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FR: Preseason injuries

Each year, the preseason is full of injuries big and small. In this post, we seek to compare the importance of injuries that will sideline players for the entire season. We’re focusing only on injuries that happened in the preseason and in training camps. We will update this post through the fourth preseason game, both with new injuries and with official news that hurt players will miss the season.

Ryan Williams, via revengeofthebirds.com

10 – CB Terrell Thomas, Giants – Thomas had a breakout season last year, his second as a starter. He had five interceptions, a whopping 21 passes defensed, and four forced fumbles. He had emerged as a top-tier starting cornerback, and was preparing to cash in on the free agent market after the season. But then he suffered a torn ACL in the second preseason game against the Bears. Losing Thomas is a huge blow to the Giants – especially since rookie corner Prince Amakamura has missed most of camp because of injury. The Giants are now thin at a key position, and they’ll be playing without the best playmaker in their defensive back seven.

10 (con’t) – Browns OLG Eric Steinbach – Steinbach, a long-time starter for both Ohio teams, suffered a back injury that he couldn’t come back from. That’s a blow for the Browns, who don’t have a ton of veteran leadership anywhere – or a solid option to replace Steinbach.

10 (con’t) – TE Tony Moeaki, Chiefs -Moeaki, who had a strong rookie season for the Chiefs, suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale and landed on injured reserve. It’s a huge loss for the Chiefs, who relied on Moeaki as a consistent receiving threat last season. There’s no one on the roster with anywhere near the level of skill Moeaki had.

9 – Redskins DE Jarvis Jenkins – Jenkins, a second-round pick this year, had earned a starting job on Washington’s rebuilt defensive line at left end. But his strong rookie push ended in the third preseason game against the Ravens when he tore his ACL. Jenkins will miss the season. It’s a huge blow to Washington, which doesn’t have a ton of depth at defensive end and certainly doesn’t have a player to step in and make the impact Jenkins was starting to make.

9 (con’t) – TE John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson is a solid starter at tight end, but a shoulder injury will shelve him for the season. It’s a blow for the Seahawks, but they signed Zach Miller in the offseason, who is an upgrade over Carlson. Still, it’s a blow for a productive youngster approaching free agency to miss an entire season.

9 (con’t) – MLB Jonathan Goff, Giants – Goff emerged as a starter at middle linebacker in his third season in 2010 and had a solid year. That led some observers to expect a breakout contract year in 2011. Instead, like fellow free-agent-to-be Terrell Thomas, Goff will miss the entire season after an ACL injury suffered in practice leading up to Week 1. It’s a another body blow to a Giants defense that has sustained too many this offseason.

8 – Cardinals RB Ryan Williams – Williams, the Cardinals’ second-round pick, looked to be a challenger to Beanie Wells’ starting job. But in the second preseason game against the Packers, Williams ruptured his patella tendon. He will miss the season.

8 (con’t) – Lions RB Mikel Leshoure – Leshoure, the Lions’ second-round pick, was expected to be the inside threat to pair with Jahvid Best. But Leshoure tore his Achilles in training camp and will miss the season. That’s a huge blow for the Lions, who have playoff aspirations after years of struggles but who don’t have a ton of depth – especially at running back.

7 – Panthers DT Ron Edwards – A couple of days after we discussed how important Edwards was to the Panthers, he suffered a torn triceps that will cost him the season. It’s a big blow to the Panthers, who were counting on Edwards to upgrade a thin position.

7 (con’t) – Panthers OG Geoff Schwartz – Schwartz, expected to be a starter this year at right guard, has a hip problem that will cost him the season. That’s a blow for a Panthers team that looked to have some offensive line continuity this year after missing Jeff Otah all last season.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs ILB Brandon Siler – Siler tore his Achilles in practice after the second preseason game, and will miss the season. He was signed from San Diego to be a starter and key player against the run, so his injury is a big blow to the Chiefs.

6 – Panthers WR David Gettis – Gettis, a second-year player who was on pace to start across from Steve Smith for the Panthers, tore his ACL and will miss the season. Gettis had a surprising rookie season with 37 catches for 508 yards and three TDs, so he will be missed. Now the Panthers need signee Legedu Naanee to emerge as a starter.

6 (con’t) – Cardinals CB Greg Toler – Toler, a third-year player, started 13 games for Arizona last year and was holding off Patrick Peterson for a starting job this year. But a torn left ACL suffered in the third preseason game will take Toler off the field this season. Now Peterson must be ready to start from Day 1, and the Cardinals also need to find some cornerback depth.

