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Football Relativity: Conference Championships

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. We will do so this week, but we will discuss only the 4 remaining playoff teams. As a result, we’re removing the 10-point scale and just discussing these teams in order of which we think is best.

Giants WR Hakeem Nicks breaks free against the Packers, via nj.com

Baltimore Ravens – Not many people will have the Ravens as the top remaining team in the playoffs, but we do. That’s because the Ravens have the most pieces of any team left. The defense, while not at the elite level it reached over the past decade, is still quite good. The offense has an elite runner in Ray Rice, as well as some terrific young pieces in the passing game. The weakest spot is quarterback Joe Flacco, who is inconsistent but can still rise to the occasion. The Ravens didn’t look great in their 20-13 win over the Texans, but that was a tricky matchup between two teams with similar styles, and the Ravens won out. Now they get to play the Patriots in a game of contrasting styles, and we saw in the Giants/Packers matchup and the Saints/49ers matchup this weekend that the physical style has a great shot of overcoming the flashier, high-flying approach. Plus, the Ravens have risen to the occasion at every big moment this year, with wins over the Steelers, 49ers, Texans, and more, so they won’t be intimidated going into New England.

San Francisco 49ers – We move the 49ers up after their enthralling 36-32 victory over the Saints Saturday afternoon. We discussed in this post the impact that Justin and Aldon Smith had for the 49ers, and they were part of a defense that completely outmuscled the Saints. That physical style will be tested this weekend against the Giants; like this week’s Ravens/Texans game, Giants/49ers will be a battle of two teams with similar approaches and styles. We believe the 49ers can play the style better than the Giants, as long as QB Alex Smith avoids key mistakes. Smith showed that he was clutch this past week, but he has a high bar to clear against Eli Manning this week.

New England Patriots – The Patriots lambasted the Broncos 45-10 this weekend, repeating their domination in Denver from earlier this year. QB Tom Brady and crew have one of the league’s most unstoppable offenses, thanks in large part to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And Tim Tebow and the Broncos were not refined enough offensively to test the Patriots’ sometimes spotty pass defense. But the Ravens are good enough to do so, and they will also be more physical up front than the Patriots are. Don’t let one playoff blowout against an inferior team trick you into thinking that the Patriots are far and away better than anyone else left in the playoffs.

New York Giants – All credit to the Giants for going to Green Bay and pulling off a convincing 37-20 win over the Packers. New York dominated the game physically, and WR Hakeem Nicks continued his emergence as a star wideout. With Nicks and Victor Cruz, along with other good supplemental pieces, Manning has a terrific crew of wideouts. The question is whether the Giants can win a battle of wills against the 49ers. San Francisco’s front seven is better than the Giants, even though we know more about the Giants’ front four. Ultimately, we think that will win out and that the 49ers will outslug the Giants.
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How a pair of Smiths created havoc for 49ers defense

For National Football Authority, we break down the 49ers defensive performance to see how a pair of Smiths – all-pro defensive end Justin and rookie outside linebacker Aldon – influenced San Francisco’s 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints. Click here to read all about it.

49ers DE Justin Smith sacks Saints QB Drew Brees, via cbssports.com

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Pick ’em – Divisional Round

We got off to a 3-1 start to the playoffs last week, missing only the Broncos’ upset win over the Steelers. Let’s see if we can hit that number or even improve on it this week.

QB Tom Brady and the Patriots try to repeat their regular season performance against the Broncos, via milehighreport.com

New Orleans -4 at San Francisco

The 49ers are good, but being a defensive-first team trying to stop an offensive juggernaut is tough. That’s because offensive explosiveness gives you more of a margin for error. The 49ers, meanwhile, have little margin for error given the fact that they don’t score a ton of points because they don’t score touchdowns in the red zone. So even if DE Justin Smith and company and hold down the Drew Brees-led Saints offense, I don’t expect them to operate efficiently enough offensively to get over the hump and win. New Orleans 21, San Francisco 16

New England -14 vs. Denver

This is a huge line, which is not surprising given the fact that the Patriots have scored a ton of points this season while the Broncos have struggled at times to reach the end zone. The Patriots’ defensive isn’t that great, but we figure that they will do a better job of taking away Tim Tebow’s No. 1 passing option (even if it’s down the field) than the Steelers did. If they do that, Tebow could struggle, because he hasn’t done a great job of moving through his route progressions this year. New England may give up a few plays, as they did in the first meeting between these teams, but they should do a good enough job to let Tom Brady and the offense shine. In the end, that would make the game kind of similar to the 41-23 regular-season meeting. New England 38, Denver 21

Baltimore -9 vs. Houston

The wild-card round of the playoffs couldn’t have played out better for the Ravens. They avoid a third game against their AFC North rival Steelers and instead draw a Texans team that is solid but playing with a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates. The Texans defense is good, but we saw the Ravens smash a similar team when they thumped the 49ers at home earlier this season – and when they beat the Texans (with Matt Schaub) 29-14. Baltimore has enough offensive firepower to make some plays thanks to Ray Rice and some young receivers, and the defense should be able to force Yates into mistakes. While Yates did a good job getting the ball downfield last week against the Bengals, we’re still not confident that he can do so against a top-level defense like the Ravens – especially on the road. Baltimore 24, Houston 10

Green Bay -9 vs. N.Y. Giants

It’s possible that the Giants could go to Green Bay and win. They could outmuscle the Pack on both sides of the ball and use a ball-control approach to steal a win. But while that pattern is possible, we don’t think it’s likely. Instead, we think that the Packers team that was terrific all year long will play up to that level and be so explosive that the Giants just can’t keep up. So while this matchup reminds everyone of 2007, when the Giants won in Green Bay and then avenged a late-season 38-35 loss in the Super Bowl, our preja vu tells us there won’t be any deja vu. Green Bay 35, N.Y. Giants 17

Playoffs: 3-1
Season: 46-51-5 pro, 94-86-7 overall

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FR: The 2011 NFL draft

Each year, we break down the NFL draft using our Football Relativity tool. Instead of giving grades, we compare teams to each other, with the teams that we feel did best in the draft landing on the 10 level and the teams we feel did poorly landing on the 1 level.

