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Finding a Fit: Nnadmi Asomugha

Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (#2...

Nnamdi Asomugha in his Raider days. Image via Wikipedia

It’s week 2 of our Finding a Fit series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

We started with Matt Hasselbeck last week, and now we turn to defense and coveted free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. With each entry, we give a quick synoposis of who the player is at this point, and then seek to find a fit.

If you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Synopsis

Before there was a Revis Island, Nnamdi Asomugha was a black hole for passing games. The former first-round pick has made four Pro Bowls and earned two All-Pro nods despite rarely being targeted by opposing quarterbacks because his coverage is so good. But being franchised two years ago led the Raiders to pay top dollar to keep Asomugha, and this year the price tag became too prohibitive. So Asomugha hits the free-agent market in his prime, and as he turns 30 this offseason he’s viewed as the best defensive player on the market and a potential game-changing signee in free agency.

Potential Fits

Philadelphia – The Eagles are considered a front-runner for Asomugha’s services, since they have a big-time CB hole across from Asante Samuel and they have traditionally been willing to spend in free agency. The Eagles had a very young defense last year, and it struggled, so adding Asomugha would be a huge step forward. Since there are several NFC East teams on this list, the Eagles could also view adding Asomugha as a preemptive strike. This doesn’t seem like a perfect fit, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles make a strong play to bring Asomugha to Philly.

San Diego – Rumors have circulated for a few months that the Chargers would seek to steal Asomugha from their AFC West rivals. That wouldn’t be a characteristic move, because GM A.J. Smith hasn’t chased mega free agents in the past. Still, he would step into an area that isn’t a strength, and the fact that the Chargers are seeking to extend a window of contention that seems to be closing could lead them to take a big swing in free agency.

Dallas – The Cowboys got terrible QB play last year, as Terrence Newman fell apart and former first-rounder Mike Jenkins really struggled. But would Jerry Jones be star-struck enough with Asomugha to throw one of those players away for Nnamdi? It seems like the Cowboys’ greater need is at safety, and so the Cowboys should end up passing on Asomugha, no matter how much of a safety blanket he would be.

Washington – In free agency, the Redskins are a high-dollar player’s dream, because owner Daniel Synder often pays above market value for high-profile players. And Asomugha would answer a need in Washington, because while DeAngelo Hall is in place, Carlos Rogers is a free agent. This isn’t a perfect fit, but you can never rule out an impetuous signing when Snyder is signing the checks.

Tampa Bay – The Buccaneers have a talented young (and cheap) team, and so adding Asomugha would be out of character but not necessarily out of budget. And while Ronde Barber just keeps on rolling along, the Bucs’ best corner, Aqib Talib, has legal problems that could end his Tampa tenure before long. Especially if there is a new system in place with a salary minimum, the Buccaneers could become an under-the-radar player for Asomugha.

Houston – The Texans’ secondary has been porous in recent years, and after losing Dunta Robinson in free agency last year it was even worse in 2010. Houston has spent high draft picks on corners Kareem Jackson (first round, 2010) and Brandon Harris (second round, 2011). But since Jackson and Harris aren’t established, corner remains a need. Adding Asomugha would be an expensive power move, but Houston may just be desperate enough to make the playoffs to pay the price.

Detroit – The Lions, like the Texans, are desperate to move into contention, and they appear primed to do so. One of the biggest things holding them back is poor secondary play. The additions of Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith at corner last year helped improve that area, but neither of those guys is the shut-down talent Asomugha is. Smith probably needs to play in the slot, which would make a spot outside for a new starting corner. And last year, Detroit showed it was willing to make a quick move to pay a player it really wants. It feels like a long shot, but the Lions may end up being surprise contenders for the star corner.

N.Y. Jets – The Jets are always players for big-name free agents, but with Darrelle Revis installed on one side and Antonio Cromartie likely to return as a free agent to the other, Asomugha would be an incredibly expensive luxury for Gang Green.

Oakland – The Raiders love Asomugha, and there doesn’t seem to be bad blood because the team has paid him so handsomely the past two years. But after ponying up to keep Stanford Routt before the lockout, it appears the Raiders are prepared to move on. Asomugha, meanwhile, has to see this as his best chance out of the asylum and into the playoff hunt.

The best fits

1. Philadelphia – Asomugha would be a luxury, but the Eagles could provide the money, opportunity to win, and big market that free agents like Asomugha crave.