6 (con’t) – Jaguars RB Rashad Jennings – Jennings has proven to be a solid backup for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and Jones-Drew’s injury problems last year gave Jennings more of a role. But a knee injury will sideline Jennings for the year, leaving Deji Karim as the backup in Jacksonville.

5- Browns P Reggie Hodges – Hodges, who finally seized a full-time job in Cleveland last year (anda  former Crazy Kicker of the Week), suffered a torn Achilles during camp and will miss the season. The Browns brought in Richard McGee to fill in, but they’ll undoubtedly be checking the waiver wire to see if a veteran punter they like shakes free.

5 (con’t) – Giants DT Marvin Austin – Austin, a first-round level talent whom the Giants took in the second round after he missed the 2010 season due to NCAA rule violations, suffered a torn left pec and will miss the season. It’s a blow to the Giants, and now Austin will try to return from two years off the field – which won’t be an easy task.

5 (con’t) – Bills ILB Reggie Torbor – Torbor, who started seven games for the Bills last year, suffered a shoulder injury that will cost him the season. As a result, he’ll miss the season. The Bills signed Kirk Morrison to replace Torbor, which should be an upgrade, at least on running downs.

5 (con’t) – Browns RB Brandon Jackson – Jackson was one of Cleveland’s few free-agent signings this offseason. He was going to be a third-down back with receiving skills to supplement Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty. But a toe injury will cost the former Packer the season.

4 – Titans CB Ryan Mouton – Mouton, who has played cornerback and been a key special teams player, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will be out for the year. The 2009 third-round pick lost his returner job after several fumbles in 2009, but he was growing into a solid extra corner.

4 (con’t) – Steelers QB Byron Leftwich – Leftwich was in the running for the Steelers’ backup QB job, but he broke his left arm against the Falcons in the third preseason game and will miss the season. It’s not a huge blow for the Steelers, who still have Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch in reserve.

4 (con’t) – Panthers OG Garry Williams – Williams had a chance to emerge as a starter at right guard for the Panthers after Geoff Schwartz’s injury, but he suffered a broken leg against the Steelers in the preseason finale and will miss the season. Williams was on the way to a roster spot, and losing him at a position of need was a big blow for the Panthers.

4 (con’t) – Giants OLB Clint Sintim – Sintim, a former second-round pick, was trying to come back from an ACL injury last season. But he tore the patella tendon in the same right knee he injured last year in the preseason finale, and will miss the year. Sintim was Mathias Kiwanuka’s backup and a versatile player, so losing him is certainly a blow to Big Blue.

4 (con’t) – Bengals TE Bo Scaife – Scaife, a free-agent signee this year, was supposed to be a versatile companion to Jermaine Gresham at tight end. Scaife’s a better blocker than Gresham while still being an effective receiver, but the Bengals’ WR depth should allow them to work around Scaife’s season-ending shoulder injury.

4 (con’t) – Seahawks DT Jimmy Wilkerson – Wilkerson, who has bounced around the league, suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game. He will miss the season. Seattle claimed Landon Cohen (fellow Spartanburg High School alum!) to replace Wilkerson.

3 – Giants CB Brian Witherspoon – Witherspoon, a backup corner, was the third Giants corner (after Terrell Thomas and Bruce Johnson) to be lost for the season. The ex-Jaguar and Lion, who played one game last season, was having a good camp and had a good chance to not only make the team but contribute until he, like Thomas, tore his ACL against the Bears. It’s another loss at a position getting deeper and deeper each day.

3 (con’t) – Broncos TE Richard Quinn – Quinn, a second-round pick in Josh McDaniels’ first draft in Denver, suffered an MCL injury early in the season, and Denver decided to put him on injured reserve. Quinn is a blocking tight end, but he looks to be getting caught up in the transition from McDaniels’ regime to the John Elway/John Fox group. Still, he once was a prospect, and losing his talent hurts.

3 (con’t) – Cardinals QB Max Hall – Hall, whom the Cardinals viewed as a potential future starter last year when he was an undrafted rookie, was waived injured after suffering a second injury to his non-throwing shoulder. After adding Kevin Kolb, the Cards only want to develop one young backup, and John Skelton is going to be the guy. Hall landed on injured reserve.

3 (con’t) – Broncos CB Syd’Quan Thompson – Thompson, a reserve cornerback for the Broncos, suffered a torn Achilles in the final preseason game. He will miss the season, taking away some of the Broncos’ secondary depth.

3 (con’t) Jets QB Greg McElroy – McElroy, a rookie, had played well as a No. 3 developmental quarterback until a thumb injury in the preseason finale shelved him. He’ll miss the season and more importantly the development he could have had as a rookie.

