger as the game went on and finished with 105 yards and a late touchdown.
*A lot of that offensive success is due to Atlanta’s solid offensive line. Guard Harvey Dahl has a mean streak that you need, and the fact that Julius Peppers and Everette Brown were stonewalled says something about second-year OLT Sam Baker. Atlanta held Carolina without a sack in this game.
*Atlanta’s defense isn’t great, but it’s good. OLB Mike Peterson has added an edge and some play-making ability in pass coverage that Keith Brooking didn’t provide, while second-year MLB Curtis Lofton continues to emerge as a force. DE John Abraham is a factor whenever he’s in the game as well, and backup DE Kroy Biermann has flashed ability in the first two games of the season. Young CB Chris Houston and veteran Brian Williams are a nice duo as well. This D isn’t going to completely shut anyone down, but it’s good enough to make the Falcons a dangerous team.
*For Carolina, Jake Delhomme was OK, and the offense moved the ball accordingly. As long as Delhomme avoids meltdown mode, the Panthers can move the ball thanks to a mauling offensive line and terrific RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
*Steve Smith is a great receiver, Muhsin Muhammad is still a good receiver, and TEs Jeff King and Dante Rosario are OK. But the Panthers don’t have any WR depth, and that hurts when they’re trying to come back as they were in this game.
*Carolina’s defense really struggled for the second week in a row. The lack of DT depth hurt, as Turner was able to wear down the interior of the defense. And without any pass rush, Ryan did pretty much whatever he wanted. LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis played well, but they can’t be expected to snuff out the run game by themselves.
*I really like Carolina’s CB duo of Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble for their aggressiveness and their tackling, but they don’t get to show their skills off fully in the Panthers’ cover-2 scheme. I liked the Ron Meeks hire as defensive coordinator in the offseason, but I’m starting to waver on that.
*The Panthers have some serious special-teams problems. Already this season, they’ve given up a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown, along with some sizable kickoff returns. That has to change if they’re going to crawl out of their 0-2 hole.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*Steve Smith is going to be OK. If you picked Smith early in your draft, you undoubtedly had some fears after Week One. But with Jake Delhomme rebounding, Smith showed that he can still be highly productive for fantasy owners.
*Aside from Smith, none of the Panthers’ receivers is worth owning. Muhsin Muhammad gets some looks, but everyone else is a bit player for fantasy leagues. Likewise, Delhomme is not really a major fantasy threat. He might end up being an OK backup in larger leagues, but don’t count on him for more.
*The Panthers have three decent receiving tight ends in Jeff King, Dante Rosario, and Gary Barnidge. But even though Rosario caught a touchdown in this game, he’s not a fantasy factor. Rosario plays as the movement tight end in two-TE sets, but King is on the field more. So while Rosario looks good catching the ball, he doesn’t get enough playing time to be a top-20 fantasy tight end.
*Both Panthers running backs are really good. DeAngelo Williams will end the season as a top 8 or top 10 back, and Jonathan Stewart will be a yardage force with limited touches. This game is actually going to be pretty typical of the workload spread between the two players and the production you can reasonably expect.
*Michael Turner is not a dynamic back like Adrian Peterson, but he’s a very good back who, like Williams, will end up being a top guy this year.
*Jason Snelling had a good game, but he’s not a fantasy factor because he’s below Jerious Norwood in the pecking order, and Norwood is barely ownable in most leagues. So let Snelling lie on your waiver wire this week, despite the talent he displayed this week.
*Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are both fantasy starters, and Matt Ryan may be as well. The addition of Gonzalez is going to help Ryan grow his TD numbers from 16 last year into the 20s this year. He’s growing as a fantasy option.

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Part-time backs

In the past few years, we’ve seen a proliferation of NFL teams turning to multi-running back attacks. Where once there was a running back, a fullback, and perhaps a third-down back, now there are all sorts of different roles for running backs, with many teams using two or even three regularly. While that might make an NFL offense run more smoothly, it makes putting together a fantasy football backfield much trickier.

So in an effort to sort through some of these situations, we’re going to look at some of the backs who have part-time roles with their NFL teams and try to figure out where they fit in a fantasy football team. We’re going to use a Football Relativity comparision to do this, and as we go down the scale we’ll indicate how each level on the comparison translates as you build your roster.