2. Tampa Bay – The fit on the football field is almost perfect. The question is whether the Buccaneers would be willing to spend enough to bring in Nnadmi. But the fact that they were in the Albert Haynesworth sweepstakes two years ago indicates that, for the right player, the Bucs will spend big. And few teams have the young talent both offensively and defensively that Tampa does.

3. Houston – The Texans, if they see Asomugha as the last piece to the playoff puzzle, would spend big to get him. Houston has enough other pieces to be an attractive landing spot as well.

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FR: NFL 2010 Head Coaching Vacancies

Jason Garrett

Image via Wikipedia

The coaching carousel started spinning early this year, but now that the season’s over we want to compare all of the NFL head-coaching vacancies. We’ll do this using our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 marking the most attractive vacancy and 1 the least attractive. We’ll add in vacancies as they become available.

10 – Dallas Cowboys – Dealing with Jerry Jones, the league’s most involved (or is it meddlesome?) owner, is no picnic, but the Cowboys have a lot going right for coaching candidates. Tony Romo is an above-average or even borderline Pro Bowl quarterback, and the team is in good shape at the skill positions on offense and the front seven on defense. OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and NT Jay Ratliff are premium players on D, and on offense TE Jason Witten and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin provide the kind of star power that most teams don’t have. The new coach (which is apparently going to be Jason Garrett, held over after going 5-3 as an interim coach) will have to rebuild the offensive line and the defensive secondary, but having a specific hit list indicates that the roster on the whole is in decent shape. Plus, Jones has deep pockets and isn’t afraid to spend to acquire talent. Maybe Jones as GM would scare off some candidates, but Dallas is definitely a plum job for Garrett.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers fell apart in their final season under John Fox, and quarterback issues were to blame. Carolina believed that Matt Moore’s two successful late-season fill-in stints predicted success, but Moore failed, as did rookie Jimmy Clausen. As a result, the Panthers’ youth-is-served season flopped. But Carolina has the No. 1 overall pick, which could allow a new coach to build with a franchise quarterback, a la Steve Spagnuolo and Sam Bradford in St. Louis. A rookie QB would have a solid offensive line anchored by C Ryan Kalil and Pro Bowl OLT Jordan Gross, a stud receiver in Steve Smith, and a first-rate running game. While the passing game needs a lot more depth behind Smith, the situation is at least as good as what Bradford stepped into. On defense, the Panthers have a terrific player in MLB Jon Beason and other young and emerging guys such as DE Charles Johnson. All that is to say that the cupboard isn’t bare. The organization is respected around the league, and owner Jerry Richardson has traditionally provided everything a coach wanted – as long as a lockout wasn’t looming. Carolina likely will look for a younger coach, and whoever gets the gig will have a pretty good first shot at head-coaching success.

6 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are a team at a crossroads. Just two years ago, the Vikings had a raft of Pro Bowlers, but the team appears to be passing its peak as a whole. Guys like OG Steve Hutchinson and OLT Bryant McKinnie are declining, and DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams and CB Antoine Winfield may be cresting the hill as well. With RB Adrian Peterson and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings do have young, dangerous skill-position threats, but quarterback is a major question mark, even with rookie Joe Webb’s performance lately. The Vikings may have a year or two more of contention before a complete rebuild is necessary on the field, but that’s coming. Plus, the team’s stadium situation is bad, and a move could be in the offing. So while there’s talent in Minnesota, there are a ton of questions as well. They have kept Leslie Frazier, who went 3-3 as an interim coach. The interim-coach tag hasn’t been a harbinger of future success, but Frazier has been a top candidate for years, and he should be a good hire for the Vikings.

5 – Cleveland Browns – The Browns flushed Eric Mangini following his second straight 5-11 season with the team. Mangini’s team played hard, but it didn’t have enough playmakers, especially on offense. RB Peyton Hillis is a force, and he runs behind a solid offensive line led by OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. And Mangini transitioned the Browns to a 3-4 defense that had some punch, thanks to underrated finds like LBs Marcus Benard and Matt Roth. Rookie CB Joe Haden and S T.J. Ward had good seasons as well. So the Browns are better off now than they were two years ago. The new coach must upgrade the offensive punch, though, so that Cleveland goes from feisty to dangerous. The big question the new coach must answer is whether Colt McCoy is the future of the franchise at quarterback. If he is, an offense built around accuracy with upgraded targets outside is the answer. But if McCoy isn’t the answer, the rebuilding project looks much tougher. Team president Mike Holmgren also looms, and rumors persist that he wants to coach again. That shadow may be too large for some coaches. Cleveland isn’t a perfect job, but it isn’t a talent wasteland either.