2 – Eagles DE Victor Abiamiri – Abiamiri suffered a ruptured Achilles and will miss the season. It’s the second straight season he’ll miss, after microfracture surgery on his knee sidelined him in 2010. Abiamiri, a 2007 second-round pick, had grown into a solid defensive end backup before his 2010 injury, but now his career has to be in question.

2 (con’t) – Steelers RB Baron Batch – Batch, a seventh-round rookie out of Texas Tech, was making a strong case for a roster spot before he tore his ACL in training camp. Now, he will miss the season.

2 (con’t) – Giants CB Bruce Johnson – Johnson, a third-year pro, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will miss the season. A knee injury cost him most of the 2010 season, but he had shown in 2009 that he’s a decent rotation cornerback. So it’s a loss for the Giants.

2 (con’t) – Vikings OG Scott Kooistra – Kooistra, a journeyman vet who was trying to win a job with Minnesota, suffered a serious neck injury in the second preseason game against the Seahawks. The injury could be career-ending.

1- 49ers TE Nate Byham – Byham, who developed immediately into a solid blocking tight end as a rookie last year, suffered a torn ACL early in camp and will miss the season. Byham was a sixth-round pick in 2010.

1 (con’t) – Saints OT Alex Barron – Barron, a first-round bust who was trying to win a job with the Saints, injured his knee in the preseason and will miss the season.

1 (con’t) – Bengals LB Roddrick Muckleroy – Muckelroy suffered a torn Achilles in the first week of Bengals camp and will miss the season. The 2010 fourth-round pick played 14 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Panthers OG Zack Williams – Williams, a sixth-round pick, suffered a torn ACL and will miss his rookie season.

1 (con’t) – 49ers CB Curtis Holcomb – Holcomb, a seventh-round pick, suffered a torn Achilles early in training camp and will miss the season.

1 (con’t) – 49ers WR Dontavia Bogan – Bogan, an undrafted rookie, tore his ACL early in training camp.


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The final cuts

Yesterday, we prepared for the coming NFL lockout (or, as reports today suggest, extended negotiating window) by looking at the last signings before the league year ended. Now we’re going to look at the final cuts teams have made before the deadline.

The Bears cut DT Tommie Harris. Image via bearsgab.com

Bears cut DT Tommie Harris, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, and OT Kevin Shaffer – Harris, once the league’s preeminent 4-3 under tackle, has been sapped by injuries and is no longer an impact player. So instead of paying $3 million in offseason bonuses to keep him, the Bears let the former All-Pro go. Harris showed he still had life in his legs with a strong playoff performance against the Seahawks, but at this point he needs to be a featured role player, not a regular starter, so that his legs last longer. Hillenmeyer, a versatile backup and special teams player who had his moments as a starter, is fighting concussions and may not be able to play again. Shaffer, a veteran who served as a third tackle last year, couldn’t hold up as a starter and therefore wasn’t worth the freight.

Redskins cut RB Clinton Portis, OG Derrick Dockery, OLB Andre Carter, and DT Ma’ake Kemeoatu – Portis is going the way of old running backs, and as his performance declines his outsized personality becomes more of a locker-room stumbling block. Dockery, brought back to play guard last year, is a replacement-level player who was making too much money. Carter had a good 2009 season, but he didn’t fit the Redskins’ 3-4 defense in 2010. He could find a nice home as a pass-rushing specialist for a 4-3 team. Kemeoatu’s rebound from an Achilles injury in 2009 didn’t go well, making him too expensive for his performance.

Jets cut NT Kris Jenkins, OT Damien Woody, OLB Vernon Gholston, OLB Jason Taylor, and TE Ben Hartsock – The Jets cleared cap room by letting four vets and one major draft bust go. Jenkins has missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, which means he’ll have to plug in somewhere at a much lower price tag. Woody, the starting right tackle, is also trying to come back from injury. Taylor made a few plays but wasn’t a huge impact player, and retirement is lurking for him. Gholston, on the other hand, missed out on a $9 million contract escalator because he failed to record a sack or forced fumble in his first three years. The former top-6 pick has done nothing to validate his draft stock, and anyone that brings him in would be just taking a flyer on the former Jet.

Broncos cut DE Justin Bannan, NT Jamal Williams, TE Daniel Graham – Bannan and Williams, both signed last year, got $14 million in guarantees to step in and start in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense. But now, with John Fox replacing Josh McDaniels and the 4-3 defense coming in, they became extraneous pieces. They’re just more examples of McDaniels’ epically poor performance as a pro personnel evaluator. Graham, a Mike Shanahan signing, would have made more than $4 million next season, so the Broncos decided on the less costly route. He’s still an elite blocking tight end, and that will get him a job elsewhere, although not at the same price.