Remember that you can review the first round in our draft first thoughts, review our mock draft here, and see who won the Football Relativity draft contest here.

10  – Cleveland Browns – Two years ago, we pounded the Browns for trading down from the fifth overall pick and not getting good value. This year, the Browns tried a similar move, but they maximized their return by adding four picks – second- and fourth-rounders this year, plus first- and fourth-rounders in 2012. Those picks are a boon to a rebuilding team. Cleveland gave back one extra pick to trade up to get NT Phil Taylor, which might have been a bit of a reach but was at least an aggressive move to get a player who’s a rare commodity. It’s incredibly hard to find young nose tackles, so you can’t blame the Browns for paying to get one. Second-round DE Jabaal Sheard adds pass-rush punch to a defense that sorely needs it, while WR Greg Little becomes the most talented receiver on the roster and a guy capable of developing into a No. 1 wideout if his head is screwed on straight. Fourth-round TE Jordan Cameron is another high-potential player who comes with some risk. Cleveland added both depth and impact in this draft, and they are primed to do so in the 2012 draft as well. That’s a win-win that Browns fans should appreciate.

10 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts knew what they needed going into the draft — offensive linemen — and they met that need with good players. In the first round, polished OT Anthony Castonzo fell in their laps, and they took him. Castonzo may never be an otherworldly left tackle, but he fits the mold of a solid, dependable guy at the position for the next decade. That’s precisely what the Colts needed. Then in the second round, the Colts drafted Villanova’s Ben Ijalana, who is a little more physical and could fit at right tackle or at guard. Adding these two players will help the Colts right away. Third-round DT Drake Nevis also addresses a need if he can contribute to a rotation right away, while fourth-round RB Delonte Carter may replace the injury-prone Joseph Addai, who’s a free agent. The Colts didn’t try to get as fancy as they have in recent drafts, and the results should help them prolong their window as contenders. What else can you ask for?

9 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons made the big move of the draft, giving up five picks – including their first-rounder next year – to trade up from 27 to 6 to pick WR Julio Jones. Jones certainly fills a big-time need, as the Falcons have never had a strong complement to Pro Bowl WR Roddy White. If Jones can provide that, he will be a huge boon who’s probably worth the steep price. The move gutted the Falcons’ draft, so they didn’t get a ton of help elsewhere. ILB Akeem Dent could step in as a contributor, and fourth-round Jacquizz Rodgers could become a Darren Sproles type of contributor. And we’ve seen enough of seventh-round DE Cliff Matthews to know he has ability. Sometimes, teams need to be bold to get over the hump, and we admire the Falcons’ willingness to take that risk, even though it cost an arm and a leg.

9 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs traded down in the first round and made the most of it. Moving down from 21 to 27 (which turned into 26 when the Ravens let the clock expire) allowed the Chiefs to add WR Jonathan Baldwin, an ubertalented prospect who had a dented reputation. Maybe Baldwin is a bit of a diva, but if the Chiefs can help Baldwin mature, they’ll get a terrific complement to Dwayne Bowe. And with the extra third-rounder they got from the Browns, the Chiefs added OLB Justin Houston, a first-round talent whose failed drug test at the combine knocked down his stock. Both players are risk, but they are high-end talents that can help the Chiefs continue moving upward. Second-round C Rodney Hudson is a safe player who adds depth to the inside of the line, while fifth-round QB Ricky Stanzi was a good value who could develop into a solid backup for Matt Cassel. The Chiefs got great value with their picks, and even though that took some risk, it’s worth it because the roster already had a lot of good players but not enough great ones.

9 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – The Bills’ draft class isn’t eye-popping, but a team in dire need of talent added some. First-rounder Marcell Dareus will be a difference maker up front, and since Pete Borini approves of the move, we do too. Dareus immediately upgrades the roster. So does second-rounder Aaron Williams, a big corner who teams with third-round S Da’Norris Searcy to add depth and talent to a secondary that hasn’t performed well in recent years. ILBs Kelvin Sheppard (second-round) and Chris White (sixth round) could plug in as starters soon too. Buffalo didn’t spend a lot of picks on their massive offensive tackle need, but fourth-rounder Chris Hairston could emerge as a swing tackle right away, and seventh-rounder Michael Jasper is a small-school prospect who is quite raw but could turn into a home run. Buffalo didn’t get fancy in this draft, and as a result the roster is several measures better now than it was before the draft.

9 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans are moving to a 3-4 defense, and so they spent much of their draft equity on improving the defense and especially their front seven. First-round DE J.J. Watt was probably the best 3-4 defensive end available, and he should step in as an immediate starter. Watt will be a solid if unspectacular player, and if he can become a Justin Smith/Aaron Smith type, the Texans will be thrilled. In the second round, the Texans added an outside linebacker in pass rusher Brooks Reed. Those two players join with Mario Williams and the rest of the Texans’ talent to give new coordinator Wade Phillips some tools. The Texans also addressed their major secondary needs by trading up to take CB Brandon Harris in the second round and then taking CB Rashard Carmichael and S Shiloh Keo down the line. Harris could combine with 2010 first-rounder Kareem Jackson to provide a young CB duo. The Texans also took a shot at developmental QB T.J. Yates in the fifth round, which could pay dividends via trade or as a backup down the line. The Texans drafted for need, but did so while still getting good value and some impact. Now it’s time for their defense to emerge as a dangerous unit a la the offense.

8 – Detroit Lions – Pundits are raving about the Lions’ draft, and there is certainly plenty to like. DT Nick Fairley was a top-10 talent who slipped to No. 13, and the Lions nabbed him to create chaos alongside 2010 first-rounder Ndamukong Suh. Two second-round picks, RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young, add explosiveness and depth to a burgeoning skill-position set. But the Lions didn’t get any help for their beleaguered secondary – passing on Prince Amukamara to get Fairley – and a dearth of picks (in part due to a trade up to get Leshoure) won’t help a team still building depth. The Lions got big impact, but this is a young team that needs depth just as much as it needs impact at this point.