One more note before we begin: You can find all of our fantasy football coverage by searching the fantasy football category on our blog, and you can also use the search function on the right of the blog to find individual players.

10 – Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is currently fighting an Achilles tendon injury, and the Panthers are being overly cautious to protect him. But as long as Stewart is ready in week one, he’s a fantasy starter even in a limited role. A lot of people look at his 10-touchdown stat line from ’08 and consider Stewart a goal-line back, but he’s more than that. Look again, and you’ll see that he had 836 rushing yards and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. In other words, he’s a ton better than T.J. Duckett. Even playing a role behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart is a No. 2 fantasy starter in most leagues whom you can count on for 800 yards and 8-10 touchdowns again at a minimum. Plus, he has the upside to do more if he stays healthy throughout the season or if Williams gets hurt or struggles. Stewart fits starting at the beginning of the third round in regular-sized fantasy leagues.

*Players above this line are in general every-week starters in 10- or 12-team fantasy leagues. Players below this line become matchup plays and flex-position options.

9 – Donald Brown, Colts – Most people are projecting Brown to be the change-up for Joseph Addai, and that role would make him a fantasy backup. But Brown has more upside than that because he could actually usurp the starting role from Addai. That makes Brown an ideal No. 3 back in most fantasy leagues because of his upside. To begin the season, Brown is a matchup play or a flex option, but he could easily become a starter by midseason.

9 (con’t) LenDale White, Titans – White also has a goal-line back rep, but he got 200 carries last year en route to a 773-yard, 15-touchdown season. That touchdown number is out of proportion, and so it would be unreasonable to expect that many scores from him this year. But White is a 10-12 touchdown guy who should also get 700 rushing yards or more. The Titans will use White in short-yardage situations, but they’ll also use him to spell Chris Johnson to help keep Johnson healthy throughout the season. You probably don’t want to count on White as an every-week starter, but he can be a strong matchup play and flex option, and if you end up having to start him most weeks, it’ll probably turn out OK.

8 – Reggie Bush, Saints – Bush is not a starting NFL running back, and at this point he’s not an ideal fantasy football starter either. He is an elite player at what he does well – catching the ball out of the backfield and returning punts. He’s dangerous enough with the ball in his hands that he should get 15-18 touches every game, and he’s liable to score 10 touchdowns with that limited number of changes. But Pierre Thomas is the Saints running back who can start for your fantasy team this year. Bush has scored six offensive touchdowns in each of the last two years, (though he added three on punt returns in ’08), and he has missed at least four games in each year. You simply can’t count on him every week. But if you draft him as your No. 3 back, you’re going to have a guy who will score 6-8 touchdowns and pile up some yards and receptions for you. He’s the definition of a fantasy football flex-position guy.

*Players above this line are consistent flex options and/or matchup plays. Players below this line fall into more traditional backup roles for fantasy football.

7 – Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones has a ton of talent, but he’s kind of hard to project from a fantasy perspective because he missed so much time in his rookie season. In the six games he played, Jones averaged 5 carries per game, in addition to a handful of catches and returns, but he scored four TDs in those six games. If he can get 10-12 touches a game and stay healthy, he can probably double that touchdown total and end up with more than 600 yards. That would make him a solid No. 3 fantasy back. But because of his undefined role, he’s more of a borderline No. 3 or supersolid No. 4 fantasy back who you take hoping his role ends up being more than we’re expecting it to be at this point. Nonetheless, he’s a guy worth taking a flier on in your fantasy draft.

6 – Chester Taylor, Vikings – Playing behind Adrian Peterson the last two years, Taylor (a former 1,200 yard rusher) has scored 6 and 7 touchdowns and had 800 and 1,000 total yards. That kind of production merits a top backup spot in your fantasy league. The thing that keeps Taylor half a notch below Felix Jones is the lack of upside; we’ve seen over the last two years what Taylor is going to be. Only a long-term Adrian Peterson injury opens the door for Taylor to be more. So Taylor is a smart pick if you have Peterson, and he’s a solid bye-week and/or emergency fill-in for other fantasy owners.