Lions cut LB Julian Peterson and RB Kevin Smith – Peterson was once the best all-around linebacker in the game, but as he left his prime he became less of a factor for the Lions. Now that he’s 11 years into his career, it’s fair to assume that Peterson’s best days are past. Maybe he can become a specialist and plug in with a contender somewhere, but his jack of all trades days are done. Smith had a nice first couple of years with the Lions, but he has been set back so much by a 2009 ACL injury that he lost the ability to contribute. Now, after falling behind Jahvid Best and Maurice Morris on the depth chart, he’s been released. If he can show he’s healthy, he could be a decent fill-in somewhere, but that seems like a long shot at this point.

Packers cut TE Donald Lee, S Derrick Martin – Lee has put in some good years with the Pack, but the emergence of JerMichael Finley and the play of Andrew Quarless give the Packers better, cheaper options.

Seahawks cut TE Chris Baker – Baker has had some moments as a receiving tight end, but his chance to back up John Carlson was taken by youngster Cameron Morrah this year.

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Wild-card Saturday thoughts

Let’s reflect on a upset-filled Saturday of wild-card games to open the NFL playoffs.

Seahawks 41, Saints 36
*Matt Hasselbeck isn’t an elite quarterback, especially not at this point in his career, but he showed Saturday that he can still get incredibly hot and carry a team. His four-TD performance featured some beautiful deep throws to Brandon Stokley, Mike Williams, and Cameron Morrah, and he only turned the ball over once against a Saints defense that will give up yards for turnover opportunities. That performance allowed the Seahawks to overcome a 10-point deficit and build a lead.
*Once the Seahawks built a lead, Marshawn Lynch put the game away with an incredible 67-yard touchdown run on which he broke six tackles and eluded a couple others. That run showed Lynch at his best, after a career in which he was good, not great, in Buffalo, and simply mediocre for the Seahawks. But Lynch showed up incredibly at a crucial time with this run.
*Raheem Brock came up big for the Seahawks again. His solid season turned into a good one with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Rams in a win-or-else Week 17 game, and Brock showed up big again with a sack and a forced fumble to help the Seahawks turn the game around in the second quarter.
*S Roman Harper was the goat for the Saints. He got suckered on two big plays, John Carlson’s second TD catch and on Stokley’s big TD catch. He’s not the only defensive player who struggled, but he didn’t help the cause.
*The Saints’ inability to run the ball effectively really stung them in this game. Julius Jones had 59 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had a key fumble and didn’t make yards that weren’t blocked for him. Missing Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, among others, came back to bite the Saints.
*I’m so glad that we got Mike Mayock as the color analyst for the game instead of blowhard Joe Theismann, who butchered the Jets/Bengals playoff game last year. Mayock isn’t flashy, but he sees the game well and stays away from the grand pronouncements that Theismann makes whether or not they’re true. Now that Mayock, who is the NFL Network draft expert, does Notre Dame games on NBC, the Peacock network actually has a great option for a No. 2 team that they don’t need at any time all year. And for that, we are thankful.

Nick Folk celebrates his game-winning field goal

Jets 17, Saints 16
*The key to this game kind of flew under the radar, but it happened on two third-down plays in the second half. Peyton Manning made the “right” decision at the line, based on the defense, by calling running plays, but Dominic Rhodes was stuffed on a third-and-1 and a third-and-7. As a result, the Colts got two field goals and trailed 14-13 instead of getting a touchdown in either spot. Manning is significantly better than either Rhodes or Joseph Addai, and we believe Manning should have taken the game into his own hands on at least one of those plays, instead of simply making the “right” play call.
*The Jets have to be encouraged by their running game, which controlled the ball throughout the second half. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns, and Shonn Greene ran for 70 yards. The Jets’ running game isn’t as unstoppable as it was in last year’s playoffs, and the Colts’ defense is so banged up and inexperience at linebacker that the Jets should have gouged it, but the trend is still a huge plus for Gang Green.
*Antonio Cromartie could have been the goat for the Jets, after giving up a long touchdown play to Pierre Garcon along with several other big catches, but his two kickoff returns in the second half were monstrous. His 41-yard return to start the second half helped to set up the Jets’ first touchdown, and his 47-yard return in the game’s final minute keyed the drive for the game-winning field goal.
*The Colts were not that talented in this game, after losing key skill-position players and a raft of secondary players. The question is whether the Colts can add talent and, as importantly, depth in time to rally in 2011. If not, we could be seeing the denouement of a great decade in Indianapolis.