4 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers suffered under Mike Singletary, who was a better motivator than plan-maker. That was especially true at quarterback, as the Niners vacillitated between Alex and Troy Smith. Neither is a long-term answer, and that’s the biggest problem in San Francisco. The offensive line is well stocked, as rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis started the whole year, but the skill positions are not. TE Vernon Davis is a legitimate weapon, and RB Frank Gore is proven but has a lot of miles on his tires. WR Michael Crabtree is a talent whose full potential is yet to be unlocked. But while questions persist on offense, on defense the Niners have a strong identity thanks to a 3-4 defense led by Patrick Willis. The cornerback position isn’t up to par, but a lot of pieces are in place.  The fact that the organization is unsettled with a new GM likely headed in is a mixed blessing; if the coach and GM work together like Atlanta’s group, for example, then starting completely over is the way to go. But coach and front office pulling in different directions would be a recipe for disaster. San Francisco has some appealing pieces, but they haven’t yet fit together, and without a long-term answer at quarterback it’s hard to see things melding quickly. That will be the pressing challenge for the new coach.

3 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels didn’t just fail as a coach in Denver; he failed as an organizational leader with a plan. As a result, the Broncos’ wagon is hitched to Tim Tebow, and the team is missing draft picks because of trades for failed players like Laurence Maroney and Brady Quinn. Denver is a mess, and the new head coach will need significant front-office help to turn things around. Holdover QB Kyle Orton can play at an above-average level, and Tebow has unique skills that a coach could potentially develop. And the receiving corps has Brandon Lloyd, who broke out this year, and promising rookie Demaryius Thomas. Knowshon Moreno is also an asset if he can stay healthy, and the offensive line is in decent shape. But the defense is a complete mess, never making the transition to a 3-4. The secondary is full of older players like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins who won’t be able to perform at their traditional level for many more years. Denver ownership traditionally gives head coaches carte blance, but that came back to bite the Broncos with McDaniels, leaving a mess for the next coach. A defensive guru is probably the best fit, given the team’s massive needs on that side of the ball.

2 – Oakland Raiders – Tom Cable’s contract expires, and signs right now are that Al Davis will not exercise the option to keep him. That’s surprising, because Cable was able to lead the Raiders to finally snap a long string of double-digit-loss seasons this year. Cable went 8-8, running the table in the AFC West in the process. Oakland finally established an identity here as a rushing team behind Darren McFadden, who finally realized his potential, and Michael Bush. And the Raiders have a solid group of young receivers, led by Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and Zach Miller, despite the fact that ’09 first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey has been a disappointment. Jason Campbell is an average quarterback who can succeed with a strong running game. And on defense, the additions of Kamerion Wimbley and Richard Seymour in recent years has added punch to the pass rush that was much needed. Rookies Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston were big hits in their first years. And Nnamdi Asomugha is still one of the league’s best corners. So the Raiders finally have the arrow pointed upward, despite an inconsistent organization that vacilitates based on Davis’ whims. Cable is succeeding in it, as did Jon Gruden a decade ago, but the situation is not for everyone. That’s what gives Cable a chance of sticking around even after hanging in the wind.

1 – Cincinnati Bengals – Marvin Lewis’ contract expired in Cincinnati, and while it appears that he will stay in town, we included the Bengals. Lewis is apparently willing to walk away over some of the cost-saving ways in the dysfunctional land of the Bengals, most notably an indoor practice facility and the razor-slim scouting staff. It’s unclear whether those issues will be addressed to Lewis’ satisfaction. Cincinnati has talent on the roster, but that’s largely because they take character risks more often than just about any other team in the draft, not because of good scouting. As a result, when things are good on the field, the Bengals can keep the ball rolling, but when things go south, things fall apart quickly. It’s hard to imagine a coach changing that culture immediately, especially since owner/GM Mike Brown is set in his ways. Plus, Brown tends to be cheap off the field, which makes the working environment less appealing than in other places. Still, the roster offers hope. QB Carson Palmer hasn’t had his best year, but he’s still got a strong arm, and he can be a solution instead of a problem in the right system. And while the Bengals don’t have a ton of stars (aside from diva receivas Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who’s a free agent), they have a plethora of above-average players all around the field. A coach won’t get the control he craves in Cincinnati, but it’s possible to win there. The real challenge is to build consistency from year to year with a fragile locker room.

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Cowboys/Giants Thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week we focused on the Jason Garrett bowl, as the Cowboys took advantage of their fresh start with a 33-20 win in the Meadowlands.

