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FR: Training camp signings

NFL teams see needs surface during training camp, and players who need a job try to capitalize by coming in late to win roster spots. This post comments on training-camp signings through August 19. For signings earlier in the offseason, go to the pre-camp signings post and work your way back. Signings later in the preseason will be covered in a subsequent post.

Jets (add WR Laveranues Coles) – Coles returns for a third tour of duty with the Jets after a single disappointing season in Cincinnati. Coles’ main role with the Jets will be to fill in for Santonio Holmes during his four-game suspension to start the season. Coles won’t produce like Holmes will, but he provides a veteran balance to Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery in the first month of the season.

Broncos (add RBs LenDale White and Justin Fargas) – White, who had some good years with the Titans, blew his chance with his old college coach Pete Carroll in Seattle, and he faces a four-game suspension to start the season. But the Broncos, who lost Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter to training-camp injuries and traded away J.J. Arrington, needed a professional running back during camp and turned to White. He may just be a camp body, but if he shows promise, the Broncos might keep him around. Fargas, though, is a better bet to stick around. Although he’s now 30, Fargas still has the ability to be a decent performer if given an opportunity, and he has fewer miles on his tires than other backs his age. It’s entirely possible that Fargas could even usurp Buckhalter as Moreno’s backup. The fact that Fargas won’t miss four games to start the season also gives him an edge over White in terms of making the opening-day roster.

49ers (add RB Brian Westbrook) – The 49ers responded to the retirement of Glen Coffee by signing Westbrook as Frank Gore’s backup. Westbrook had a dynamic eight-year career in Philadelphia, producing big numbers as a runner and receiver and proving to be a team-first, smart guy. The problem with Westbrook was his durability. He missed games in every year of his Eagles career, and that durability is one of the reasons the Eagles moved on. Because San Francisco relies on Gore so heavily, Westbrook will have a limited role, and that may enable him to last throughout the season in San Fran. For a 49ers team trying to move into the playoffs again, Westbrook is a worthwhile investment as a role player.

Titans (add DL Raheem Brock) – Brock is a versatile lineman who can hold up outside or serve as a pass-rusher inside at defensive tackle. Plus, he comes from the Colts, so he’ll bring some insight to town for the division-rival Titans. At age 32, Brock doesn’t have a lot left, but he’s probably still good enough to fill a reserve role for a contender like the Titans.

Saints (add RB Ladell Betts) – The Saints responded to Lynell Hamilton’s season-ending injury by adding ex-Redskin Betts as their No. 3 back. Betts spent his first nine years in Washington, and although he was a lead back in just one year, he proved his value as a versatile back who can block and catch in addition to run. He steps in for Hamilton in the role that Mike Bell had last year for New Orleans as Pierre Thomas’ counterpart and short-yardage specialist. Betts may not be the thumper that Bell was, but he’s good enough to allow the Saints to keep Thomas fresh, and that’s all they could hope for with a mid-August replacement.

Eagles (add UFA WR Kelley Washington) – Washington, who has stuck in the league for seven seasons as a big, rangy special-teams guy, actually showed some skill as a receiver last year with a career-high 34 catches. Now he moves from Baltimore to Philly, where he will be the fourth receiver and fill the role that Hank Baskett dropped last year. That’s an upgrade for the Eagles.

Colts (add UFA CB DeShea Townsend) – Townsend has played 12 years, all with the Steelers, and he remains a solid No. 3 or No. 4 corner. The Steelers didn’t want Townsend back, but he’ll be a nice veteran presence for the Colts’ young corner group.

Seahawks (add DT Quinn Pitcock and LB Tyjuan Hagler) – Pitcock played one year with the Colts after being a third-round pick in 2007, but he retired. He said the reasons were depression and a video-game addiction, both of which made him less than excited to play football. But the former Ohio State player says he’s excited about football again, and the Seahawks hope he can recapture the potential he showed as a collegian and a rookie. It’s worth a low-cost shot for the club. Hagler spent the last five years with the Colts, starting 17 games over the last three years. He adds depth in case Leroy Hill’s off-field problems sideline him for an extender period of time.

Dolphins (add OG Randy Thomas) – Thomas only played two games last year, but he’s been a long-time starter with the Redskins and the Jets before that. He’s near the end of the line, but he’s probably still good enough to start if Miami gets in a pinch inside. He’s a nice depth addition in mid-August.

Chargers (add S Quinton Teal) – Teal, who played the first three years of his career in Carolina, lands in San Diego after an offseason stop in Seattle. Teal is a replacement-level safety who adds depth to the Chargers’ backfield.

Saints (add WR Mark Bradley) – New Orleans has a deep corps of wide receivers, but they still decided to add Bradley, who played for Kansas City and Tampa Bay last year. Bradley has never lived up to his potential as a second-round pick in Chicago, but he’s a professional receiver who could be a No. 5 for someone – though probably not the receiver-rich Saints.

Patriots (add OG Eric Ghiaciuc) – Ghiaciuc, a three-year starter in Cincinnati, has bounced around the past several years, but he could still add depth for the Patriots up front, especially with Logan Mankins holding out.

Bears (add QB Matt Gutierrez) – Gutierrez, the former Patriots third-stringer who was with Kansas City last year, comes on board to try to beat out rookie Dan LeFevour for the backup QB job behind Jay Cutler.

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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

As more NFL teams turn to running back committees, it gets harder and harder for fantasy football owners to sort out crowded backfield situations. So in this post, we’re going to analyze some of these situations to see what fantasy insight we can glean. We’ll do this on a team-by-team basis. If we missed a team you want to discuss, leave a comment and we’ll add them in.

As always, there’s much more fantasy football coverage in the category listing on the blog. And we once again referred to this great depth-chart site to help us along.

BillsRookie C.J. Spiller is the enthralling pick among Buffalo’s stable of running backs because of his breakaway ability, and he makes an ideal No. 4 fantasy back because he can score at any moment. But our suspicion is that holdover Fred Jackson will be a bit more consistently valuable from a fantasy perspective and end up with more fantasy points. So Jackson creeps just above Spiller in the pecking order. Holdover Marshawn Lynch is in the doghouse and shouldn’t be drafted by fantasy owners.