8 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – In 2010, the Buccaneers spent their first two picks on defensive tackles, stabilizing their line. This year, they used the same strategy at defensive end, adding Adrian Clayborn in the first round and then DaQuan Bowers when he fell in their laps in round two. Both players had physical questions – with Bowers’ knee being the most significant issue – but you simply can’t argue with the production Tampa Bay added. If one becomes a star, the Bucs will be happy, and they have the upside to have two terrific players. Third-round ILB Mason Foster and fifth-round S Ahmad Black could become contributors at areas of need, and fourth-round TE Luke Stocker has the ability to emerge as a starter in a couple of years. The Bucs used a good strategy early and got solid value late, and so while there’s a little risk injury-wise, they got quite a nice influx of talent.

8 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals’ draft class looks safe, but they actually took perhaps the biggest risk of any team in the league by staying put at No. 35 overall in the second round and waiting on QB Andy Dalton to fall to them. Somehow, Dalton – the best quarterback on the board from No. 12 on – did fall in their laps, which is either extraorindary luck for or unbelievably good information gathering by the Bengals. Someday, I’d love to learn whether the Bengals were incredibly savvy or just extremely fortunate. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is apparently in love with Dalton, and with Dalton and WR A.J. Green, the Bengals are ready to start a new era. Dalton isn’t the most talented quarterback, but he’s smart as a whip and a fine leader, which are traits a QB needs. If he turns out to be Drew Brees-like, as the Bengals hope and as many analysts suggest, the Bengals got a steal. Green is an elite receiver a la Calvin Johnson, and he can be a game changer for the Bengals offense. Cincinnati also added a solid offensive lineman in Clint Boling, a fourth-rounder who could plug right in as a starter at guard. Cincinnati didn’t get much defensive help, but third-round OLB Dontay Moch was a good value who projects as a starter sometime soon. The Bengals weren’t aggressive in moving to get their guys, but they got them and therefore deserve props.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens had egg on their face after a botched first-round trade with the Bears, but while Baltimore didn’t pick up an extra fourth-rounder, they got their guy in CB Jimmy Smith. Smith is an elite talent with questionable character, but the Ravens locker room gives him a great chance to succeed. If he does, he’ll answer one of the biggest questions the Ravens have add over the years. Fifth-rounder Chykie Brown can also help at corner. The Ravens’ other big question over the years has been at receiver, and WRs Torrey Smith (second round) and Tandon Doss (fourth rounder) should help. Smith is a speedy outside guy who should improve on what Donte Stallworth offered last year, while Doss becomes more of a possession guy. If both hit, the Ravens’ passing game under Joe Flacco adds lots of punch. In the third round, the Ravens took OT Jah Reid, who could allow the Ravens to move Michael Oher back to right tackle and should allow the team to move on from Jared Gaither, which the team appears inclined to do. As usual, the Ravens come out of the draft with quite a nice haul.

8 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – The Rams played the value game in the first round, picking DE Robert Quinn when he slipped to No. 14. At his best, Quinn can bring a pass-rushing presence that the Rams lack. That’s a worthy goal, and worth the first-round investment. The Rams then turned to added targets for QB Sam Bradford. TE Lance Kendricks, a second-rounder, is more of a Chris Cooley type of H-back, but he could team with 2010 rookie Michael Hoomanawanui to give the Rams a 1-2 punch there. Then the Rams took two wideouts, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, who will compete with another 2010 rookie, Mardy Gilyard, to join Mark Clayton (expected to be re-signed) and Danny Amendola in the team’s top 3. Many of the draft analysts prefer Salas, who is more polished now, but Pettis could emerge as the kind of outside receiver the Rams currently lack. The skill-position investment will make or break this draft class, but there looks to be enough on board that the Rams will end up in the plus column.

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers had the No. 1 overall pick, and they did what they had to do with it, picking QB Cam Newton to take a chance on greatness. Yes, it’s a risk, and Newton isn’t the kind of “clean” prospect that so many pundits endorse, but he has the chance to be incredibly good. The Panthers weren’t going to get this kind of quarterback anywhere else, so taking the risk on Newton was what they needed to do. Without a second-round pick, the rest of the Panthers’ draft looks thin. Third-round DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua need to step into the rotation immediately, while fourth-round CB Brandon Hogan could emerge as well. The Panthers did what they could after the Newton pick, but their boldness in being willing to take the quarterback buoys their draft grade.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants took the value approach to the draft, picking CB Prince Amukamara and DT Marvin Austin because they were the best players on the board, not because they fit needs. That approach can work, because it’s the best way to add talent, and both Amukamara and Austin have the potential to become top-flight starters, if not all-pros. But neither of those players – nor third-round WR Jerrel Jernigan – addressed the Giants’ big need on the offensive line. Maybe fourth-round OT James Brewer emerges as a starter, and if so this draft can be great. But if not, you have to wonder if the Giants will regret not taking the Colts’ approach and draft for value within their needs.

6 – Green Bay Packers – As the Super Bowl champs, the Packers didn’t have high picks, but they added nice players throughout the draft. First-round OT Derek Sherrod joins ’10 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga as the tackles of the future, soon replacing aging stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Second-round WR Randal Cobb is a versatile player who will help replace likely departing free agent James Jones and keep the WR corps deep for Aaron Rodgers. RB Alex Green and TE D.J. Williams could also be nice offensive producers, while D.J. Smith and Rick Elmore will get a shot to emerge as under-the-radar pass rushers a la Desmond Bishop and Frank Zombo. The Packers didn’t get a ton of impact, but they got guys who fit the system well and who should see playing time within two years. That makes their draft a win.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers did their typical solid job at the end of the draft, adding players who will help at key positions. DE Cameron Heyward, the first-round pick, looms along with a former first-rounder, Ziggy Hood, as the eventual successors to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Heyward will get time to develop, which is a good thing, but he may not make an immediate impact. Second-round pick OT Marcus Gilbert has a clearer shot to playing time if he can hold up on either side. Then the Steelers upgraded their secondary by taking CBs Curtis Marsh and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth rounds. Both need to move into the rotation to help a need area. And fifth-round OLB Chris Carter has potential as a pass rusher at a position where Pittsburgh often turns later-round picks into stars. The Steelers’ draft wasn’t sexy, but they addressed their needs with players who will get time to develop in a system that does a good job maximizing players.