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OP: Can the Wests be won at home?

One of the things you’ll see from time to time here at Football Relativity is our outlandish prediction. We’ll analyze things that seem far outside of the realm of possibility and try to decide if they’ll happen.

In this post, we’re going to look at two teams leading the West divisions – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-1 Seattle Seahawks. The thing these teams have in common, besides first-place standings, is massive home-field advantages. But can these home-field advantages lead these teams to division titles? Let’s look at the facts and then try to predict the future for these teams this season – even if that prediction ends up being outlandish.

The Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start thanks to home wins over the Chargers and 49ers, along with a road win at Cleveland. Both home wins figured to be tough, at least when looking at the schedule before the season, so the Chiefs’ record is truly a surprise. While the Chargers and 49ers are slipping enough that we don’t want to read too much into these wins, the Chiefs have a lot more weapons than they did last year. Last season, the Chiefs claimed Chris Chambers off waivers from San Diego in a desperate attempt to add explosiveness to their offense. This year, that explosiveness is there in spades. Rookie slot receiver Dexter McCluster and TE Tony Moeaki have both proven to be dangerous targets (along with holdover Dwayne Bowe), and Thomas Jones adds some solid aspects to the running game while Jamaal Charles remains a threat to break a big run at any time. Those targets have helped Matt Cassel overcome a slow start. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense (under new coordinator Charlie Weis) is a legitimate NFL attack. And on defense, the addition of rookie DBs Eric Berry and Javier Arenas, along with bounceback efforts from former first-round disappointments DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LB Derrick Johnson, have made the Chiefs scarier to face. Tamba Hali, one of the few Chiefs’ first-rounders who had performed OK in previous years, had three sacks last week, and Brandon Flowers continues to be a pretty good cornerback. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has pulled the right strings and made the most of the talent available, which is a good sign.

But will it last? Road games at Indianapolis and Houston after this week’s bye will probably drop the Chiefs to 3-2. But K.C. then has home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, along with a winnable road games at Oakland and Denver, mean that winning six or seven of the first nine games is possible. If the Chiefs do that, steal another road game at St. Louis later in the season, and hold serve in five of their six remaining home games, they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6. That’ll be good enough to win the AFC West – to the point that we’ll now make the outlandish prediction that the Chiefs will in fact win their division.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 after a convincing home win against San Francisco and hard-fought win over San Diego this week. This week’s seven-point win is due to Leon Washington’s two kickoff-return touchdowns, which is something the ‘Hawks can’t expect to do every week. Seattle’s offense has been OK, as Matt Hasselbeck has been healthy (which will be easier going forward now that OLT Russell Okung is playing), and TE John Carlson has emerged as a dependable target. Seattle needs receivers to emerge, whether it be reclamation project Mike Williams, promising rookie Golden Tate, or someone else. They also need a run game that produces more. On defense, offseason additions Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons have provided some pass-rush punch, and rookie S Earl Thomas has two interceptions already. The Seahawks have added to their talent base this offseason, although they’re not as far along as the Chiefs are. Still, Pete Carroll has undoubtedly put of jolt of energy into this franchise and the players currently on the roster.

So where does that leave the Seahawks in terms of their division? Seattle is tied with Arizona with a 2-1 record, so the two games between the teams could mean a lot. Arizona is more talented than the Seahawks, but Seattle has more consistent QB play. For Seattle’s playoff hopes, this week’s trip to St. Louis is key, because it’s a winnable road game that can help the “Hawks get to nine wins. Trips to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and San Francisco could also prove fruitful, and if Seattle can win a couple of those and ride home-field advantage to wins against opponents they should beat, big things are possible in Seattle. They’ll likely be favored in every remaining game at home except for perhaps Atlanta’s visit.

But while the schedule looks good, our hunch is that the Seahawks’ lack of depth and premium players will cost them as the season goes along, and they’ll top out at eight wins. Maybe that’s enough to win a flagging NFC West, but our outlandish prediction still leaves Seattle out of the postseason picture.


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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.

10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run. 

10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.

9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.

9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.

8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.

8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.

7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.

7 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.

7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.

7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.

6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.

6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.

5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.

5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.

4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.

4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.

4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.

4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.

3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack.  Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.

3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.

3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.

2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.

1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the  Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.



Filed under Football Relativity

Fantasy Football: Comparing tight ends

Of the skill positions that fantasy football owners care about, none has developed depth more quickly than tight end has in recent years. So as we continue to build our draft board, it’s time to compare the value of the draftable tight ends. We’ll compare these tight ends on a 10-point scale, with 10 denoting the most valuable tight ends and 1 denoting tight ends who are barely draftable. We’ll indicate throughout the comparison what the levels mean.