Broncos – It appeared entering training camp that Denver had a pretty clear-cut breakdown in its backfield, with Knowshon Moreno emerging as a fantasy starter and Correll Buckhalter fitting in as bye-week flex play who got a few opportunities. But both Moreno and Buckhalter suffered training-camp injuries that slowed their preparation, and the Broncos added LenDale White and Justin Fargas just to get through the preseason. We still believe in Moreno as a high-end No. 2 fantasy back, but we’ve dropped Buckhalter to a No. 4 back until we see how he heals and whether White and/or Fargas make the team.

Browns – Some fantasy touts are pushing Jerome Harrison as a starting running back, but we don’t agree. Despite Harrison’s strong finish, we are much more comfortable slotting in Harrison as a low-end No. 3 fantasy back and borderline flex play instead of relying on him as a starter. Instead, we’d rather take a chance on rookie Montario Hardesty, who we see as a No. 3 fantasy back with upside. Second-year man James Davis has some talent but will trouble carving out a role and therefore is not draftable for fantasy owners.

Buccaneers – The offensive situation around Cadillac Williams is a bit more favorable than it was last year, and Williams actually had a decent fantasy year last year with 1,040 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he’s a solid fantasy backup who could edge into flex position consideration. Derrick Ward, who signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year, had a disappointing season with only half the yardage Williams posted and three touchdowns. He’s worth drafting in larger leagues, just in case he emerges quickly, but he’s a No. 5 fantasy back and not much more.

Cardinals – We’re big fans of Beanie Wells this year and expect him to break out as a top-15 back. As a result, we expect Tim Hightower to function more as a handcuff or a No. 4 back who’s an emergency fill-in instead of as a potential flex play, as he has been in the past. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a third-down back who won’t get enough chances to be fantasy relevant unless there’s an injury.

Chiefs – Jamaal Charles broke out as a fantasy performer over the second half of last year, and he’s a hot prospect this year. But because of the crowded backfield around him, it’s hard for us to project Charles as a No. 1 fantasy back. He’s a great investment with upside on Tier 2. The crowd is largely because the Chiefs added vet Thomas Jones in the offseason after he had a great season for the Jets. However, because of his age and Charles’ presence, Jones is more of a No. 3 fantasy back than a starter who will complement Charles instead of compete with him. Note also that rookie Dexter McCluster could get running back eligibility and merit No. 5 fantasy back status.

Colts – Joseph Addai had a solid season last year, holding off rookie Donald Brown to be a fantasy starter. Now Addai enters a contract year, and Brown is the heir apparent. Addai remains a fantasy starter, while Brown is a No. 5 fantasy back who can serve as a handcuff to Addai or as a speculative investment in the draft.

Cowboys – The buzz is around Felix Jones, but the hype doesn’t match reality. We prefer Marion Barber as a fantasy option to Jones (as we discussed in this post), and while we’re comfortable relying on Barber as a No. 2 fantasy back in larger leagues, we can’t say the same about Jones. Jones is an ideal flex play, not a starting running back. Tashard Choice is a talented back with limited opportunity who gains tons of value if either Barber and Jones get hurt. Choose Choice as a No. 5 back and stash him for a rainy day.

Dolphins – Miami, along with Carolina, is one of the few places where the top two running backs both merit fantasy starter consideration. We prefer Ricky Williams, who was amazing down the stretch last year, to Ronnie Brown, but we expect both guys to surpass 1,200 total yards if they stay healthy. Both are solid fantasy starters.

Eagles – Even with longtime stalwart Brian Westbrook gone, the Eagles once again have a crowded backfield situation. Second-year man LeSean McCoy figures to get the most touches, although we see him as much more of a No. 2 fantasy back than a guy with the upside to pace a fantasy roster. Free-agent addition Mike Bell could get some goal-line touches, because that isn’t McCoy’s forte, and fullback Leonard Weaver will get some shots as well. Both Bell and Weaver are No. 5 fantasy backs with a bit of upside in case McCoy struggles.

Jets – Shonn Greene’s performance in the postseason convinced the Jets he was ready to be a bellcow back, and we believe he’ll deliver fantasy starter numbers now that Thomas Jones is in Kansas City. With Leon Washington gone, some people expect LaDainian Tomlinson to emerge as a potential flex fantasy play, but we don’t. Tomlinson’s skills have fallen off the precipice, and we wouldn’t draft him as more than a No. 5 back. We’re far more inclined to bet on rookie Joe McKnight as the complement to Greene as a receiver and runner in the old Leon Washington-style role.

Panthers – As in Miami, Carolina features two running backs who deserve to start for fantasy teams. DeAngelo Williams is a Tier-1 back who will deliver fantasy starter numbers and who could carry a fantasy team to a title, while Jonathan Stewart is a dependable No. 2 fantasy back. Other options, like Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton, gain fantasy value only if Williams or Stewart is hurt.

Patriots – Few backfield situations are as inscrutable as New England’s, because so many guys have defined roles. But that makes it hard to mine much fantasy value from the situation. Laurence Maroney, although he’s been disappointing, is still the best prospect. He only had 856 total yards last year, but he scored nine touchdowns, including a stretch in which he had at least one touchdown six games in a row. He’s a No. 3 fantasy back who could emerge as a starter but probably won’t. Venerable veteran Fred Taylor played only six games last year, although he finished strong once he got healthy. If he stays healthy he could actually surpass Maroney in the pecking order. Right now, we have Taylor as a No. 4 fantasy back. Sammy Morris will steal some carries, but not enough to be fantasy relevant, and Kevin Faulk’s third-down back role won’t make him a fantasy option either.