Dez Bryant's TD catch, via espn.com

On-field perspective
*Who knows if Jason Garrett brought a fresh perspective to the Cowboys, but the fact that the Cowboys got off to a quick start made a huge difference. Dallas was able to build on its early success, and once they took a 20-point lead, they never lost it. We’ll have to see if the Cowboys can bounce back from a deficit, but this was a good start for Garrett.
*The Cowboys’ defense was far from special, going without a sack. But the Cowboys had two picks, including one that Bryan McCann returned for a touchdown. Paul Pasqualoni’s new defense focuses more on a zone defense, which should help Dallas’ sorry secondary, but giving up 373 passing yards isn’t exactly a rousing start. Dallas still has issues despite the win.
*The Cowboys’ offense worked better, although that might have been a statement on the Giants than a Jon Kitna success story. Kitna thew for 327 yards with just 13 completions, but he made big plays to Felix Jones, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and even Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett. The best sign was that five different Cowboys went for 25-plus-yard plays. If the Cowboys can use all their weapons, they’ll start to get out of the hole they dug themselves.
*The Giants, meanwhile, never rebounded from their slow start. Despite big passing numbers, Eli Manning didn’t keep the offense moving consistently, and the receivers didn’t help him because of drops. But the biggest problem came on two fourth-and-1 plays in the fourth quarter on which the Giants failed (punting once into the end zone and getting Brandon Jacobs stuffed on another). A first down in either situation would have helped the Giants cut a 13-point deficit into a one-score situation, but the Giants failed both times.
*Bryant is a phenomenal player, and he’ll soon beat out Williams and Austin to be the Cowboys’ prime target – even though Williams and Austin are both playing on huge contracts. Drafting Bryant was a great move, but Jerry Jones complicated things by giving Austin a huge contract just before the season. Austin’s a good player, but he’ll be making way too much money to be Bryant’s complement.

Fantasy Football perspective
*We covered Jon Kitna, Mario Manningham, and Felix Jones in this week’s Applaud or a Fraud (which we posted early). Check out our thoughts there.

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Cowboys Wade out, but still in deep end

Coach Phillips

Image by jason.s via Flickr

I like Wades. I have a nephew named Wade who’s a trip. My hometown has an unbelievable meat-and-three diner called Wade’s. I like wading in a creek or on the edge of the ocean. And, though I’ve never met him, I like Wade Phillips. He’s a fine defensive coordinator and has been at least a decent head coach in four stops with an 82-61 record. Wade Phillips is a likeable guy. But Wade Phillips’ team, the Dallas Cowboys, have gone into the abyss this season.

So Wade Phillips is out – fired as the Cowboys’ head coach by Jerry Jones on Monday. Phillips is the sacrificial lamb for a team that has completely imploded with sloppy play, dropped passes, and unmet potential. Given Dallas’ abysmal play – throughout the season and especially in Sunday night’s 45-7 embarrassment in Green Bay – Phillips simply had to go. Something had to change if the Cowboys wanted to get anything positive out of the second half of the season, and that something is Phillips.

The firing doesn’t get the Cowboys out of the deep end. Dallas still has a ton of problems – a running game that has been bad because of backs, Marion Barber and Felix Jones, who have lost their burst; a backup quarterback in Jon Kitna who turns the ball over way too much; an offensive line that just isn’t any good; a secondary that is playing far below its previous level, especially CB Mike Jenkins; receivers like Miles Austin and Roy Williams who have talent but not consistency; and on and on. Despite solid talent, the Cowboys don’t have performance. Ultimately, Jerry Jones blamed Phillips for that, and coaches have to be responsible. It’s their job to coax results out of talented players. Phillips didn’t do that this year. But the players have to face the fact that they’re 1-7 because they have played poorly. It’s their fault just as much as Phillips’ fault.

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, once a golden boy but now a whipping boy for his play-calling, now gets an eight-game look as a head coach. This may be his one chance to prove he can be an NFL head coach. Garrett needs to show head-coach skills in organization, game-planning, and overall approach to get a job, if not in Dallas than elsewhere in the NFL. If not, he’ll be an interim head coach who likely has to go elsewhere to be a coordinator again. It’s smart of Jones to put pressure on Garrett by appointing him, and not a retread like Dave Campo or Paul Pasqualoni, as interim head coach. The season is already sunk in the deep end; instead of trying to salvage a few wins, getting a good read on Garrett’s capability is evaluation that helps the Cowboys make a plan moving forward.

