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Finding a Fit: Plaxico Burress

The Man

Will Plaxico Burress be left by himself, or will he find a new football home? Image by tedkerwin via Flickr

 

Plaxico Burress will be released from prison Monday, and with that backdrop we want to consider Burress’ future NFL home in the latest edition of Finding a Fit. This is the fifth edition in a series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray Edwards, and Aubrayo Franklin. Click through to check those out, and if you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Synopsis

Burress was once a true No. 1 receiver, both with the Steelers and the Giants. He is a long, lanky target who can get downfield and make the big play. Plus, he’s proven he is clutch, with his game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 42 as proof. But for the last two years, Burress has been in prison because of a weapons charge in which he shot himself in the leg with a concealed gun in a night club. Now he’ll try to make an NFL return at age 33 and reclaim his career, which has featured 505 catches for 7.845 yards and 55 TDs.

Potential fits

N.Y. Giants – It seems as though the door is closed on a Burress return to the Giants. Former teammate Brandon Jacobs said as much in an interview last week. It makes sense for Burress to want a new start, and the Giants have a deep receiving corps with Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Burress-sized prospect Ramses Barden. It makes the most sense for both teams to move on.

N.Y. Jets – If Burress wants to stay in the Big Apple, the Jets could be an option, especially if free agents-to-be Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith leave. But it appears that Burress would be a fallback option at best for the Jets, which is probably not the situation he’s looking for.

Philadelphia – Burress has made it known that he’d love to land with the Eagles, in large part because of the team’s success resurrecting Michael Vick’s career. But while the connection makes sense from an off-field perspective, on the field Burress doesn’t fit. The Eagles have a great young receiving corps in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper. There’s simply no room for Burress to take up a roster spot.

St. Louis – Burress and Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo were in New York at the same time, and that connection could lead to a chance for Burress. QB Sam Bradford has a ton of young targets, but aside from Mark Clayton (and maybe Danny Amendola at this point), none are proven. Taking a low-cost shot at Burress makes sense, and few teams offer Burress more playing-time opportunity than the Rams.

Washington – The Redskins are receiver-poor, with only smallish Anthony Armstrong established as a solid option. So they will need to add a receiver in free agency, and Burress could offer depth or even backup in case higher-profile, higher-priced targets stay away. This situation bears watching.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers originally drafted Burress, but they let him leave via free agency because his off-field demeanor seemed to limit his talents. (The same thing happened with Santonio Holmes a few years later.) Reports indicate that Pittsburgh may consider a Burress return, but with Hines Ward still ensconsed and youngsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerging, the luxury of having Burress wouldn’t be worth the baggage of the past for the Steelers.

Cleveland – The Browns have a cadre of promising young receivers led by Mohammed Massaquoi and rookie Greg Little, but they don’t have a veteran go-to guy. So Burress makes sense from an on-field perspective. But Burress’ skills don’t necessarily match up with Colt McCoy’s best traits, and the Browns are rebuilding so much that Burress could be a distraction. So unless the opportunity is a low-cost flier, it’s hard to see the Browns being the ones to take the plunge in this market.

Chicago – The Bears don’t have a high-profile receiver, although youngsters Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester. Burress would add a tall receiver and a red-zone threat, but is he precise enough in his route-running to play for Mike Martz? It’s hard to see Burress jumping into such a complicated system in a lockout-shortened season.

Oakland – The Raiders always end up on lists of homes for lost souls, and their receiving corps has promise in Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and first-round bust-so-far Darrius Heyward-Bey. If no contender steps up, the Raiders could end up being Burress’ best option in terms of playing-time possibilities. This is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.

The best fits

1. St. Louis – It would be a bit out of character for the Rams to take a chance on a veteran like Burress, but he would provide a safety net for a young group of receivers, and he could be the difference between an NFC West title at 8-8 or 9-7 and another 7-9 season. Plus, the Giants ties with Spagnuolo add a comfort level.