Raiders – Justin Fargas is gone, but the Raiders still have a crowded backfield. Michael Bush and Darren McFadden both could lay claim to being No. 1 running backs, although the most likely scenario is that they split time. Bush averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, which is a fine number, but he must prove he can handle more than 140 touches in a season. McFadden averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and missed four games, but his pedigree as a top-5 overall pick speaks to his talent. He’s also a much better receiver than Bush, which will help him get more touches. Right now, we have both Bush and McFadden as borderline No. 3 fantasy backs with upside, and if one emerges in the preseason, he could jump up to the top 25 at the position. And it’s not a bad strategy to draft both Bush and McFadden in the middle rounds in hopes that one separates himself.

Redskins – The Redskins have the most geriatric RB corps in the league, and that’s not a good sign. But the situation around those runners is good now that Donovan McNabb and two new offensive tackles (Jammal Brown and Trent Williams) are in town. Clinton Portis thrived with Mike Shanahan in Denver, but he struggled in a big way last season and looks like a No. 3 fantasy back on performance right now. Larry Johnson bombed out in Kansas City last year, but he rebounded a bit in Cincinnati and looks like he could be a No. 4 fantasy back in larger leagues. There’s at least the potential that Johnson could usurp Portis, which adds fantasy upside. Willie Parker (aka old dog No. 3) is more likely to get released than to make a fantasy impact.

Saints – The Saints had a three-headed monster at running back last year, but it looks like a two-man show this season. Pierre Thomas is a solid No. 2 fantasy back, especially now that Lynell Hamilton is out for the season. Thomas should get more touches this season if he can stay healthy. Reggie Bush has carved out a feature role that makes him a nice flex option for fantasy owners. He can score in so many different ways that he’s capable of producing for fantasy owners, but it won’t happen consistently, which is why Bush is a No. 3 fantasy back and not a starter.

Seahawks – The Seahawks have a convoluted situation, but it appears that Justin Forsett will be the best fantasy option among their backs. It’s risky to count on Forsett as a No. 2 fantasy back, but if you can get him as a flex option, you’ll have a great situation. Leon Washington should carve out enough of a role to be a No. 4 fantasy back, and Julius Jones is still around. But Jones averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and will primarily keep Forsett and Washington from getting pummeled too often. That’s not a fantasy-friendly role.

Texans – Few coaches have been as frustrating to fantasy owners as Gary Kubiak, because he’s willing to give any running back a shot at any time. That means that Arian Foster, rookie Ben Tate, and former 1,000-yard rusher Steve Slaton all have upside, but they also have limited roles. Our suspicion is that Foster, who appears to be in line for the first shot at starting, will be the most valuable of the trio, and that’s why we slot him as a No. 3 fantasy back with a lot of upside. Tate is a borderline No. 3 fantasy back, while Slaton, who appears headed for a third-down role (at least for now) is a No. 5 back at best.

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FR: Most impactful cutbacks

Each year, before free agency opens, we compare the impact of the cuts NFL teams have made using our relativity comparison. The 10 level is reserved for teams that lost the most; the 1 level is for teams that won’t feel the cuts at all. This post compares cuts made before the 2010 league year begins in March as well as cuts made during the first week of free agency, when many roster bonuses were due.

10 – Cardinals (cut FS Antrel Rolle) – Rolle, a former top-10 draft pick, didn’t really hit his stride with the Cardinals until he moved from cornerback to free safety a couple of seasons ago. But at that position, Rolle’s physical skills started to emerge, and he became a quality player. Rolle made his first Pro Bowl this year and seems to just be hitting his stride. But Rolle’s rookie contract, signed five years ago, calls for a $4 million roster bonus as the league year starts and $12 million in total compensation in 2010. That’s too big a bill for the Cardinals, and so they plan to cut him. That will be a loss unless Arizona finds a way to re-sign Rolle, which is still a possibility. Otherwise, Rolle will become one of the few players in his prime to hit the open market, which means he should be able to cash in for a safety-poor team.

9 – Jets (cut RB Thomas Jones and CB Donald Strickland) – Jones became the fourth starting running back from the over-30 crowd to get cut as the Jets decided to save a $3 million signing bonus and a $2.8 million 2010 salary by jettisoning him. A look at the roster shows why the Jets did this, because Shonn Greene shone as a rookie, and Leon Washington is a great complementary back with outstanding speed. But Jones still has a lot more in the tank than most runners his age. He ran for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009, marking his fifth straight season with at least 1,100 yards. That’s an impressive streak for a back who failed to break 700 yards in his first four NFL seasons. Even entering his 11th season, Jones has a lot of tread on his tires, and he can be productive for a team (especially one with a solid offensive line). He won’t make $6 million in 2010 on the open market at age 32, but he should get a decent contract as a No. 1 or a split-carries back somewhere. If he doesn’t, it’s a crime. Strickland played OK as a Jet next season, but with Antonio Cromartie coming in he became expendable. Still, Strickland wouldn’t be a bad nickel corner for someone.

9 (con’t) – Panthers (cut QB Jake Delhomme, FB Brad Hoover, LBs Landon Johnson and Na’il Diggs, and DTs Maake Kemeoatu and Damione Lewis) – The Panthers went into severe cost-cutting mode, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But cutting Delhomme doesn’t save them any money. Instead, the Panthers will still foot the bill for $12.7 million in guaranteed money for Delhomme. Delhomme had a terrible year turning the ball over, and the Panthers couldn’t wait to see if he gets his form back. But he is a great locker-room presence and could be a good mentor for whoever drafts Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen. Still, Delhomme must cut down on turnovers to get many more starts in the league. The Panthers now cast their lot with Matt Moore, who has shown quite a bit of promise in two late-season stints but has never played in games that all mattered. Plus, the Panthers trimmed Hoover, their long-time fullback who is a fan favorite. Hoover isn’t the running threat he was once upon a time, but he never was a big blocker, and as he gets older his effectiveness leaked. Tony Fiammetta will get the first shot to replace him. On defense, the Panthers cut Kemeoatu, a clogging defensive tackle who is recovering from an Achilles injury and was owed $4.3 million in bonuses and salary. Kemeoatu is a nose tackle option for 3-4 teams if he’s healthy. Lewis is more of a slashing tackle in a 4-3, and he played well in his Carolina tenure, but his $5 million 2010 price tag motivated his release. He might be the best defensive tackle on the open market at this point. The Panthers are left to look to reclamation projects Ed Johnson and Tank Tyler and youngsters Louis Leonard, Corvey Ivy, and Nick Hayden at tackle – which will be cheap but probably not good. At linebacker, Diggs started for Carolina but isn’t special. He’s a nice minimum signing for someone. Johnson got a nice deal two seasons ago to come over to Carolina from Cincinnati, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup and deserved to be cut. With youngsters Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Dan Connor, and James Anderson around, Carolina could afford to trim the payroll at linebacker.