6 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots entered the draft with double picks in the first three rounds, which gave them the opportunity to do something great in this draft. But the results were not great but good. Yes, the Patriots came out of the draft with extra first- and second-rounders in 2012, but the players they picked lacked great impact. First-round OT Nate Solder met a need, and he and Sebastian Vollmer will be the bookend tackles for the Pats for years to come. And second-round CB Ras-I Dowling joins a group of young, talented corners. But RBs Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) look more like role players than bell cows, and QB Ryan Mallett (third round) is at best a backup quarterback who plays well enough in preseason chances to get traded in two years. Fifth-round OT Marcus Cannon is a big-time talent who’s a medical risk, but the Pats have enough picks to take such a risk. While this class will help, the Pats would have been better served in our opinion to take Atlanta’s approach and trade up for an impact guy or two. Instead, we’re left with a good class that fell short of what it could have been.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Unlike the Patriots, the Jaguars took chances in this draft by trading up to try to find elite talent. We’re not in love with Blaine Gabbert, but he has a far better chance of being a top-flight NFL quarterback than Jaguars incumbent David Garrard. Garrard isn’t terrible, but he’s basically an average NFL starter – about the 16th best in the league – and the Jaguars aren’t going to win big with him. So giving up a second-rounder to trade up and take Gabbert makes sense. If Gabbert can be a top-8 quarterback, which is possible, the Jaguars made the right move. The Jaguars also traded up in the third round to take OG Will Rackley, a small-school player who projects as a early starter. Jacksonville also added badly needed secondary help in S Chris Prosinski and CB Roderick Isaac and a developmental receiver in Cecil Shorts. So the Jaguars met some needs, but Gabbert is the headline of this draft. While he’s not a sure thing, he gives the Jaguars upside they didn’t have before. For that reason, we admire the risk they took.

5 – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles make a habit of stockpiling draft picks, and they used those picks in this draft to address specific needs. First-rounder Danny Watkins and late-rounders Julian Vandevelde and Jason Kelce add depth and talent to the offensive line, while second-round S Jaiquawn Jarrett and third-round CB Curtis Marsh will help in the secondary. The one luxury pick was fourth-round PK Alex Henery, but having a lot of picks allows the Eagles to replace David Akers with an elite prospect. It’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles can develop LB Casey Matthews into an impact player and whether the failure to pick a defensive lineman comes back to bite them.

5 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys made no secret of their affinity for OT Tyron Smith, a young prospect from USC who has immense potential. If Smith becomes a lockdown left tackle, this draft class will be an unqualified success, but even if Smith struggles to adjust to the NFL, he can plug in at right tackle and be an upgrade over Marc Colombo. OG David Arkin could also emerge as a starter, which woudl further address the Cowboys’ biggest need area. Second-round LB Bruce Carter is recovering from injury but has high upside as an impact inside linebacker. Dallas also added skill-position talent in RB DeMarco Murray, FB Shaun Chapas, and WR Dwayne Harris, but only fifth-round CB Josh Thomas addresses secondary concerns. Still, the Cowboys invested heavily in helping the offensive line, and if those picks pan out, the draft will be a win. 

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers went with a boom or bust approach to the draft, taking talented but unpolished pass rusher Aldon Smith in the first round (earlier than many expected) and then trading up in the second round to get QB Colin Kaepernick. Both Smith and Kaepernick are physical freaks who aren’t ready for the NFL grind yet but who have enough intrinsic talent to become superstars. If both hit, this draft class becomes the building block for a 49ers renaissance. The Kaepernick trade limited the 49ers’ picks down the line, but that’s worth it for a QB of the future. Third-round CB Chris Culliver addresses a need area, and fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter adds needed depth behind stalwart Frank Gore. The 49ers may not see many dividends from this class in 2011, but it’ll be fascinating to see just how close Smith and Kaepernick can come to living up to their potential promise.

5 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – Denver had strong defensive needs and addressed them in this draft. However, picking OLB Von Miller over DT Marcell Dareus was a quizzical move. Miller is the better pass rusher, but Miller doesn’t dovetail with the 4-3 system new head coach John Fox wants to run. Of course, the Broncos can cater their system to feature Miller, and Miller may be worth such an investment. But that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie. S Rahim Moore, a second-rounder, should step right in, while fellow second-rounder Orlando Franklin will join a line that’s mismatched because the Broncos have switched systems three times in the last four years. Denver has big-time needs, and the players they got should help. But we’d feel much better about the future had the Broncos chosen Dareus over Miller.

5 (con’t) – Arizona Cardinals – The Cards made the strategic decision that they wanted to add a veteran quarterback to 2010 rookies John Skelton and Max Hall, which set them up to pass on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and the like and instead take CB Patrick Peterson with the fifth pick. Peterson is a fine player who’s not unlike ex-Card Antrell Rolle, although Peterson has better coverage skills and could stick at corner. He’ll help the Cardinals, even though he’s not at a position of glaring need. But after Peterson, the Cardinals’ draft was uninspiring. Second-round RB Ryan Williams can play, but he doesn’t have a clear path to contribution. Third-round TE Robert Housler is talented but raw. If those guys find their way into the lineup, or if later-round guys like OLB Sam Acho and ILB Quan Sturdivant exceed their draft position, the Cardinals will look great. But our sense is that this draft class is not great but just OK.