 6 (con’t) – Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had a disappointing rookie season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry before suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth game. But this year, a healthy Mendenhall remains a good fantasy prospect. He’ll start off as Willie Parker’s backup, but Mendenhall’s size could allow him to seize short-yardage carries first and then eventually start to carve into Parker’s regular workload. Mendenhall starts off as a lower-end No. 3 fantasy back or a top No. 4 fantasy back, but he’s one with a lot of upside. He probably won’t be as good to play in an emergency as Taylor will be, but he could end up with bigger numbers because of the role he could develop in Pittsburgh as the season wears on.

5 – Leon Washington, JetsTriple threats like Washington have huge value to their NFL teams, but their value to fantasy teams is hard to quantify. Washington had 800 yards and 10 total touchdowns last year, which is enough to make him a No. 3 fantasy back. But that’s probably the top end of what Washington can provide in the role he has. I’d prefer to make him a top No. 4 fantasy back (basically between 32 and 45 on the RB draft board) who has potential to start pretty much every week if your roster faces tough matchups, byes, or injuries. It just doesn’t make sense to me to depend on him for more than that. He can be an asset to your roster, but relying on him too heavily will leave you disappointed in the end because his role is so compacted.

5 (con’t) – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles is the same song, second verse as Washington. Last year he finally carved out a sizable offensive role in San Diego, and he delivered with 662 yards and six touchdowns. Throw in a return touchdown, and you have a valuable fantasy backup. Sproles’ numbers could go up a tiny bit this year, because he will get regular offensive touches from the start of the season, but he’s still a top No. 4 running back who is best as a fill-in. Like Washington, Sproles isn’t a guy you want to rely on regularly, but he is a guy you can call on at any time.

4 – Le’Ron McClain, Ravens – McClain is nominally the Ravens’ fullback, but he was a running back who had 900 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns last year. Those numbers will be hard to match in ’09 with the emergence of Ray Rice, but McClain will still have a role. Still, he fits below Washington and Sproles because his productivity as a short-yardage specialist and rotation back is a little more dependent on matchups than the production of explosive players like Washington and Sproles. That makes McClain a No. 4 fantasy back who falls just below Sproles and Washington on the draft board.

3 – Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw gets a lot of attention as a member of the Giants’ Earth, Wind, and Fire backfield, but his production doesn’t match the hype. He fell behind Derrick Ward in the NYG hierarchy by the end of last season, and while Ward is gone, it’s possible that Danny Ware could prevent Bradshaw from leaping ahead in touches this year. Some people are touting Bradshaw as a No. 3 fantasy back; it says here that’s he’s really an average No. 4 who will end up in the 40s in terms of running back production. He’s a decent backup who has upside if (or when) Brandon Jacobs gets dinged up, but he’s not going to break out in a big way.

2 – Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower exploded onto the fantasy scene last year with seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games, but his production waned pretty severely. While he scored 10 touchdowns and had 34 catches, he ended up averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. Now that the Cardinals have Beanie Wells as their first-round pick, Hightower looks to fall into a more traditional backup role. He’s just a No. 5 fantasy back whose upside is tied to Wells’ downside but not much more. He’s still worth drafting in most leagues, but relying on Hightower even as a bye-week fill-in is dangerous.

2 (con’t) – Jerious Norwood, Falcons – Norwood is a lite version of Washington and Sproles, a triple threat who provides a great change of pace to Michael Turner. He had 800 offensive yards and six touchdowns last year, and he’s likely to come close to that yardage total again this year. But Norwood, while talented, is not in Washington’s or Sproles’ league as a gamebreaker. That means that his touchdown total of 6 could easily fall to 2-4 this year. Norwood is a No. 5 backup who could go into your lineup in a big-time pinch, but relying on him for more is unwise.

1 – Michael Bush and Justin Fargas, Raiders – The Raiders had a solid running game last year. Fargas ended up with 853 rushing yards, and Bush had 421 rushing yards with a late-season push. Both are talented backs, but both should lose carries to Darren McFadden this year. Fargas is the back who is most likely to lose in this transaction, as he and McFadden could basically switch yardage totals in ’09. Bush has a chance to maintain his role because he’s a bigger back with short-yardage ability. But the uncertainty makes Fargas and Bush specialty backs who fit in the No. 5 fantasy back category.

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