8- Eagles (cut RB Brian Westbrook and LB Will Witherspoon) – Westbrook had a terrific eight-year career that was stymied this year by multiple concussions. When he was healthy, Westbrook was a dynamo running and catching the ball, breaking 2,100 yards from scrimmage in 2007, his best season. But injuries often sidelined or at the least slowed Westbrook even before concussion problems popped up this year. Those concussions make Westbrook a dubious gamble for any other team this year, although in a third-down back role he probably has more ability to break free than LaDanian Tomlinson does at this point. But one more concussion should lead to retirement for Westbrook, which will limit his marketability. The Eagles, meanwhile, save $7.25 million in 2010 and hand the reins over to LeSean McCoy, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season, and fullback/big back Leonard Weaver (a restricted free agent). That’s a pretty good duo to go into 2010 with if the Eagles can get Weaver signed. Witherspoon was brought over in a midseason trade from St. Louis to help a depleted LB corp, but the Eagles need to do better in the offseason if they are to maximize their upside. Witherspoon should hook on elsewhere, but probably not above the league minimum.

8 (con’t) – Dolphins (cut OLB Joey Porter, LB Akin Ayodele, and S Gibril Wilson) – Porter, who had nine sacks last season and 32 in three Miami seasons, asked for his release, hoping for one more payday before his career ends. The mouthy 11-year veteran can still get around the corner on the pass rush, as he showed with 9 sacks in ’09, and that gives him value to 3-4 teams. But Porter’s opinion of himself now outrates his actual performance, and that may deter some teams. Still, for a 3-4 team on the edge of contention like San Francisco or Denver, or a contender like Green Bay, Porter could become a nice third-down option at a medium-range price. Twitter was abuzz with league people like SI’s Ross Tucker and National Football Post’s Andrew Brandt marveling at how Wilson made $24 million in guaranteed money over the last two seasons with the Raiders and Dolphins without playing all that well. It goes to show that Wilson is a decent safety but not much more, and he’s got to be running out of chances to cash in on the open market. Doesn’t he? Ayodele was a system ringer brought in by Bill Parcells two years ago, and Ayodele played OK. He could end up in another Parcells-ish system elsewhere.

7 – Chargers (cut RB LaDanian Tomlinson) – Tomlinson had a great career for the Chargers, but like most running backs in the NFL, he is hitting the wall hard now that he’s 30. LDT hasn’t been the same back the last two seasons, and he’s no longer an elite player as a rusher or receiver. The Chargers redid his contract last year to give him a chance to prove he was back, but Tomlinson was unable to do so, and that made this decision the right move professionally. Now the Chargers will rely more on Darren Sproles as their backfield sparkplug while they look for a back who can carry enough of the load to keep the diminutive Sproles healthy. Tomlinson leaves San Diego as one of the greatest Chargers of all time – the kind of player whose number should be retired by the franchise. Unfortunately, he also leaves as a washed-up running back whose next stop will remind us not of his salad days but of Emmitt Smith in Arizona, Tony Dorsett in Denver, or Franco Harris in Seattle.

6 – Giants (cut MLB Antonio Pierce) – Pierce came over to the Giants as a high-dollar free agent five years ago, and he delivered on that contract by serving as a team leader and a big-time tackler during his tenure, which included a Super Bowl title. But Pierce missed the second half of the ’09 season with a bulging disc in his neck, and with a contract calling for him to make $4.75 million in cash this year, the Giants decided there were cheaper and healthier options. While the Giants don’t have a successor in place, they’ll likely look for a cheaper alternative or perhaps even draft a middle linebacker. Pierce, meanwhile, will look to latch on somewhere as a veteran hand and a locker-room leader, but he won’t come close to his scheduled salary. Instead, he’ll be a veteran minimum guy who becomes a stopgap option for a team looking for MLB or ILB help but not part of the long-term plan.

6 (con’t) – Redskins (cut WR Antwaan Randle El, OG Randy Thomas, CB Fred Smoot, DT Cornelius Griffin, QB Todd Collins, and RBs Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright) – The Redskins completely overhauled their roster with 10 cuts on the eve of free agency. Some, notably Randle El, Smoot, and Griffin, were former high-dollar signees. The Redskins overpaid Randle El, a good third receiver for the Steelers, after he starred in Super Bowl 40. But Randle El never lived up to that big-money deal, topping out at 53 catches in his four seasons in Washington. He’s not more than a third receiver at this point, or maybe a fourth, and the Redskins need to see if youngsters Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas are ready to roll. Griffin didn’t make a ton of impact after coming over from the Giants, and he might be at the end of the road. Smoot never lived up to his early promise in the league, but he’s a decent performer who could land as a nickel back elsewhere. Collins played OK as a backup with the Redskins and could latch on elsewhere in that role. Betts was a long-time Redskin who certainly had his moments, but his inability to stay healthy doomed him. He also is bigger than the normal Mike Shanahan runner. Thomas spent seven years with the Redskins, many of them solid, but he played only two games in ’09 before suffering a triceps injury. Cartwright spent eight years in Washington, mostly as a special-teams player and backup.