5 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets entered the draft short-handed because they had dealt their second-rounder for CB Antonio Cromartie. But they still did a good job addressing needs at two positions, the defensive line and wide receiver. Defensive line was the more pressing need, and first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson is a terrific prospect to succeed Shaun Ellis as a two-way threat at defensive end. Third-rounder Kenrick Ellis is versatile enough to play on the nose or the end, which will let the Jets shape their rotation the way they want. Both should help immediately. At wide receiver, where the Jets’ top three options are all free agents, the team added depth in fifth-rounder Jeremy Kerley and seventh-rounder Scotty McKnight. And as they always do, whether they need to or not, the Jets picked a running back, fourth-rounder Bilal Powell. This is a solid class that’s held back only by the lack of early-round picks.

4 – Washington Redskins – The Redskins didn’t like any of the quarterbacks in this draft, so instead of being aggressive to draft one, they went in with a strategy to stockpile picks. That philosophy is fine, and it will help a roster that needs depth, but it doesn’t appear that the Redskins added much impact in the draft. First-round OLB Ryan Kerrigan should be a solid player, but does he have enough pass-rush skill to take pressure off of Brian Orakpo? That’s the difference between a solid starter, which is what Kerrigan looks like to us, and a big-time player. Second-round DE Jarvis Jenkins is a nice player at a need area, so that pick makes sense. The Redskins also addressed their anemic WR corps with third-rounder Leonard Hankerson (a fine value), fifth-rounder Niles Paul, and sixth-rounder Aldrick Robinson. Hankerson has starting ability, and Paul adds size to a smurfish unit, while Robinson is an Anthony Armstrong clone who could find playing time. The Redskins also added RBs Roy Helu and Evan Royster, productive big-college players who could jump right in for a coach in Mike Shanahan who knows how to find mid-round runners. So even if the depth approach works as the Redskins planned, it didn’t cover all of the Redskins needs, which makes us wonder whether adding extra late-round picks was really worth it.

4 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers addressed one of their biggest needs in the first round with DE Corey Liuget, who may not be a prototypical 3-4 defensive end but who should provide a little more impact at that position than the typical plugger. Second-round CB Marcus Gilchrist is a big player with pretty good coverage skills who could play outside or at safety. He and third-round CB Shareece Wright provide depth at an area that has thinned ou in recent years. Many analysts panned the second-round selection of LB Jonas Mouton, who wasn’t rated nearly that highly, but he fits a need area at inside linebacker. Third-round WR Vincent Brown, a local product, and sixth-round RB Jordan Todman add some punch. The Chargers also tried to draft players who succeeded on special teams, which was the team’s downfall last year. Maybe there’s not great upside in this draft class, but there’s pretty good depth thanks to five picks in the first three rounds. That depth is something that had leaked away from the Chargers in recent years, so the approach will help.

4 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders never get good draft grades because they don’t try to play the draft game. They take the players they want and make sure they get them, regardless of what the perceived draft value of the players are. And while that’s not a popular strategy, it has worked for the Raiders, who actually have a pretty deep roster of talent on board. The Raiders love speed, and third-round CB Demarcus Van Dyke and fifth-round RB Taiwan Jones have it in spades. Second-round C Stefen Wisniewski (nephew of Raiders legend Steve) and third-round OT Joe Barksdale address a need area, and while they aren’t physical freaks like 2010 picks Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell, Veldheer’s emergence (in particular) allowed the Raiders to add solid if not spectacular guys at that position. Cornerback was another need, so Van Dyke and fourth-rounder Chimdi Chekwa are need picks too. For a team without a first-round pick (it was traded for Richard Seymour), the Raiders hit on their needs. Regardless of the perceived value, they did just fine.

4 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans took a big swing in the first round, taking QB Jake Locker. Locker is a physical freak who never fully played up to his talent in college, but he has a ton of talent and a strong desire to succeed. His performance will make or break this draft. In the second round, the Titans added OLB Akeem Ayers, who could become a playmaking guy a la Keith Bulluck. He and fourth-rounder MLB Colin McCarthy upgrade what used to be a strength for the Titans. Tennessee also spent picks up front in third-round DT Jurrell Casey and late-rounders Karl Klug and Zach Clayton. Now they must show they can develop linemen as well as they did when DL coach Jim Washburn was in Music City. The Titans added talented guys in Locker and Ayers, but they must coach them up for this draft to end up looking good.

3 – Chicago Bears – Strangely, the Bears’ draft is defined more by the snafu of their aborted first-round trade with Baltimore than by the fact that Chicago got its man in OT Gabe Carimi. GM Jerry Angelo hasn’t done well at all with his first-round offensive line picks in Chicago, but the fact that OL coach Mike Tice fell in love with Carimi speaks well of him. The Bears also traded up to add DT Stephen Paea, a strong player who will provide stability against the run. The question on Paea is how much pass rush he can provide as the Bears seek to replace the injury-plagued Tommie Harris. Because they traded up for Paea, the Bears had few other picks. Third-round safety Christopher Conte could step in and play. The Bears probably need all three picks to emerge as solid starters for this draft to keep their positive 2010 momentum going.

3 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins, who traded their second-rounder as part of the Brandon Marshall deal, were chasing picks throughout the draft, and the result is a thin class that doesn’t address all that many needs. First-rounder Mike Pouncey will step in and start on the interior of the offensive line, which was a big problem last year, so even if he was a minor reach in terms of value, he’s a good player and a great fit. After picking Pouncey, Miami dealt away its third- and fifth-round picks to take RB Daniel Thomas at the end of the second round. Thomas is a good enough runner, but unless he is significantly better than the rest of the rookie class, the trade-up was a poor use of resources.