Remember that for far more fantasy football coverage, you can check out our fantasy football category.

10 – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark is an elite receiver who just happens to play tight end. Last year, he finally played all 16 games and put together a do-everything fantasy season with 100 catches for 1,106 yards (both career highs) and 10 touchdowns. That’s probably the limit of what Clark can do, but the good news for fantasy owners is that even 80 percent of that production makes Clark a no-brainer starter at tight end and a legitimate starter at receiver for leagues that don’t have to start a tight end. He’s the lone tight end to make it onto Tier 2 of our overall draft board.

10 (con’t) – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates had a rebound season last year, setting a career-high with 1,157 receiving yards while making 79 catches, the most he had had since 2005. Gates also scored eight touchdowns, marking the sixth straight year he’s had at least that many. That dependable production is what has made Gates a fantasy stalwart, and the good news on Gates’ stock this year is that Vincent Jackson’s suspension and potential holdout may actually lead to a few more targets for Gates this year. Count on Gates for eight touchdowns as always, but more importantly, count on him for 1,000 yards once again.

*Clark and Gates are the only tight ends on Tier 2. That means they are worth starting as one of two receivers in 10-team leagues that do not require a starting tight end.

9 – Vernon Davis, 49ers – Davis, a former No. 6 overall draft pick, finally lived up to his potential last year, putting up 78 catches for 965 yards and a whopping 13 touchdowns. All of those numbers were career highs by a wide margin, but we don’t need to worry about them being a fluke because his increased production was more of a sign of the light coming on. Davis is a safe bet as an elite tight end, and the only number you can’t expect him to replicate is 13 touchdowns. Trust Davis to get you 8-10 scores, and you’ll still be thrilled with him as a draft pick at the top of Tier 3.

8 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – T-Gon’s first year in Atlanta was a good one, as he put up 83 catches for 867 yards and six touchdowns. The scary thing is that his yardage total was actually his lowest since 2002, which speaks volumes about Gonzalez’s consistency. He’s had at least 63 catches and 773 receiving yards for 11 straight seasons. And this year, if Matt Ryan stays healthy, Gonzalez could see a slight uptick in his numbers. For now, figure on an 80-catch, 800-yard season with six touchdowns, knowing that Gonzalez is capable of numbers that are even a little better. He’s safely on Tier 3 as a top tight end option.

8 (con’t) – Jason Witten, Cowboys – The good news about Witten is that he’s surpassed 90 catches and 1,000 yards in two of the last three seasons, making him an elite yardage producer at tight end. But the bad news is that he’s had more than six touchdowns just once in his seven-year career, and last year he had just two. Because he’s not a consistent red-zone option, we can’t include Witten on the Dallas Clark/Antonio Gates level, and Vernon Davis has the upside to surpass Witten’s numbers as well. But Witten is truly an elite tight end, and if you’re using early picks elsewhere, Witten is a great option as a terrific starter at the position.

*Davis, Gonzalez, and Witten fit on Tier 3 of the draft board, which means their value as receivers is equivalent to the top 25-30 at the position. They are legitimate starters in three-WR leagues without a tight end position.

7 – Brent Celek, Eagles – Last year, Celek put up fantasy numbers that rivaled everyone at the position except Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark, and Antonio Gates. His 76-catch, 971-yard, eight-touchdown season made him a game-changing tight end for fantasy owners. But this year, with Kevin Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb at quarterback, we expect Celek’s numbers to sink just a bit, as we discussed in this post. Celek will still surpass 60 catches or 800 yards, but the inevitable inconsistency of a first-year starting quarterback depresses Celek’s start just a little. He sneaks onto Tier 3 of our draft board, but only barely.

7 (con’t) – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels was on his way to a phenomenal season last year before a knee injury shelved him in Week 8. He was on pace for an 80-catch, 1,038-yard, 10-touchdown season, which would have put him on par with Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates. We won’t move him that far up, especially since his midseason knee injury could hamper him a bit, especially early in the season. But expecting 60-70 catches from Daniels with 800 yards is reasonable, and there’s upside for even more production.

6- JerMichael Finley, Packers – Finley’s second season was a breakout one, as he put up 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns despite missing three midseason games. Finley’s athleticism is stunning, and he and Aaron Rodgers have a great rapport. But Rodgers has perhaps the league’s deepest core of receivers, and that means that Finley’s opportunities are just a bit limited. Finley’s 16-game pace for ’09 – 68 catches for 832 yards and six scores – is a reasonable expectation for his 2010 numbers. That makes him a solid starter.