2. Washington – If Burress wants to prove to the Giants that he can still play, Washington is the place he would get the most chance to play. The Redskins added a bunch of old receivers last year, but aside from Joey Galloway, none even made a regular-season catch. With Santana Moss facing free agency, Burress may provide a bit of security and a bit of leverage for the Redskins.

3. Oakland – The Raiders don’t have a strong need for Burress, but taking a shot on a veteran fits Al Davis’ history. This option makes less sense, but we get a nagging suspicion that Oakland is going to be a player in this market.

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Playmakers

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, as we begin to preview the Super Bowl, we try to anticipate which players will become the big-play makers of the big game. (You can see last year’s post here, and the Super Bowl 43 edition here.) As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

If you think we missed someone, add a comment and where you think that Packer or Steeler fits in.

10 – QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – This is Rodgers’ chance at the spotlight, and we believe he’s up to the challenge. Given the state of the Packers’ running game, the Packers’ chances rest on their quarterback, which means that he’s the man on the spot. He can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he has done just that in his playoff drive this season. Does he have one more game left?

9 – QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace, Steelers – Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings, but no MVP trophies, which is a little odd for a quarterback. You can’t say he’s played poorly, because he led a game-winning drive two years ago and hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. But Roethlisberger has set up Holmes and Hines Ward for Super Bowl MVP honors. So while Big Ben will play a huge role, the pattern indicates that if the Steelers win, it will be a receiver who gets the award. Our money is on Wallace, who has perhaps the best deep speed in the game. Wallace has been the focus of defenses in the playoffs thus far, but the Packers let Johnny Knox and Devin Hester break free deep in the NFC championship game, and if they can do it, Wallace can too. If the Steelers win, it’ll be correlated to a big game from Wallace.

8 – OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, Steelers – Harrison made a huge play in the last Super Bowl with an epic 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. And Harrison remains a huge force getting to the quarterback. But Woodley, who has compiled a sack in each and every postseason game in his career, will get to Rodgers at least once, and so he’s just as high on the list as Harrison. These two outside ‘backers will need to force at least one turnover for the Steelers to win.

7 – CB Charles Woodson, Packers – Really, we could have said pick a Packer corner, because both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have been game MVPs for the Pack in the playoffs this year. But Woodson is a big-time player who can emerge on the biggest stage, and as one of the few Packers with Super Bowl experience, he won’t be afraid of the stage.

6 – RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall may have had the best game of his career against the Jets in the AFC championship game, and if he plays that way again, he can carry the Steelers to a win. Running against the Packers will be tough, but Mendenhall showed against the Jets that he might just be up to the challenge.

5 – OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – Matthews is the Packers’ star on defense, but after a ridiculous start to the season his playmaking has been a bit more sporadic this season. The matchup seems to favor Matthews against subpar Steelers tackles, but if the Steelers gear up their protection to stop Matthews, someone else will need to step up and pressure Big Ben. And even if Matthews can get to Roethlisberger, can he bring him down? Roethlisberger is basically as big as Matthews, and he’s perhaps the league’s toughest QB to bring down.

4 – WR Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings may be the most overlooked No. 1 receiver in the league, but he certainly deserves the accolade. He’s good enough to carry the team, but he has so much help at receiver that defenses can’t focus on him. Jennings could have a breakout game a la Larry Fitzgerald two years ago that turns him from very good player to national star.

4 (con’t) – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers – Polamalu is one of the most popular and well-known Steelers, and he claimed defensive player of the year honors (over Matthews) this week. But his play of late hasn’t been dominant, and the fact that the Packers can spread the field with four receivers could force Polamalu into coverage instead of letting him freelance as he usually does. That will limit Polamalu’s impact in this game.

3 – TE Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a supersolid tight end who can help out blocking Matthews and company but also serve as a possession receiver or even a threat to get down the seam for a big play. The Packers have struggled against tight ends this year, and that could set Miller up for success on Sunday.