The Cowboys aren’t getting out of the deep end in 2010, and our predicition is that Garrett isn’t the one to lead them back to dry land, much less the Promised Land. The one beacon of hope for the Cowboys is that players will get the message from this firing that they must do better. If that doesn’t happen, the Cowboys will be sinking instead of swimming in the future just as as they are last year – only Wade Phillips won’t be around to be the fall guy next time.

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Draft: First-round thoughts

The first round of the 2010 NFL draft is in the books, and we have thoughts on what happened – and what should have. Some of these are the best of our draft-night tweets; others are thoughts on further reflection. We’ll go by division so you can easily compare teams against their biggest rivals. We’ll do a full draft recap next week after all seven rounds are complete; in the meantime we’ll tweet more thoughts throughout the weekend.

AFC East
At pick 9, Buffalo picked RB C.J. Spiller, which was a bit of a surprise. But Spiller was the most explosive offensive player available, and those picks between 7 and 10 didn’t really offer wonderful value. So we approve of the Bills taking the best available guy. We had Jimmy Clausen projected to go to Buffalo in our mock, and if the Bills like him they can still move up a few spots in the second round to get him. … The Dolphins started the night with the 12th pick, but they traded down to 28 and still got a solid 3-4 defensive end in Jared Odrick. Miami added the 40th overall pick in the deal (while giving up a sixth and moving back in the fourth), so they got great value for the move and got back a pick better than the one they traded for Brandon Marshall. The Fins could target a pass-rusher like Everson Griffen at 40 and end up really helping their front 7. … The Patriots started at 22, traded down twice and turned a fourth into a third, and still ended up with CB Devin McCourty, who they probably would have taken at 22. Give the Patrtiots credit for actually pulling the trigger and taking the guy they wanted instead of trying to extract value to the point that they didn’t get someone who could help now. … The Jets stayed put at 29 and got lucky that Kyle Wilson came to them. As Peter King said, Wilson teams with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to give the Jets a murderer’s row of corners that could help them leap over the Colts’ passing game in the AFC.

AFC North
The Browns got stuck at 7, which was the start of the second tier of prospects, as Pro Football Talk correctly diagnosed. In that situation, CB Joe Haden was a fine choice. Haden was the top corner in the draft, and he’ll help, and moving down wouldn’t have gained the Browns much. Now today, the Browns are in position to get Clausen or Colt McCoy, who seems to be more their style. … The Steelers took C Maurkice Pouncey at 18, which was a solid pick who really addressed a huge need. That’s not glamourous, but it will work. … The Bengals took TE Jermaine Gresham at 21 (as we projected in our mock), and that will really help their offense. This is an over-the-top move for the Bengals, but they have built their roster to the point that such a pick makes sense. … The Ravens traded out of the 25th pick, moving down to 43 with their first pick while adding third and fourth rounders. In a deep draft, that’s not a bad strategy. We’ll see if they can add some defensive end depth with their picks today.

AFC South
The Jaguars at 10 took the biggest reach in the first round in taking Tyson Alualu. But if the Jaguars believe Alualu was the best defensive tackle left, and if they couldn’t trade down, the pick is excusable. Maybe Jacksonville should have traded down, but maybe the value for such a move wasn’t there. Regardless, they had better hope Alualu pans out. … The Titans at 16 had to get a defensive end, and while they apparently coveted Jason Pierre-Paul, Derrick Morgan is a terrific consolation prize. Given the prowess of DL coach Jim Washburn, Morgan might be the luckiest guy in the draft. … The Texans at 20 didn’t get a shot at Ryan Mathews because of the Chargers’ big move, so picking a cornerback in Kareem Jackson made sense. Michael Smith did a great job explaining why Jackson, not Kyle Wilson, was the Texans’ choice. … Most people had the Colts at 31 looking at the offensive line, but DE Jerry Hughes is a Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis type of small but speedy pass rusher. He’s a perfect fit for Indy’s system.