6 (con’t) – Chris Cooley, Redskins – In an earlier post, we discussed how Cooley has a chance to grow his numbers now that Donovan McNabb is in D.C. So where does that leave Cooley in the tight end pecking order? We see him getting into the 70s with his catch numbers and nearing 800 yards as well. The question is whether Cooley can get back to his solid scoring ways after scoring just three total touchdown in the last two years. We’ll hedge a little bit on that and put Cooley on Tier 4 instead of back among the super-elite at the position.

6 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had a sneaky good season last year, and we’ve already proclaimed that the addition of Jason Campbell should make the Raider tight end even better this year. If that happens, Miller will be a 70-plus catch guy who nears 900 yards. He’s a quality starting tight end whom you can depend on as a Tier 4 draft pick. Note that there’s also a tight end named Zach Miller playing in Jacksonville and be careful to click the right one in your draft.

*Celek, Daniels, Finley, Cooley, and Miller are solid starting tight ends in 10-team leagues. They fit on Tier 4 of the draft board.

5 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe scored a career-high 11 touchdowns last year, and that buoyed his fantasy stock. But that TD percentage is abnormally high for 56 catches and 566 yards, and that causes us to keep Shiancoe’s stock a little lower than it was last year. The uncertainty about Brett Favre’s future, at least right now, is another reason not to bet too heavily on Shiancoe. He’s a borderline fantasy starter at tight end, not a sure-fire starter.

5 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson was one of the few bright spots in a terrible Seahawks season, piling up 51 catches for 574 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers mirrored his rookie-year stats from ’08 and give a good indication of Carlson’s ability. Maybe he gets more chances with Pete Carroll in town this year, or maybe he does about the same. Regardless, he’s a borderline fantasy starter but not a huge upside candidate.

4 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller had a terrific season last year with 76 catches for 789 yards, both career highs, and six touchdowns. But it would be unreasonable to expect Miller to repeat those numbers this year because of the Steelers’ QB situation over the first four games of the season. Our expectation is that the Steelers will struggle to throw the ball with Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon, and Miller’s numbers will suffer as a result. Miller is a starting-quality tight end once Ben Roethlisberger returns, but he falls just below that level because of Big Ben’s suspension.

4 (con’t) – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow had a shockingly good year in ’09 with 77 catches for 884 yards and five touchdowns despite a rotating smorgasboard of inexperienced and/or inefficient quarterbacks. Part of the reason for that was that Winslow was by far the best receiving option of any kind Tampa had. This year, we expect those numbers to slip a little because the Bucs want to develop young receivers Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, and Sammie Stroughter. Josh Freeman’s development, however, could keep Winslow’s numbers from plummeting, as we discussed earlier. Winslow has value as a bye-week fill-in at tight end, and if you wanted to start him in a larger league, we wouldn’t argue, but our hunch is that Winslow’s numbers slip a bit in 2010.

*Shiancoe, Carlson, Miller, and Winslow are potential starters in larger leagues or premium fill-ins in smaller leagues. They fit on the bottom of Tier 4 of the draft board.

3 – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller gets a ton of pub, in part because he scored touchdowns in all three of his playoff games last year. But his season stats of 45 catches, 522 yards, and two touchdowns were more of bye-week fill-in than starter stature. Maybe Keller develops a little bit this year with Mark Sanchez, but remember that the Jets have also added Santonio Holmes, Laveranues Coles, and a full season of Braylon Edwards to their receiving corps. Our hunch is that Keller stays under the 60-catch level and off the top of the tight end list. 

3 (con’t) – Greg Olsen, Bears – As we discussed in this post, offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s arrival in Chicago is not good news for Olsen. Moreover, Olsen’s eight touchdowns last year was a high percentage given his 60 catches, and so it’s reasonable to expect that number to slip as well. Olsen is a bye-week fill-in who has enough upside to merit a draft pick in larger leagues, but don’t expect too much or else you’ll be disappointed.

2 – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey had a decent season with New Orleans, piling up 48 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns despite missing three games. That pace would make him a borderline starter in larger fantasy leagues. However, Shockey hasn’t stayed completely healthy through most of his career, missing at least two games in each of the last three years. That’s enough reason to slot him lower on the draft board than other tight ends whose fantasy numbers are on the same pace.