2 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints were set up to have a great draft after DE Cameron Jordan fell into their laps at No. 24 in the first round. But instead of being content with that serendipity, the Saints decided they had to have RB Ingram, and so they gave up their first-rounder next year to get him. Making such an investment – especially when solid runners Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are in place – seems impetuous. After that, the Saints did OK, especially with third-round OLB Martez Wilson, who should become a starter. But the Ingram move was far too expensive for our tastes and especially for the player.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – It’s easy to pan the Seahawks’ draft class because it didn’t fit the value charts. But Seattle obviously came into the draft to address a specific offensive line need. First-round James Carpenter likely fits at  right tackle, while third-rounder John Moffitt projects as a guard. While those aren’t always high-round positions, since the Seahawks have OLT Russell Okung and C Max Unger in place, the plan does make some sense. Seattle had to trade out of the second round to replace the pick they gave up for QB Charlie Whitehurst, and that limited the ability to add top-flight talent in the draft. OLB K.J. Wright doesn’t fit a need area, but fellow fourth-rounder WR Kris Durham could. The Seahawks seemed to draft more for need than for talent, and it doesn’t appear their roster is strong enough to merit that approach. But if the needs are filled capably, the Hawks will be justified.

1 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings went boom or bust from the beginning of the draft by taking QB Christian Ponder with the 12th pick. Ponder has lots of talent, but he had trouble staying healthy, and some analysts don’t like the way he reacts to pressure in the pocket. If Ponder turns into a good starter, the Vikings will have the last laugh, but we don’t see that happening. Second-round pick TE Kyle Rudolph is a talented player who struggled with injuries last year, and he doesn’t fill a specific need. But the Vikings are an aging team that needs a talent infusion, so we’ll give the pick a thumbs-up just on that basis. DT Christian Ballard, a fourth-round pick, could be a steal who can help replace Pat and Kevin Williams, but Ballard’s positive drug test at the combine is a question mark. Still, in the fourth round there wasn’t a more talented player available. If Ponder and Ballard are both hits, this will be a great draft class, but that combo seems like a long shot to us.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Linemen

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 and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post. Now we move to defensive linemen, who can wear numbers in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 90s, with the 90s by far the most popular and populated numbers. If a number is omitted, it’s because no defensive lineman who has played this season wears those digits.

54 – Quentin Groves, Jaguars – Groves has been a bust after being a second-round pick by the Jaguars back in 2008, going without a sack this year after notching just 2.5 in 16 games as a rookie. But since he’s the only defensive lineman wearing No. 54, he gets the nod.

55 – John Abraham, Falcons – Abraham is an impactful pass rusher who has five career 10-sack seasons, including a career-high 16.5 last year. He has just 3.5 sacks this season but is still a strong pass-rush threat. Other notable 55s: Darryl Tapp, Seahawks

57 – James Wyche, Jaguars – Wyche made his NFL debut last week vs. the Texans after spending two seasons on the Jaguars’ roster. But like his teammate Groves, he’s the only defensive lineman currently wearing his number.

58 – Trent Cole, Eagles – Cole has developed into a strong pass-rushing threat off the edge for the Eagles. He has 44 career sacks, including 9.5 so far this year. He is also one of the best defensive ends in the league in terms of solo tackles. First-round pick Aaron Maybin of the Bills, another 58 who has yet to record a sack in his rookie season, hopes to one day be the kind of impact pass rusher that Cole is.

60 – Joe Cohen, Lions – Cohen, a first-year player out of Florida, is a backup defensive tackle who has seen action in five games this season. He gets the nod over injured Panthers rookie Corvey Irvin.

61 – Gerard Warren, Raiders – Warren, in his ninth year, never lived up to the billing he had as the third overall pick in the 2001 draft. But he has been a starter every year of his career but one, and now serves as a run-stuffing defensive tackle for Oakland. Other notable 61: Derek Landri, Panthers

64 – Kedric Golston, Redskins – Golston, in his fourth year with the Redskins, is a solid rotation defensive tackle. That’s something every team needs a couple of. Other notable 64: Antonio Dixon, Eagles

66 – DelJuan Robinson, Texans – Robinson, a third-year defensive tackle out of Mississippi State, played in all 16 games last year and has seen action in seven contests this season. He’s the only defensive lineman wearing 66 who has seen action this year.

68 – Jonathan Fanene, Bengals – One of the most surprising stat lines I uncovered in researching this project was the season Fanene is having for the Bengals. He has five sacks, two passes defensed and a interception (which he returned for a touchdown). That’s a huge step forward for a player who had just one sack in his first four seasons. Other notable 68: Eric Foster, Colts

69 – Jared Allen, Vikings – This was an easy call. Allen is one of the league’s best pass rushers, with 12.5 sacks thus far this season and 70 in his six-year career. He’s just entering his prime, which means he’ll give the Vikings many more sacks to come. Other notable 69s: Leger Douzable, Rams; Anthony Hargrove, Saints; Henry Melton, Bears; C.J. Mosley, Browns; J’Vonne Parker, Broncos

70 – Kendall Langford, Dolphins – Langford is a second-year starter at defensive end in Miami’s 3-4 system. He has 3.5 career sacks, which is enough to give him the nod at this number over long-time backup DT Alfonso Boone, now with the Chargers. Other notable 70: Mike DeVito, Jets

71 – Kroy Biermann, Falcons – Biermann, a second-year defensive end for Atlanta, is coming into his own as a pass-rushing specialist. He has five sacks this season. So we give him the nod over Kendrick Clancy of the Saints, who has started three of the past four seasons but has played just two games this year. Other notable 71s: Lionel Dotson, Dolphins; Gary Gibson, Rams; Israel Idonije, Bears; Alex Magee, Chiefs; Ahtyba Rubin, Browns; Dave Tollefson, Giants

72 – Osi Umenyiora, Giants – Umenyiora isn’t having his best year after missing the entire ’08 season with a knee injury, yet he still has five sacks and is still a dangerous pass rusher. Osi has 46.5 career sacks and has performed at a level far above what we’ve yet seen from 2008 top-five draft picks Chris Long of the Rams and Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs, who also wear 72. Dorsey is at least among the leading tacklers on the defensive line. Other notable 72: Stephen Bowen, Cowboys

73 – Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings – Kennedy was once the 12th overall pick, but his career has been disappointing. Now in his seventh season, he’s nothing more than a rotation defensive tackle for the Vikings. But since he’s the only notable defensive lineman wearing 73, he gets props here. Sometimes the world ain’t fair.