2 – WR Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson is the Packers’ fourth receiver, but he has been a popular target for Rodgers in the postseason, and we think he’s behind only Jennings in terms of the Packer wideouts we see making big plays this weekend. Of course, Rodgers will look for vet Donald Driver and the inconsistent but talented James Jones as well, but we can see Nelson piling up 70-80 yards or more on multiple receptions.

2 (con’t) – DLs B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins, Packers – The Packers’ defensive line doesn’t get a ton of publicity – or at least it didn’t until Raji broke free with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears. But while Raji has been a dominator inside, Jenkins stepped up in the playoffs, and he’s just as likely to make the big play as Raji against the Steelers.

1 – ILBs Desmond Bishop, Packers, and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers – Bishop and Timmons have both had terrific seasons for their respective teams, but they don’t make the flashy plays that their defensive teammates do. But both guys are tackling machines, and if they can strip the ball on a tackle or pick up a fumble and return it for a score, they could find themselves joining unlikely Super Bowl MVPs like Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson.

1 (con’t) – DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – We’ve been pounding the drum on how well Hood has been playing throughout the postseason, and if he does that again he’ll have a shot at raising his profile and making a splash on the biggest stage. In fact, we believe it’s more likely that Hood will make a big play than his D-linemates Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel doing so.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 16

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down. Now that we’re at the end of the seasons, we’re only noting players who have a chance of starting in a Week 17 championship game or who emerged out of nowhere in Week 16.

Tim Tebow

Quarterbacks

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – Freeman has emerged as a fantasy starter this year, and if you hadn’t noticed, Sunday’s five-TD performance against the Seahawks should have turned your head. He’s a top-10 fantasy quarterback both this year and next. Verdict: Applaud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer has had a solid fantasy season even though his on-field performance has been awful. But Sunday against the Chargers, he was truly good, throwing for 269 yards and four touchdowns while completing 16-of-21 passes. The fact that he put up such good numbers without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens was surprising, but the truth is that the Bengals are on their way to another late-season rush that means nothing. So if you want to ride Palmer next week against Baltimore, go ahead. Verdict: Applaud

Stephen McGee, Cowboys – McGee was pressed into action when Jon Kitna was injured on Christmas night, and he performed fairly well with 111 yards on 11-of-17 passing and one touchdown without an interception. If Kitna misses Week 17, McGee qualifies as a desperation play in two-QB or incredibly deep leagues because of Dallas’ strong receiving corps. We could see a two-TD game out of him as a starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tim Tebow, Broncos – In his first home start, Tebow ran for a touchdown (his fifth of the season) and threw for one. But the surprising stat was that he was able to shred the Texans’ admittedly sorry pass defense for 308 yards. Because of his rushing threat, Tebow is a startable fantasy player right now. His value is pinned to getting that rushing touchdown, but if you’re desperate, Tebow the Hero is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber had missed three games before returning on Christmas with a 58-yard game that included a touchdown. Barber still falls behind Felix Jones on the carries list in Dallas, but Marion the Barbarian is more likely to find the end zone than Jones. His return makes Tashard Choice irrelevant in fantasy terms, but that doesn’t mean we can trust Barber as a starter against the Eagles next week. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Filling in for Knowshon Moreno, Buckhalter had both a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. If Moreno is out next week, Buckhalter becomes a flex option, albeit one with some risk. Verdict: Applaud

Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Both Greene and Tomlinson scored touchdowns against the Bears. It was Greene’s second touchdown of the season (first since Week 5) and Tomlinson’s first rushing TD since Week 6. We noted a few weeks ago that Tomlinson has really been slowing down, and with the Jets clinching a playoff spot this week, you’d have to figure he gets a break next week vs. the Bills. Greene, meanwhile, had 70 rushing yards against the Bears and could be coming on. We’d much rather play Greene than Tomlinson next week, but it could be that the Jets give Joe McKnight a look to protect both guys. Avoid both next week. Verdict: A fraud for both

Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, Colts – The Colts brought Rhodes back off the UFL scrap heap two weeks ago, and this week Addai returned from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for more than a month. Those two returns have made Donald Brown irrelevant for fantasy owners, and while Addai scored a touchdown against the Raiders, Rhodes was the leading rusher with 98 yards on 17 carries. It’s impossible to tell how this will play out next week, which means you can’t start any of them. But Rhodes is worth a claim if he’s available in your league, because he could qualify as a desperation play. Verdict: A fraud for Addai, Applaud for Rhodes

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt was having a huge season until a Week 8 injury sidelined him for nearly five games. But since his return, Britt has had four catches in every game, and he followed up Week 15’s 128-yard performance with a four-catch, 89-yard game with a touchdown against the Chiefs. Despite the Titans’ lethargic play, Britt is a must-start guy right now. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Crabtree has had a disappointing season, garnering more than 61 receiving yards in just one game before his 122-yard performance against the Rams Sunday. Crabtree has talent, but the Smiths (Troy and Alex) at quarterback aren’t great, and so relying on him in any given week is just too much of a crapshoot. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox has emerged as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver this year, and he’s nearly over the 1,000-yard mark on the season. More importantly for fantasy owners, Knox scored two long touchdowns against the Jets, giving him five on the season. Four of those five have come in the last five games, which means Knox has reached must-start status next week against Green Bay. And don’t worry about weather – Jay Cutler has thrown well in bad weather against the Vikings and Jets the last couple of weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson rode an 80-yard touchdown catch to a big day against the Giants. But you can’t rely on him to repeat his 124-yard performance, because he clearly falls behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones in the pecking order. Verdict: A fraud

Andre Roberts, Cardinals – Roberts, a rookie out of The Citadel, had just 15 catches on the season before his five-catch, 122-yard breakout against the Cowboys that included a 74-yard touchdown. But somehow, Roberts went off while Larry Fitzgerald had just one catch and Steve Breaston and Early Doucet had none. That has all the looks of a one-week fluke that fantasy owners should ignore. Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Simpson, Bengals – With Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco out, Simpson broke out with a six-catch, 124-yard day against the Chargers that included two touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Simpson and Jordan Shipley are featured again next week as the Bengals figure out whether they can move on from the diva receivas in 2011. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Jared Cook, Titans – Cook, the Titans’ No. 2 tight end, had 96 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs. The Titans seem to want to get a better look at Cook and Craig Stevens right now, but Bo Scaife is healthy, which means you can’t rely on any of the Tennessee tight ends. Verdict: A fraud

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Patriots/Bears thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we tuned into the snow spectacular between the Patriots and the Bears.

Deion Branch celebrates in the snow for the Patriots, via espn.com

The Patriots jumped out to a 33-0 halftime lead in bad weather en route to a 36-7 victory. With the win, the Pats clinched a playoff spot, and coupled with the Jets’ loss, New England now is firmly in the driver’s seat in the AFC East. The Bears fell to 9-4, but with the Packers’ loss in Detroit and Aaron Rodgers’ injury, Chicago still has a great chance to make the playoffs.

On-field thoughts
*Wes Welker, who had eight catches for 115 yards, is the perfect receiver for bad weather and snow games. He is so effective in short spaces that high winds don’t affect his targets, and when he gets rolling he’s tough to tackle on a slippery track. If you wonder why the Pats have been so effective in the snow, Welker is a prime reason.
*While Welker had a great game, Tom Brady’s was even better. Brady starred with 369 passing yards, including an impressive down-field throw to Deion Branch at the end of the first half that went for a 59-yard touchdown. Brady is great in bad weather, which makes the Pats even more dangerous if they lock away home-field advantage in the AFC.
*BenJarvus Green-Ellis was equally tough to bring down on the bad track. He has developed into a physical runner who may not break a lot of big runs but who keeps the chains moving regularly. He’s a weapon the Pats haven’t had in the running game since Corey Dillon’s early days as a Pat.
*Devin McCourty, the Pats’ first-round pick, has emerged into a play-making corner. His forced fumble against Johnny Knox in the second quarter broke the game open, because Gary Guyton picked it up and returned it for a touchdown. McCourty has six interceptions this season and is a prime contender for defensive rookie of the year.
*DE Eric Moore, whom the Patriots added after the UFL season this week, had a sack, another tackle for a loss, and a forced fumble. Moore had a terrific training camp for the Panthers this season but lost out to several young players and draft picks. He could be an incredible late-season find for the Pats.
*We haven’t focused much on the Bears in this post, and that’s because they looked awful in the bad weather. While the Patriots rose to the occasion, the Bears fell flat. Jay Cutler threw two interceptions, and the Bears lost two more fumbles. Meanwhile, when Chicago had chances to make plays on defense, balls bounced off defenders’ hands. For the Bears to truly contend against the league’s best teams, the defense will have to make some of those plays.