6 (con’t) – Chargers (cut NT Jamal Williams and RB Michael Bennett) – Williams has been a terrific nose tackle for many years, but injuries have taken their toll to the point that he no longer makes an impact. He’ll get a job elsewhere, but won’t make much money unless he finds the fountain of youth. Bennett, a former first-round pick, is a bottom-of-the-roster back at this point.

6 (con’t) – Colts (cut DE Raheem Brock, OG Ryan Lilja and QB Jim Sorgi) – Brock played well as the Colts’ third defensive end, and he was versatile enough to play inside, but he never produced huge sack numbers. At age 32, he’s not going to be a big factor on the open market, but given his ability to play inside and out he might be worth a look as a 3-4 defensive end. Lilja, who wasn’t drafted, emerged into a starter at guard for the Colts, but he never was an above-average player there. Maybe he’s the scapegoat for the Colts’ O-line failings in the Super Bowl, or maybe that game showed the Colts that they needed to upgrade the size and talent at that position. Sorgi never did much of anything as Peyton Manning’s backup, and now one of the league’s freer rides is over for him. He wouldn’t be more than a No. 3 QB anywhere else.

6 (con’t) – Browns (cut QB Derek Anderson, WR Donte Stallworth, RB Jamal Lewis and C Hank Fraley) – Anderson had a huge 2007 season for the Browns, making the Pro Bowl, but other than that he hasn’t been able to harness his strong arm with accuracy. Still, Anderson’s resume is better than just about any other quarterback’s on the open market, and he’s at least good enough to compete for a starting spot somewhere. And his age is another asset. You can understand Cleveland cutting him to save $9.45 million in 2010, and Brady Quinn and the newly acquired Seneca Wallace fit the new West Coast system the Browns are using better. But Anderson’s talent will attract some suitors. Stallworth was a big-money acquisition by Cleveland before the 2008 season, but he had just 17 catches on the season. And then Stallworth sat out the 2009 season under league suspension. Those two combined to make cutting Stallworth after he was reinstated a quick decision for the Browns. Stallworth played four four teams between 2005 and 2008, which tells you that his talent tantalizes but doesn’t deliver. Now he has hooked on with Baltimore, a team desperate for receiver help, as a fourth receiver with upside. Lewis, who ran for 2,000 yards and won a Super Bowl in Baltimore, has slowed down significantly in recent years, but he was still able to run for 500 yards and cross the 10,000-yard career mark last season.Cleveland let Lewis go to hand the ball to Jerome Harrison, who finished the season very strongly. The Browns also have James Davis returning from injury after he showed some flashes as a rookie last year. Last season was Lewis’ first campaign out of 9 in his career in which he ran for less than 900 yards, but his yards per carry average has topped 3.6 only once in the last five years. Lewis isn’t committed to retiring, but as Edgerrin James learned last year, the league starts to retire running backs before they think they’re really done. Fraley, a 10-year vet, was a three-year starter in Cleveland, but he lost his starting job last year. He still could fit in as an emergency center somewhere, but he’s not going to be Option A.

5 – Jaguars (cut WR Torry Holt, OT Tra Thomas, and DT Rob Meier) – The Jaguars started another youth movement by sending Holt, Thomas, and Meier packing. Holt and Thomas were free-agent signees last year who were meant to bridge the gap to a group of youngsters. With the development of OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, Thomas became expendable, while Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker surpassed Holt by the end of the season. Both vets are probably still good enough to be backups in the NFL, but they’ll have to do so at prices even more reduced than what they played for last year. Meier, who has been a Jag since 2000, missed all of last season due to injury and might be at the end of the line.

5 (con’t) – Saints (cut DE Charles Grant, OG Jamar Nesbit, and LB Mark Simoneau) – Grant was a former first-round pick in New Orleans who has 47 career sacks with the team, but he never was a game-changer, and after 5.5 sacks last year he became expendable. Nesbit started for the Saints last year but isn’t more than serviceable. Still, he’ll land somewhere else. Simoneau has been too banged up in recent years to contribute.

5 (con’t) – Raiders (cut RB Justin Fargas, DE Greg Ellis, and WR Javon Walker) – Fargas has had his moments as a runner in Oakland, but he got lost in a crowded backfield last season. He’s never been the most durable runner either. The Raiders claimed Fargas flunked his physical when he was released, although Fargas’ rep disputes that. We’ll see if Fargas can get a job as a change-of-pace back elsewhere in the league. The Raiders brought in Ellis last offseason, but the former Cowboy wasn’t able to translate his performance to Oakland. He might be at the end of the line, and that makes saving $2.5 million as the Raiders did an attractive possiblity. Walker is one of the biggest free-agent busts of all time. Walker notched less than 200 yards during his two years in Oakland, but he earned $21 million during that time. As a parting gift, the Raiders will have to pay Walker $2.6 million in guaranteed money in 2010. And you wonder why the Raiders are stuck in the doldrums.

4 – Bengals (cut WR Laveranues Coles) – The Bengals brought in Coles one year ago to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but Coles wasn’t able to make a big impact with 43 catches for 514 yards and five scores. That wasn’t worth his four-year, $28 million contract, and so the Bengals let him go. Cincinnati will need to find someone like a Terrell Owens or Derrick Mason to put across from Chad Ochocinco, and they can probably ink one of those guys more inexpensively than keeping Coles would have been. Coles, meanwhile, will have to hook on somewhere as a veteran No. 3 wideout, and he’ll have to do so at a vastly reduced rate.

3 – Jets (cut CB Lito Sheppard) – Sheppard fell out of favor with the Jets in his first year there after a solid career in Philly, as evidenced by his lack of playoff playing time. But while the Jets won’t miss him, Sheppard is a decent option for teams that miss out on Dunta Robinson or Leigh Bodden in the open market — as long as he doesn’t ask for the moon in his new deal.