74 – Jacques Cesaire, Chargers – Cesaire, now in his seventh season with the Chargers, has started 11 games this season as a 3-4 defensive end, taking over the spot that Igor Olshansky vacated. He’s been a solid hand for the Bolts for many years now.

75 – Vince Wilfork, Patriots – Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles around, and he’s going to be rewarded for his ability (and his girth) as a free agent this season. He has started regularly since his second season, and he is now one of the few impact players left on the Patriots defense. He’s made one Pro Bowl. Other notable 75s: Jovan Haye, Titans; Turk McBride, Lions; Juqua Parker, Eagles; Hollis Thomas, Panthers; Matt Toeaina, Bears

76 – Jamal Williams, Chargers – Williams played just one game this season before injuries shelved him, but for many years he was the preeminent 3-4 nose tackle. He made three bowls and was the heart of several terrific Chargers defenses. Other notable 76: Chris Hoke, Steelers

77 – Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins made the transition from a dominant tackle in a 4-3 defense with Carolina to being a stud nose tackle in the Jets’ 3-4. He played in just six games this season before getting hurt, so he’ll have to be content with four Pro Bowl appearances for now. He gets this nod over his brother Cullen, a defensive tackle for the Packers. Other notable 77s: RaShon Harris, Steelers; Matt Shaughnessy, Raiders

78 – Jacob Ford, Titans – Ford hasn’t yet broken through as a defensive end starter in Tennessee, but he has provided solid pass-rush skills in his two seasons. He has 3.5 sacks this season after notching seven as a rookie. Other notable 78s: Alan Branch, Cardinals; Tony McDaniel, Dolphins

79 – Ryan Pickett, Packers – Pickett was a bit of a disappointment as a first-rounder in St. Louis, but he’s found a home in Green Bay. In fact, Pickett’s ability to move from a defensive tackle in the 4-3 to playing on the nose in a 3-4 has been a key in Green Bay’s relatively seamless transition between those defensive schemes. Other notable 79s: Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins; Raheem Brock, Colts; Ropati Pitoitua, Jets; Sammie Lee Hill, Lions; Red Bryant, Seahawks; Marcus Thomas, Broncos

90 – Julius Peppers, Panthers – This is an incredibly close call for Peppers, who has all the talent in the world and has turned it into 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this year. Among the top competition is Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, who has seven sacks and is among the leading DL tacklers in the league; Mario Williams of Houston, a talented pass rusher; solid run-defending DE Chris Kelsay of Buffalo; and top-flight NT Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys. Other notable 90s: Ryan Baker, Dolphins; Desmond Bryant, Raiders; Adam Carriker, Rams; Colin Cole, Seahawks; Kenyon Coleman, Browns; Fred Evans, Vikings; Jarron Gilbert, Bears; Darren Howard, Eagles; Grady Jackson, Lions; Jeremy Jarmon, Redskins; Jevon Kearse, Titans; Travis Kirschke, Steelers; Daniel Muir, Colts; Kenny Peterson, Broncos; DeMario Pressley, Saints; Trevor Pryce, Ravens; B.J. Raji, Packers; Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons; Pat Sims, Bengals; Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers; Julius Williams, Jaguars

91 – Will Smith, Saints – This was another tough call, as Justin Tuck of the Giants is well known for his ability to be a force both at end and at tackle. But Smith is having a terrific season with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles, so we’ll give him a slight nod over Tuck. Ray Edwards of the Vikings (6.5 sacks) is the sleeper candidate here, and Pittsburgh DE Aaron Smith woudl be if he were healthy. Other notable 91s: Everette Brown, Panthers; Chris Clemons, Eagles; Ronald Fields, Broncos; Robert Geathers, Bengals; Justin Harrell, Packers; Tommie Harris, Bears; Derrick Harvey, Jaguars; Kenny Iwebema, Cardinals; Rob Jackson, Redskins; Spencer Johnson, Bills; Jason Jones, Titans; Leonard Little, Rams; Ray McDonald, 49ers; Brandon McKinney, Ravens; Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Chargers; Amobi Okoye, Texans; Sione Pouha, Jets; Myron Pryor, Patriots; Brian Schaefering, Browns; Trevor Scott, Raiders; Stylez White, Buccaneers

92 – Albert Haynesworth, Redskins – Haynesworth doesn’t get to pile up numbers, but no one wreaks more havoc from the inside than Haynesworth does. That’s why the Redskins made Haynesworth the highest-paid defensive player in the league in the offseason. With Cleveland NT Shaun Rogers hurt, Haynesworth is the easy choice. Haloti Ngata of Baltimore, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends, deserves mention as well. Other notable 92s: Cliff Avril, Lions; Remi Ayodele, Saints; Ron Brace, Patriots; Chauncey Davis, Falcons; Ryan Denney, Bills; Shaun Ellis, Jets; Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers; Wallace Gilberry, Chiefs; Damione Lewis, Panthers; Vaughn Martin, Chargers; Brandon Mebane, Seahawks; Rob Meier, Jaguars; Jayme Mitchell, Vikings; Dre Moore, Buccaneers; Frostee Rucker, Bengals; Richard Seymour, Raiders; Jeff Zgonina, Texans

93 – Kevin Williams, Vikings – This was an exceedingly close call between Williams, the disruptive Vikings defensive tackle, and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, a preeminent pass rusher. Freeney outpaces Williams in sacks this year 10.5 to 6, but the fact that Williams is one of the top sackers from the tackle position gives him the edge in what amounts to a coin flip. These two are a step above other candidates like Tennessee DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jets DE Marques Douglas, who is second in tackles among defensive linemen this season. Other notable 93s: Jay Alford, Giants; Tim Bulman, Texans; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Luis Castillo, Chargers; Phillip Daniels, Redskins;  Nick Eason, Steelers; Dwan Edwards, Ravens; Chris Ellis, Bills; Demetric Evans, 49ers; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Thomas Johnson, Falcons; Tommy Kelly, Raiders; Trevor Laws, Eagles; Bobby McCray, Saints; Roy Miller, Buccaneers; Adewale Ogunleye, Bears; Greg Peterson, Jaguars; Craig Terrill, Seahawks; Tank Tyler, Panthers