Fantasy Football perspective
*We’ve said it before, but Green-Ellis should be starting for your team every week. Branch, who has scored three straight weeks and who had 151 receiving yards in this game, joins Welker as a regular starter as well.
*None of the Bears had a good fantasy game, but Cutler is still a weekly starter in most leagues, as is Matt Forte. Johnny Knox is worth starting many weeks as well.

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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.

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Fantasy Football: Breakout wide receivers

What wide receivers are ready to break out as stars this year? In this post, we’ll use our Football Relativity tool to compare the fantasy football stock of some potential breakout receivers and some receivers who broke out last year. With each player, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss whether he is worthy of being a top-4 receiver on your fantasy team (top 40 at the position). Players are listed alphabetically.

And remember, you can follow all of our fantasy football analysis in the Football Relativity fantasy football category.

Devin Aromashodu, Bears – Aromashodu is a big-time sleeper this year because of his strong finish last year (22 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the final four games of the season) and the Bears’ new emphasis on the passing game. But our sense is that Johnny Knox is more likely to shoot up the fantasy charts than Aromashodu is, and that makes us slot Aromashodu in as a No. 5 receiver with upside instead of a counting on him among the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Breaston, CardinalsWith Anquan Boldin gone, Breaston has a chance to replicate his ’08 numbers, which would make him a terrific No. 3 fantasy receiver. Even with Matt Leinart at quarterback instead of Kurt Warner, Breaston makes the breakout cut. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt had a nice rookie season with 42 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns, and it appears that he’s ready to surpass Justin Gage as the Titans’ top receiving option. Remember that Tennessee hasn’t really been a home of fantasy receivers since Derrick Mason left, and don’t get your head out over your skis, but you can pencil Britt in for 800 receiving yards and 5-6 touchdowns, which makes him a draftable receiver in all leagues as a No. 4. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie fit right into the slot in his rookie season with Indianapolis’ high-powered offense, putting up 60 catches for 676 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers put him on the border of the top 40, and being familiar with the offense from the beginning will only help Collie inch those totals upward. Even better, Collie is less susceptible to losing targets to Anthony Gonzalez because he thrives in the slot and not outside. Our hunch is that Collie ends up in the top 40 at wideout as a nice No. 4 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – We’ve already endorsed Crabtree as a top-20 receiver in this post. We’re still clapping and expecting an even bigger breakout for the sophomore. Verdict: Applaud

Early Doucet, Cardinals – The guy we now call Fluffy moves up to No. 3 wideout in Arizona with Anquan Boldin’s departure. Fluffy is ready for his close-up after 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in two terrific postseason appearances. Doucet will break out this year, likely surpassing his career regular-season totals of 31 catches and 304 yards. He won’t make it into the top 40, but owners in deeper leagues need to have Doucet on their draft boards. Verdict: A fraud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon was one of two young Colts receivers to emerge last year. He piled up 765 yards and four touchdowns on 47 catches (in just 14 games), and then added two more touchdowns and 251 yards in three playoff games. Maybe Garcon will take another big step forward this year, but we’re skeptical. Anthony Gonzalez could return to the field, and that could take targets away from Garcon and Austin Collie. And Garcon will likely need more catches to repeat his regular-season yardage and touchdown numbers. He has upside, but we’re leaving him just outside the top 40 at wideout and slotting him as a No. 5 fantasy wideout, not a No. 4. Verdict: A fraud