AFC West
The Chiefs made lots of noise about whether they would take S Eric Berry at 5, but he was the right guy. K.C. already has invested a first-rounder in LT Branden Albert, and Berry was the only option worth that pick. As we tweeted, he can be the Rodney Harrison in this Patriots-style defense. … At 8, the Raiders picked one of the most solid players in the draft in LB Rolando McClain. McClain might have been a tiny bit of a reach, but if he plays well for Oakland this will go down as a great pick and a great value for Oakland. We have nothing but props for Al Davis after this pick. … The Chargers gave up the 40th pick (the Charlie Whitehurst reward) to move up from 28 to 12 to take RB Ryan Mathews. He fits a need, and the Chargers have always been aggressive about getting the guy they want in the draft. Maybe they overpaid, but this contending team filled it’s biggest need, and that’s a good thing. … We had anticipated the Broncos taking WR Demaryius Thomas in the first round at no. 11, and so it made sense to us that Denver took him over Dez Bryant at 22. The Football Scientist K.C. Joyner liked the pick, and we do too, although the ESPN report that the Broncos said Thomas reminded them of Brandon Marshall made Josh McDaniels look petty. But that pick was far better than McDaniels’ decision to move back in the first round to take QB Tim Tebow. Tebow has great intangibles, but he’s such a project that he won’t help the Broncos now. McDaniels has the confidence he can develop Tebow; we don’t – as this sarcastic tweet proved. With all its wheeling and dealing, the Broncos turned their second-rounder into a first and their fourth-rounder into a third, so McDaniels did a good job there.

NFC East
The Redskins had no choice but to take an offensive tackle at No. 4, given their needs and lack of draft picks, and they took the right one in Trent Williams. Williams has all the athleticism and skills to be Mike Shanahan’s next Ryan Clady; now Williams must prove he has the desire to do so. … The Eagles leapt up from 24 to 13 to take Brandon Graham, and it makes a lot of sense. The Eagles know how to get the most out of speedy pass rushers from defensive end, and Graham was the best of that type of player available. Giving up two thirds to move up was a stout price, but for a contender such a move makes sense. … The Giants missed out on Rolando McClain, so they added a defensive end (as they usually do) by drafting Jason Pierre-Paul. JPP is a great physical specimen, and Mike Mayock praised his consistent effort. Tools plus effort should spell success for Pierre-Paul. Now the question is whether Pierre-Paul’s arrival on the clock means Osi Umenyiora is on the block. … The Cowboys also moved up, from 27 to 24, to ensure they got WR Dez Bryant once Bryant fell down the boards. Bryant is a physical freak, and Jerry Jones decided he wasn’t passing on a Randy Moss type of talent again. While receiver wasn’t the Cowboys’ great need, Bryant was a good value.

NFC North
The Lions got not just a great player but a great fit for the defense in DT Ndamukong Suh at No. 2. He got high praise from MovetheSticks.com. Then Detroit traded back into the first round to take RB Jahvid Best at 30. Best is a talented breakaway back, but the question is if he can stay healthy enough to be a true building block. Still, he’s worth a shot for the Lions. … The Packers stayed put at 23 and lucked into OT Bryan Bulaga (which made Aaron Rodgers happy). We’re not sold on Bulaga as a for-sure left tackle, but the Packers have needs at both tackles in the long term and at guard in the short term, and Bulaga can answer those needs. At 23, he was a no-brainer. … The Vikings, slated to pick 30, traded with the Lions to move down four slots. They have the second pick tonight, but trading down cost them a shot at Patrick Robinson, the last of the first-round corners. That might be a sore spot in the Vikes’ war room today. … The Bears gave up their first-rounder in the Jay Cutler trade, and they’re not on the clock until midway through the third round tonight.

NFC South
The Buccaneers got an ideal Warren Sapp/John Randle style of three-technique defensive tackle in their 4-3 defense by picking Gerald McCoy at No. 3. McCoy apparently has the personality to be a team leader, not just a dominator, which is a big plus as well. … Atlanta got left out of the defensive end run, so at 19 they took OLB Sean Witherspoon. Witherspoon should help bring more dynamic play to a linebacker corps that features a good young middle ‘backer in Curtis Lofton but no big-play makers. … New Orleans took CB Patrick Robinson at No. 32, which was good value. That could allow the Saints to move last year’s first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins to free safety to replace Darren Sharper. Regardless, Robinson adds depth to an area that was exposed even in the Super Bowl last year. … Carolina didn’t have a first-round pick, and now they must fight the temptation to trade next year’s first to move up in the second round to take Clausen or Colt McCoy. The first two hours of tonight’s festivities will tell us a lot about the Panthers’ willpower.

NFC West
The Rams did what they had to do in taking QB Sam Bradford. He’s a building block who has a full tool belt himself but not a lot of co-laborers. (Proof positive: This stat from Michael Smith.) St. Louis still has a long way to go talent-wise, but if they can keep Bradford together physically and mentally, he’ll be a part of the solution. … Seattle had two picks at 6 and 14, and in both spots good players slipped to them. The Seahawks should consider themselves lucky to land OT Russell Okung and S Earl Thomas. As we tweeted, it’s a much-needed talent upgrade for the Hawks. … San Francisco got tough with its two picks, trading up two spots to take OT Anthony Davis at 11 and then taking OG Mike Iupati at 17. Those guys should help a run game that sputtered last year and provide some punch to an offense for a team with a playoff-ready defense already. … The Cardinals stood pat at 26 and ended up getting NT Dan Williams, who’s a great find at that point in the draft. Williams may not be a game changer, but he can plug the nose of the defense well enough to set other playmakers like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell free. The Cards, like the Jets and Packers, had the first round break just right for them.