1 – Kevin Boss, Giants – Some expected Boss to break out as a fantasy tight end last year, but he took a minor step forward instead of a major one. His numbers – 42 catches for 567 yards and five touchdowns – were OK, but they didn’t keep up with the other youngsters who have made tight end an incredibly deep position. It’s fair to expect Boss to match his ’09 numbers, but we don’t foresee another step forward, even a minor one.


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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 15

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

This week we’re going to focus purely on players who should be starting for your team in the fantasy playoffs. That’s a higher standard than we’ve traditionally had in this post, but at this point in the season it’s the info you need to know.


Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Yes, he had a big game this week (331 yards, two touchdowns). But it was against Cleveland. Just move on. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco had a four-touchdown game in the Ravens’ 31-7 blowout of the Bears. But while that’s a solid effort, it comes against a bad defense. So don’t jump Flacco into starting status without looking closely at his opponent. Flacco is a matchup play, not a starter, at this point. Verdict: A fraud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Garrard threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts, which is one of his better games of the year. But take it from someone who is stuck with Garrard as a starter in a 16-team league – fantasy owners can’t start him and feel great about it on a weekly basis. He’s just below starter caliber. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne threw for 349 yards in the Dolphins’ valiant comeback effort in Tennessee, but with just one touchdown and three interceptions he’s simply not starter worthy. He’s a top-20 fantasy quarterback this season, and projects to be even more next season, but for now you can’t start him and hope for a playoff win. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers, producing more than he has in recent weeks. With a game against the Chiefs next week, Palmer is back to solid starter status. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans – Young threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns against the Dolphins, continuing his solid play of late. He’s a top-15 fantasy quarterback, which means he is a borderline fantasy starter in larger leagues. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be afraid to start Young going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber has been a disappointment for fantasy owners, in part because of injury, but he delivered 62 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. While that doesn’t move Barber back into the realm of top-15 backs, but it does mean you can strongly consider starting Barber next week against the Redskins. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – Harrison, who last week played second fiddle to Chris Jennings, this week had the third best rushing game in NFL history with 286 yards. He added three touchdowns just to make those who have claimed and dropped Harrison this year go a little crazier. But all this happened against a terrible Chiefs team, and that makes it hard to project Harrison rushing for a third as many yards next week. Take the chance on him if you want, but we think there are better options for you. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney has had inconsistent yardage totals this year, but he scored a touchdown this week against Buffalo (his first in three weeks) and added 83 rushing yards. He’s not a great starting option for fantasy owners, but at least he is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Maurice Morris, Lions – With Kevin Smith now gone for the season, Morris emerged with 126 rushing yards and a score against a pretty good Cardinals defense. If you’re desperate for a starting option, Morris is a gamble worth looking at. He’s still a long shot, but you’re not crazy if you start him going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Chris “Beanie” Wells, Cardinals – Wells had 110 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Lions this week. Normally, we tend to cast a skeptical eye toward performances against Detroit, but it’s worth noting that Wells has had both 70-plus rushing yards and at least one touchdown in four of his past six games. It looks like this rookie is coming on, and fantasy owners should try to ride the wave. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – Even with Dwayne Bowe back in the lineup, Chambers had a nice game for the Chiefs with five catches for 114 yards and a score. While that came against the lowly Browns, it does indicate that Chambers still has fantasy value. Owners in leagues with 12 teams or less should stay away, but in larger leagues Chambers remains on the starting-lineup radar. That leads to this verdict. Verdict: Applaud

Braylon Edwards, Jets – Few big-name receivers have been as mediocre as Edwards, but he had five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown this week against Atlanta. With Mark Sanchez back, the Jets’ offense will be at least a smidge more potent, but that doesn’t mean Edwards is trustworthy for fantasy owners. He remains an enigma who you should try to bench if you have a better or even a comparable options. Verdict: A fraud

Justin Gage, Titans – Gage had two touchdowns against the Dolphins, but those were his only two catches. Look elsewhere for an emergency fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Few players are as all-or-nothing as Sims-Walker, and that makes him a maddening choice for fantasy owners each and every week. But he had six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against the Colts this week, and he has 758 yards and six touchdowns on the season. So on the whole, he’s a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a touchdown for the second straight week as he had seven catches for 86 yards against Tampa Bay. But that marked the first time in six games that Carlson had more than three catches. In other words, don’t count on Carlson to repeat this performance going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was a go-to guy in the red zone for Baltimore Sunday, scoring twice among his five catches against the Bears. But that happened in a pass-happy game against a team that struggles against the pass and that has bad safeties and backup linebackers in the lineup. Don’t read too much into it. Verdict: A fraud


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Filed under Applaud/A Fraud, Fantasy Football, Football Relativity