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – After being the first receiver picked in the ’09 draft, HeyBey only had nine catches for 121 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season. People have raved about his preparation this offseason, and the addition of QB Jason Campbell could aid Heyward-Bey’s deep skills. But he has so much improving to do that fantasy owners can’t put HeyBey in the top 40. Slide him in the top 50 if you want to take a shot on talent, but don’t get crazy. Verdict: A fraud

Jacoby Jones, Texans – Jones is starting to get some buzz as a fantasy sleeper this year after a six-touchdown season in ’09. But those scores came on just 27 catches and 437 yards, which are lower totals than most guys on this list. Jones has big-play ability, and if he can surpass Kevin Walter in the pecking order, there are fantasy points to be had. But we haven’t seen enough consistency to match the upside that would lead us to put Jones in the top 40. He’s a late-round sleeper, not a No. 4 wideout. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox was another in the list of rookies who had a terrific first season, with 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns (plus a kick return score). And the news out of Chicago in training camp is that Knox is emerging as the Bears’ best target. If that’s the case, Knox could really benefit from offensive coordinator Mike Martz’ new system. Before training camp, we would have put Knox just below the top-40 cutoff (and Devin Aromashodu just above it), but now Knox is the Bear whose upside is worth betting on. Verdict: Applaud

Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns – He didn’t get the fantasy pub that other rookies did last year, but Massaquoi finished the season with solid debut totals of 34 catches for 624 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t a consistent producer, but he showed the ability to have big games. Now he’s probably Cleveland’s best outside option. The Browns’ shaky quarterback situation could limit Massaquoi’s development, and that will keep him away from the top 40. But he’s worth thinking about for owners in larger leagues, because he comes with upside. Verdict: A fraud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem, a former first-round pick, emerged in his third year with nine touchdowns receiving (plus one on a fumble return) and 722 yards on 45 catches. He’s now a factor in a deep corps of Saints receivers, although he’s behind Marques Colston and on par with Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. Meachem’s fantasy scoring last year was very dependent on touchdowns, and his catch to touchdown ratio was abnormally high. Meachem has some upside, but he can’t be counted within the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Louis Murphy, Raiders – Murphy didn’t have the rookie season that other mid-round picks like Johnny Knox or Mike Wallace did, but his 34-catch, 521-yard, four-touchdown totals weren’t bad at all. Now he has a chance to emerge as the Raiders’ No. 1 wideout, and that could bear fantasy fruit. But before you get too bullish on Murphy, remember that Chaz Schilens is around the whole year and that the buzz around Darrius Heyward-Bey is good. Our hunch is that Murphy could become the best option, but the split among those three wideouts will keep any of them from making it into the top 40 at the position. Murphy is draftable, but not in the top 40. Verdict: A fraud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks had a surprisingly strong rookie season with 47 catches for 790 yards and six touchdowns, which were numbers good enough for top-40 status last year. And he put up those numbers despite some inconsistency. This year, it appears that Nicks has a chance to be the Giants’ second outside option behind Steve Smith, and if that’s the case, he’ll be a top-40 receiver. This is a borderline call, but we’ll point to Nicks’ upside and give him the benefit of the doubt as (barely) a top-40 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Chaz Schilens, Raiders – Schilens missed half of last season, but once he returned he produced decent fantasy backup numbers. Now that Jason Campbell is pulling the trigger in Oakland, there’s a chance that Chaz could become a fantasy fill-in. He falls just outside the top 40, but he’s a good No. 5 receiver with some upside. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – Wallace averaged a whopping 19.4 yards per catch last season as he piled up 756 yards and six touchdowns on just 39 catches. Now that Santonio Holmes is gone, Wallace will get more catches, but we expect his yardage and touchdown numbers to hover at the same level. Still, that’ll be enough to make him a No. 4 fantasy receiver while still giving him some upside. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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