3 (con’t) – Bears (cut OLT Orlando Pace and RB Kevin Jones) – Pace was cut one year into a 3-year, $15 million deal because he showed that he’s at (or even past) the end of the line. At his best, Pace was a physical freak who was bigger than most left tackles but nearly as athletic as the best at the position, which shows by the fact that he was first-team all-pro five times during his 12 years in St. Louis. But Pace was abysmal with the Bears last year, and Chicago needs to see if former first-rounder Chris Williams can handle the left side. Pace was scheduled to make $4 million in 2010, but missing that paycheck is softened by the fact that he took home $6 million in 2009. Signing Pace was a worthwhile gamble for the Bears, but it just didn’t work out because Pace’s decline is so steep at this point. Jones, a former first-round pick in Detroit, never was healthy enough to contribute in Chicago. With Chester Taylor’s arrival, having another veteran backup runner became superfluous for the Bears.

3 (con’t) – Lions (cut DEs Jared DeVries and Dewayne White, DT Grady Jackson, and CB Phillip Buchanon) – DeVries has been a Lion since 1999, but he missed the entire 2009 season with an Achilles injury. And while this might look like a cut designed to save Detroit $1.3 million, DeVries actually asked for his release in order to hit the free agent market early. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but he can be solid against the run and may be big enough at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds to play end in a 3-4. The Lions also want DeVries back, but likely at a lower price. Hopefully for DeVries’ sake, getting released before the market opens will help him find a gig more easily. Buchanaon started 11 games for the Lions last year, and he’s had an up-and-down career with four teams after entering the league as a first-round pick. He’s a marginal NFL starter at this point. Jackson is a massive defensive tackle who isn’t always in shape but who usually plays at a decent level. He’ll end up elsewhere too. White once got a five-year, $29 million deal from the Lions, but after recording 13 sacks in his first two Detroit seasons he failed to get even one last year. The Lions save $5 million this year by moving on from White, whose spot was taken by free-agent Kyle Vanden Bosch anyway.

2 – Broncos (cut DE Kenny Peterson, C Casey Wiegmann and RB LaMont Jordan) – Peterson, a seven-year vet, became a starter for the first time in Denver last year, but when the Broncos added Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green Peterson was released. He’s probably more of a backup 3-4 end than someone who should be starting. Wiegmann had a solid career with Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, the Jets, and Indianapolis as a guard and center. Wiegmann, whom we tabbed as the best No. 62 in the league this year, made the Pro Bowl for the 2008 season, but as the Broncos change blocking schemes Wiegmann’s zone-blocking prowess no longer fits.But he still has enough veteran wile to fit in somewhere if he wants to keep playing. The Broncos also released RB LaMont Jordan, who has bounced around to several teams over the past few years.

2 (con’t) – Patriots (cut TE Chris Baker) – Baker didn’t make much of an impact in his single season with the Pats, catching just 14 passes for 142 yards and two scores. He’s a tick above average as a receiver if he still has his speed, but he’s not going to be any more than a one-year option on the open market. It’ll be interesting to see what the Patriots do at tight end with Baker released and Ben Watson hitting the free agent market. Could Jermaine Greshman be in their sights?

1 – Chiefs (cut OG Mike Goff and WR Devard Darling) – Goff, a 12-year veteran, started seven times for the Chiefs in 2009, his first year with the team after a career in San Diego and Cincinnati. But in a rebuilding movement, Goff’s experience and higher price tag simply didn’t fit. Darling, a former third-round pick in Baltimore, didn’t pan out when the Chiefs gave him a second chance.

1 (con’t) – Buccaneers (cut Ps Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson and CB Torrie Cox) – Bidwell spent six years in Tampa, but he missed the ’09 season. Johnson filled in for Bidwell, but not particularly well. Cox spent seven seasons in Tampa but started just four games in that span.

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 7

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well.

Quarterbacks

Jake Delhomme, Panthers – Delhomme threw for 325 yards, but he also threw three more interceptions. A benching is a possibility. So don’t get fooled and pick up Delhomme based on this yardage total. He’s not ownable unless all 32 starting quarterbacks are owned in your league. Verdict: A fraud

Brett Favre, Vikings – We discussed Favre in more detail in this post. We’re giving him thumbs-down as a top-12 fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw five TD passes in the Bengals’ blowout of the Bears. He’s now thrown 13 TD passes on the year, which is just less than 2 per game, and has 1,608 passing yards. We’ll talk more about Palmer in a post later this week, but for now we’ll say he still falls just outside the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks. That means we have to give him a very measured thumbs-down as a starting fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – We discussed Roethlisberger in more detail in this post. We’re clapping for him as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Verdict: Applaud

Alex Smith, 49ers – The 49ers pulled starter Shaun Hill at halftime and replaced him with Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick. Smith responded with a sharp performance, throwing three TD passes to Vernon Davis and going 15-for-22 for 206 yards. Note that the 49ers were down 21 when Smith came in, so he got to throw a lot more than the 49ers usually want to, but his performance will make him a starter next week at least. If you need a fill-in quarterback, Smith is now a pickup option. Verdict: Applaud

Running Backs

Justin Fargas, Raiders – Fargas had 67 yards rushing and 90 yards from scrimmage this week against the Jets, marking his second straight game with at least 90 yards. He’s the Raiders back you want, at least until Darren McFadden returns. Fargas is also a borderline fantasy No. 3 back and a possible starter given your bye week and injury situation. Verdict: Applaud

Shonn Greene, Jets – Greene, a rookie out of Iowa, busted out with 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Raiders Sunday. One of the factors was the blowout, which gave the rookie more opportunity. But the fact that Leon Washington suffered a season-ending injury is a bigger factor. Greene must be picked up this week, because he immediately assumes a fantasy role for the Jets. We’ll have to see whether that role makes him flex-position worthy going forward, but grab Greene now and figure out the rest later. Verdict: Applaud

Steven Jackson, Rams – Even on a bad team, Jackson continues to produce good yardage for fantasy owners. He had 134 yards in St. Louis’ loss to Indy and has at least 85 yards from scrimmage in each game since Week 2. The touchdowns aren’t coming, but Jackson is still a top-10 fantasy back. I’d much rather have him than LaDanian Tomlinson (see below). Verdict: Applaud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – We discussed Mendenhall in more detail in this post. We’re clapping for him as a top-20 fantasy running back – but barely. Verdict: Applaud

Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles had a 58-yard touchdown catch along with 41 receiving yards against the Chiefs, but he had just eight total offensive touches. Now that Tomlinson is healthy, Sproles’ chances have really slipped off, and that’s a problem for fantasy owners. Sproles is worth owning, but it’s going to be hard to start him in normal-sized leagues (12 teams or less) unless Tomlinson gets hurt again. Verdict: A fraud

LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – At one point late in Sunday’s game, Chris Mortenson tweeted that Tomlinson had seven goal-line carries without a touchdown. That’s a bad sign for a player who once made his mark as the premier scoring machine in the league. Tomlinson has just one touchdown this year, and it looks like that stat is more of a trend than a fluke. Tomlinson had 71 rushing yards and and two receiving yards, and he can do a little better than that, but he’s no longer a top 10 fantasy back. He could fall out of the top 20 soon. It’s over, folks. Verdict: A fraud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – Williams has quietly had a good season, and that quiet season got loud Sunday when he ran for 80 yards and three touchdowns vs. the Saints. Even as he shares time with Ronnie Brown, Williams is a borderline fantasy starter and a great flex option on a weekly basis. Don’t forget about him. Verdict: Applaud

Wide Receivers

Sam Aiken, Patriots – With Joey Galloway gone, Aiken steps into the role of the Patriots’ No. 3 receiver. He took advantage with a 54-yard touchdown in London vs. Tampa Bay, his first score in his seven-year career. Aiken, who finished with two catches for 66 yards, is still behind TE Benjamin Watson in the pecking order from a fantasy perspective, and rookie Brandon Tate (a recent activation from the physically-unable-to-perform list) could surpass his fellow UNC alum, but for now Aiken has his chance. Given how the Pats’ offense is rolling now, that makes him worth a claim in leagues of 12 teams or more just in case he turns into a regular part of the offense. Verdict: Applaud

Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin went from a fantasy supersleeper three weeks ago to a breakout player last week to the point where he’s now a guy you must start. He may not have two touchdowns or 170-plus yards every week like he has the last couple of weeks, but he’s clearly the Cowboys’ best receiver. Right now fantasy owners should start him no matter what. Verdict: Applaud

David Clowney, Jets – Clowney has long been a receiver the Jets (and fantasy owners) thought would be good, and he finally broke out this week with 79 yards and a touchdown vs. the Raiders. Clowney has two four-catch games this year, but those are his only eight grabs of the year. He’s worth claiming in large (14 teams or more) leagues, but that’s all we can recommend with him right now. Verdict: A fraud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – In his NFL debut, Crabtree had a nice fantasy game with 66 yards on five catches. Don’t get carried away and start Crabtree – remember, the 49ers were in comeback mode most of the game – but he’s worth picking up if he’s still available in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver had his third touchdown of the season against Cleveland, and he now has at least 55 yards receiving in each game since Week 2. He’s the top fantasy receiver in Green Bay, not Greg Jennings, and therefore a guy you can feel comfortable starting every week. Verdict: Applaud

Malcom Floyd, Chargers – Floyd has been a fantasy afterthought, but he has emerged as the Chargers’ No. 2 wideout over Chris Chambers. He has been up and down this year, with a no-catch game and a one-catch game, but he had at least 45 yards in his other three games, and he ha his first touchdown of the season Sunday vs. the Chiefs. But he had just two catches for nine yards. He’s a name to know, but he’s not worth a waiver claim yet. Verdict: A fraud

Brian Hartline, Dolphins – The rookie out of Ohio State had three catches for 94 yards against the Saints, more than doubling his season total for receiving yards. He’s an interesting prospect, but his fantasy relevance probably will arrive in 2010, not this year. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Good ol’ 8-5 had 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns this week, affirming that he is back to being a No. 1 fantasy wideout. He’s a top-10 guy going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – We discussed Rice in more detail in this post. We’re clapping for him as a top-25 fantasy wide receiver and an every-week fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Bobby Wade, Chiefs – Wade, the former Viking who landed with the Chiefs after the season started, has become a solid option for K.C. He had four catches for 66 yards against the Chargers, which was his second-best game of the season. Wade won’t pile up big numbers, but if you’re desperate for a receiver in a league of 14 teams or more, he’s a nice option. Otherwise, stay away. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – We discussed Wallace in more detail in this post. We’re clapping for him as a top-40 fantasy wideout and therefore someone who is worth a roster spot. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Gary Barnidge, Panthers – The Panthers’ tight end corps is confusing. Dante Rosario and Jeff King each have touchdowns this season, and Barnidge piled up 77 yards against the Bills this week. But note that Sunday’s three catches were Barnidge’s first three of the year and that most of his yardage came on one 52-yard catch and run. Don’t get fooled by this stat line. Verdict: A fraud

Vernon Davis, 49ers – We recommended Davis last week, and he blew up this week with 7 catches for 93 yards and three TDs. It’s silly to predict that much scoring on a weekly basis, but he’s a startable tight end in any fantasy league. The potential is now production. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 6

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well.