94 – Aaron Schobel, Bills – The crop of defensive linemen at 94 is a little thinner, but Schobel is a solid choice. He has seven sacks this year yet is also solid against the run. We’ll give him the nod over Vikings NT Pat Williams, who is the big run-stopper who allows Kevin Williams to attack more aggressively. Other notable 94s: Victor Adeyanju, Rams; Jason Babin, Eagles; Ervin Baldwin, Colts; Justin Bannan, Ravens; Copeland Bryan, Lions; Charles Grant, Saints; Marcus Harrison, Bears; Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; Peria Jerry, Falcons; William Joseph, Raiders; Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants; Louis Leonard, Panthers; Sen’Derrick Marks, Titans; Anthony Montgomery, Redskins; Kyle Moore, Buccaneers; Jarvis Moss, Broncos; Jeremy Navarre, Jaguars; Domata Peko, Bengals; Cory Redding, Seahawks; Antonio Smith, Texans; Justin Smith, 49ers; Randy Starks, Dolphins; Ty Warren, Patriots;  Jarius Wynn, Packers

95 – Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons – While 94 is a gaunt number for defensive linemen, 95 is straight slim pickings. So we go with Babineaux, a solid defensive tackle who has 5 sacks this season. Other notable 95s: Victor Abiamiri, Eagles; Anthony Adams, Bears; Tim Anderson, Cowboys; Rocky Bernard, Giants; Shaun Cody, Texans; Jared DeVries, Lions; Ron Edwards, Chiefs; Jason Ferguson, Dolphins; Howard Green, Jets; Orien Harris, Bengals; William Hayes, Titans; Chris Hovan, Buccaneers; Lawrence Jackson, Seahawks; Ricky Jean-Francois, 49ers; Charles Johnson, Panthers; Fili Moala, Colts; Darrell Reid, Broncos; Clifton Ryan, Rams; Junior Siavii, Cowboys; Montavious Stanley, Jaguars; Kyle Williams, Bills; Chris Wilson, Redskins

96 – Tyler Brayton, Panthers – This is another group of slim pickings, to the point that Brayton’s 37 tackles and four sacks are enough to give him the nod. That’s one more tackle and the same number of sacks as Chicago’s Alex Brown. Other notable 96s: Kentwan Balmer, 49ers; Barry Cofield, Giants; Tim Crowder, Buccaneers; Keyunta Dawson, Colts; Andre Fluellen, Lions; Cornelius Griffin, Redskins; James Hall, Rams; Ziggy Hood, Steelers; Tim Jamison, Texans; Travis Johnson, Chargers; Terrance Knighton, Jaguars; Mike Montgomery, Packers; Brian Robison, Vikings; Paul Soliai, Dolphins; Marcus Spears, Cowboys; Kevin Vickerson, Titans

97 – Kelly Gregg, Ravens – This is more like it – a number filled with quality players. The best of the bunch is Gregg, the run-stuffing nose tackle for Baltimore who is currently sixth among defensive linemen in tackles. His ability to take on defenders and stuff inside runs allows the rest of the Ravens to run free. He gets the nod over Packers DE Johnny Jolly, who is by far the leader among defensive linemen in passes broken up with eight, and periennially solid pass rusher Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks. Other notable 97s: Mark Anderson, Bears; Tony Brown, Titans; Brodrick Bunkley, Eagles; Jeff Charleston, Saints; Jarvis Green, Patriots; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys; Reggie Hayward, Jaguars; Jason Hunter, Lions; Trey Lewis, Falcons; John McCargo, Bills; Phillip Merling, Dolphins; Frank Okam, Texans; Bryan Robinson, Cardinals; Darell Scott, Rams; LeKevin Smith, Broncos; Hilee Taylor, Panthers; Jimmy Wilkerson, Buccaneers; Renaldo Wynn, Redskins

98 – Robert Mathis, Colts – Mathis doesn’t get as much pub as his teammate Dwight Freeney, but he’s nearly as devastating as a pass rusher. Mathis has 9.5 sacks thus far this season, tied for fourth among defensive linemen. So he gets the nod over Cleveland DE Robaire Smith, who leads the league in tackles among defensive linemen; up-and-coming Saints DT Sedrick Ellis; and Steelers NT Casey Hampton. If Bengals DE Antwan Odom hadn’t gotten hurt after six games, he would have more than eight sacks and would have certainly claimed this honor. Other notable 98s: C.J. Ah You, Rams; Jamaal Anderson, Falcons; Dave Ball, Titans; Connor Barwin, Texans; Landon Cohen, Lions; Dusty Dvoracek, Bears; Letroy Guion, Vikings; Nick Hayden, Panthers; John Henderson, Jaguars; Curtis Johnson, Cowboys; Ryan McBean, Broncos; Mike Patterson, Eagles; Nick Reed, Seahawks; Jay Richardson, Raiders; Fred Robbins, Giants; Ian Scott, Chargers; Ryan Sims, Buccaneers; Kelly Talavou, Ravens; Gabe Watson, Cardinals

99 – Andre Carter, Redskins – Carter, a former top-10 pick, is kind of a forgotten guy, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league. He has nine sacks, which places him sixth among defensive linemen, and is fourth among defensive linemen in tackles. When you think about how solid the Redskins’ defense is, you have to give Carter much of the credit. So he gets the nod over solid Bills DT Marcus Stroud. Other notable 99s: Gaines Adams, Bears; Chris Canty, Giants; Greg Ellis, Raiders; Atiyyah Ellison, Jaguars; Vonnie Holliday, Broncos; Antonio Johnson, Colts; Tank Johnson, Bengals; Brett Keisel, Steelers; Maake Kemeoatu, Panthers; Igor Olshansky, Chargers; LaJuan Ramsey, Rams; Derek Walker, Seahawks; Vance Walker, Falcons; Dewayne White, Lions; Corey Williams, Browns; Mike Wright, Patriots

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Filed under Football Relativity, Jersey Numbers

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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