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FR: Coaching hot seats

It’s still really early in the season, but the coaching hot seat is already starting to heat up. So we thought we’d use Football Relativity to identify the hottest seats for head coaches around the league. We’re comparing these on a 10-point scale, with 1 being a backburner that’s barely lit and 10 being a red-hot seat.

We asked our readers over on the Most Valuable Network’s Football Wire to vote for the coach with the hottest seat, and we’ll give more thoughts about the “winner” of this comparison in this post over on MVN.

10 – Eric Mangini, Browns – (0-2 this year in 1st season with Cleveland, 23-28 including playoffs in 4th season overall) – Mangini was the choice of Most Valuable Network readers as the coach most on the hot seat. We spell out why below. (We moved our original MVN post to the bottom of this one…)

9 – Jack Del Rio, Jaguars – (0-2 this year, 51-50 including playoffs in 7th season with Jacksonville) – Del Rio’s my way or the highway approach has often led him into contentious relationships with players (including Mike Peterson), and Del Rio had the pull to clear the locker room of his detractors in the offseason. But after doing that, Del Rio will have to deliver, or else his tenure in Jacksonville becomes debatable. Del Rio has had a couple of really good seasons in Jacksonville, but the arrow appears pointed down at this point as the Jags look listless following up on a 5-11 campaign in 2008. The fact that Del Rio is signed through 2012 could save him for another year, given the Jaguars’ financial troubles related to ticket sales, but Del Rio needs to pile up some wins and provide some hope to make sure he sticks around.

8 – Wade Phillips, Cowboys – (1-1 this year, 23-12 including playoffs in 3rd season in Dallas, 71-54 including playoffs in 9th season overall) – Jerry Jones has always seemed to view Phillips as the coach he settled for and not the coach he wanted. Phillips has done an OK job in Dallas, but he hasn’t gotten the playoff win that has eluded the franchise since the mid-1990s, and until he does that he will always be on the hot seat. Phillips is 0-4 in the playoffs in all of his stops, which compounds the playoffs issue for him. The fact that flashy options like Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher will be available after the season should make any Jones employee nervous, because we know Jerry loves to make headlines. So Phillips needs a big year to stick around in 2010.

7 – Jim Zorn, Redskins – (1-1 this year, 9-9 in 2nd year with Washington) – Zorn got a win last week against the Rams, but that was a win of the ugliest variety. He is not nearly out of the woods yet, because Redskins owner Daniel Snyder always has high expectations and a spendthrift approach but never has much patience. Zorn went 8-8 in his first year in a tough division, which is an OK result, but thus far Washington has looked less able to compete in the NFC East this year than it was in ’08.

6 – none

5  – John Fox, Panthers – (0-2 this year, 68-54 including playoffs in his 8th season in Carolina) – Fox has done a solid job in Carolina, and he has gotten plenty of rope despite inconsistency year to year. But his contract is up in 2010, and Carolinian Bill Cowher lurks as a potential replacement. So Fox needs to record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in his career to make his job completely safe. His team’s 0-2 start has only increased the temperature of the burner he’s on. Fox stuck with Jake Delhomme in the offseason, which may end up being his downfall. Delhomme must play better and the Panthers must win, or else we could see Fox’s long tenure in Carolina end.

5 (con’t) – Dick Jauron, Bills – (1-1 this year, 22-28 in 4th season in Buffalo, 58-77 in 10th season overall) – Jauron is off to another solid start in Buffalo, but that’s no guarantee of future success. Remember that the Bills started 4-0 last year before stumbling to a 7-9 start. Jauron has gone 7-9 in each of his three seasons in Buffalo, and owner Ralph Wilson seems to have accelerated the win-now pressure by signing Terrell Owens. The Bills don’t have a good enough roster to win a championship, but if they match their effort of the first two weeks and avoid gagging away a game as they did against New England, they could sneak into a playoff spot. It may take that for Jauron to keep his gig.