Quarterbacks

Marc Bulger, Rams – Bulger returned from injury and threw for 213 yards and a touchdown. But those numbers came against one of the league’s worst secondaries. Bulger is still injury prone, and he still plays with a below-average offensive line and receiving corps. He’s not a top-20 fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – We discussed Flacco in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Flacco is worthy of starting in fantasy leagues that have 12 or more teams. Verdict: Applaud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Some fantasy analysts will try to convince you that Garrard is a fantasy starter, and this week’s 335-yard passing game (with 31 yards rushing) would seem to be evidence. But there are many other guys I’d rather start than Garrard. To me, he falls between 10 and 14 on the fantasy quarterback list, so if you have to start him, you’re at a disadvantage. Some are selling, but we’re not buying. Verdict: A fraud

JaMarcus Russell, Raiders – Russell has worlds of talent, but he’s been worlds of terrible so far this season. He finally had a decent fantasy game Sunday – 22-of-34 for 213 yards and a touchdown – but that could easily end up being his best game of the year. Stay far, far away from Russell on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Justin Fargas, Raiders – In the absence of Darren McFadden, Michael Bush had a representative fantasy game last week, and this week Fargas had 23 carries for 87 yards. Fargas isn’t a terrible back, but he’s running behind a terrible line, and the Bush factor makes it impossible to predict whether Fargas will actually deliver on any given week. Still, Fargas is worth a speculative pick-up if you’re desperate for RB help just in case McFadden ends up being put on injured reserve for some strange reason. Take that risk if you want, but don’t put Fargas in your lineup until the McFadden situation is clear. Verdict: A fraud

Larry Johnson, Chiefs – Johnson had his first decent fantasy game with 83 yards on 23 carries against the Redskins. But the Chiefs won’t be in most game as they were in this one, and Johnson is far from dependable in fantasy leagues. He’s ownable – barely – but you shouldn’t start him unless bye weeks and injuries leave you no choice. Verdict: A fraud

Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t the kind of back you feel wonderful about putting in your starting lineup, in large part because he often takes a while to get going. But he has generally been productive this year, with Sunday’s 220-yard effort against the Bills, highlighted by a 71-yard touchdown run, being his best of the year. Jones isn’t a No. 1 fantasy back, but he’s staved off the Leon Washington challenge (for now) and established himself as a solid No. 2 fantasy back. That means he should be starting for you. Verdict: Applaud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Where did that come from? In the snow and ice against the Titans, Maroney went wild, breaking a 69-yard touchdown run early and finishing with 123 yards. But we don’t believe. The Titans gave little to no real effort in this one, and Maroney hasn’t show he can run against anyone else this year. Note this performance, but don’t act on it by claiming Maroney until he has another good game. This smells too much like a fluke. Verdict: A fraud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – We haven’t been recommending Mendenhall, who had 62 yards and a touchdown against the Browns. But now that it appears that Mendenhall has taken over from Willie Parker as the Steelers’ No. 1 back, there’s far more reason to start him. As long as he keeps this role, Mendenhall is a borderline No. 2 fantasy back – and therefore a starter for most owners. Verdict: Applaud

Ray Rice, Ravens – We discussed Rice in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Rice has emerged into an every-week starting running back both in yardage and scoring-based leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart ran for 110 yards and scored for the second straight week against the Buccaneers. As the Panthers have won two straight, they have been able to rely once again on their running attack, and that has gotten Stewart more chances. That makes Stewart a No. 3 running back and a nice flex option against favorable matchups. Finally, his arrow is pointed up. Verdict: Applaud

Leon Washington, Jets – Washington got a lot of buzz as a sleeper this year because he made so much out of limited carries over the past couple of seasons. But this year, he hasn’t done much – avoiding the end zone entirely. So while he had 99 yards on 15 carries against the Bills Sunday, he’s still not worthy of starting or even of flex-spot consideration in most leagues right now. Verdict: A fraud

Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – The Bucs are epically bad, but Cadillac has been a nice story for them. He’s emerged as their best back, and he’s delivered fantasy production, such as his 77-yard, one-touchdown day against the Panthers. It’s now at the point where Cadillac becomes a nice flex option against bad defenses like the Panthers’ D was Sunday. If you picked him up, you got a nice little find. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Bernard Berrian, Vikings – We discussed Berrian in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that despite his touchdown Sunday, Berrian is a No. 4 fantasy wideout and not a regular starter for most fantasy leagues. Verdict: A fraud

Josh Cribbs, Browns – You’ll have to check where Cribbs is eligible in your league, but note that he had 45 rushing yards in addition to a kickoff return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh. If Cribbs keeps getting 8-10 offensive touches, he’s worth owning in larger fantasy leagues because he’s got such great ability to break big plays. He’s a fantasy sleeper you should notice. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Mason, Ravens – We discussed Mason in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so note that he’s the only Ravens’ receiver worth starting. He slips under the radar, but he’s a true No. 1 receiver for the Ravens and a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver now that Joe Flacco is flinging the ball around like crazy. Verdict: Applaud

Lance Moore, Saints – Moore is finally healthy from his hamstring injury, so it’s no surprise that he had his best game of the year with a six-catch, 78-yard day that included his first TD of the year. He fits in as New Orleans’ No. 2 receiving target, and even with the Saints’ sharing mentality he still is a No. 3 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks scored his third touchdown of the year and had 114 receiving yards against the Saints. His numbers were the epitome of garbage-time production, but the fact that he’s showing up on the scoresheet so frequently is worth noting. At this point, he’s worth a pickup as a No. 5 fantasy wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – We discussed Rice in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, but suffice it to note here after his breakout game (six catches for 176 yards) that he’s now a No. 3 fantasy receiver who could grow into a No. 2 by the end of the season. Grab him now if he’s available, and if you have him consider putting him in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers – Stroughter had a kickoff return for a touchdown, and he also had 65 receiving yards against Carolina. The rookie is an interesting prospect, but he’s still only the Bucs’ No. 3 wideout. Pass for now, but keep an eye to see if Stroughter moves up the depth chart. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Todd Heap, Ravens – We discussed Heap in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Heap should not be starting for your fantasy team. Verdict: A fraud

Zach Miller, Raiders – Sunday’s game against the Eagles – six catches, 139 yards and a touchdown – reminds everyone that Miller is a really good player. Just don’t forget that JaMarcus Russell is a really bad quarterback. As talented as Miller is, his offensive situation keeps him from being a starting fantasy tight end. Sorry,  Zach. Verdict: A fraud

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – We discussed Shiancoe in this post on the Vikings/Ravens game, so here we just want to reiterate that Shiancoe is worthy of being an every-week starter at tight end. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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