4 – Gary Kubiak, Texans – (1-1 this year, 23-27 in 4th season in Houston) – The time is now for Kubiak and the Texans, who have enough offensive and defensive talent to finally get the franchise over the 8-8 hump and into the playoffs. Last week’s win at Tennessee made that look like more of a possibility. Road wins have traditionally been scarce for the Texans, so beating a division rival away from home was a good sign. But Kubiak needs more than good signs this year to continue guiding the high-powered Texans attack.

3 – Tom Cable, Raiders (1-1 this season, 5-9 in 2nd season in Oakland) – Cable actually has the Raiders playing well thus far, continuing the solid finish of last year. He deserves some time to see if he can turn this positive momentum into actual progress in Oakland. But Raider-land is so bizarre that you never know when Cable will run afoul of owner Al Davis, and there’s also the lingering issue of Tom Cable’s Punch Out in a coaching meeting. Still, the burner is turned down low on Cable right now because he’s done a decent job.

2 – Marvin Lewis, Bengals – (1-1 this season, 47-51-1 including playoffs in 7th season in Cincinnati) – Bengals coaches traditionally get a lot more slack than other coaches because Cincy’s ownership is so penurious that it doesn’t want to pay a coach who is no longer coaching. But Lewis seems to have the Bengals playing pretty well so far, as they have beaten Green Bay on the road and are an all-time fluke play away from being 2-0. Last year was actually Lewis’ first year with less than seven wins in Cincy, so he’s done a decent job on the whole. If he can get back into the 8- or 9-win range this year, he should be able to stick around.

2 (con’t) – Lovie Smith, Bears (1-1 this year, 48-38 including playoffs in 6th year with Chicago) – Smith got a big win over the Steelers in Week 2 that will help to keep whispers about his job from festering. Smith took over defensive playcalling duties from coordinator Bob Babich this year, which is often a move that’s designed to avoid a firing. The Bears still need to carry on and compete for Smith to be completely safe, especially given the expectations that came with the arrival of Jay Cutler, but Smith’s solid tenure in Chicago should continue with another winning season.

1 – Brad Childress, Vikings – (2-0 this year, 26-25 including playoffs in 4th year with Minnesota) – Childress went all-in by signing Brett Favre, and his Minnesota team has gotten off to a good start with two solid if unspectacular road wins. But we can’t take Childress completely off the hot seat because all he’s done is beat two of the worst teams in the league, the Lions and Browns. If his team is 4-4 at midseason, the temperature on his tuckus will quickly ratchet up.

Archive on Mangini:

Yesterday, we asked Football Wire readers which NFL head coach was on the hottest seat in the NFL. The choice was Cleveland’s Eric Mangini. You can see how Mangini compares to other NFL coaches on the hot seat in our Football Relativity comparison.
Mangini’s first season in Cleveland has been a comedy of errors. In his attempt to be like his estranged mentor Bill Belichick, Mangini has tried to rule with an iron hand in Cleveland even more than he did in his three years with the Jets. But many of these moves have made Mangini look like a petty control freak, and players are noticing. To wit:

*Mangini forced team rookies to take a 10-hour bus trip (one way) to work his youth football camp. Mangini himself took a private plane to the camp on the way there before criticism caused him to ride the bus back (with his head between his legs, likely).

*Mangini forced players to practice at full speed in terrible weather early in training camp. WR Syndric Steptoe suffered a season-ending injury during the practice, and afterwards Steptoe’s agent blamed Mangini for it.

*Mangini fined a Browns player $1,701 for not paying for a $3 bottle of water he took out of a hotel minibar.

*Mangini, pretending he was smarter than everyone else, didn’t identify whether Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson would start at quarterback for the Browns leading up to the opener. Quinn started, and the Browns lost. (Don’t blame Brady; Derek Anderson would have lost too.)

*All this has reportedly caused some agents  to say that they won’t recommend their players sign with Cleveland, even when the Browns offer more money.

Mangini’s arrogance and his players-don’t-matter attitude simply won’t fly in the long run if he doesn’t win. And if his team continues to stink out loud as it is right now, there might well be an out-and-out player revolt in Cleveland before the end of the year.

Mangini isn’t taking the Browns in the right direction, and instead appears to be burying the franchise further in the doldrums. That should put him on the hot seat, if ownership (which was so eager to hire Mangini in the offseason) is willing to admit its mistake after just a season. The temperature on Mangini’s hot seat ultimately will come down to Randy Lerner’s willingness to eat some humble pie.

Browns fans better hope Lerner is hungry enough to win to eat that meal, because Mangini has quickly put together a train wreck of a tenure in the Dawg Pound.

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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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